Journey: Learning Beyond the Classroom in El Salvador

It’s hard to wrap your brain around El Salvador.

Even Lonely Planet, which has built an empire writing guides to less traveled roads, seems unsure what direction to take with this country. “Falcons and hawks fill the skies above fabulous food festivals and bomb craters,” the online guide states with awkward cheer. “Friendly locals like to chat, diverting your gaze from the gangs and refugees to beautiful broad valleys.”

On the way to work the last day in El Sitio. Pictured clockwise from left: Franciso Peguero, Jeff Pomponi (hidden), Luis Castillo, Yanitza Medina, Megan Cullen, Dean Grubb, Derek Lomba, Kaitlyn Winegardner, Valerie Gonzalez-Crisci.

Suffolk junior Jeff Pomponi wasn’t quite sure why he decided to go to El Salvador for S.O.U.L.S. Alternative Winter Break. “I just wanted to go somewhere different because I knew over the winter break there wouldn’t be anything to do, and I wanted a change,” he says. “Once I got to El Salvador, I realized I’m supposed to do this …. I had a reason to be there that I didn’t know going in.”

Inspired by a legacy

Over the first two weeks of 2008, Pomponi is one of a dozen Suffolk students and five faculty and staff members living and working in El Sitio, a poor rural town in El Salvador’s mountainous north, trading time at home between semesters for a service learning project far away. Their primary assignment is to complete construction of the Concha Acoustica (acoustic shell), an outdoor stage and arena for community gatherings, before El Sitio’s annual Festival for Peace and Social Justice.

The students have another, larger purpose beyond digging ditches. They are following in the footsteps of the late Massachusetts Congressman Joe Moakley, JD ’56, a Suffolk alumnus who stands at the crossroads of Boston and Salvadoran history.

During the 1980s, as El Salvador was engulfed in a bloody civil war that would claim more than 70,000 lives, Moakley was integral to the enactment of the temporary right of asylum for Salvadoran refugees fleeing the carnage. At the decade’s end, he headed a US commission that investigated the murder of six Jesuit priests in San Salvador in 1989. His conclusion that the military high command ordered the killings led to the elimination of American funding to El Salvador and initiated the process that led to peace.

Making pupusas, the national cuisine of El Salvador. A pupusa is a tortilla filled with beans, cheese, or meat and served with a cole slaw-like topping.

Moakley donated his papers to Suffolk at his death in 2001, and this year’s delegation to El Salvador is part of a continuing effort to keep his legacy alive throughout the University. The trip, sponsored by Suffolk’s Organization for Uplifting Lives through Service (S.O.U.L.S.), builds on the success of a 2007 trip led by the Moakley Institute. Each year, a representative of Suffolk’s Moakley Archive and Institute accompanies a faculty member and students to forge relationships with Salvadoran leaders and to collect oral histories about the Congressman’s life and work.

“I think it is important for the school because one of the big pieces of who we are at Suffolk is giving back to communities—and that doesn’t always mean your own backyard,” says trip participant Jacinda Felix, the director of Suffolk’s Office of Diversity Services. “And because of our connection with Congressman Moakley, it’s important for us to keep this relationship with El Salvador. He really cared about Salvadorans. He fought really hard for them.”

Grappling with a violent past and cautious present
When their plane lands at El Salvador International Airport, the students think they are well prepared for the problems that plague the country, past and present, but the reality is still a surprise. Old European cities have walls around them for protection. San Salvador, the capital, resembles one of those cities turned inside out. The streets around the guest house are lined with high walls, razor wire, steel grates and grills; this city is fortified from within to protect the inhabitants from each other. Even the ice cream parlor has a uniformed guard with a pump-action shotgun standing next to a merry-go-round.

But everyone is too busy with an intense series of meetings for the next three days to feel unsafe. The delegation meets with a Jesuit priest, the president of a business association advocating for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), economists at a liberal think tank with an opposing viewpoint, former guerrillas who sing the students folk songs, and a panel of experts at the US Embassy.

They sit in the chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while saying Mass in 1981. They touch their fingers to the monument inscribed Vietnam-Memorial-style with the names of the war’s nearly 75,000 victims. Marta, their guide, finds the name of her father; she has never been to the wall, and turns away, weeping. It is a whirlwind of learning that lasts every day from breakfast to bedtime.

Students stayed with host families for a week. Long after the trip, they still talk about the children of El Sitio and the bonds they formed with them.

Few comforts, but plenty of chickens
Three days after arriving, they depart for El Sitio, a town 30 miles north of San Salvador.

Half of the rural population in El Salvador, a country the size of Massachusetts, lives below the poverty line; the World Bank draws this line at living on roughly $2 per day. El Sitio fits this demographic. Nearly everyone is a campesino who returned here after the war. The host families are essentially subsistence farmers, growing enough each year to ensure their daily tortillas. The group splits up in pairs to stay with some of the 50 or so families in El Sitio. Each house is simply constructed: two or three cinder block rooms and a corrugated metal roof that overhangs a patio with a concrete cistern for washing. Most houses have a small pack of dogs and large flocks of chickens, ducks, turkeys, and roosters.

“We talked to the students about being comfortable in a different situation. This is not the US. You’re going to a third-world country,” says Felix. “How comfortable are you rolling up your sleeves and sleeping with chickens? Because on some level that’s exactly what we did.”

It is hard travel. Showers are rare, so bathing is done from plastic buckets at a cement tub built alongside every house. Communal meals center around beans and tortillas, and even though the delegation eats with more variety than their hosts, fatigue and intestinal troubles have most students pining for comfort food. Toilets do not flush; they sit over a composting pit and students toss in a scoop of quick lime after each use.

“I was kind of surprised, being somebody who is not afraid of the outdoors, that it actually was difficult to step away from a functioning toilet and [to eat] tortillas and beans every day,” says Jillian Rizzo, a Suffolk junior. “Whether or not you think you can handle it, it was hard to adapt to it.”

One hammer, many hands
Each day, in the bright sun and 90-degree heat, the students walk the half mile to the Concha Acoustica and throw their bodies into the service project. They face two compelling deadlines: not only are they in El Salvador for just two weeks, but on the last day, thousands of people will arrive at the Concha to celebrate the Festival for Peace and Social Justice.

Christina Seibert hauls debris during the clean-up of the Concha Acoustica, "acoustic shell," in preparation for El Sitio's annual Festival for Peace and Social Justice.

Christina Seibert hauls debris during the clean-up of the Concha Acoustica, "acoustic shell," in preparation for El Sitio's annual Festival for Peace and Social Justice

The students split into teams to finish the arena’s enclosing wall and to create concrete posts to hold new gates at the front and back entrances. It is back-breaking work. There are few tools and no power equipment; rakes are made from sticks, brooms assembled from straw and tree branches.

Luis Castillo, a junior history major, is astonished by Salvadoran resourcefulness. “On the whole site there was only one hammer—and it was a raggedy hammer at that—but they put it to use,” he says. “We dug a huge hole using limited tools. All we had was a bar and a shovel and a pickax. We were over there sweating and just working real hard to get the hole big enough to fit the frame for the column.”

Coming together at the Concha
On the morning of the festival, the gates are installed as the last brush fires fill the arena with smoke. One section of wall is not yet complete, but the student crews have accomplished a lot. “I’m really proud of the students. I don’t think some of them have ever done hard manual labor that many days in a row,” says faculty mentor and professor Chris Rodriguez of the history department. “They worked hard. Even when their bodies gave out and they had health issues, their spirits kept going.”

As evening approaches, spirits are rising. Hundreds of Salvadorans from around the country arrive. Vendors set up tables to sell fresh fruit, french fries and fried plantains. There is a brisk business in t-shirts depicting Che Guevara and revolutionary slogans. At the stage, the crowd presses in to hear local folk music, Salvadoran hip hop acts and even two Suffolk students—Luis Castillo and Jeffrey Pomponi—who are invited to perform. Castillo, who is of Dominican descent and speaks fluent Spanish, takes the stage and tells the crowd that because of this trip he is now Salvo-dominicano. They love him.

“I really loved that, because I’m American and they see me as an American, but they also see me as a fellow Hispanic because I speak Spanish and English,” Castillo says. “And I think they really understood my poem … I’m glad that they felt what I had to get across.”

Pomponi, a Suffolk junior and a musician, backs Castillo by playing bluesy riffs on a guitar. “The lead singer of one of the acts was actually the patriarch of my [host] household. He just handed me a guitar. I didn’t even bother to see if it was tuned or not. I just plugged it in and walked on stage,” Pomponi says. “For the next hour I was on a high. My heart was racing and I just enjoyed myself.”

Soon after, fireworks fill the air—a donation from the Suffolk students, who took up a collection to buy them. It is the first time the festival has had fireworks, and the community leaders are pleased with the gesture. They walk through the explosion’s settling smoke and the students say good-bye to as many of their hosts as they can, because in the morning they return to San Salvador at sunrise.

The trip ends, but it is not over
Back in Boston, the students and staff from the delegation are still working for their new friends in El Salvador. They organize a supply drive to gather medical and school materials to ship to El Sitio in May. They send money to Marta, their guide, to pay for English lessons. And they have ambitions to create an endowed scholarship in honor of Moakley that will enable Marta and other young Salvadorans to attend Suffolk from El Sitio and other communities close to the Congressman’s heart.

“You build a connection with people down there. Marta. The families,” says Francisco Peguero, a junior at Suffolk. “I don’t want to be one of those guys who forms that connection but who forgets about it for the rest of his life.”



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