Letter From El Salvador
Carasque is near the Honduran border and has a population of about 400, making sister "city" an ambitious designation, but Peace through Interamerican Community Action (PICA) in Bangor has furnished, among other things, medicines, school supplies and money for a new soccer field in Carasque. Maria Celina Orellana, who is on the town council and twice the age of the other members, recalls the war in Carasque as freshly as if it had ended last month instead of thirteen years ago. Like many villages in Chalatenango, Carasque favored the FMLN rebels over the central government. "We hated the army," Orellana said. "When the army came to occupy us, the men of Carasque hid farther up in the mountains so they wouldn't be drafted against their will. The Guardia took our pigs and chickens and never paid us. If they asked for your ID and you didn't have it, they beat you. When the Guardia saw a woman walking alone, they would take her up the hill above here and rape her in a group. They would tell her if she talked they'd rip out her tongue." Two of Orellana's sons joined the rebels and were killed.
I asked Orellana if she herself was mistreated. As she answered she looked away, out the window of the enlarged tin-roof hut where the town council meets, and focused on a loofa tree. "We suffered because we had to protect our village." Still avoiding my eyes and continuing to use the first person plural, she said, "We were never safe when the Guardia was around. They were the most cruel. They took our houses, made us sleep outside, stole anything they wanted, made us do whatever they wanted us to do. Always when they were around we felt death in the air."
Orellana and others said there were no paid jobs in Carasque except for schoolteachers. Some of the villagers belong to a sewing cooperative, and they sell tapestries to people in Bangor and elsewhere. The men are almost all farmers, dreading the advent of CAFTA, which they are sure will drive them off the land. "We raise sugar and chickens," Orellana said, "and, yes, my son in Washington, DC, sends money home from his pay as a house painter. But no one sits back and waits here. We have no bums in Carasque." Outside, punctuating what Orellana had just said, three men passed carrying rakes while two women climbed the hill from a stream with green baskets on their heads full of laundry they had just washed. Neither used her hands to steady the baskets, one swinging her arms and the other holding a baby.
In Carasque's only shop, a combination general store and cafe, we ate a friendly fly-buzzed lunch while Kates-Chinoy described his work in Carasque and other villages as "essentially education and political advocacy." His parents spent several years in El Salvador, and his father, Dennis Chinoy, recently published an op-ed in which he argued that under CAFTA public education, fire departments, libraries and even water supplies are all "fair game for privatization." In a worst-case nightmare, remittances to El Salvador could become the intravenous feeding tube keeping a comatose country alive. Even in Carasque, cognitive dissonance lives: As we ate, the shop's television was tuned to a rerun of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in Madison Square Garden with its display of champion borzois, Shih Tzus, corgis and bichons frisés, whose collective grooming costs more than Carasque's citizens see in a year, remittances included. If anyone was offended, there was no sign. As in villages throughout the Third World, Carasque's television seemed to be utilized less for its dramatic or informational possibilities than for its anesthetic properties.
When I returned to San Salvador for an appointment with the former medical student now working as a tour guide, she told me that, at 35, she was already too old to be hired by one of the corporations now dotting the city. As a working mother supporting her son without remittances, she would like at least to be eligible for an office job. "Nothing doing," she said. "These men, they want only young women to look at and to serve them." We were joined by her parents, who had lived for a dozen years in San Francisco. "Machismo is our enemy here," her stately mother said. "It keeps everyone down, the men stupid and the women ignorant. Educate the women and you educate the country."
Meanwhile, security was being beefed up all over the city because the day after I was to leave El Salvador, Condoleezza Rice was coming through on a politicothankyoudiplophoto-op to tell the only Central American country still maintaining troops in Iraq how much its patron appreciated the gesture.