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The War

Posted in Uncategorized on April 6, 2009 by phillipsgarcia

Yesterday at a birthday party for a beautiful, one-year-old baby girl, I was told stories of The War. Growing up in my third-generation Angeleno family, whether coming from the Mexican side or the White, “The War” meant World War II. But now for me, in my world, in my work, in my neighborhood, among my friends, a conversation about “The War” normally involves the 1980s, Central America, and tears.

Yesterday (as most often is the case) it was El Salvador. Familiar words and phrases were used: massacre; soldier; bodies; gunshot; army; interrogation; missing; guerrilla; church; almost; if it weren’t for… 

The grandfather of the birthday girl had heard I went to El Salvador for the presidential elections. We talked briefly about the candidates, the FMLN win, the neighborhood in San Salvador he is from. His reaction to the elections was typical of many Salvadorans in Los Angeles who I’ve talked to, men and women who physically survived The War and who for the past two decades have been trying to survive it spiritually: he was skeptical, cautious, unsure – almost afraid to hope, to dream of a different El Salvador because that dream has been beaten so hard and so long into the ground by post-peace accord corruption, poverty, and gangs. 

We only talked for a few moments at first, then went back to the party, the gifts, the cake. But, later on in the afternoon he found me, and without being questionned or prompted, began his story. He ended it crying.

This election does represent change, and that change has revealed wounds that The War cut sharp and deep, wounds that have been hidden but still seeping beneath the sticky gauze of the status quo. I wasn’t surprised to find out later that his son, my friend, had only recently heard these stories himself – since the election.


Por favor acompáñenos a un tributo al legado del Arzobispo Oscar A. Romero/Please join us at a tribute to the legacy of Archbishop Oscar A. Romero

Posted in Uncategorized on March 26, 2009 by phillipsgarcia

Recordemos Nuestra Historia/Manteniendo Nuestro Legado Vivo
Remembering our History/Keeping our Legacy Alive

Por Favor Acompáñenos a/Please Join us at

Un tributo al legado del Arzobispo Oscar A. Romero/A Tribute to the legacy of Archbishop Oscar A. Romero
29 años después de su asesinato y martirio/29 years after his assassination and martyrdom

March 27, 2009
10:30 am – 12 pm
LA City Hall – Council Chamber and Courtyard
200 N. Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Invitan Los Miembros del Concejo de la Ciudad de Los Ángeles & El Comité de Ciudades Hermana Los Ángeles- San Salvador para conmemorar  su  lucha por defender los derechos humanos de la gente de El Salvador

Invitation extended by the Members of the Los Angeles City Council and the Committee of Sister Cities Los Angeles-San Salvador to commemorate his struggle to defend the human rights of the people of El Salvador

Patrocinado por/Sponsored by:
The Salvadoran American Leadership and Educational Fund (SALEF)
Clínica Oscar Romero
Homies Unidos
Escuela Oscar Romero
Central American Research and Policy Institute (CARPI – Cal State Northridge)
Diálogo Social Abierto Permanente de Los Angeles

“The violence of love”

Posted in Uncategorized on March 25, 2009 by phillipsgarcia

election-day-and-ciudad-arce-0311Yesterday, March 24, 2009 was the 29-year anniversary of the assassination of Monseñor Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. Google his name and you will find countless eloquent and impassioned accounts of his life, his beliefs, his works, his death, his legacy.

I urge you to do this, but I also urge you to listen to Romero’s own words (English, Español), words considered conspiratorial, revolutionary, enough so to get him killed. Romero knew there was a good chance that his teachings and actions would lead to his death. After all, they were modeled after the teachings and actions of his Savior, Jesus Christ.

election-day-and-ciudad-arce-013I visited Romero’s tomb the day after El Salvador’s presidential elections, and looking around at the Cathedral and the streets and square surrounding it, I was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to imagine the massacre of civilian mourners that took place at his funeral.

Downstairs in the crypt where he is buried, a small but steady stream of visitors quietly approached his tomb, took pictures, prayed. One young boy grabbed hold of a posted prayer card, carefully read it, and then spent the next ten minutes explaining the sculpture, the man buried beneath it, the prayer of the people to his friends.

These children are growing up in a new era of Salvadoran history and will have to decide how best to carry on Romero’s legacy. The only violence he ever practiced or preached was the violence of love:

THE VIOLENCE we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred.

It is the violence of love, of brotherhood,

the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.

oscar romero, november 27, 1977





More photos from San José Asuchío

Posted in Uncategorized on March 25, 2009 by phillipsgarcia

Faces of the Frente

Posted in Uncategorized on March 18, 2009 by phillipsgarcia

el-salvador-0181The day before the election, our delegation visited a school funded by La Asociación para la Cooperación y Desarrollo Comunal (CORDES) de El Salvador, a non-governmental institution founded near the end of the civil war. CORDES is dedicated to stepping in and working to solve economic, educational and community health problems unaddressed by the government, particularly in the rural areas hit hardest by the conflict. Projects range from opening access to clean drinking water to building schools and community libraries.

el-salvador-0191The school we visited was located in San José Asuchío, a rural community in the mountains northwest of San Salvador on the road to Santa Ana. 400 children live in this area, but according to the parents and staff we talked to, the ARENA government has not met their needs. In response, they’ve found ways themselves to fill the gaps. CORDES has been one of those mechanisms.

el-salvador-0201San José Asuchío did not have direct access to clean drinking water until 2006; CORDES worked with the community to make access possible. CORDES also provides funding to their school. But CORDES is working in 5 of El Salvador’s districts (states), and can not do it all alone. For instance, San José Asuchío’s  Centro de Atención y Desarrollo Infantil (Child Care and Development Center) services 26 children whose parents pay a symbolic $2 for enrollment. The Center would like to accept more children, but it doesn’t have the money to hire another full-time teacher to handle a larger student population.

el-salvador-0411The children of this school welcomed us with thank you letters and songs. We toured their classroom and their library, and took lots of pictures. Sitting with me in this photo are Michelle (left) and Damaris (right). Michelle’s favorite activity in school is reading, and Damaris loves to draw. They are both very good singers.

el-salvador-0361The parents here are willing to work hard; they’ve already proved that. What they want now is a government that will support their hard work and fulfill its own responsibilities to the public. They believe that an FMLN government will do all this, and so, on election day – they day after we met them – they travelled four hours on foot to Zaragoza to cast their votes. Now that the FMLN has won, they hope to see all the positive changes they’ve hoped for – and they are excited to work with their new government to make those changes happen.

The sponsor of our delegation, the Salvadoran American Leadership and Educational Fund (SALEF) is a non-partisan, non-profit, non-governmental institution. SALEF supports this school through financial donations. If you would like to support it as well, please feel free to contact SALEF.

Fotos del día de la elección

Posted in Uncategorized on March 18, 2009 by phillipsgarcia

Sí se pudo

Posted in Uncategorized on March 16, 2009 by phillipsgarcia

the-vote-1002At 5 pm yesterday evening, I found myself inside the Feria Internacional, El Salvador’s largest polling center. As instructed by Carlos Vaquerano, the leader of our delegation, I chose one table to observe during the closing process and ballot count.

Like every other table, mine included four members of the Junta Receptora de Votos, two representing ARENA and two representing the FMLN. In addition, there were two Vigilantes from each side, a student observer from the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), several civilian observers, and myself. Other government, national, and international observers circulated the tables during the process.

the-vote-1023First, the unused ballots were counted and the group made sure that the number of unused ballots matched the number of voters who did not attend, as recorded in three separate documents that were used during the voting process. Each unused ballot had to be stamped and sealed inside its proper container before the ballot box was opened.

the-vote-0131I don’t remember if the first ballot presented was for ARENA or FMLN, but by the time we reached around 50 of the total 322 ballots submitted, it was clear that FMLN was ahead, but that it was a very close competition.

My day had begun at 6 am at the Feria Internacional. In groups of two, we roamed the large covention center with checklists, observing all the tables and verifying that the necessary staff and supplies were present. While members of the opposing parties were genial and cooperative, the hall was tense as they worked together to have everything set and up and ready when the first voters entered at 7 am.

the-vote-0181We asked the staff questions, sometimes to gather information, other times to subtly make a reminder or suggestion. The voters, who had been well prepared for this monumental election by numerous informational adds on the television and in the newspapers, flowed smoothly through the process by: presenting their Documento Único de Indentidad (DUI), which was matched against a Registry (containing the names, photos, and DUI numbers of each registered voter) and was stamped every time a voter was approved; presenting their hands to prove that they did not have the mark of indelible ink from a ballot previously submitted; taking their freshly signed and stamped ballot to the cardboard booth; marking with a black crayon an X over the logo of the party of their choice, their hands and ballot hidden behind a plastic curtain; folding the ballot twice and dropping it in the collection box; having their thumb (or sometimes pinkie) dipped in a cleaning solution, dried off with a napkin, and dipped into indelible ink; signing the Signature Registry and receiving back their DUI.

the-vote-0121All of this had to be observed and monitored, with special attention paid not just to all the documentation, but also that the voter did not take a picture of their marked ballot while their hands were behind the plastic curtain of the voting booth. In the past, this was a common practice in order to prove that they voted a certain way – the way they were told to by their employer – so that they didn’t lose their job.

the-vote-0171Media was recording throughout the convention hall, and I was fortunate to see, meet, and shake hands with author and human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú. She was there as an international observer herself.

the-vote-0391The vote was going smoothly at the Feria Internacional with very few arguments or problems when we left around 9 am for breakfast. After eating, we travelled to the voting center in the colonia of Santa Tecla. Not only were there several polling places, but the main street, which had been shut down to vehicle traffic during the day, was filled with people in FMLN or ARENA garb and vendors selling everything from water, to ice cream, to pupusas. It truly felt like a festival and citizens from both parties were calm and congenial, allowing each other to represent their party and celebrate the act of voting together. Our leader, Carlos, voted in Santa Tecla himself.

the-vote-0461Inside the individual polling locations, their was a much smaller presence of international observers and we were very diligent in our observations and documentation, especially if we witnessed a conflict brewing at a table, either between the staff, or between the staff and a citizen; very few such incidents occurred. Between writing notes, asking questions, and taking pictures, our presence did seem to make staff and citizens alike feel that everyone would be held accountable for their actions. Some poll workers looked a little nervous as we approached the table, but most were very friendly and some even thanked us for being there. 

the-vote-0681We took note throughout the day of the number of voters who had already cast their ballots, and by noontime, most tables showed attendance in excess of 50%. We also asked poll workers if they encountered any difficulties or problems during the day. Some had dealt with voters whose names were not on their table’s list (tables were assigned alphabetically) or names, numbers, or pictures didn’t match, but overall, the staff was pleased with the process. This was a fantastic development as during the days before the election, their were rumors circulating in the press and amongst the people of plans to commit fraud or intimidate voters. (I will return later to this theme and elaborate on it.) .

the-vote-0831We returned to the Feria Internacional at 4:30 pm in order to be inside when the polls closed. Members of both parties were outside in mass in control booths, on the street waving flags, or driving by with flags, music, and honking of horns. The feeling at this particular polling center was more of excitement and passion than anger or confrontation. I never once felt that things would turn violent.

the-vote-0961The one incident that was of concern was when a large group of young FMLN supporters entered the convention hall and ran around in a long line, chanting and waving flags. This was against regulation, but neither the police (which included local and national entities) nor ARENA members tried to stop it. Earlier in the day, the same thing had occurred, only with young ARENA supporters, when Ávila, their presidential candidate, entered to vote.

The polls closed promptly at 5 pm and after all the documents and paperwork were signed, stamped, and secured, the ballot box was opened and the counting process began.

the-vote-1111One  by one, a single member of the Junta pulled each ballot out, presented the back to prove that it had been properly stamped and signed, and then presented the front, showing and speaking the name of the party selected. The ARENA ballots were then handed to an ARENA Vigilante, and the FMLN ballots were given to a FMLN Vigilante. The Vigilantes stacked them in neat piles.

the-vote-1121As our table continued the count, other tables were finishing. A whistle was blown, the winner was called, and in most cases it’s party members would yell a short slogan or chant. Media and observers would rush to that table, and then move to one that was close to finishing. When it was our table’s turn, several media cameras and microphones were present. The box was verified to be empty and the Vigilante from ARENA counted her party’s ballots. 150. Though it was already clear that ARENA had lost, everyone remained silent while the Vigilante from FMLN counted her party’s ballots. 170. 2 votes were nullified. FMLN won.

the-vote-1291The FMLN members at the table were teary eyed with emotions of excitement and relief as they finished the electoral process, but did not overtly celebrate or even make comments. Many papers had to be signed, supplies put away, boxes sealed before they could leave and celebrate. One FMLN civilian observer hugged an ARENA Vigilante. The group been working together since 4 am, laughing and arguing during the day, both sides ensuring that the vote was fair.

the-vote-0881I asked one FMLN member how he felt, if he had waited a long time for this day. “Forever,” he said. “For 500 years. Since the Spanish arrived.” For him and many other members of the FMLN, this win is not just connected to the the civil war or the years of oligarchies and military dictatorships before it. It represents to them a win for la gente, el pueblo, the impoverished and disenfranchized, their indigenous ancestors.

the-vote-1441FMLN won the Feria Internacional, and by the time we returned to our hotel, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (Supreme Electoral Tribunal) made an official but preliminary announcement that FMLN was in the lead by a very small margin of less than 3%. We showered and rushed down to a conference room in our hotel where media, observers, and FMLN members and supporters were waiting to greet Mauricia Funes – El Salvador’s incoming president.

election-day-and-ciudad-arce-002This morning I read the final count. ARENA, 48.73% with 1, 170,780 votes cast. FMLN, 51.27%, 1,231,755 votes cast. 61% of registered voters cast these ballots, more even than in during January’s legislative elections.

FMLN won by 75,000 votes. This illustrates not just a growing support for a more progressive government, but the divisions entrenched in the minds and memories of the people here. This election was intrinsically connected to the civil war and families’ experiences and allignments during it. Both sides remember their parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends who were killed, kidnapped, and tortured. Both sides remember the mass exodus of their people to the United States and the long struggle for asylum there. Both sides remember the blood and the terror and the martyrs, and neither side will ever forgot. I’m not even sure that they can forgive. The country is divided literally in half.

election-day-and-ciudad-arce-031Members of ARENA are terrified that their long-held social status will be lost and that the country will sink into militancy and communism. Members of the FMLN feel as if they’ve finally won a long-fought war against an old and hostile enemy. Of course no one knows what the next five years will hold, if the parties can work together to save El Salvador from its widespread crime and poverty, nor how all this will build the subsequent election.

But for now, the opposition, an ex-guerrlla movement, has transformed into the ruling party – and half of a divided country is celebrating.