Students came face-to-face with the concepts they had been studying in a Conflict & Reconciliation course during a trip to El Salvador, and they were welcomed as “part of the family” who will live in a house they helped build.

Jose Toledo and Salvadoran boy who will live in house students helped buildThe students met with survivors of the Salvadoran civil war of 1979-1992 and visited memorials to its martyrs before joining a Habitat for Humanity project in the colonial town of Suchitoto during the University’s tenth Alternative Winter Break service-learning experience in El Salvador.

Their semester-long Government Department course, taught by Professor Roberto Dominguez, had provided the students with an understanding of civil war and its repercussions. Some class sessions were shared with students embarked on a service-learning trip to Vietnam, which, like El Salvador, was once embroiled in a civil war that involved the United States.

Making history "real"

“As a history major, I’m used to learning in class and through books, but this is first time I got to see firsthand the results of historic events, said senior Samuel Zeiberg. “Hearing survivors’ stories made it real.”

Zeiberg also enjoyed working alongside the family who will live in the house whose foundation they dug. The family includes two little boys, who often were on site, and neighbors also came by to help out.

“The family we were helping build the house for repeatedly told us that we are a part of their family and always will be,” said Priscilla Rivera, the student leader for the trip. “The people we met along the way are so strong and have made such an impact. Coming from a low-income family, I sometimes forget that there are people who wish they could have what I have.”

The students wrote papers on topics they explored through the course and through primary research in El Salvador. The following excerpts from some of their papers give a snapshot of the Central American country and the challenges and opportunities it faces 24 years after the war’s end:

“Religion in El Salvador,” Kelly McCarron

“Being in the community allowed me to witness some of the nuances of the culture that you can’t find in books. A strong faith seemed to be present in a way that I haven’t seen in America.

“Copapayo was the site of a massacre during the Civil War. While there we heard the testimonies of Mercedes and Rogelio…. After watching U.S.-Army-trained Salvadoran troops kill most of the civilians [Rogelio], along with the rest of the survivors, was led on a march, all were eventually killed except for Rogelio, who was only 11 years old at the time.

“Rogelio had met with a psychologist only three times. With the lack of mental health services it seemed to me as if Rogelio, like others, turned to God for healing.

‘On our last day there we had a celebration with the family. The mother, Anna Cecelia, thanked God for sending us there to help and for the chance to have a home of her own for her and her family. The fact that Anna Cecilia, and indeed everyone else I encountered, maintained such faithful beliefs after all the country went through was pretty amazing.’

“Feminism in Post-War El Salvador,” Samuel Zeiberg

“It is clear that as of right now El Salvador does not have full gender equality in society and under its laws, though this is something that many grassroots organizations are beginning to change. Organizations like a women’s co-op we visited in Suchitoto are fighting to create wider social and legal change in their society, and in many ways they are continuing the Salvadoran tradition of ordinary citizens actively demanding their rights and using grassroots efforts to achieve them.

“The co-op has been able to work with local church leaders such as Sister Peggy. When we spent time at the museum attached to El Centro Arte Para La Paz we were able to see a whole section devoted to women throughout history, and especially women who made a significant impact in Salvador and Central American history. It was clear from when we visited the museum and from all of the times that we talked with Sister Peggy that she clearly sympathized with the women of the co-op and their goals for equal rights in society.”

 “Tourism in El Salvador,” Jose Toledo

“El Salvador … is magnificent, filled with one-of-a-kind animals, breathtaking lakes, volcanoes that are still active, and some of the best food in the world. However, El Salvador just faced one of its most deadly summers since the civil war. With over 22 deaths a day from July to August, El Salvador was as deadly as Iraq and Syria. El Salvador faces a huge problem with its gang violence.

“If the violence isn’t bad enough, two viruses are [ravaging] the country: the Zika virus and the Chikungunya, both of which are transmitted by mosquito bites, have been affecting the newborn population in El Salvador and severely harming the people who enter the region.

“Laura Bernal‘[a newspaper reporter] spoke to me about the government in El Salvador adding more security to help make the tourists feel safe. She told me there’s a big push to promote tourism in the country.

“I spoke with one of the groups of tourists and found out they were from New York. They told me they were seeking a thrill and felt that this fit their description; they were interested in the culture of the country and its many volcanoes.

“When we got into more rural areas, we began to see … some college groups, which led me to believe they were volunteering since they were in this rural area. This surprised me a bit since Obama had declared it too dangerous for the Peace Corps.

“Sister Peggy told me that a lot of the Americans tend to come to Suchitoto because of its culture, beauty and … that compared to a lot of places in El Salvador Suchitoto was safe and that actually a lot of Americans had houses here, the majority being older people.”

The Alternative Winter Break trip to El Salvador was sponsored by the Center for Community Engagement, the Moakley Archive and Institute and the Government Department.

Suffolk students and Salvadoran colleagues in pickup truck