January 26, 2015 by Debra Gittler

TWO EL SALVADORS

Las week, Roberto Valencia from ElFaro.net, a widely awarded on-line newspaper covering issues effecting Salvadorans, published “Letter from the Underworld.”

Valencia published a letter from a local who asked (or perhaps better said: derided) the Spanish journalist for staying in a country that so many desperately hope to leave.

Valencia wrote a stunning response, in Spanish, about the two El Salvadors: the one that that flourishes in the “underworld” versus the one that Valencia—and I—enjoy. Both are difficult places; but ours is so much easier…

In my El Salvador, fear is discussed but rarely experienced. In my circles, people complain of stolen phones and robbed hubcaps. They’re terrified to walk or park on the street because of the violence they’ve read in the papers or heard in rumors. In my circle, most people profess of violence committed against a friend of a friend. In my circles, most people tell of the violence that their maids and drivers reveal. In my circles, fear is real, but violence is rare.

We don’t walk freely because of that violence. We drive to malls adorned in elite international stores, to the supermarket adorned in US prices. We drive to cross the street or go down the block. We drive everywhere. We don’t enjoy shared public spaces, we don’t use public spaces for fear of who else might be there.

In my El Salvador, labor is cheap and the quality is inferior—it’s expected to have at least one maid, and maybe more and maybe also a driver and maybe also a gardener.

In my El Salvador, we complain about poor service and agents who don’t have the right answer. We frustrate at the lack of efficiency and shake our heads as people throw garbage from their car windows and busses spew thick black exhaust. “No one respects the rules,” we mutter. Does anyone even know what the rules are?

My El Salvador is a country of beautiful panoramas, where every landscape is only an arms-length away. Just 30-minutes to the beach, where a dozen oysters and 6-beers cost only $12. Only 15-minutes to an elegant meal atop the volcano. Only an hour to a crater-lake, the perimeter crowded by private luxury residences.

When I’m in the States, people often ask: aren’t you afraid? They’ve read about the violence, the poverty. I always reply with the same: El Salvador is a terrible place if you’re poor. I live incredibly well—far better than I could in the States. Sure, I sacrifice, too: I can’t walk freely, cultural events are limited (theater, film, dance, food… these are things to be missed!), the notion that you “can do anything when you grow up” doesn’t exist.

In my El Salvador, I am afraid. But not for myself. I’m afraid for the people we serve and the people who work for/with me. I’m afraid for the future. I’m afraid of getting stuck here, and I’m afraid of leaving.

More than afraid, I get annoyed. Annoyed at governments that don’t perform, at traffic that doesn’t move, at citizens who don’t obey, at workers who don’t know their responsibilities. I get annoyed that solutions that seem obvious and easy are ignored.

In The Letter from the Underworld, the writer asks why a foreigner who could leave would stay…

I ask myself the same: why stay in a place that’s so complicated? Why be so far from my family to be here?

In the States, there are thousands of people like me, with my education and background and profile, working to make things better. To make schools better.

Here in El Salvador, one reason to leave—terrible schools—has become my opportunity.

How could I possibly leave?

Debra Gittler
Founder and Executive Director

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