Welcome to El Salvador, Boston College students! First stop, on the margins of disaster, brought to you by hurricane Ida, we bring you the story of Joya Grande...
It might have been shocking, stepping off the airplane, into a van, and meeting a girl and her truck (and this time her brother, too!) alongside the highway and being told to jump in the back of a truck.
I loved the energy of this delegation- the nalgenes, the honest questions, the pride with which they introduced themselves in spanish, they way they giggled and squealed when I crossed the river in my truck (which is NOT four wheel drive). They turned what is normally a long dusty familiar drive into an adventure. I wish I could enter Joya Grande every time the way BC entered Joya Grande with an overwhelmed mixture of curiosity, sadness, and a whole lotta humanity.
This was the first major delegation of foreigners I have brought into Santiago Texacuangos that did not bring material relief. I've gotta admit that deep down, I wondered exactly what this would accomplish. Would the community feel as thought it was disaster tourism?
Of course, Mercedes was there. And Saulito (health promotor) and another member of the Junta Directiva of Joya Grande gave us the tour.
It had been awhile since I'd been to Joya Grande. Much has changed. Many NGOs have come in and out, dropping of small relief packages but never staying long enough to rebuild anything sustainable. The World Food Program has given food to nearly 200 families in Joya Grande that is supposed to last 30 days, thought we all know thin tortillas and meager portions will stretch the aid for months if it must be so. And almost everyone is back- families are rebuilding houses. There is new organization, a disaster committee, an agricultural committee, 20 temporary houses (read- permanent houses. this is el salvador) to be build by USAID. Things seem to have gotten better. Less apocalyptic.
Honestly, I had not been to Joya Grande in over a month. I feared that there would not be a tangible disaster to see. After all, it has been 2 months, and I have heard tons of NGOs have been there. Its in the news! The UN is involved...
Not to worry. My preoccupation with providing BC students an "impactful" experience dissolved the moment we began our tour. Joya Grande looks nearly the same. I could have taken the same shots of the same destroyed and falling over houses I took two months ago. The people hurt the same. Two months is not long enough to ease the pain of losses of entire families in the community. One four-year old boy lost his mother and two brothers. Will any magic number of months change his new facts of life as an orphan? The uncertainty is the same. We were shown hillsides washed away by IDA where crops used to be. Not only did the bean and corns go, but the topsoil went with it. The ministry of agriculture's official study concludes that crop land in Joya Grande is "uncultivatable." What do you say to a farmer who is told it is impossible to grow?
The frustration of the humanitarian crisis continues, and 40 families from Joya Grande are STILL in shelters on the other side of Lake Ilopango. School starts in a few weeks and these families will have to go. and where? into the 20 temporary homes USAID promised to build? The math doesnt compute. Then again, neither does the fact that El Salvador has twice as many gang members as it does policemen. Welcome to El Salvador, where the numbers match up all the wrong ways.
I am an amateur, and I definately did not know what to do when Mercedes dipped around a corner and invited us into a half destroyed home with an old woman sobbing in a hammock. I stopped translating as she pulled me close, cried into my hair, and asked me what would happen to her. ?.
She smelled like booze, and held on to me tightly as Mercedes caught a whiff and promptly led us back to the main road. "Please dont leave me..." She sobs and a rather confused group of students and several embarrassed Salvadorans exit the house.
Welcome to what reconstruction feels like, welcome to Joya Grande, welcome to El Salvador, welcome to the aftermath of a not so natural disaster anywhere and everywhere. It kinda feels like Katina. Olivia, BC student and NOLA native, nods in conclusion.
After thanks and applause, we quickly reboard the pick-ups and head home near nightfall. There was a stretch of road up to Mercedes's community just long enough for her to tell me malas noticias. "Saulito just told me they are trying to build a military base on Joya Grande and kick everyone out. Our government, our leftist FMLN government. Where will people go?"
The future is uncertain. 2010 is gonna be a thriller. But one day at a time right? poco a poco we keep going. and January 7th, 2010, 3 Salvadorans and the girl with a truck got a heck of a lot of energy our of 20-ish eager Bostonians. Joya Grande got to tell its story to foreigners who deemed it worthy of recieving, of feeling, of questioning. This is not disaster tourism. This is exchanging sorrow for hope. Desolation for consolation. It's probably not a fair trade. But BC, thanks for your animo. We are really glad you came.