(Originally written July 9, 2010. Edited twice before posting July 30, 2016)
I received this in an Email 3½ years ago from a life-long friend. I answered it as well as I could from my then two years of living here in El Salvador. I’ve just been going over some documents I’ve been saving, clearing some out, and bringing others up to date for posting on my blog, kountryking’s kastle at https://kountryking.wordpress.com/.
“Does it ever happen that one of the young men or women from El Salvador has dreams of becoming a Doctor or Lawyer and goes off to college?
What you need there is a union. Do you think the new government will make the labor situation any better? You need someone with money and a big heart to come along and give the folks who are willing to work a share in the profits of a business or hotel. Talk to Oprah!
You are so kind and unselfish to have devoted the rest of your life to helping these children. Even if you save one you save a nation. I am proud to be counted among your friends.”
My response: Professional people exist. We have universities and medical schools. They, like churches and seminaries, try to find patrons to establish scholarships to encourage young people to study. Even the government knows we are lacking in quality doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, etc. if we are to build our little country. My friend Adalid got his degree in accounting and works for World Vision, a charitable organization…but not as an accountant.
As I’ve indicated, lawyers that I’ve met don’t know that much about the law. Teachers I work with seem to count on their experience and personal attitude rather than the education theories I studied at Cal. Lutheran U. We don’t produce Nobel Prize candidates in any area due to poverty primarily and secondly because we don’t have the means to provide the learning tools and quality professors to teach. It’s all about dollars that we can beg, “borrow”, and sometimes steal from Americans, Canadians, and Europeans. We are everyone’s poor relatives along with a good chunk of people from other parts of the world besides our own.
I mentioned attitudes among teachers. Our limited knowledge of what’s going on in our professional areas outside Central America keeps us from moving the bar a little higher. We don’t seem to know exactly to what we aspire. There are a ton of people like me in countries like this one who run into a wall with our stories of educational opportunities in vast, beautiful, well-equipped universities, health care in clean medical centers with the best trained doctors and nurses and modern equipment, advanced medicines for most ills, etc.
So the struggle for helpers like me runs against the lack of money and natural resources with which to do business to obtain it, and an attitude of defeatism and dependency on patrons and patron states.
We do have unions among teachers and other professionals. The FMLN party is socialist and by nature is involved with the needs of the workers. But workers or landless people can only demonstrate futilely when there are few jobs and little money for wages, health insurance, or the perks Americans have come to take for granted…until now. We have children’s marches in the capital for food, for housing, and education.
There is a boy about 10 or 12 who paints up as a clown and rides the bus back and forth between Santa Ana and Chalchuapa. He has a home-made maraca in his hand for rhythm as he chants humorous rhymes, sings songs, and must tell jokes (I don’t understand what he’s saying but I hear people laughing.) then walks down the aisle and back collecting coins. It’s a normal occurrence here. For me it is hard to watch. I can’t see one of my kids ever having to have begged, sung or danced for coins to buy lunch and supper for his family. I watch people on their way to work give him change. I don’t. I learned in my years in Mexico, watching haggard mothers with their children around them in rags and also looking sad and forlorn, the smallest at the breast and the toddler holding the bowl for alms, that these people become dependent on charity rather than seek available training to learn a trade.
Right now, the world is in economic chaos. But in “normal” times, there is work available for more people than are willing to do it. Not everyone or even most, to be sure. But the attitude of dependency is strong and as ingrained in the culture as beans and tortillas.
The bottom line is that there is a different reality here than in the U.S. We live in two different planes that as yet have not intersected. I’m just trying to help them meet in a good place.
January 18, 2014
How perceptions can change in just a few years! The U.S. electorate debates immigration reform, welfare and social services reform, minority lag in education and employment, and how to provide all the benefits Americans of my generation were accustomed to as young men and women, established family folks, and retirees while waging wars in heretofore remote lands inhabited by people whose cultures and ways of life we can’t begin to understand.
Since my first response to my friend’s questions, I’ve married a woman who has lived here all her life. She gave birth to four children by four different fathers, a condemnable act in my old world. I watched inexperienced and poorly educated management forced to close the church school in which I volunteered as an English (and more) teacher. My experience and education constantly bucked the local norm of illogic, rationalization, and misinterpretation of God’s influence and participation in daily events.
After the school closed, the focus of our church was an after-school program sponsored by a major Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) designed to provide additional physical, spiritual, and academic benefits. But this is a society where corruption and self-aggrandizement is another norm led to the church losing that ministry. The church itself was corrupted by those same leaders who fired the pastor for preaching against these false prophets and the church split.
In my first experiences here in Central America, I witnessed the poverty, the seeming helplessness and hopelessness of almost all the people in the towns and villages in which I worked. I became attached to people who were hard-workers, faithful church members, dutiful parents, and caring brothers and sisters in Christ. Their vocal prayers were passionate and heartfelt. Their gratitude for petitions answered and patience for those not yet addressed was obvious. The children I taught for three years were like the children I taught in California. They fit the bell-shaped curve in performance and interest in learning. It took a while for me to realize that they were well-schooled in giving me what I wanted in order to endear themselves to me. Not for better grades. Not for future educational considerations. Not even to make mama proud. They all in one way or another wanted to set me up for some kind of financial help.
I had been helping the family of a child I had met in 2003 when she was about 3-years old. Who doesn’t fall in love with a waif who comes to a stranger in church and sits on his lap? When I returned to El Refugio for permanent residence I became, I felt, like a part of their family. My principal, also our pastor, gave her a “scholarship” in our school. But as time moved on I became more aware of the many ways that I was being suckered and lied to. Friends warned me but now I wasn’t sure if these friends weren’t being helpful to their own ends. I broke off with the family and had no contact with them for three years.
Last May, I decided to visit them. Either they would welcome me or let me know I was not welcome. My first visit was a joy. I received hugs and played with the latest additions to the family. On my second visit my motive for coming was questioned. My response relating to an emotional investment I had with the child and the family despite the unhappy separation warranted a visit to see if a friendly relationship could be established. I put it in a way that indicated I was not there to contribute to their economic well-being and so I was literally given the cold shoulder and left without so much as a God bless you.
My observations of much improvement to their living condition told me they were not hurting relative to their neighbors which didn’t surprise me. The mother is quite adept as a con-artist and the children have been taught their roles from babyhood. This is not atypical among the poor in El Salvador.
People don’t attend church for spiritual strength but to go home with collected food for the poor or leftovers from a party or celebration. They “join” a church if there’s a part-time job that will pay a few badly needed dollars a week. If the job goes, they go too.
So, what do children learn? They learn to use their charm, their cuteness, their ability to act like they care to get a dime, a quarter, a dollar, a pair of shoes, new clothes for Christmas, a cell phone, a bicycle, a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, and so on. By the time they reach puberty they’ve learned to steal, lie with a straight face, and create alibis and fairy tales. The girls are capable of seducing young men who may or may not have some capacity to offer them and the child they will inevitably bear them a measure of security albeit temporary. The fellow, socially immature and probably himself the product of the acceptable practice of womanizing, will move on once his pregnant girlfriend loses her appeal. No harm, no foul here.
My wife’s older daughter moved out at sixteen to live with a man eight years her elder. He lives with his mother and sister while his dad is in the U.S. studying for the ministry. They’ve been together almost three years without benefit of matrimony. She is pregnant. He has a job and works rather steadily. They’ve got a place to live and she’s got money for clothes and gifts for her younger siblings. She is a Salvadoran success story.
Her older brother is almost 21. He still lives with us and works sporadically. There is little work here in El Refugio. He doesn’t wish to seek employment in one of our larger cities. His mother doesn’t encourage him but will transmit my displeasure at having a fifth-wheel adult under my roof and free-loading. Her culture sees his situation as normal. I see it as parasitism. If nobody has work for him he hangs out with his friends and only shows up at meal time when his mother phones him. This is the local norm.
He’s always got a story about leaning computation or getting an electrician’s license. It’s been more than two years since he graduated “high school” and nothing has changed for him. There is no point in young people dreaming about becoming a doctor or lawyer or of going off to college unless he’s got parents who as professionals and responsible parents are prepared financially to help him or her. My friend Adalid, mentioned above, is the rare exception to the fate of the young men I’ve watched grow up and wither once their public school careers have ended. A few other young people have been attending college for years and have little recourse to employment once they receive their diploma.
An interesting aside: We have the El Salvador version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” on TV. The top prize is a mere $200,000. Most contestants are either studying in college or have a profession. They usually have no problem reaching the $200 fifth question level. But between questions six and ten, they miss on questions that most American 8th graders wouldn’t have to ponder. I’ve seen a school principal bomb out on a simple question of geography. Spanish is not my first language and I know little about soccer and Salvadoran history but I often answer the questions that the audience can’t agree on.
So the question about education and advancing the country in the world market is answered by a simple, nobody seems to give a damn. Unions can stop work, block highways, carry signs, and make demands. Nobody bothers them. They get on TV. The public gets annoyed for their being inconvenienced. Nothing changes. At least not significantly!
I think the administration that has been in power for almost five years has striven to improve the welfare of working people. Even I’ve benefitted from its programs and I’m not yet a citizen. We have a long way to go and I hope the poorly educated masses are not taken in by the bold and impossible promises by the more charismatic opposition candidate.
On outside investment: I’ve learned first-hand that investment in El Salvador comes at a price. There are many hands to grease and even then there’s no guarantee you’ll be successful in your endeavor. Should you be fortunate enough to establish your business you then have to face extortion from one of our infamous gangs. Our infrastructure is still mostly in the 19th or early 20th century. If something goes wrong in your enterprise, do not expect much more than sympathy and “that’s the way it goes” from anyone.
July 30, 2016
Margarita and I are living in our third rented home. I have been waiting for well over two years for my Naturalized Citizen documents. This is in violation of my constitutional rights and keeps me from enjoying what they consider privileges of citizenship. Oh, my medical care is free and I can’t complain about the service. But I can’t vote, own property, buy a vehicle in my name or get a license to drive.
Of the four children we had when we married six years ago, our oldest son, Juan, was murdered in cold blood on his job by the gangs. María and Milton are married and have given us an adorable granddaughter. Luís is now 14 and paralyzed with fear after his brother’s murder. Adriana is 12. She gets good grades in school and studies ballet on Saturdays. We have a good landlord and enough property on the lot to keep 30 chickens for meat and eggs. We have a year-‘round garden that keeps us in tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, frijoles, chili peppers, peppermint, radishes and herbs. We also have potted plants and flowers. It’s an ideal life for a retired gentleman and his industrious country-girl wife.
My aged legs and a hernia have kept me from my erstwhile routine of distance bicycling and working out in the park three or four days a week for over a year. That leaves a lot of time to be bored and angry for not having my citizenship, missing out on a nice payday at the now cancelled “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, and not having at least a motorcycle so I can enjoy this beautiful country. Since I can’t legally work at a legitimate job like teaching, I can’t really do most of the things I used to do during my first three years here. I fear succumbing to physical and mental atrophy from a lack of using my muscles or my brain.
The current presidential campaign in the U.S. has been very emotional for me. Although I’ve lived in El Salvador now for over eight consecutive years, I’ve been part of this country since 2003. But I am an American and a concerned voter. But I can’t share the essence of my feelings with my dear wife because she has a 3rd grade Salvadoran education and knows nothing of U.S. history or our political process. It’s different here. We use U.S. currency but people don’t know who George Washington is let alone Sacajawea and her story. How can I explain our fear of a Trump victory when Central Americans have been living with their own Trumps since the Spaniards arrived in 1522? My excitement over a woman being nominated for the presidency doesn’t resonate in a region which is used to female heads of state. She related to my cheers and tears while I watched the Democratic National Convention like I would if she were to be filled in on the latest adventures of Disney Channel’s “Soy Luna”.
My life is not what I anticipated it would be in so many ways. But I’m here for the duration. At eighty and with strange things happening to my athletic body and my MENSA qualified brain, I don’t know if my maternal longevity genes will sustain my life to where I can see my daughter achieve her dreams…and mine for her.
My little part of El Salvador has seen economic improvement during my residency here. The “poor” aren’t quite as poor. Everyone has a cell phone. TV dish antennas soar over shabby hovels. The women are exceedingly fat, a condition which begins at childhood and which expands with each addition to the family. Men find work enough to sustain their families. Lots of new businesses have popped up and even modernized along our stretch of highway and in our “downtown” center. The mayor provides fiestas and expositions to keep us amused and well fed when they occur. He’s improving our streets as funds become available…although they deteriorate at the same rate as always. New colonies are being carved out of the hillsides and uncultivated land. Our teenage girls are flooding the local clinic for prenatal and postnatal care. Babies having babies. El Refugio isn’t under the same threats as other municipalities from gang violence. But we do hear from time to time of a murder in the more rural areas. Established neighborhood homes are continually being improved. Partially built homes are finally being finished as money comes in from the U.S. from family members working there. Vacant lots heretofore used for cultivating corn and beans are now seeing new construction started. Our police now have a new four-door pickup truck with seats in the bed for extra passengers. Our town has met the national standard for literacy among adults. So we’re not doing too badly for an under developed little nation.
The government seems to be finally putting the gang leaders where they belong. The Attorney General seems to be fighting corruption in both national and municipal governments. The gangs seem to be on the defensive or running to other countries. I say “seem to be” because we don’t get all the news from our media. We’ve had reporters and journalists forced to resign because they asked the “wrong” questions of the “right” people.
So as long as I can, my mission will be to provide for my family and share my small bounty with others. I will do my best to teach my precious daughter how to change her life view from that of her predecessors to one more in line with contemporary thinking in the modern world. I know I can’t answer all the questions, not my own, not my wife’s and not my daughter’s. But I’m going to do my best to try.