This blog is a compilation of entries made by delegates and leaders.

This year Arlene, Karen and Anne represented South Bay Sanctuary  on their annual Voices on the Border delegation to El Salvador. and were also joined by Gabriela Quintanilla from New York. Gabriela was born in El Salvador in the early 90s, left when she was just 13 and has decided to return to visit her home country for the first time in 10 years. We think that is truly special, so whenever you see purple text know that it’s Gabriela herself talking. Watch a video of Gabriela’s experience.

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On Saturday, after discussions with Jose and Ebony and Kristi about our schedule, we were graced with a visit from Miguel and Evelyn Ventura, who we heard from in 2016.

This year they shared more of their personal stories with us. Miguel studied at the San Jose of the Mountain seminary, where he encountered Liberation Theology (living faith in relation to the reality of life). His other classmates at the time were Padre Rutilio Grande, Octavio Ortiz, Amando Lopez, Alfonzo Navarro, Napoleón Macías and Oscar Romero; all were to be martyred at seperate times during the of the war.

After seminary, the Bishop of Morazán, sent Miguel as far north as possible, to Torola, so that Miguel would not have the opportunity to connect with the Liberation Theology movement in San Salvador. Little did he know, that he was sending Miguel into a an environment where revolutions are born. Miguel constantly visited both the small and larger towns of his extensive parish. He said this was because the poor no longer had to travel to the church.

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He worked closely with these communities and eventually helped them to organize into Base Christian Communities.

“We are close to God when we work to change the structures of sin that oppress the people,” he said.

One of the towns to which Miguel traveled was Villa Rosario, where he met and began working with Evelyn.

Villa Rosario is a remote town of 3,000 people in Northern Morazán, scattered into small communities. At age 13, Evelyn was a very devout young catholic, learning catechisms, singing in the choir. She talked about her transformation into a free woman with the arrival of liberation theology. She “chose liberation over memorization.” She began to learn new songs, read the Biblia Latinoamericano with annotations. She began to accept that “poverty is not the will of God.”

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In 1980, the scorched earth campaign was in full effect and refugees chose Villa Rosario as a safe haven. She explained how that affected the food supply and attracted opposition forces to her small town. One army commander in particular, Francisco Emilio Mena Sandoval, came to Villa Rosario with the supposed intent of committing senseless killings but eventually realized that that there were only innocents and the wounded.

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Later that afternoon we met with Mena Sandoval’s son, Francisco Mena Ugarte, who is the current director of CRISPAZ, Christians for Peace in El Salvador.

It was started in 1984 by a Carmelite priest, Fr. Peter Hind, a Quaker pastor, and another Pastor, who had been working with Witnesses for Peace in Nicaragua. The first delegation went to El Salvador in 1985. Like with Voices on the Border, Francisco noted that people were asked to come and listen and learn.

CRISPAZ works with local artisans in their communities by offering capacity building, a place to sell and a safe, accessible way to manage their funds collectively in order to arrange for medical visits and other emergency needs.

They work with COFAMIDE, an organization that supports families of migrants who have died or disappeared on the long journey to the US, is also accompanying at-risk youth, looking to create a multi disciplinary approach with teachers and therapists.

He described their delegations as reverse missions, meaning the service member’s role is to communicate their knowledge of the reality here to people in the US.

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As we listening we heard many connections.
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Our trip to El Bajo Lempa was long, full of different emotions. I did not know what to expect, I didn’t know where I was going or how people were going to be. We arrived and people greeted us with music and hugs. They all had big smiles and were so happy to see the delegation.

At first I was worried that they wouldn’t warm up to me given that I was the second new person in the group but also a Salvadoran who didn’t know anything about her country’s history. In a matter of hours however I was able to connect with everyone, I felt as if I was part of their family. I ended up staying with the family of Martha and Adolfo, they were my hosts for two days. Adolfo is an organic farmer. He grows all kind of vegetables and then sells it. He had things like tomatoes, chipilin, lettuce, yerba mora, corn, coconuts, mangos, oranges, etc… I was so impressed by him and his family. I learned so much from him about the civil war, given that he was part of the guerrilla during that time as well as other members of his family. Many of his brothers died defending the people of El Salvador. Martha on the other hand was about 1 year old when the war began and was taken by her family to Colomoncagua to seek refugee. Sadly, she lost contact with her family, and was not able to reunite with her sister until over 20 years later. My entire experience with Martha and Adolfo’s family as well as my experience in general in the Bajo Lempa community can be described with this quote; “Why would anyone offer me a half-eaten tomato?” This is all they have to offer,” the priest replied. “It is their last possession, their sign of love, their gift to you.”

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This morning we started out quite early, eating breakfast en route, to attend 8:30 Mass in Comunidad Octavio Ortiz. This community is the partner community of SBSC. Padre Nilton said Mass. He and Padre Angel and another priest share the work of the large parish. Padre Nilton explained to the community why he and Padre Angel decided to switch churches this morning. The priests share the liturgy with the community. After a homily on loving your neighbor and enemy, Padre Nilton asked for sharing from the community which some obliged. At the end of Mass, Elmer, the President, presented Padre Nilton with the plans for a chapel, ceding community land to the diocese. Padre Nilton accepted them and added that in deed the land was entitled for the community.

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After Mass we met with the Community Board. Very important question got asked and everyone shared what they were doing for example Areli told us about the savings and loan cooperative she belonged to. After the individual sharing, Elmer, the President, gave us an overall update: 5 houses were built this last year for the neediest families, the Beach Soccer field was now close to completion, they purchased the plot of land for a community chapel, they are in plans to construct a new Health Clinic, they are managing a youth development learning program and supporting leadership growth in in conjunction with Voices and ACUDESBAL. After a hearty lunch with the Board we and meeting the families with whom we would be staying, we made house visits. Elias, now 19 years old, has advanced kidney failure. Carmen, a teacher, has had an eye operation and torn ligaments in her knee.

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In the evening we met the young people participating the Community Board’s youth division. They have 3 dance groups. They also have soccer teams. They participate in workshops on El Salvador history, leadership, conflict resolution, gender identity and managing emotions.

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We started the day with a tour of the community; We saw where the beach soccer field is being built, and were told 1,280 cubic meters of sand had already been deposited. In 2017, the municipal government is expected to help finish the construction. There is much enthusiasm in the young people for this project.

Then we explored the Lempa riverbank. We learned that private individuals can extract sand, but each time the community charges $10 for each truck that enters to load sand, which represents an important source of income.

The next visit was to the sugar mill where we met a large group working hard to extract the juice from the sugar cane, process it to make it sweet and then package it. It was a tasty experience.

Like the year before, we toured the lush organic farm of Adolfo and his family. We observed his tomatoes, cabbage, beans and mangos,etc in fact we finished the tour enjoying a coconut, an exquisite taste.

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Then we visited the Infant Wellness Center, where we met with educators from three IWCs (Octavio Ortiz, Amando López and Presidio), we talked about the importance of the work they do and the support they receive from Voices. They were also very gracious to receive the $1,200 donation and teaching resources that SBSC was able to fundraise for in 2016.

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After our morning tour, the Pastoral Team was already waiting for us to share lunch. We talked with them about all the pastoral work being done. They shared their experiences on last year’s opportunity to host the relics of Monseñor Romero and revealed their plans to repeat the activity on May 23, 2017. They were planning a very large religious and cultural event, to be attended by the 29 communities of the Bajo Lempa.

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At the end of the afternoon we visited the neighboring community Amando López, and met with their Community Board who talked about their projects, especially those focused on education and healthy nutrition for children. We were very impressed that the school store does not allow the sale of processed food or soft drinks, instead it promotes the consumption of fruits and vegetables.

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We ended the day with the traditional farewell party, with the presence of almost all of the community, it was an emotional event with artistic presentations of children and young people. We displayed photos of the delegation in 2016 and shared words of love and solidarity.

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Today was the long journey to Morazán, but before we left the Bajo Lempa, we met with the leadership of ACUDESBAL and heard a progress report and then visited a family in community Nueva Esperanza.

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On Wednesday morning in community Segundo Montes in Morazán we met with the Pastoral Team. The Team noted that they are focused on a new vision of life in faith and Justice. (read more)

We arrived during the preparation for a 3 day program in the Segundo Montes temple at the end of March hosted by the International Tribunal of Application of Restorative Justice and the University of Central America Human Rights Institute(IDHUCA). The group from the UCA is investigating 4 massacres in the department of Morazán for this Tribunal (March 29,30,31).These horrifying crimes occurred in Juacamaya, Tule, Torola and Arambala. They will also be presenting two massacres being further studied by Tutela Legal. There will be two judges from Spain and three from Brazil. After each case is presented, social workers will lead a psychosocial activity to somewhat recover from the no doubt disturbing findings. 200 people are expected. On the third day the judges will present their judgement. This will be a very intense 3 days.

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After meeting with the pastoral team we went to have lunch and meet with the Morazán Women’s Network, led by Evelyn, whom we met with on day one.

With the Women’s network I learned that there are seven towns that are being represented with the aim of promoting dignity and respect. The women have seven areas of focus: 1) education and training 2) organization, 3) advocacy and civil action, 4) political participation, 5) economic autonomy, 6) violence against women, and 7) strengthening the network from the bottom up. The base of these are the first two and the rest follows. Each town that is represented has its own leadership and the broader network meets once a month. However, within the small towns they are facing some factors that makes it difficult to organize the women i.e. women have kids and responsibilities at home, or the husbands don’t let the women do things for themselves. Overall, the community is one that is very machista, when we add up all the factors the process of organizing women in the community can be very slow.

The women told us that Morazán has one of the highest rape rates of girls under 13 years old. A staggering 1,210 cases of statutory rape were reported last year and only 115 of those cases were charged. The reason for more cases not being charged often is due to the judge’s judgment, with the excuses of judges often being “well, the 13-year-old looks like she might be 16 or 17” or “This guy doesn’t look like a bad guy etc.” The victims also experience the judges nonchalance stance on the matter while dismissing the case. There is a justice system that is not enforcing the laws meant to protect the people. The Morazán Women’s Network is working hard to stand with the victims by accompanying them to the police station, or any health center as well as educating them and empowering them.

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As the others rested, Gabriella visited the Perquin museum and El Mozote.

In the afternoon I went to the Museum of the Revolution where I met Felipe, the tour guide. He was very charismatic and welcoming. We walked through the museum and I learned about the civil war, how the guerrilla would train and make weapons, the solidarity of the people in the U.S. even though many of the atrocities being done in El Salvador were founded by the U.S. government. I learned that the war had happened at the end of the 1970s and all of the 80s, and it was really a result of all the oppression the Salvadoran people faced since the 1930s. During this time, over 31,000 indigenous people were killed because they were asking for human rights and dignity. To the Salvadoran military, at that time, that was communism. Many of the Salvadoran native languages were lost, as well as our traditional clothing.

After the assassination of Romero, the war really broke out and many massacres started to happen including the one in El Mozote. Being in El Mozote was a very uncomfortable experience, because it made me feel very sad, and angry at the same time. 1,000 civilians were killed all in one day and only one women survived Rufina Amaya, who then was able to tell the story of El Mozote. Four of her children were killed including one that was 8 months old. Over 400 children died that day as well as women and men. While being in El Mozote it hit me, that overall El Salvador is full of people who know what resist is and what it should look like. People fled to Colomoncagua to protect themselves but most importantly to organize themselves, in order to defend the Salvadoran people and save their  dignity.

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Later on that day we also had dinner with AJUDEM and OSCA which are two volunteer-led youth groups in Morazán who are doing great work. Both groups focus on: culture and art, sports and recreation, education, the environment, and historic memory. The way in which they teach each others about these topics is through popular education. This was the formation process people in Colomoncagua experienced.

Both of the groups ran workshops in 2016 to educate the community i.e. on gender, sexual and reproductive health and nutrition. With the health and nutrition workshop kid are being taught to enjoy healthy food by having them prepare their own vegetable dishes like pancakes with carrots, and beets. The kids loved them! Last year they were successful in their efforts to bring the university to Gotera, the capital of Morazán. They published books, musical CDs and documentaries.

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This morning we traveled from our hotel in Perquin to visit the Morazan chapter of the Association of the War Wounded(ALGES). They gave us a brief history of the organization before sharing their many accomplishments. They work for human rights and especially for the needs of its members, those ex-guerrillas and civilians who became disabled as a result of the civil war. Voices has supported them by providing relevant trainings and a no-interest loan to build 2 little “stands” next to their office. They have since paid back the loan and now rent these out to get $115/month income. Voices also helped support the purchase and maintenance of the ALGES truck, a vital piece of equipment that they use as an ambulance, to get themselves to meetings, for resource delivery and in funeral processions. They are in plans to build

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After the long scenic ride back to San Salvador we met with Doris Evangelista, the national coordinator of Joining Hands Network(RUMES) who oddly enough, was hired by Kristi (our translator and Presbyterian missionary). RUMES works for Food Sovereignty and the end to harmful agricultural practices taking place in the country. Doris explained how her and Kristi built their training program from scratch. The Lutheran University donated space to hold their weekly 6-hour trainings offered to rural campesinos. Each week the participants were expected to return to their communities and demonstrated what they had learned. About 60 men and women, from all over the country, attended 9 months of training and received an accredited certificate from the university itself.

She talked about the devastating effects of monoculture in El Salvador. For example, much of the fertile land and water tables that could be used for growing healthy food is now being used to raise sugar cane. Not only are local farmers being manipulated into selling their lands, but their labor is also exploited, they are victims of a very high death rate caused by kidney failure from prolonged exposure to deadly fertilizers. She shared the somber story of one woman who lost five of her sons, who all had families, to the use of these dangerous agricultural chemicals. RUMES and Voices are apart of an active environmental movement is in full effect to persuade lawmakers to ban these chemicals and the production of mono crops such as sugarcane in El Salvador.

The work RUMES does surrounding food sovereignty is greatly needed as they continue to build new ideas that keep a nation healthy.

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This morning we met with Abidio Mauricio Gonzalez, a lawyer and the Director of Tutela Legal and with Alejandro Lening Diaz, a second lawyer that works with Tutela Legal. The original Tutela Legal started in May of 1982, under the Archbishop of San Salvador. Throughout the war, the Tutela Legal team investigated some of the worst incidents; including the massacre of El Mozote, forced disappearances and the assassination of Archbishop Romero.

In 1993, the Amnesty Law was passed and all people who had committed crimes against humanity were given amnesty instead of being brought to justice. This sparked huge protests and this caused a great pause in the work of Tutela Legal.

In 2013, the present Archbishop of San Salvador, Jose Luis Escobar Alas, closed and changed the locks of the office of Tutela Legal and placed security guards in front so it became impossible to access the thousands of documents that had been painstakingly obtained. Abidio, saw that Tutela Legal couldn’t continue, so in a miraculously short 3 months, they received a tax-exempt legal status and now continue their legal work, education and training and violence prevention.

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Then we traveled to the office of the Center of International Solidarity(CIS) and met with Leslie Schuld, who after working with CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with El Salvador) in US from 1985 to 1997, became Director of CIS began CIS in 1997.

CIS trains election observers and writes and publishes reports afterwards. In the 1994 election CIS had more than 1,000 election observers. A couple of us from SBSC were election observers with CIS in 1999 and were impressed with the level of organization.

n addition to giving classes in Spanish and English and selling Salvadoran crafts, they support several communities, especially Community Romero. For many years, SBSC delegates have come for a week of Spanish conversation classes at CIS the week before our delegations. She shared with us a recent story about a youth from the community was severely beaten up two times by gang members on his way home from school. Knowing that if her son were beaten up a third time, he would be killed, the courageous mother went to gang members and asked why this was happening. Gang members told her that her son had stolen the girlfriend of a gang member and this was revenge. The mother said that her son took a bus and went directly from the bus to school and then returned directly home by bus and stayed at home and that this was a lie about her son. The gang members confronted the gang member and determined that he had told a lie. Then gang members told the mother that it was safe for her son to return to school.

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Our last day. Today we began processing our experiences, shared our final reflections and participated in a group evaluation. Gabriela went to visit her family in Usulután and the rest of us hiked up “El Boquerón,” San Salvador’s volcano. If you or someone you know wants to learn more about South Bay, Voices on the Border or El Salvador come to our event in April.

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