Olga Bonfiglio
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A shoeless boy wearily weaves his way down the street, alone, in a limp pair of soiled shorts and a torn T-shirt. Heaps of trash pile up on vacant corners and in the grassy medians of the citys streets. Dogs of many breeds, some of them obviously sick with disease, listlessly amble around the neighborhood, avoiding strutting roosters and a mother hen with her perky, curious chicks. Near a busy community laundry, a shabby, dazed young man sits slumped over. As the women scrub clothes, he cuddles a greasy white plastic canister of glue, his nose stuck down as deep in it as his face will allow.

It is dark at 6 p.m. here in La Chacra, one of the poorest neighborhoods in San Salvador, capital city of El Salvador, and by 8 p.m. the streets are deserted. The communitys 30,000 residents close up their shops and lock the doors of their homes to secure themselves against the vagrancies of warring youth gangs.

Yet the darkness of the night and the situation here does not deter the ninth-grade graduation ceremony at Maria Madre de los Pobres (Mary, Mother of the Poor), the neighborhood parish. On a balmy Tuesday evening last November, 17 night school students proudly accepted their certificates of achievement at a ceremony held in their honor and then enjoyed a meal of chicken, rice, beans and salad, followed by a delicious banana and pineapple layer cake.

Gloria, age 26 and the mother of three children, has worked for this moment for the past six years. She plans to continue her education through to university. Chino, a former gang member and drug addict, grins modestly as he thanks classmates and teachers who cheer him on for his accomplishment. These students and their classmates are the future of El Salvador. On average, Salvadorans receive 5.5 years of education. An estimated 20 percent of the country is illiterate; functional illiteracythe inability to understand and/or use written language in everyday lifestands much higher. Most of the elderly cannot read at all. High school graduates, on the other hand, have the skills to work in shops and offices. If they go on to the university, they can become teachers, translators, businesspeople, health care workers, doctors, lawyers, professors, priests and middle-class parents.

Looking for a Way Out

In a recent study by the University of Central America in San Salvador, 42 percent of Salvadorans said they would leave their country to go to the United States if they had the chance. In a country of 7 million, 40 percent to 50 percent are unemployed or underemployed; many earn only $1 to $3 a day, and estimates suggest that hundreds of Salvadorans struggle daily to cross into El Norte to join 2 million of their countrymen. Some pay $6,000 to $7,000 for a coyotes help (plus heavy interest), usually with a down payment of half that amount that guarantees them two or three attempts to cross the border. They put up their land, farms and houses as collateral, knowing that even if they make it to the United States, they face being separated from their families for an unforeseeable length of time.

Wanting their country to look good after getting such bad press during the civil war in the 1980s, Arena, the party that controls the current right-wing government of El Salvador, denies that the country has a poverty problem. It also promises to improve health and education but then fails to follow through. Consequently funds that poured in from abroad during and after those terrible war years are drying up as needs elsewhere in the world take priority. Before the war, 14 families of El Salvador owned most of the countrys wealth. Today just eight families dominate the privatization of the countrys resources and broker trade agreements like the Central American Free Trade Agreement (Cafta).

Living next to the polluted Rio Acelhuate, many of the 2.2 million residents of San Salvador suffer gastrointestinal problems from parasites, as well as the ailments caused by poverty: dermatitis and fungus caused by wet feet and close contact with garbage, diabetes, arthritis and hypertension. Upper respiratory diseases are also prevalent. A thick, black cloud constantly hovers over this capital city from diesel-powered emissions from cars and buses. At rush hour one can hardly breathe the air. Even the rain offers no relief.

Signs of Hope

Yet all is not lost. Twenty years ago, Maria Madre de los Pobres Parish built a clinic in La Chacra. Today it provides dental, eye and gynecological care for 1,200 people each month. It also has a laboratory, a pharmacy, a health promotion program and a kitchen that serves breakfast and lunch. And the parish has been blessed with outstanding leaders. Zoila, one of the founders of the parish, started an orphanage for eight children during the war. In 1989, when the parish found itself in the middle of a combat zone, she managed a refugee camp of 150 people. Today Zoila administers the parishs godparenting program for about 1,000 preschool and elementary school children, and she recently started a social program in which the elderly meet to sew quilts, make toys and converse over coffee and lunch.

Some Americans feel a special duty to help the Salvadorans because of the financial support (more than $6 billion dollars) the U.S. government gave to the right-wing Salvadoran government during the civil war. Sister Patty Rogucki, for example, is an American who has donated her time and talents here over the past 17 years. During the war, the five-foot, 90-pound nun served as a bodyguard for Father Daniel, the first parish priest at Madre. Today she conducts Bible study classes and makes paper clowns for preschool children. She also helps to support womens business start-ups by providing them with small loans, literacy and accounting skills and a new perspective that will help them build a sense of dignity against sexual harassment and abuse from men.

Today, however, Catholics comprise only 55 percent of the Salvadoran population. Many people avoid association with the church to protect themselves. Before and during the war, Catholic priests and campesinos preaching a theology of liberation and justice were frequent targets for disappearance and murder. In 1989 six Jesuit priests from the University of Central America in San Salvador, along with their cook and her daughter, were murdered execution-style by the government for teaching students about liberating themselves from the oppression of the rich. Others have left the church because they are discouraged by ultraconservative Catholic bishops who continuously try to stifle activism.

This year on the night of the vigil remembering the Jesuits killed at the university, people marched double-file around the perimeter of the campus in candlelight, then gathered for an outdoor Mass in one of the grassy open areas of the campus. Spirits were so high that even torrential summer rains did not discourage people from staying for the two-hour liturgy or from receiving the slightly wet and stuck-together hosts distributed by 30 drenched concelebrating priests. The rain proved a blessing by bringing people even closer together under tarps and umbrellas. The celebration then continued for another seven hours with food tents, games and music.

On the actual date of the murders, Nov. 16, a smaller, more formal Mass was held. Again the rain ruined the outdoor setting, but organizers hustled everyone into the memorial chapel of the Romero Center, where the tombs of the martyrs were in full view, their execution site just outside. The Mass was a profound witness of remembrance and sacrifice, joined with hope in the future.

One source of hope in El Salvador continues to be Archbishop Oscar Romero, another martyr, who was killed on March 24, 1980, as the guns of civil war were gathering. He had just given his homily at a Mass for three murdered Salvadorans, having urged an end to the disappearances and killings of priests and poor peasant farmers. During Romeros last days he mused about the future of his country. If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people, he believed.

Today it is evident that Romeros hope for El Salvador does indeed reside in the people. Through their suffering and poverty, the Salvadorans exemplify the strength to be found in community, the faithful endurance of a people committed to a cause, the power of love and forgiveness, and the charge that Jesus gives to all of us: to make life in this world beautiful, bountiful and just for everyone, especially the least of our brothers and sisters.

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor in the education dept. at KalamazooCollege in Kalamazoo, Mich., and the author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq.