Ana Vargas’s lessons about El Salvador’s history really hit home when she heard about the nation’s civil war from the lips of a former guerrilla fighter during an Alternative Winter Break service-learning trip to the Central American country.

“It’s one thing to read the story of violence and pain from text in an article and another to see it displayed in a museum; to meet a guerrilla,” said Vargas. “You realize that this part of history is very much alive for the people of El Salvador."

Vargas was among a delegation of 20 students, staff, and faculty who traveled through El Salvador in January, retracing the steps of the late Congressman John Joseph “Joe” Moakley and helping to build two homes through Habitat for Humanity.

As the Congressional investigator of the murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, Moakley helped bring peace to a nation wracked by 12 years of civil war, ending in 1992

Moakley name opens doors

"People would recognize the name Joe Moakley even 20 years after his work in El Salvador, and because of our connection with him, we would be immediately welcome," said Tim Albers, assistant director of service learning and an Alternative Winter Break delegate. "By learning about the work Joe Moakley did, you begin to realize that that piece of Salvadoran history is also our history.”

During the fall semester, the students had learned about the history of El Salvador, from the era of the conquistadors through the present. They also participated in a series of service efforts, which included fund-raising for Salvadoran flood victims and soliciting donations to benefit the families and communities they would visit in El Salvador.

Once they reached El Salvador, they toured political and historical centers in the capital, San Salvador, building a foundation of knowledge to help them understand what to expect in the smaller communities they would visit.

"Vivid, wonderful stories"

"What touched me the most were the stories,” said student Careese Peters, “I have never heard such vivid, wonderful stories.”

From San Salvador, the group traveled to Suchitoto, Cuscatlan. There they found a home with Sister Peggy O'Neill at Centro Arte Para La Paz, an organization that promotes a culture of peace through the arts. Days were spent laying the foundations for two houses, working with and learning from skilled masons. The group befriended the families who will live in the houses and spent free time playing soccer with local youth, learning Spanish, and reflecting on daily activities.

“We heard testimonials from massacre survivors and those who spent their childhoods in the darkness of a violent armed conflict,” said Vargas.

A six-hour hike up Guzapa Mountain gave the group a feel for the journey many Salvadorans took to reach safety during the war.

“I left my heart in El Salvador," said student Thay Thao, who called the trip “nothing short of a life-changing experience.”

“I will never forget the people we encountered in El Salvador,” said Peters. “After all they have struggled through, they are still the most welcoming individuals I have ever met."

The Moakley Institute at Suffolk University and Suffolk’s Organization for Uplifting Lives through Service, or S.O.U.L.S., have co-sponsored service-learning trips to El Salvador since 2007.