Youth Activism El Salvador: Through Baking and Radio Waves
One of the highlights of my trip down to El Salvador was linking with youth who were empowered by their communities to create self-sustainable methods of supporting themselves and/or their activism. I traveled around El Salvador as an adult adviser to the high-school Youth Delegation of the River Road Unitarian Universalists (which included fifteen youth and three adults). Almost every community we visited had cooperative style businesses and non-profits, hence, the youth in these communities also adopted this business/organization styles. Two of my favorite learning experiences in El Salvador were about youth driven initiatives that exemplify the different ways youth embrace independence and expression.
Las Marias, El Salvador
The community cooperative of Las Marias in El Salvador (which produces incredible coffee) empowered it’s youth by helping them create a youth operated bakery called Pan de Vida (Bread of Life). The youth wake up every morning at 8am to make pastelles, pan, cookies and other delicious items. I spent a day baking with them and my teen companion Teresa. The youth are 14-26 year olds, however, sometimes younger siblings and cousins will also show up to help out or just to chill. I don’t know about you, but when I was younger there was no way I would be awake at 8am to chill at my cousin’s work place. Pan de Vida had obviously become an meaningful communal business for youth to congregate around to help them express their independence.
The community held a number of group dialogues with the youth before raising them money to buy the bakery equipment and helping them establish a business clientele. They bought an oven that runs on a propane gas tank and the bare essentials of baking.
In fact working with them made me realize how they maximized the use of items that I thought were essential, but to them weren’t very important at all i.e. we never used bowls or spatulas to mix ingredients, instead we used a table and our hands. This would be considered an unorthodox way of baking in the U.S. and even gave me pause initially as I wasn’t sure how sanitized the table was for baking. But, I realized that this is the traditional method of cooking that most of the third world uses and perhaps better? Also, people in this community were used to the food they ate, so they didn’t have upset stomachs. Later on when I tried what I baked the taste was heavenly and my stomach grumbled in delight without getting sick.
Teresa and I were taught several different recipes some using simple cookie and bread making recipes with flavors including pineapple and vanilla. We laughed around the table while kneading dough, some of the youth gossiped in Spanish and the others were making fun of each other. One of the youth I met told me he owns a family bakery, that he inherited from his mother in one of the larger neighboring towns and he also showed me old bullet wounds he had on his body, one notably on his skull. I asked him how he was shot and he just shrugged his shoulders and changed the subject. It left me speculating for a while and I realized he had traveled to Las Marias to teach the youth new baking recipes to increase their diversity of their products. It seemed like whatever troubles he had in the past, he had moved beyond them and onto a new direction in his life using baking as his inspiration to nurture and teach others.
Being up on our feet for six hours making breads and cookies was hard work! I was exhausted and ready to go back up the mountain to take a nap on my family hammock. It was absolutely rewarding seeing the products of our work at the end. We bagged three-four pieces of pastries, bread and cookies in plastic zip lock bags. They sold each bag for 1-2 dollars. I ended the day with buying fours bags for my host familia who was always giving me delicious organic veggies and honey from their small garden.
Radio Victoria, El Salvador
In comparison, Radio Victoria was a collaborative of youth using communication as a means to raise awareness of political and social issues in their surrounding community. The station is named after the town of Victoria in the North of El Salvador. Youth involved in working at Radio Victoria are around the ages of 16-24 and were returning refugees after the long civil war had forced them to flee to Honduras during 1980-1992. The youth initiated Radio Victoria in partnership with the Association of Economic and Social Development (ADES) and other allies to create the station originally in the community of Santa Marta where ADES was headquartered, until they relocated to the town of Victoria.
We stayed in Santa Marta for a few days, the community was larger and different from Las Marias. There’s a large public school in the middle of the community, where River Road UU’s had funded a computer classroom. There was also a public clinic with free health care provided to the community and volunteer med students visiting for short times. It was strange to see little blond and blue-eyed children running around town. I asked one of the women I had been speaking to about the kids being tourists and they informed me that they weren’t tourists, they were Salvadoran children of single mothers who had affairs/relationships with foreign visitors in the community. The same mothers had told us stories of massacres at Santa Marta and the hurdles of being a refugee in neighboring Honduras and migrating back to Guatemala. It was a strange community — not rich, definitely living in poor surroundings, but heavily influenced by tourism. There were some houses that have family members in the U.S. who send money back. That money was used by the families to build around and upon their little aluminum roof houses. They blasted radio music on their big boom boxes and had barricaded their homes in large concrete fences while right next door there was a family of six living in a two bedroom tin roof hut. This made me question the influence of volunteer tourism and foreign aid. Yet, some positive influence that adds balance to the community are the incredible youth who found strength from their adults to create a community voice through Radio Victoria, especially as they live in an area with scant news sources.
It was amazing to see what the youth had created with a small budget and smaller resources. We were shown around the radio station, while they gave us a low down on what’s been going on around the community recently. They’re all dedicated activists encouraging other youth in their community to embrace the power of expressing themselves by speaking on a diversity of issues from conversations on AIDS and health to political analysis of the effects of mining on Victoria’s environment and economy. Local youth groups and organizations also have shows they present around these issues weekly.
More recently, because of Radio Victoria’s success in connecting the community and increasing political awareness, the station and its youth have been receiving threats by death squads usually hired by groups that aren’t too thrilled by the negative attention and protests that they’re facing. I posted an earlier blog entry with the e-mail of Don Chery who was one of the three adult supervisors that went to El Salvador with the River Road Unitarian Universalist Youth Delegation. He describes the threats and problems Radio Victoria has had to face for its news reporting, here.
Las Marias, Santa Marta and Victoria have volunteer opportunities if you’re interested in traveling to El Salvador. Radio Victoria has more information on their website about volunteer opportunities. For opportunities to travel to Las Marias and Santa Marta, contact Companion Community Development Alternatives (CoCoDA) who organizes trips to these communities.