Sister City

Resilience, Violence, and Juxtapositions

I am unsettled tonight. And I am rarely unsettled here. I just took one of the Xanax that I was given after the accident for nightmares in the hopes of calming my nerves enough to sleep.

The day was tranquil; I spent it with my goddaughter sitting for hours working at our makeshift office on a picnic table tucked beneath a low canopy of trees behind the house. Then we killed my phone battery gleefully going through pictures of the 8 years I have been coming here to their house. When day finally gave way to evening, I headed inside, content, to get ready to go out for dinner with my soldier friend. Instead I found a message from him that said, “Um, I recommend we don’t go anywhere today. There’s a country-wide curfew in effect. Just for today. Two buses were already shot up [with machine guns].” My soldier friend isn’t afraid of anything, so this was serious. A few minutes later, my local cell phone rang. Another admonishment from a friend: “Anna Maria, don’t leave the house tonight. The buses have all stopped running. People are scared. They’re calling it Black Friday.” It was 6:30 in the evening. It had just gotten dark.

Earlier in the day, I was getting ready to walk to a dear friend’s house for a visit, only to remember that he and his mother and sister were evacuated from the country earlier this week due to threats of extortion and violence from the gangs. These stories have become so commonplace that I am immune to their shock. But tonight is different.

What is happening tonight is called the Sombra Negra, or Black Shadow. The name is a throwback to paramilitary death squads composed primarily of off-duty police and soldiers that emerged at the end of the war in 1989. These vigilantes famously target criminals and gang members, citing the government’s impotence and unwillingness to enforce laws and combat illicit activity. Their modus operandi is to move by the cover of night, hooded and masked. They go to known gang members’ homes (remember, these are officers with access to intelligence), and, claiming to be police or the army, force their way in, then execute the gang members. Last Friday, the 18th Street gang imposed a curfew in a community and christened it Viernes Negro (Black Friday) and tonight’s Black Friday is in response to that. (This is an article that came out yesterday about fliers appearing on car windshields that said “Gang bangers and collaborators, your time has come. You’re going to hell, scoundrels. –La sombra negra” And this is one of the few times that I’ll ever condone the use of Google Translate because I don’t have the energy to translate it.)


Courtesy of

The police have rejected the Sombra Negra threats, claiming that they are not real. They won’t go so far as to say that these vigilantes do not exist, though. I have personal knowledge of the Sombra Negra’s presence in this area and have even had conversations at length with members of these paramilitary forces. I choose to withhold judgment of the rightness or wrongness of what they are doing, but the positive that I take from what is happening is that people are getting fed up. Once complacency is broken, tolerance will cease and people will demand a solution. Don’t mistake my optimism for foolishness, of course, because I know the road will be long and likely bloodier. But there must be something that impulses change, and it is an awakening on the part of the people who are suffering under the thumbs of the gangs.

Following the cautions of my friends, Steffany, her boyfriend, Oliver, and I quickly grabbed a few quarters and walked him home, where I would buy a few little bags of water to get me through the night. As we walked, we saw a few busses pass by caravan-style, presumably seeking strength in numbers. They were all replete with passengers. This was the last run of the night, hours before the buses usually make their final passes. I could see the people’s expressions through the windows—faces drawn, brows furrowed. No one seemed to be talking or looking at each other. We reached Oliver’s house, bought the water, and headed back towards my house. The same buses that had just passed were now coming back the opposite direction. Empty. They had not continued along their routes, but rather had let their fares off at the edge of safety (on the road a ways below my home) and were returning a different way.

The silence now is eerie, except that it is not silent. What is missing is the roar of the trucks and buses that pass in front of our house all night long, the distant music that plays at all hours in neighboring houses, and the shouts of people in the streets. But in that void of sound, the pops and explosions in the distance seem to be more prominent and numerous than normal. Every unnerving rat-tat-tat-tat that perforates the stillness, every reverberating boom, every staccatoed flurry, sends my mind racing through a litany of violent scenarios. Of course, as I have been taught here, it always comes to rest on the conclusion that somewhere somebody is celebrating something, and the terror that is playing through my mind is, in fact, just the jubilance of fireworks.

Dinner tonight was one of the strangest juxtapositions of feelings I have ever experienced. The heightened sense of alarm we all had seemed to dissipate, or at least subside, the second we sat down around the table. Mamá even joined us tonight. Papá’s first comment when his plate was placed before him was that it was too much food. Then he looked up at me, smiled wryly, and said, “I’m trying to lose some weight.” (He’s nothing but skin and bones at this point.) After they prayed, we began eating and before long, heard an especially long and measured series of pops, the space between each shot too calculated to be fireworks. I looked at Vanessa and asked her if they were shots or fireworks. She shrugged and responded simply, “You never know,” though I think we all knew. [Steffany told me earlier about a bus driver and cobrador who had been killed a few weeks ago down the hill past our house on the same route the buses refused to traverse tonight. She awoke to the sounds of what she chalked up to fireworks, only to discover the next morning that it was the machine gun fire that had taken the men’s lives.] At that, dad took a sip of his atol and the thick film that had cooled on the top slopped out of his cup down his chin. He spit it to the ground and I looked at him with feigned disapproval. “One of my intestines came out,” he replied apologetically. The whole table erupted in laughter. A few minutes later, as I cleared the empty serving dishes to lure the flies away from the table, he motioned for my attention. He began waving his hands theatrically at the chair opposite him and with a flourish, threw both hands forward. Instantaneously, the chair jumped. Again, we burst into laughter at his childish trick. Mamá began telling stories of papá’s travesuras, or mischievousness, to the delight of the girls and me. By the time dinner was over, the Black Sombra was nothing more real to us than the boogey man or el mico.

This is the resilience that is so characteristic of the Salvadoran people. Uncertainty is a way of life. Danger is as much a part of the daily routine as getting tortillas for dinner. Yet inside the walls of this house, those things do not enter. Life simply goes on. In a country that was ravaged by a war that pitted neighbor against neighbor, in communities in which tattooed young men and women reign with fear and obedience, in a place where—when war and gangs mercifully avert their attention from you—Mother Nature is always poised to destroy your home and habitat with rains, floods, and earthquakes, in this place, people are kind, generous, and loving. Despite the triple-edged sword that hangs over their heads every day, the Salvadoran people are faithful, spiritual, and giving. There are no other people more determined, more admirable, or more humbling to me than the Salvadoran people.

As I sit here writing this, broken snippets of the night’s newsreel float into my bedroom from the ancient rabbit-ear-antenna television in the living room. Mention of bus strikes, the Sombra Negra, body counts, police responses, and admonitions to stay inside swirl around me, interspersed with the melodramatic sounds of telenovelas as my family flips through the channels. I am unnerved. But it is not for me for whom I fear. My heart breaks for this country, for my families, and even for the people who are causing this violence. My heart breaks because I know that my passport and US dollars will soon carry me far from this place and into safety while the people I love so dearly, so desperately, must carry on here with the daily uncertainty and anguish of this mindless violence. I feel no urge to flee, but I know I must return to my other home to continue working for this community and transmitting their hope and resilience to my home community. It’s so bittersweet to know I have to leave. But nothing will keep me from coming back.

Tomorrow is my godson’s 2nd birthday. I’m going back to the very place where I was robbed almost exactly a year ago, a place that is notorious for violence (and which I’m told is worsening). Rumor has it the buses will be on strike in this whole part of the country. What a contrast—the celebration of a tiny life against the backdrop of brutality.

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Morning musings, love advice, and a new student

Last night was a struggle to sleep. I’m not sure whether to blame the 5 cups of coffee I was served throughout the day, the mucky heat that made my thin sheet feel like a thick comforter, or the unrelenting din of dogs, roosters, and heavy trucks outside my window. My family has been up for hours, which I have been aware of since I started stirring around 5am. I got up just now to use the restroom and check and see if “water fell” last night (an interesting expression that refers to whether or not the excess water leftover from irrigation turned on to fill the pilas, or cement tanks, overnight, an unpredictable occurrence that seems to happen every other day or so). The tanks still have only a few inches of water, but somebody has already transferred a shower’s worth of water into a large bucket from the reserve barrels outside the bathroom for me to bathe. My papá, now eighty-years-and-one-day old, is out removing all the leaves and rubbish that fell throughout the night with his ancient rake. My mamá is in preparing breakfast while my little sisters/goddaughters Steffany and Vanessa sit at the table working on Steffany’s homework. The only thing that is striking about this scene is the homework; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the girls working so diligently. I fell asleep around midnight last night while Steffa still sat at the table putting together this big project. She is scheduled to graduate in November and, for the first time I’ve ever seen, is really taking school seriously.

Breakfast this morning was moved to the living room where there were fewer flies than the kitchen. Dad was there waiting for me, flyswatter in hand. Pobrecita the fly that lands near my dad—he goes through more flyswatters than anyone I’ve ever met. Yesterday he caused a “fly massacre” after the birthday cake was served. Mamá joined us for breakfast today—a rarity here. I almost melted when, after she sat down, my dad reached into his pocket, pulled out three small jocotes, and wordlessly set them on the table next to her. She just glanced over and smiled shyly at him. We ate quietly, all with one hand waving dispassionately back and forth over our plates to keep the flies away, while the candle lit to stave them off burned down to a nub. Dad asked when my real mom is coming back down to visit and we spoke briefly about my now defunct previous relationship. This led to wise and welcome advice about love from a couple who just celebrated 50 years of marriage. (One gem was, “Amor de lejos, para pendejos.”) They told me about how they dated for 7 years before finally getting married (my mom vehemently declared that dad would come visit her from his town but that “absolutely nothing else happened” before they married), and how they decided to wait to marry until they had the means to start a family. (At their wedding, the priest is said to have praised their patience and told the guests that this was a model couple made in God’s image.) Mom assured me that I still have time for love, since she and don Máximo married at the age of 30. I simply giggled and told her I wasn’t too worried about it. After all, I am practically married to this project and this community.

Yesterday’s birthday celebration was beautiful. The girls did a great job keeping our secret, and despite arriving almost 6 hours later than planned (in typical Salvadoran fashion, “We’re going to run a quick errand before we drop you off — we just need to go sign some papers at the bank. 5 minutes max.” turned into an odyssey around the capital), mis papás were surprised and tickled to see us pull up. I brought a cake adorned with 80 candles, which almost went up in flames by the time we had all the candles lit. The frosting became a pool of colored wax and the “Feliz Cumpleaños – 80” looked more like Chinese characters, but seeing my dad in his party glasses effortlessly blow out the small, raging fire was priceless.


Don Máximo blows out 80 candles on his birthday

birthday cake

My papá’s cake

Last night I had the honor of delivering the news to a scholarship applicant that she has been selected for a scholarship. This is a step in the process that the FCE has purposefully removed itself from traditionally in order to ensure that the community has ownership over the scholarship program and selection process, but Yessica Beatriz was a special case. We had a potential donor approach us a few months ago looking specifically to sponsor a nursing student and coincidentally the scholarship committee simultaneously approached us asking for approval to add a new, non-traditional student to the program. Yessica is a 24-year-old who began a nursing degree in 2010 but had to withdraw after her first year due to financial hardship. We typically only accept students as first-year high school students and commit to their full education, so Yessica would have otherwise been turned away, but the parameters of the donor’s nursing scholarship and the timing of this unusual situation were such that she was the perfect candidate. We presented her to the potential donor and trustees in March and received word last Monday that they unanimously voted to support her. She will go Monday to register and will begin classes on time in July. Her reaction to the news last night was so humbling and so inspirational. I hope to post the video shortly, once I have access to bandwidth that can handle an upload.


Yessica Beatriz and President Anna Stout

I’m hoping to visit some of our students today, though I don’t have anything officially on the schedule. Tomorrow is my godson’s 2nd birthday celebration in San Martin and I’m dedicating all of Sunday to the scholarship students, so today is uncharacteristically unplanned. The stubborn, impenetrable cloud cover today is keeping the heat at bay, but already I can feel the sheen of my perpetually glistening face in this thick humidity. Today might just be a day to spend aimlessly here at the house at the computer working on stuff for the FCE. Or, more likely, it will be the unpredictable and busy kind of day that always seems to present itself to me while I’m here. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about El Salvador in the past ten years, it’s that planning can be cumbersome (and more often than not simply sets you up for frustration), while spontaneity never fails to bring you rewarding and memorable experiences.

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Final Thoughts by Josh Adams


Two hundred and forty hours. Fourteen thousand four hundred minutes. Eight hundred sixty-four thousand seconds.  When written out it may seem like an eternity. If you take a closer look it’s really only ten days. A third of a month and only 0.02739 % of a year.  A little more than nothing than a blip on the radar that is our life. This ten-day blip was especially special.

Along with nine other people I made a trek to the community of El Espino, El Salvador. As a group we were immediately thrust and welcomed into the community with open arms. The moment we stepped off the micro we were showered with an endless line of hugs and smiles. One word jumped to the front of my mind. Unconditional. These Salvadoran people had an unconditional love for these ten American strangers.  After being welcomed into their home and being declared the newest member of their family I realized that they didn’t care what mistakes I made in the past. They were just happy to have a new brother.

The entire community is set on fire with a desire and passion for education. Knowing that one day they can become the focal point of change in El Salvador. Witnessing that passion firsthand was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It really prompted me to take a moment and think about how much of a shame it would be to not take some of that fire and share it with our own communities. I’m pretty sure it was Gandhi who said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This small community in the middle of the small country of El Salvador has taken those words to heart and are working together to be that change.

All week we heard that the scholarship students look up to us as delegates for The Foundation of Cultural Exchange. Those scholarship students will never really know how much we look up to them. The challenges they go through each and everyday in order to be that change they so desire to see is nothing short of amazing. In writing this reflection I am sitting here wishing that everyone I know could experience that unconditional love and passion for life that the people of El Espino shared with me. Then it dawned on me that they can. I can live my life happily and show my passions and exhibit an unconditional love for all and be that change I wish to see. I may be a blip on the radar and mean absolutely nothing to El Espino when this is all said and done, but El Espino will always be a huge blip on my radar and will always have a special place in my heart.

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Day 5 Reflection by Kathryn McConnell

The inexplicable love and tenderness of the Salvadoran people has changed my entire life. Even though most people who read this will not understand why these people mean so much to me, I can honestly tell them that for me, these people are the missing half of me; they are the fire blazing in my heart, full of pure and untainted love. Like many delegates, I came to El Salvador the first time thinking that the Salvadoran people were missing something that I could help them fix, but in reality, I was the one who was missing something. I was the one who needed to be helped. After living among these people, I have learned more about true unconditional love and family, than I could have ever taught the Salvadoran people. I have opened my heart up to receive and accept the love of others; and I learned not to judge a person by their appearance, but by their heart and not to judge a country by its poverty, but by its people. I know that my heart will always be half in America and half in El Salvador. I have struggled to accept the immense amount of love they have bestowed upon me and with why I was given this incredible opportunity. I struggle every day to find a way to give back to the community that has given me much more than I could ever give them. Being back among these people makes me realize that I have the chance to help them. I can do something, and even if in the big picture it is insignificant, it is something. And most of all, today I realized something: I have so many people who understand and support me that I will never be alone on this journey… I mean how can you be alone when you have 27 brothers and sister walking by your side?

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Reflection by Kathryn McConnell

One year ago El Salvador was just another name, another dot in the world, and one place that I didn’t even know where to find on a map. Little did I know that the moment I stepped in the rural community of El Espino, my life would never be the same. I was welcomed with open arms, smiles, and many new friends. Only a week later tears spilled down my cheeks as I said goodbye to my 19 new brothers and sisters and to my host family nbso online casino who had given me a new home. When I returned to the United States, I realized just how much I wanted to help my new friends. In order The chosen driving training school will be announced on Monday 12th January 2015. to do this, I joined the board for the Foundation for Cultural Exchange, and I have been doing my best ever since, to give back to the community that has given so much to me.

This year I am unbelievably excited to return to El Espino and to visit everyone again. I can only imagine how incredible it will be to return and to really enjoy being with all of them, since this year I know what to expect. I know that the chicos will continue to inspire me with their hard work, their motivation to continue their educations, and their love for everyone they meet.

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Reflection by Kendra Wildenberg


Kendra Wildenberg, CMU Sophomore

Thinking about this trip it is hard to write out my expectations, as I cannot imagine what to expect. Besides luxury vacations to resorts, I have never experienced another culture or country’s way of life. I could not be more excited to dive into another culture head first, their language, their beliefs, their food and their way of life are sure to all be foreign to me. I am mostly excited about the language piece; I am minoring in Spanish and speaking is where I need the most work. I will have to get used to making mistakes and step out of my comfort zone and accept the fact that I will probably sound like the world’s biggest gringo… haha. Gaining a new perspective of the world free from technology and many of the everyday aspects of life that I take for granted (toilet, showers, etc…) will be extremely fascinating; I want to see what life would be like if I was not in such a well-off country. Overall this trip will be amazing and scary all at the same time, but that is the reason I am so excited. Spring Break could not come fast enough!

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Reflection by Mary Muncher


Mary Muncher, CMU Junior

On March 21, 2014 I will be departing the United States of America and venturing off to El Espino, El Salvador. I am incredibly excited to embark on this journey and a bit nervous as well. The moment I saw this opportunity I knew it was meant to be. I have been longing for adventure, change, and the chance to make a difference. I know that my eyes will be opened to a variety of things including my perception on community, simplicity, prayer, and mission. I hope to broaden my self-awareness and strengthen my relationships with others. This is going to be an experience of a lifetime that I hope to fully submerge myself in. I am excited to break out of my comfort zone and really push myself to make the best of all situations. What I know now is that people all over the world are just waiting to make connections much like myself. I will have the privilege of meeting these people and hopefully making a difference in some way.

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Reflection by Anthony Montelongo

Anthony Montelongo, CMU Sophomore and ASB 2013 Participant

For several months now, I have woken up with a smile. As I sleep, my mind races through past memories and the new adventures that await me in El Salvador. These dreams are filled with smiling faces, gentle hugs and laughter from the people I came to know last year. These dreams are filled with the colors of the dense jungle and the illumination of the sunsets. I can smell the preparation of pupusas. I wake up with excitement and eagerness to live with these humble people once again. These are memories and moments that would be non existent if I had not taken a risk, if I had not said yes, one year ago. Two years ago I could be considered the typical college jock, who had a life consumed with academics and training. Once that chapter in my life had closed I was lost in the shadows of expectation. There was no clear path of where to go next. However, our Lord opened a door, as he always does. Inside the door was the whisper of adventure, “come and get me, come and get me.” It was the opportunity of a lifetime, to live in solidarity with the people of El Espino.

For weeks, I fought myself and was torn between taking risk and staying safe within my bubble. I prayed for guidance to make a decision. Then one morning I woke up feeling invincible. I woke up with the confidence to take this “One time” adventure. As a kid, I had always All this broken hard drive data recovery looks like a potential gold mine, but like a gold mine, you only have a little gold and lot more of everything else. aspired to be Indiana Jones and live an adventure. We say we want to see the world, yet sit in the sticky sap of “What ifs, should haves, could haves and would haves!” Why not just do it? So I did it. I went on the trip of a lifetime. I took the leap of faith, kept it all in the Lord”s hands and here I am, alive. I was immersed in culture, language and perpetual food! online casino More importantly, I learned.

It was in this chapter of my life in which I learned one of the secrets of this crazy life. Love cannot be said, but only shown. It was shown through those smiles, warm embraces and friendly laughs. How many people today would open their home to a stranger? It is analogous to…no, it IS the love of our Lord. I was embraced by the love of these people and by the Heavenly Father. I went to make a change, only to look in the mirror and see the change within myself. So, I returned to the States with clear eyes and a full heart.

As I write this, flying above the clouds, I can only imagine what adventure is in store for me this year. It will bring a smile to my face to once again see the smiles, feel the hugs and hear the laughter, only this time I will be awake and not in some dream. I ask for your prayers of safety and health. More importantly, I ask for your prayers to once again open my heart and ask the Holy Spirit to remind me what the important things in life really are.

Be Uncommon. Jeremiah 29:11


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Alternative Spring Break 2014 – Intro

Colorado Mesa University”s Mesa Catholic Campus Ministry (MCCM) is teaming up with Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) Youth Ministry and el Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS) for an Alternative Spring Break trip to Grand Junction”s Sister City of El Espino, El Salvador from March 21-30.  Anna Stout (President of the Foundation for Cultural Exchange (FCE), the organization that founded the Sister City relationship in 2005) and  Andrea Stanton (IHM”s Youth Minister & Sister Parish Liaison to the FCE Board of Directors) will be leading this trip, which is made up of one IHM high school teen and 7 CMU students. Two of these students are on their way for the second time!

The delegation will be staying in the community in the homes of FCE scholarship students while they are in El Espino.  Participants will have opportunities to visit various historical, cultural, and political sites in San Salvador, including the cathedral (which houses Servant of God Oscar Romero’s tomb), the University of Central America and the tombs of the UCA martyrs, the Hospital de Divina Providencia (where Romeo was assassinated while giving mass), a volcano, a coffee cooperative, and an artisan market.  They usually get married several times, but the later the marriage is, the more probable the success of it is. will also be spending several days in El Espino with the FCE”s 23 scholarship students and their families, where they will visit the Sister Parish, Sister School, and a shrine to the Virgen of Fatima in a nearby town.  And of course, no trip to a beautiful tropical country would quite be complete without a day at the beach!

We”ve decided to host this blog on the FCE website so that supporters of our Sister community can see the exciting things that are happening down there in and through these young men and women throughout their journey. Read more to hear what they are thinking about before they travel, and stay tuned for updates and photos while they”re away!

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