Who are these men, with lines around the eyes, who spend so much time laughing, and who are in El Salvador to monitor the election?
He was born in Ahuachapan, in Zacatecoluca, in Chalatenango. At age 14 he was already involved, already at risk. He was a student organizer, or unions, a known critic of the repressive military government. His safety was uncertain, then gone.
So he fled his homeland, left his family, and said goodbye to his friends. He followed The Dream to America, though not necessarily with starry eyes.
He arrived. He studied and worked, adapted and remembered, earned and learned. He became an American, on paper, in philosophy, and in expectations. But roots go deep. He has family here, friends, memories, heritage. And now his birth country needs him.
So he’s come back.
“I am an American,” he tells me. “I live there and love that country, but in my heart, I am a Salvadoreño too. I am both. I know all the tricks they can do, and now I can help, better than before, because now I am protected. I am an American now, and the embassy protects me, so they cannot come kill me now.”
He has a job in Los Angeles, in Chicago, in New York. His family lives with him in Vancouver, in Madrid, in Sydney. He could have stayed there, safe, watching the news on TV and clucking his tongue while he shook his head. But he bought tickets, reserved hotel rooms, and tomorrow will be at a polling place, laminated credential around his neck, a shield against the brutality he fears might still lurk in this troubled land. He is a target for those who would rig the election, or discredit the party that invited his delegation.
But he wants a fair election in his country. That is why he is here.
Tonight I learned more about the men who have surrounded me for the past few days, their laughter nearly nonstop. J was captured by the military government and tortured. He is not the only one. “I was luckier than he was,” he gestures to the man across from me, “I was captured later in the 1980s, when the Right-wing government was pretending to be modern and civilized, so they were not allowed to torture me to death. They only did the things to me that they are doing to the Taliban now in Guantanamo. Water-boarding, darkness, this type of thing.”
E is the cousin of a priest who was assassinated. He tells me briefly about the man. L eventually speaks of the PTSD that still haunts him, years after he last put down the gun. PTSD. I hear that phrase from several mouths, and see it repeatedly in wounded eyes. There was war in this country, nothing nice about it.
But there is variety in their stories.
JP says “I am (center-right political party) by belief, and I never thought I would be helping a Leftist party like this one (the FMLN). But when I saw the changes they were making, the reforms and the progress in my country, I said ‘Wait a minute, I have to help this.’”
R leans forward as he tells me “This country cannot move forward if we continue to think in the same ways. We have learned many things in America, about Democracy, about government, about business, and now we must bring these ideas to El Salvador to advance this country.”
He tells me about the castor bean plantation he is working towards. “The oil is used in over 700 different business, including the airplanes.” He could also list soaps, lubricants, hydraulic and brake fluids, paints, dyes, coatings, inks, cold resistant plastics, waves and polishes, nylon, pharmaceuticals, and perfumes. “This was not possible before, but now, it is. And that is why we must have fair, honest, transparent elections. And that is why I am here.”
No one knows what the election tomorrow will bring. Already there were reports of assaults against delegates, and three buses of El Salvadorans living in Belize have apparently been detained by the Guatemalan authorities, who are seen as complicit with the opposition party.
But as we sit under towering bamboo, on a night so soft it feels like a country’s gratitude, there is optimism, enthusiasm, and good lord, so much laughter.
E leans over and offers me a green mango. “Here amigo, eat this, maybe it will help your Spanish and you will get our jokes.” The others find this hilarious, and I’m laughing too as I take the fruit from my friend.