"THE CHURCH IS OBLIGED by its evangelical mission to demand structural changes that favor the reign of God and a more just and comradely way of life. Unjust social structures are the roots of all violence and disturbances. How hard and conflicting are the results of evangelical duty! Those who benefit from obsolete structures react selfishly to any kind of change"—(Archbishop Oscar Romero, Nov. 1979).
She was waiting at the doorway each morning, her innocent brown eyes peaking out at this group of strangers who had come from far away. She caught my attention the first day and I fumbled for my camera to capture her beautiful face, but before I could manage a picture, she had slipped inside the rustic house on the ridge and she was gone.
I find myself thinking of the faces of the children. Beautiful brown faces, full of optimism and hope, eager to learn and happy to play. Faces filled with sadness too, and fear. Faces that tell the tales of the lessons of a lifetime, of a revolution that rocked this country and stole the lives of many of its people. Life is not easy in El Salvador.
In the evening, after the digging was done for the day, we watched movies. Huddled into a thatch-roofed quanset hut, we learned of the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a hero in this small Central American country. An ordinary man, he did not wish to shoulder the mantle of his people. He had to be convinced, like most of us, that there was no other choice, that he needed to add his voice to the growing dissent. These were his people, people who had been living in squalor, illiterate and unfed; people without education and land and a way to make a living.
It is one thing to learn something from a history book, to read the facts and figures gathered by men in pressed white shirts reading it off the wire. 75,000 people were killed during the conflict that ravaged this small country. 1.5 million dollars a day, the amount of aid the United States supplied to the military. 30,000 people murdered in “La Matanza” (the massacre), an effort by the military to wipe out anyone with Indian (Mayan) features. "We learn this stuff in school," one of my friend's students said of his time in El Salvador, "But these are not just numbers, there are stories here. In high school we don't learn the stories."
This was the basis of our learning. The journey here under the auspices of building a school, of providing educational opportunities for the children of Central America, turned out to be more of an education for us. One afternoon we visited the small town of Utalco, the site of the newest school built by this phenomenal organization. We traveled down a long dirt road, past a small bamboo and mud structure wrapped in chicken wire. This was the old school, the mud-floored, primitive structure that until just one year ago had housed over one hundred of these beautiful brown faces with stories to tell. It was oddly quiet as we arrived as we were expecting a yard full of children to greet us.
The teacher met us as we filed into the classroom. "I'm sorry," she said to us in her native tongue, "We had planned a presentation, but one of my students lost her mother this morning unexpectedly." Murdered, it turns out, a victim of the gang violence that has erupted in recent years.
This is life in El Salvador. The women walk miles to the market, carrying laundry and groceries on their heads. The children, if they are lucky, make it through elementary school. Middle and High school is not guaranteed and college, well, the numbers are even fewer. Seeds of Learning provides scholarships for those who have the desire and the will to go on, but many must stay home to help the family manage a difficult life that is filled with experiences beyond our comprehension.
It is hard to let it go, the faces now burned in our memory. "What do you find yourself thinking of, when you remember our trip?" I ask a student who was part of our journey.
"The children," she tells me without hesitation. "I think about the children."