This post was originally featured on Travel Latina on November 8, 2015
It is the summer of 2012. I had just ended my third year of college and was preparing for my first independent trip abroad. When I first told my family that I would be going to El Salvador that summer to study at La Universidad de El Salvador (UES) they were completely against it. They feared for my safety and did not like the idea that I would be getting myself too involved in the country’s political sphere. I could not blame them for having those thoughts though. My parents fled El Salvador’s Civil War in 1984. By that time the country had been at war for five years and with seven more intense years ahead of it. Between 70,000 – 80,000 people lost their lives, 550,000 people were internally displaced, and about 500,000 people sought refuge in different parts of the world. Growing up, my parents did not speak about the country’s history or their experience through the war. Once again, I don’t blame them for this for it was a traumatic experience for them. All I knew about being Salvadoran was pupusas, cumbias, and our blue and white flag. That all changed when I began college at the University of California Santa Barbara and I joined a student organization, La Union Salvadoreña de Estudiantes Universitarios (a.k.a. USEU). It was through this organization and other Latin American studies classes that I learned more about El Salvador’s history, politics, and culture. When the summer of 2012 came and we were told the organizing for USEU’s annual study abroad program was beginning I signed up for the trip. I knew this would be a life changing experience.
I still remember the different emotions that I felt when I landed at Comalapa Airport in San Salvador that summer. I was so excited to be taking this trip with some of my closest friends. I had been to El Salvador a few times as a child but always headed straight to San Miguel where my family is from. This time around my trip would be based in the country’s capital, San Salvador. We stayed at a comfortable hostel which was a walking distance from the university. La Universidad de El Salvador is the country’s oldest university and a very important part of the country’s war history. A lot of student organizing against the war occurred on this campus. Unfortunately because of the strong student resistance, military and police oppression also took place. On July 30, 1975 hundreds of students peacefully marched the streets outside of the university demanding for human rights and their rights to protect the UES from military take over. Hundreds of students died on that day when militant shots were fired when the march was crossing under a bridge. Having the opportunity to study at a university that has such an important history of student organizing was something surreal for me. I actually recognized different university locations from history book pictures. There are a lot of monuments and art murals pertaining to history, as well as current events, all over campus. Being able to take classes with Salvadoran students was also a beautiful experience. We got to learn about their reality as university students, talk and compare our struggles and lifestyles, and learn about their dreams and goals. They were more than happy to show us around their campus, the city, and share with us important knowledge.
During the weekends we took trips to different tourist locations as well as towns located in rural part of the country. One of the most inspiring trips we took was our visit to the departamento of Chalatenango. Chalate is located on the northern side of the country and borders with Honduras. We took a road up a mountain where we visited the towns of San Antonio Los Ranchos, San Jose de Las Flores, and Guarjila. At San Antonio Los Ranchos, we visited “El Centro Cultural Jon Cortina.” The community center focuses on different art forms for children and adolescents. The arts classes aim to promote creativity as well as consciousness. In Guarjila, we visited the “Casa Museo Jon Cortina.” Jon Cortina was a Jesuit priest whom dedicated his life to helping Salvadorans during and after the civil war. He founded the organization Pro-Busqueda, which dedicates its efforts to searching for missing children from the civil war. When we got to the center we walked in right as the group of Pro-Busqueda was having a discussion, sharing how their life was before the civil war and remembering their children. We got to hear from a man whom had recently got in touch with his child, whom was taken away from him during the war and given up for adoption to an Italian couple. He said his story with so much joy, tears of happiness were running down his face. In San Jose de Las Flores we visited a town that is 100% community driven. This town was dislocated and forced out of their land during the civil war. When the war ended the people went back to their land and reconstructed their homes from the bottom up. The people of the town work together on different social programs, ranging from agriculture to education, which aid children, adolescents, and adults. The communal vibe was definitely present everywhere around us.
Other trips we took were to Lago Coatepeque, La Puerta del Diablo, El Volcan Izalco, Las Ruinas de San Andres y Las Ruinas de Tazumal, and another personal favorite La Ruta de Las Flores where we visited different indigenous towns. We also had the opportunity to speak to important political activists, political representatives, and visit various FMLN (The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front is the current political party governing El Salvador) community centers whom allowed us to join in on their meetings.
This trip to El Salvador transformed pictures and words read into reality. I learned about my history, my roots, and current events. While the media only chooses to display the violence of my country I saw a whole other side that involves love, dedication, and community organizing for the better good. I heard stories from war survivors which touched every part of my soul. I learned the importance of preserving our country’s historic memory. I saw the natural beauty that El Salvador has to offer and most importantly I connected and learned from all different types of people. My love and passion for travel was discovered because of this trip. I remember sitting at my tia’s house in El Salvador filling out study abroad application to Brazil and my mother saying, “tu me quieres matar con tus locuras!” It has been a non-stop travel journey from then but I never forget the trip that began it all and I always carry a piece of El Salvador in my heart.