It has been over four years since I packed my bags and moved my life to El Salvador. As I sit down to write something to send to friends and loved ones about how I am and where I am, one thing consistently comes to mind. Life here is deeply exhausting, in many senses.
El Salvador is like a petri dish of all social ills, six million people crowded into a tiny country where justice and oppression abound in place of opportunities and dignity. The reality is life-draining and easily leads to feelings of complete impotence and desperation. Is there anything that can be done to create change? Is there anything I can do to create change? Is this all hopeless? On the best days, we believe that the arc of justice is long, but bends towards justice. On the worst days, the healthiest response seems to be running as far away as possible, far, far away from the world.
There are moments where the levels of violence make you sick, and perhaps more, your response to them. How is it that you, too, have come to accept the twelve murdered people per day; how is it that those people came to represent a number that you, too, throw around and talk about abstractly, without thinking, feeling, caring for the names, families, stories behind the numbers? One of my own biggest internal struggles has been the mistrust, distrust, suspicion of fellow human beings, especially men, and more especially young men, that I have been encouraged, nearly forced, to develop. Everyone is approached with caution, and instead of giving people the benefit of the doubt, we are encouraged to assume the worst in everyone. Instead of being able to offer my smile and hello to the people that inhabit the streets and sidewalks, the people that work the stoplights for change, eye contact is avoided, windows are rolled up and car doors are locked, greetings from strangers are ignored and the street is used as barrier between oneself and suspicious looking characters.
The walls that we are subtly and outright told to put up go absolutely and irrefutably against our feelings of humanity, our desire to offer love to all that we encounter. And against the dignity of all beings, even those that sniff glue on the corner or treat us as sexual objects.
It is exhausting and defeating to live in this dichotomy, where the things that we believe in are not the things that we live. It is exhausting to live watching our backs, but it is more exhausting to shut ourselves down to others, to assume the worst, to feel desensitized to the violence that surrounds us; violence of knives, guns, streets and economic, political, structural, gender violence. It is exhausting to live from one crisis to another, from hurricanes to earthquakes to politically-motivated disappearance to the raw, in-your-face poverty of rural communities without access to land titles and all that follows.
It is exhausting and dehumanizing, and it is too easy to get swept up and swept away, to let your own humanity be drained away, along with your hope for change and your faith in fellow humans. There is so, so much wrong in this country and with this country, and the obstacles are so, so huge. And so lasting. It is easy to see and think that things haven’t changed at all since the Spanish arrived; its that same oppression and injustice and poverty and structural violence, just with different names and different forms. It is still the filthy rich and the powerful getting richer and more powerful off the backs of the barefoot poor. And when the oppressed organize and educate each other and demand their rights and propose changes, they are silenced. All the while, the poor continue to pull each other down, and continue to tell the story about the Salvadoran crabs pulling each other down into the boiling pot instead of helping each other to get out. Rich kill poor through economic policies, exploitation, gun sales, war, and negligence. Poor kill poor with guns, sexual violence, over petty differences and family histories. Rich rob from poor through exploitation, tax evasion, corruption. Poor rob from poor through extortion, armed assaults, looting.
No one lives safely or feels safe in this county. Those who can afford it hire private security guards. Those who cannot walk in a near trot with their heads down, purses clutched closely to body, from bus stop to front door. Many people blame the problem on gangs and youth. Others believe that the system is responsible, not the youth, but are hard pressed to offer solutions to the problem, especially when the state has no resources to dedicate to prevention and rehabilitation even if the will to create such programs existed.
I want to believe in love. I want to believe that it has the power to heal, to lift people up, to dignify, that change begins with, grows out of, is born from love. I want to believe that hope comes from love, and that love can be, is, a deep, cool, life-giving, nourishing stream for the long, long road ahead. But then I am told that I shouldn’t visit my Salvadoran family because it’s too dangerous at night. But then I offer a hello to the young man on the corner, and he offers up a slew of lude remarks in return. How can we walk with humility, dignity and love, and offer our love, in a place that all too often responds by laughing at our naiveté and bringing us right back to our knees?
We can only begin to find answers on a day-to-day basis. Like hope, we find reasons to love, and find love itself, in the small things, the small actions and words and gestures offered up to us when we least expect it, and sometimes, when grace steps in, when we most need it.
An incredible thing about this place is that you are reminded, sometimes gently, often violently, of the resilience of the human spirit. Our hearts are ripped open, and people, often when we least expect it at least want it, crawl into our hearts and make room for themselves. There is always more space there, more space to fall in love with new people, with their stories and their history and their struggle and their faith and hope, and the little things that make them so unique. A toothless smile, a way of invading your physical space that pushes your boundaries and forces you to accept the human warmth being offered, the beef soup humbly served to an almost life-long vegetarian who has no choice but to clean her plate, smiling all the while.
It is the people and the stories and the relationships that make sticking around in this corner of the world, fighting in, fighting for, fighting with this corner of the world, not only worth the effort, but a beautiful, graced life.
How do we walk with love? I'm not sure. But we can believe in it, and seek it out, and offer it as frequently as possible, in the ways that we know how. We can try; I can try.
Thinking about life and love, I cannot help but immediately think of Colette. A living, breathing example of offering oneself up with love and in love, having it not always work out the way we hope, and then continuing on, resilient, in love and with love. Colette, the woman who asks you to find something beautiful, one specific thing to hold on to, when she knows you’ve had a bottom-scraping week. Colette, who loves first, asks questions later, and knows no other way but to take you as you are and kiss your dirty feet and love your broken soul. The most powerful example I have ever met of living and loving, of living in a way that, if we could all follow her example, would make the world a much, much better place overnight. The best example of bravely putting yourself out there, bravely loving despite the odds, lovingly and gently challenging barriers and stigmas and norms and inviting you, with a smile, to join her beautiful dance.