The pickup truck pulled to the side of the road. We got out and walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down across the valley to the broken line of mountains. A seminarian pulled out his flute and began playing the notes of “Gabriel’s flute,” from The Mission film. The haunting music drifted across the landscape, recalling the story of the indigenous people of South America who had been marginalized, abused and conquered several centuries earlier. Not unlike the people whose land we were now traversing.
It was an auspicious beginning to our three years of living and working with Mennonite Central Committee among the people of northern Morazán province in El Salvador.
More than 20 years had passed since many of these people had fled the violent conflict in their country across the border into Honduras. Having worked in the refugee camps when many of them arrived 20 years earlier, I now was walking on land that they called home. The ones that now lived here were the survivors, not only of a brutal war in which friends and family members and neighbors were cruelly killed, but survivors of a concentration camp way of life for too many years.
They were peasants whose lives were caught up in the final years of the Cold War. Their land had become the battleground, and they were pawns — manipulated and moved around in a struggle to survive.
Why do they come?
Today when I hear people ask why these people don’t stay home, or why their countries don’t do more to keep them home, I can only conclude that the questioners know little of the story of Central America.
This story over the last century includes the repeated invasion by U.S. military forces, largely to protect the economic interests and power of large American-based multinational companies. Democratically elected governments, such as in Guatemala in the 1950s, working to institute reforms that would bring increasing justice and equity to their population, were destabilized and overthrown by American-supported forces. These governments were trying to do the very things that we say we wish they would do.
During the conflict of the 1980s in El Salvador, many people left the country to save their lives, largely fleeing from a U.S.- supported brutal military and collaborating death squads. They fled not only to neighboring Honduras but to other surrounding countries as well. As many as 400,000 emigrated to greater Los Angeles, which could be considered the largest Salvadoran city after its capital, San Salvador. Faced with violence, these immigrants formed gangs to defend themselves from existing gangs. With time, they became involved in criminal activities, for which they were deported.
Peace accords, signed in 1992, effectively ended the military conflict, and the country was faced with the major task of building a civil society that provided political space for all of the war’s armed actors. However, the challenges of land distribution and extreme inequality persisted.
Attempts to work at substantial change were further burdened by the forced reception of members of criminal gangs expelled from the United States, where they had learned and honed their criminal skills.
Say ‘no’ and risk death
Today, El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates of any country in the world, largely because of gang-related violence, much of it carried out with impunity.
In that context, life is not as simple as “just saying no.” A son may be drafted into a gang where to say “no” is a death sentence. A business may regularly be “taxed,” and the refusal to pay is an invitation to a bullet to the head.
I was recently reminded of that reality as I translated for an immigrant who had arrived in northern Indiana from Honduras several months earlier. He had come with his family, including a 15-year-old son dying of cancer.
The local parish of the Catholic Church in northern Morazán Department has facilitated many programs for adults and youth among the communities since the war ended. MCC has partnered with the parish by providing personnel and funds. More than 100 MCC-funded homes were built by people who lost what little they had during the war.
MCCers facilitated couples’ groups in numerous communities to help process the challenges and traumas of disrupted lives and divided families and communities.
Women gathered around the art of making quilts as a way of dealing with and expressing the trauma of their life experiences.
Youth groups were formed and retreats were held as a means of bringing youth together to foster a sense of community and civic responsibility.
Fractured fabric of life
More recently, a School of Art was founded by an Argentinian forensic expert who, as she participated in the excavation of a terrible massacre, wondered how she might work with the living children in a way that would bring hope and happiness.
The massacre, which happened in El Mozote in 1981, was executed by soldiers trained in the United States. The murders of about 1,000 people, mostly elderly, women and children, were denied by both the U.S. and Salvadoran governments until the burden of proof became a shout out to the world of what had happened in that small hamlet.
The long-term result of war, repression and subverted democratic processes is a fractured civil and community network. People with few options come north seeking a safe haven and opportunities. They come to save their families. They come because of the sins, past and present, of their country and ours.
Jesus said, “I was an immigrant and you welcomed me,” or something very close to that.
Charles Geiser is pastor of Hively Avenue Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind. He served almost 25 years with Mennonite Central Committee, half of that time in Latin America.