Lucas Franco :: El Salvador
A Month of Changed Expectations, New Experiences, and
Incredible Insights into Salvadoran Culture
February 1, 2008
It is hard to believe that I have been in El Salvador for over a month. Time is flying by and my experiences have provided an incredible insight into the intricacies of development work. Beyond my time in the office, I have taken every opportunity to get into the field and meet Salvadorans from all walks of life. Reading about the inequality and extreme poverty of El Salvador is one thing, but talking to people about their difficulties in sending their kids to school, listening to the stories of the challenges in acquiring any sort of basic health service, or hearing about the direct consequences of deflating coffee prices, creates a profound level of commitment to my work. Each of these experiences has provided powerful insights into Salvadoran society and constant realizations of the importance of development work.
Before I arrived in El Salvador I was told to cast as many expectations out of my mind as possible. Although I fought with ferocity to keep those expectations at bay, undoubtedly a few crept into my mind. As classes came to an end in early December three worries surged to the front of my mind; would I be safe?, would my Spanish be adequate?, and did I talk up my credentials a little too generously to my boss at CARE?
The safety concerns emerged from the dozens of reports I had read on gang violence in Central America, the three papers I have written on the issue, and the constant bombardment of statements like, ‘your going to El Salvador...wow...BE SAFE!’ Transnational narco trafficking gangs have proliferated throughout the region since the mid nineties. The two or three mega gangs have sparked the propagation of more disorganized youth gangs, who find economic security in these gangs. This rise in gangs has led to skyrocketing homicide rates and violent crime rates. With such statistics in my mind it was hard to subdue an element of fear.
My Spanish level was probably my greatest fear, since I had an impression that lacking Spanish skills would prevent me from being recognized as a useful employee. Although this hesitation was constantly in my mind, it was actually a progressive form of fear since it provided the incentive for me to put in 65 hours of Spanish classes in Guatemala over Christmas break. Without a hint of fear, I don’t know where I would have found the energy to tackle such a daunting endeavor.
My final inhibition was a questioning of my ability to live up to my Scope of Work. As I was preparing my Scope of Work with Marcos Neto, CARE’s Latin American Programs Director, I was sure to highlight my experiences in policy work and Latin America politics. After a few phone conversations with Marcos my SOW had been created and the goal was to prepare a policy assessment essay on how CARE should approach regional remittance, immigration, and migration; undoubtedly, a grand endeavor.
On January 10th I arrived in El Salvador and my fears and hesitations began to disappear. I was picked up by CARE’s regional communications director, Paola. As we drove into San Salvador she provided a great overview of CARE’s structure, San Salvador, intriguing places to visit, and any other useful information you could imagine. She was a guide book, a history text, and a Spanish dictionary all in one. She drove me past CARE’s office, past the Universidad de Central America (UCA) and to my beautiful Bed and Breakfast, Arbol de Fuego. I arrived on a Thursday, so I had a free weekend to get to know the zone that would be my home for the next two months and to take eight hours of Spanish classes with my new Spanish professor, Nelson.
Within days of arriving my initial hesitations were all but gone. After talking to people and peacefully strolling through Antiguo Custcatlan I realized that my fears of violence had been completely overblown. It is true that there are some regions of San Salvador to which you should simply not go, but is that really so different from any other city in the world? My slightly overblown fears were a product of fear of the unknown and one too many essays on the propagations of gang violence in Central America. The zone I live in is very comfortable and tranquil, despite the sky high fences with rolled barbwire at the top and shotgun carrying security guards on every block. Although my Spanish is still not where I would like it to be, I quickly realized after the first few days in El Salvador, that my Spanish level would suffice. My dissatisfaction with my Spanish level has actually been a bit of a blessing, as it continues to provide the incentive to take two hours of Spanish class every morning. Finally, my fear of being ill-prepared for my work with CARE proved to be completely overblown after the first day on the job, as my hesitation quickly turned to excitement for the challenge that lay ahead.
On Monday the 14th of January I left my B&B at 7:30, after a magnificent breakfast complete with exquisite fired bananas, and made the 15 minute walk to the CARE office. My morning walk is wonderful, as I pass by the main entrance to UCA every morning, picking up on the vivacious energy of UCA students. I walked into the CARE office at 8 o’clock sharp. I was blown away by the office and its beautiful location. CARE bought a 1970’s mansion and converted the building into a regional office for 40-60 employees. It is really more of a fortress. The office has all the fixings of a modern downtown Seattle office building; complete with wireless, fax machines, copy machines, print centers, a wing of IT managers, and everything else you would come to expect in a modern office building.
When I arrived at the receptionist desk I was guided upstairs and led into a fantastic corner office, complete with glass table tops and a huge leather chair. It is a productively center. If only I had the same set-up in my house or the neighborhood Starbucks that I frequent so often. I am shocked how much more productive I am with a comfy chair, space to spread out my research, and a never ending pot of coffee nearby. Although these perks are great, the best part of my internship with CARE has been my work.
My SOW for CARE is broken down into three parts, composing two months of analysis and presentations. I am currently in the first phase, which is research. I have been reading stacks of documents and by this Friday I will finish a 20 page Central America remittance profile. The goal of this profile is to provide a complete overview of how remittances are utilized and to begin exploring ways in which CARE can help maximize the development potential of remittances and prepare for the 'poverty exacerbating' consequences of continued persuasive and coercive changes to US immigration policy. The next step is to map migration trends department by department throughout the four focus countries and to super impose that map on a map of CARE projects. Perhaps through such an analysis we will see how certain CARE projects have minimized migration in migration vulnerable regions and how those projects could be replicated to change migration patterns. The final phase is to prepare a complete policy analysis, suggesting areas for new projects, outlining avenues for future grants, and developing foundations for future lobbying.
Beyond my work in the office I have had numerous opportunities to get into the campo and experience what life in El Salvador is really about. A couple weeks ago I headed north to the department of Santa Ana with my Spanish teacher to enjoy a weekend with his family. We spent the weekend exploring nearby ruins, filling our bellies with papusas (a Salvadoran version of a quesadilla), and of course discussing the politics and history of El Salvador. Nelson, my Spanish teacher, told me all about living through the civil war, the effects dolarization has had on his family, his worries about the Salvadoran school system, and of course his favorite Salvadoran dishes. Spending the weekend with Nelson’s family provided a rich insight into Salvadoran society. Hearing actual stories of the effects of immigration, remittance, and migration renewed my passion for my report and has brought the research to life.
My first month in El Salvador has been amazing. My initial worries, fears, and expectation have been dissolved or harnessed for progressive purposes. I have once again been reassured of the value of keeping expectations at bay. Along with my personal experience in Salvadoran culture, my academic exploration of Central America politics, history, and economics, has provided a medium to synergize my years of University Studies and to harness them in the direction of real change through development work. I have another month of adventures and experiences ahead, which I look forward to sharing.
Finding a Middle Ground and
Discovering the Intricacies of Development Work
March 1, 2008
It is hard to believe I have just over a week left here in El Salvador. Looking back on these last two months I am reminded of what an incredible experience I have had. Not only did I avoid the cold and rainy Seattle winter, but I have been able to fully acclimate to a vision of life after college, to experience Salvadoran culture from many different angles, to learn more than I ever would have imagined about the internal workings of international development, to discover the intricacies of constructing development policy, and to learn from an array of inspiring and dedicated professionals truly committed to CARE’s mission and the end of poverty.
Over these past two months I have been able to completely adjust to my life here in Antiguo Custcatlan and I feel ready to step forward into the next stage of my life. I had a few minor hesitations about doing the IDIP my Senior year, as a voice kept whispering in my left ear telling me I would miss so many opportunities to be with my friends and to make the most of my last year of college. However, thankfully there was the voice of maturity and passion whispering in my right ear telling me that the IDIP experience would challenge me to explore my passion for development, push me to face new challenges, and prepare me for the infamous transition from University life to ‘real-life.’ All last summer and throughout fall quarter the voice in my right ear grew louder and the voice of hesitation faded into oblivion.
My interest in development has grown over the last couple years and my experience over the last two months has concretized my goal of working in some aspect of international development. On one level, I have discovered the joys of readjusting to life in a new environment. International development work requires you to move all over the world and plant your roots in completely new cultures. My roots have thrived here in El Salvador. I have made great friends, found many new adventures, discovered excitement in challenging myself, and adjusted to the eight to five routine. On another level, I have discovered what development work and policy analysis actually entails. After my time in CARE’s office I can confidently say I am ready and excited to work in International Development.
Beyond providing the maturing elements of a vision of life after college, this internship has had a profound effect on my understanding of listening and the importance of truly understanding both sides of an issue. Before coming to El Salvador I had read an array of books and reports on the history, politics, and culture of El Salvador, so I naturally was fairly confident in my opinions of El Salvador. One of my strongest opinions was my vision of the twelve year civil war in El Salvador. I saw the military forces as driven by greed and consumed by power, while the guerrilla forces were freedom fighters, fighting for justice and equality. I still believe that the military was a despicable force of injustice, but it is hard to see the issues through a black and white lens after meeting people from both sides of the war.
Last Monday I had the opportunity to go to the coffee farm of my apartment manager, Rodolfo. Monday afternoon, just after my classic lunch of eggs, rice, and beans, Rodolfo and I headed north towards the department of Santa Ana. The coffee farm was beautiful, the fresh cheese I ate was scrumptious, the freshly roasted coffee was exquisite, and the most intriguing aspect of the journey was our conversations. The hour and a half journey to Santa Ana and the two hour ride back flew by, as our journey was filled with intriguing and thought provoking conversations.
In the late 1970’s Rodolfo was a student at UCA, studying mechanical engineering. His Dad had emigrated from Honduras in the 1930’s and through his dentistry practice he had earned enough money over the years to acquire an expansive plot of land in the department of Sonsonate. Rodolfo and his brothers had grown up working the land and he had plans to return to the land to expand his father’s farm in the 1980’s. When the war began in 1979 Rodolfo feared the ‘radical’ talk of the various political groups seeking land reform and wealth distribution. He had helped his father lift their family up into the elite level of Salvadoran society and by the late 70’s he saw everything his family had worked for under attack. His family’s wealth had been cultivated through the government’s maintenance of secure export markets, internal stability, and a cheap work force. In 1979 he joined El Salvador’s National Guard and was prepared to fight against what he saw as a threat to his way of life.
Naturally at the beginning of our conversation I approached this argument through a structural analysis and a very academic lens. I tried to argue the importance of promoting the common good and working towards just distribution of goods. I argued his farm’s profitability could have been maintained and improved with some land distribution to his poor peasant neighbors and by diversifying the economy. I went on and on, as I tend to do, about the unjust structures of land distribution and economic distribution that had been solidified in post-colonial El Salvador. I talked and talked, but as he responded I could tell his tone was sharpening and anger was on the horizon.
I sat back and thought about the situation, trying to remove myself from what was becoming and black and white argument, and I thought about how I would feel if I was a 60 year old Salvadoran, who had truly experienced the war, and some 22 year old gringo who was trying to argue with me about the unjust nature of the military’s efforts and the philosophy of the guerilla movement. Upon my reflection I shifted my approach and began question him more about the war, his experience, what he had learned, and how he felt today. I had realized what an incredible learning opportunity it was to listen to Rodolfo’s perspective. By the end we had found a common path in looking at these issues through a Christian social teaching lens and seeking to rise above capitalist and communist structures of power and seek structures of compassion rooted in Christian social teachings.
My experience with Rodolfo is just one of many opportunities I have had to cultivate my patience, open my mind, and to seek common ground. My work with CARE has provided many of these experiences and each has taught me the importance of taking off black and white lenses and to seek an understanding of an issue from all sides. To work in development and to promote structures of compassion, you must understand all sides of the issues and seek to develop policies and programs which promote community, justice, and equality.
My work in CARE’s office and with my co-workers has provided countless opportunities to learn the intricacies of developing policies which promote the sustainable development of communities. My policy paper has provided an opportunity to propose an array of ideas, from remittance cooperatives to Hometown Association partnerships. With each new proposal I have the opportunity to share my ideas with my co-workers, all whom have modified and improved my ideas and understanding of development policy formulation. Through this constant trial and error testing of new policies I have learned many important keys to project development and implementation; keys that can only fully be understood through direct experience.
The last two months have provided an unprecedented learning experience, preparing me for life beyond the classroom, incredible maturing experiences, and an expanded knowledge of how development promotes justice. This has been a fantastic experience and I am sad to see it coming to an end; yet, I am ready for the next adventure and the many learning experiences which lay ahead.