In two days I will be going to El Salvador. It has been 21 years almost to the day since I first arrived there. For the first time since the civil war ended in 1991, and the leftist insurgency disarmed and morphed into an electoral party, its candidate, Mauricio Funes, has a serious shot at winning the presidential election on March 15.
photo by Adam Kufeld
In March 1988 I stepped off a bus from Guatemala City into the searing heat of a San Salvador summer day. I had been traveling for six weeks through Mexico and Guatemala, on my way to start work with a Salvadoran church tied to the progressive movement. I had been following a pretty standard backpacker trail south up to that point, had not been living a particularly saintly life, and in fact I had just been holed up with the stoners at the somewhat infamous Pension Meza in Guatemala City. I felt as if the ganja were still clinging to my clothes, especially as we approached the border.
In reality it had taken me not six weeks but several years to get to this border. Once I decided to go to Central America, in the early 1980s, to take a stand against Reagan-era sabre-rattling aimed at El Salvador’s neighbor to the south, revolutionary Nicaragua, I had to find a volunteer organization that would take me, and take me for more a couple of weeks on a fact-finding tour. The Peace Corps worked only in the countries that were firmly in the US orbit, Honduras and Guatemala. I could find only a couple of US organizations run by pacifist churches like the Mennonites that had a policy of placing lay people for a year or more in that part of the world.
I had been raised with a strong distrust of religious dogma and had never been drawn to any institutional religion. My grandparents were early bohemians who believed in some kind of funky spiritualism, my father was an avowed atheist. So it was really odd for me to find that once the long period of searching and preparation was over, I was going to El Salvador backed by a little Anabaptist sect called the Church of the Brethren, and I was going to be working for a Baptist Church there.
It was a rough mix: I’d been immersed in the late 70s punk scene, dropped out of my freethinking liberal arts college, drifted around Europe and the Middle East for three years, lived in bohemian poverty amid the drugstore cowboys, scenesters and wannabe poets in New York City — and now I had just spent the last year being prepared for my job by living with people who prayed over their food.
The person most responsible for sending me to El Salvador was a woman named Yvonne Dilling. She had been a Brethren volunteer in Honduras in 1981 when thousands of Salvadoran refugees began flooding across the border, fleeing US-backed counter-insurgency massacres dedicated to exterminating a recently formed armed guerrilla force, the FMLN.
Yvonne had been radicalized by her experience and had written a book about it: In Search of Refuge. She was the first of a series of deeply religious people I got to know who seemed to hate US hegemony as much as I did, and to understand its workings more deeply, in terms of the destruction of actual lives and dreams. I had already heard something about liberation theology, but my real role models were the radical Americans who went to Spain to fight to defend a revolutionary government against a fascist insurgency in the 1930s, the Abraham Lincoln Brigades.
I began to see however, that the religious left had a degree of personal commitment that was just as admirable, if more mysterious to me. There were already other amazing first-hand stories, from El Salvador itself, of what they called witnessing or accompaniment — which meant the rejection of their own privilege to join powerless people in their struggles to achieve dignity through collective action. One was Quaker doctor Charlie Clements’ book Witness to War, about his work in one of the guerrilla zones, another was the story of Jean Donovan, assassinated by Salvadoran death squads along with three US nuns with whom she lived and worked, chronicled in the book Roses in December.
Anyway, to make a long story short(er) Yvonne placed me first with a Baptist Church in Seattle that had taken the radical step of sheltering undocumented refugees from the Salvadoran war, which by 1987 was full-blown, and then one of the pastors of that church suggested I work as a volunteer in their Salvadoran sister church, which had taken in war orphans, spoken out against government repression, and lost one of its pastors to the death squads while another fled into exile.
And now, although I felt like a strange missionary, I was crossing a border (with, it seemed, no serious concern on the part of the authorities), rolling past coffee plantations, watching volcanos rear up out of the bus windows, stepping off the bus into a crowded, chaotic, diesel-blackened, open shed of a terminal, eyeing cement block walls covered with graffiti: Viva el FMLN! No a la represion! No al imperialismo yanqui! I was not in my hippie backpacker Kansas anymore.
And there was a slight, smiling, soft-voiced, large-eyed man, Hermano Pedro, waving at me and welcoming me. I must have been easy to pick out. And my new life began.