What I’ve Learned from El Salvador by Maria Vazquez-Smith

by Mark Chmiel

since August 2011

1. I learned that life is unpredictable and cannot be controlled.

2. I learned that there is a wide, visible gap between life in the United States and life in the many developing countries around the world.

3. I learned that Spanish is easier to learn when trying to make friends, though still intimidating at times. I learned it is easier and dare I say, actually fun, to learn Spanish when talking sweetly to your life’s forever flame. I learned it is very frustrating to learn Spanish when trying to put the “right” words together to share something difficult, frustrating, deeply personal or confusing. It is equally as frustrating to learn Spanish when unable to understand someone’s deeply personal testimony or sharing of emotions, and also jokes. Man, I know I have missed some good jokes shared in Spanish.

4. I learned, just as Jim “Jaime” Lochhead told me before I left, that it really didn’t matter how bad my Spanish was. I still came back changed, re-arranged and broken in the best way.

5. I learned that lines can be blurred and borders are only imaginary. Deysi’s brother lives in Texas, probably not too far from my own family members. William has a family member in or around the DMV. Rosa’s daughter and I surely have walked the same streets in Baltimore.

6. Emotional vulnerability is the greatest gift you can give. It is also one of the riskiest moves to make and has to be earned by the receiver.

7. Those who are economically disadvantaged due to global systems of injustice and inequality often don’t have a choice in being vulnerable, they are born into it.

8. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Every single person on this earth has a story and it’s often a combination of tragic and triumphant. Yes, even that group of 24, mostly white, almost all wealthy, U.S. students studying abroad alongside me had one. And it wasn’t often pretty.

9. Courage can come out in mysterious ways, some obvious to all, others obvious only to the beholder.

10. Strength is relative. I have the strength to feed myself, type and paint, but I am also an able-bodied person. Yovani had the strength to feed himself, type and paint – but it required him to control his arms and mouth muscles with precision, while simultaneously calculating the angle of his spoon to mouth, pencil to keyboard and brush to canvas.

11. We cannot hold time still, even if we try. Life goes on, for better or for worse. Often both.

12. Some secrets are safer left unshared.

13. Natural disasters reek much greater horror and havoc on the world’s poor and vulnerable.

14. Sometimes, there are no words. Sometimes, we are not yet ready to answer the difficult questions. Sometimes, it’s too soon to ask them.

15. Life happens here, it arrives and departs, just as it does everywhere. When I met Deysi for the first time, her first granddaughter had just been born. When I saw Deysi last, her first born son had just died.

16. Pick-up rides are fun and freeing and can happen in my grandparent’s hometown of Flatonia, Texas or in my spouse’s hometown of Canton La Comunidad, La Paz.

17. The United States military has a complicated history in and around the world, and even my grandfathers, both career Army colonels who served in Vietnam, can admit to that.

18. El Salvador’s Civil War divided the country in many ways and was spurred by stark inequality and decades of repression. Funds from the US fueled evil. Death and disappearances were felt on both sides. Yovani’s father, Antonio, was a poor, young man when recruited by the Salvadoran army, just as so many poor, young man and woman are recruited by the U.S. army. Many other campesinos, like Heidy’s father of Chalatenango, fought with the FLMN against the Salvadoran army as a guerilla fighter. Saul’s now deceased aunt, tia Illuminada, wished that she could have fought, but had to stay at home to care for her young children. Saul’s grandmother remembers giving the soldiers food as they passed through their town.

19. Most Salvadorans don’t have the educational opportunity to learn about the atrocities that took place in their own country during the war, including La masacre de El Mozote.

20. About 6 million Salvadorans actually live in El Salvador, another 2 million live in the U.S.

21. Monsignor Oscar Romero was always a saint.

22. Humility is a virtue. And many Salvadorans embody it.

23. It’s “guerrilla fighter” not “gorilla fighter” … the term refers to people, not animals.

24. Salvadoran immigrants to the U.S. may actually end up serving in the United States military, for lack of educational opportunities and for the inability to provide for themselves and their families.

25. “and it goes on and on and on…”