Peace Corps

Michigan Tech University's Master's International Program in Forestry

About the People

El Salvador Information

Gisselle Mejia

Political Science major, Case Western Reserve University

Peace Corps Volunteer in El Salvador

Summer 2006

During the summer of 2006, Gisselle worked in New York on watershed conservation. During the summer the area received some of the heaviest rains in over a decade. The result was severe erosion and flooding.

Decmber 2006, Peace Corps Training

My site during training is in the campo (the country side) in a Cantón (village) called Concepción Cañas in the Department (State) of San Vicente. The Cantón is composed of one street, where all the houses in the community are located along this very well paved road. Cañas is on a hill, and most of the agricultural land, where people grow their produce, is located downhill. Therefore, there is a lot of soil erosion due to the poor agricultural practices by farmers in the area. There is also an obvious problem of deforestation as one looks down to the flat land. From my backyard I can see the San Vicente volcano, which my training group and I climbed the third week of training. This activity was not part of training, but the training staff provided us with transportation to the town where the volcano is located.

            I stayed with a family that has three grown boys, three daughters, and one three-year-old boy. My host mom has a small grocery shop. My host dad is a government employee as the promoter of health in the community.  He owns land, in which he and his sons grow beans and corn; two very important components of the local diet. The house they lived in was destroyed in the earthquake of 2001, but was reconstructed by an NGO a couple of years after.

            The training center is located 20 minutes away from the community by public bus. The bus fare is $.50 in American currency, which was adopted in January of 2001. While this may seem cheap, one should keep in mind that trainees are given a daily allowance of $1.92. While our families provide us with 3 meals a day, trainees usually spend the rest of our allowance on snickers bars, ice scream, Gatorade, and Coke. We met at the training center twice a week, where we received technical sessions, development/cultural sessions, Spanish classes, and my favorite: medical sessions. I may not remember every single day of training, but I’ll remember every day I got a vaccination.

Two pictures from a hike with the children from Gisselle's host family.

Relaxing at dinner with other Peace Corps trainees. Gisselle is 2nd from right.

Two scenes from travels in training.

March 2007

The minute I arrived at my community, people started talking about a need for someone to teach English. This is a very common interest by almost everyone I know. The kids are fascinated with the idea of speaking fluently in English, yet a lot of them cannot read or write Spanish at their grade level. I have heard of fifth graders that do not know how to read or write well, and kids that are way too old for the grade they are in. However, to a lot of teachers and parents the priority seems to be English. This interest is influenced by their desire to migrate to the United States.

There is massive migration out of the community. I have yet to meet a family that does not have any family member or members in the United States. Most, if not all of the time, these people leave by land with the help of Coyotes (people smugglers). Leaving to the United States is not only a common practice, and as a result they make it seem easy. Some people have gone and come back more than once; they get caught and deported, and then they try again. The people that do make it and find jobs (which really doesn’t take that long), send a lot of their earnings back home to the their families. Most times, they end up staying till they have paid their fee to the Coyote, which can be as much as $7,000, and/or send enough money to build a house back home. This process can take more than 4 years.

Some women take the risk of migration to United States, but most of the people who do are men. As a result of all this outflow of men, there is a large number of married women left behind taking care of the kids. Most of the women do not work; they just receive remittances from their husbands, which are spent on food, clothes, and household items. Some women have small grocery shops, and make some money this way, but most of their large expenses depend on remittances.

Home built with remittance money.

There are two major rivers that supply the community with water, Rio Chiquito and Rio Sumpul. Rio Sumpul is the river that divides Honduras and El Salvador, while Rio Chiquito is a small river that discharges in the bigger river called Lempa. The Lempa River is the biggest river in the country, and it is used for hydropower to supply the country with energy. Most of the potable water in the community, though, comes from natural springs in the surrounding mountains. On the other hand, water that is used for agriculture comes from the rivers. During the dry season, which usually goes from November to May, there is less water to go around for domestic consumption and agriculture.

Moreover, there was a recent dispute between community members and a major landowner, regarding the passage of water from his property to the rest of the community. He had blocked the manmade canals, (built by community members) that allowed water to flow to their fields. The landowner owns the property where the river passes through, so he has decided to charge the community $2,000 a year to allow the water to pass. According to the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG), because the water is not potable, he had every right to do as he pleased. With the help of MAG and the mayor, they were able to resolve the issue and settle for $1,500 a year. A committee of irrigators was formed to oversea that the money gets collected to pay this person every year. But this only happened after MAG proposed to build two water tanks for the community, with the condition that a committee of irrigators was formed.

June 2007

However, the area of the country I live in is unique. Not only is it quite forested, but there are many farmers who own decent size woodlots. I learned a few months ago representatives from a German university came up to the area and estimated that my community, along with the surrounding communities, is 63% forested. I was impressed, because as you might already know, El Salvador is the most deforested country in Latin America.

Interestingly, the most forested areas are owned by rich people who live in the capital. I was talking to a PRODERT extensionist (Manuel) a few days ago, and he mentioned that this is a good thing, because those people tend to take better care of the land. He meant it because those people have no need to cultivate the land, and even if they build a house, they keep most of the land forested because that is the reason for owning land in the country. I have noticed many nice houses in the area, owned by rich Salvadorans who come up on the weekends and holidays to get away from the hectic life in the city.

Fruit trees in the community.

21 September 2007

            I am currently working with three other volunteers on a HIV/AIDS youth camp that will take place in November. We worked hard on a proposal to solicit the money, a grant of $1,000 by an organization called Global Vision. The organization is giving grants for youth camps on three different topics, and one of them is Environmental Education. I was interested in this topic, but one needs to work with at least two other volunteers to qualify for the grant. The other volunteers that live near me were not interested in environmental education, so we decided on the HIV/AIDS topic instead. We just sent out our proposal and we’re still waiting for the response, but we are positive will get the money. The idea of the youth camp is also to see what the results are in six months. After the youth camp we are supposed to make sure the kids that participated are able to organize talks on the topic either at the schools or community meetings, and in six months we have to reunite them to see how they have applied what they learned.

15 December 2007

HIV Aids Camp.

Since September I have been working with three volunteers around my site on an HIV/AIDS youth camp. Every week we met to organize and plan the camp, and we also had to meet with the representative of the organization funding the camp. The youth camp took place from 19-21of November. There were six youth present from each community, 25 total. We had decided on inviting three females and three males, but over the course of the months we discovered that it was hard for all of us to find males willing to participate. This is coffee-cutting season and most boys are hired to work. The school year ended the second week on November, so these boys are available to work in the field. Also, there are more girls than boys in school, and in some communities there are just more females than males. One volunteer could only find one boy in her community, so the female-male ratio was disproportionate.

The youth camp was funded by the World Vision with a $1,000 stipend. We did not spend that much in the camp, because we were able to save on housing. There is a government owned park called Refugio, and there people are able to stay in cabins for free. The cabins are equipped with beds and furniture, and even have bathrooms. About 3-4 people can stay in each cabin. The Refugio is about 10 minutes from the town of La Palma, the municipality my community is part of. Two male volunteers came to the camp to help us out, because with three female volunteers, there was no one to stay with the boys in the cabins. We decided to also save on plastic utensils and plates, so everyone brought their own from home and washed it after each meal.

There were different guest speakers invited to give talks on certain topics. One of the volunteers started with the talk on gender. I gave a talk on introduction to AIDS/HIV and STIs. On the first day of the camp, the Rural Health and Sanitation APCD, Briony, helped us by giving a presentation on myths and facts about HIV/AIDS and STIs. The day was somewhat short, because we started at 1 P.M. That night, after dinner, we showed the “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” which seemed somewhat appropriate to the topic, and everyone was over the age of 14.

The next day, we started early around 7:30 A.M. with breakfast. One of the speakers who was invited was a doctor who works at the clinic in La Palma. She gave a thorough presentation, and even taught the kids how to practice putting condoms on a banana. The other guest speaker is a doctor who works in the department capital of Chalatenango. He has been working on AIDS/HIV prevention, education, and awareness for years and is considered one of the experts in the country. With a team of nurses and trained volunteers, he heads a campaign every year in a minivan conducting free HIV tests in major cities around the country. He brought along with him a person who has been living with HIV for years to speak to the kids about his experiences since diagnosed with the virus.  He apparently made an impact on the kids, because a group of them gathered around him asking him questions after the presentation.

The camp ended with each group of kids from every community doing a presentation on a specific topic regarding what they have learned. The night before volunteers from each community worked with them on developing and organizing the talk and activities they were presenting the next day. The presentations were great, though most took longer than the allotted 20 minutes. We gave each person diplomas for completing the camp, something of a tradition in workshops, and we ate cake to celebrate. I must say I was beat by the end of the camp and could not wait till get back home so I could sleep.

La Palma.

My Neighbors

When I am not doing what would be considered actual Peace Corps work, or working on graduate school assignments, I usually just visit my neighbors. Most times the visit lasts hours, now that I am more used to the people and know what to talk about with them. At the beginning of my service I was difficult to last more than 20 minutes talking with someone because after that the conversation started repeating itself. Some times I company people when they go visit someone else, or out to the field so they can show me what they are cultivating. Farmers are usually excited about any new crop they are growing, and enjoy showing it off to people. The best part of that is when they are harvesting because they usually make new dishes out of it and invite me to eat at their house. For example, when peaches are in season the women make jam from it. Some times I’m invited to help cook whatever they are making.

The school year ended the second week of November, and there were a lot of graduation parties in the community. I think I must have gained a couple of pounds during this time with all the food I was offered at these parties. My neighbor, Niña Eliza, had a party for her daughter Merari who had just graduated from seminary school. It seemed like almost the school community attended her party, because she is well known and is the first one in the community to attend and graduate seminary school. Merari is also an active member of the pin-needle basket group, and probably the most important member. I spend most of the time with her and her family, because they are the people I feel most comfortable with in the community and trust.

When I talk about Niña Eliza and her family, I refer to them as my host family, because other than sleeping at their house, I pretty much spend the rest of my time there. They have a TV, so I take advantage of that so I can watch the news. We also sometimes get together to watch a movie, the most recent one being Transformers. They absolutely loved this movie, so much they watched it three times. Niña Eliza has nine kids, but two are in Minnesota. She has a little girl who is 9, a young lady who is 16, a young man who is 17 and another who is 20, Merari is 21 and the oldest girl is 23.

I don’t usually talk about the time I spend with my neighbors, who are my source of information about everything, because it’s become so routine that I don’t even think about it. Even when I meet with volunteers, the topic is usually about what we are “doing.” Hanging out with people in our communities and daily “non-work” activities are not considered important. Volunteers don’t usually talk about how they spend last Saturday in their community, but what they have “done” in the past month and this usually means projects, etc.

24 March 2008

In December I took vacation in El Salvador and Nicaragua for three weeks. I spent a week just exploring some areas of El Salvador that I never been to. I was not able to go to all the places I wanted to go to, but it was equally satisfying to visit some interesting places. I spent two weeks in Nicaragua for Christmas and New Year’s. I was a bit jealous through my trip in Nicaragua, because it is a beautiful country. The volunteers I met where not as excited about their placement, and it was then I realized that volunteers are probably the same in every country. Many volunteers in El Salvador feel like they were placed in the worst country, and that’s probably a view a lot volunteers share in every country served.

In the last couple of days my community has been having celebrations. Last year was the first time in years that they started doing these celebrations. All communities have a couple of days of fiestas where people take time to go enjoy themselves. These fiestas have some resemblance to county festivals, they have live music shows, greasy foods, rodeos, etc. The last time my community had a fiesta someone got shot, and it took several years for people to bring themselves to continue the parties. I attended one fiesta event last year, but I was put off by the amount of drunk men, so I did not go this year. Evangelicals don’t attend these parties and most of my close friends in the community are evangelicals. I usually go to church events with them, and I didn’t want them to be disappointed with me. These are one of the things that one has to deal with in the community, because there is a division between evangelicals and catholics. Most of the leaders in the community are also evangelicals, and it took me a little while to realize this. This week is Semana Santa (spring break) and kids are out of school, people usually take a break from field work and take vacation trips (the beach, etc.). In my community people usually just stay in because family members visit this time of the year and outsiders come in looking for things to buy (usually produce) and do site-seeing.  Though it is vacation for a lot of people in the country, for people with businesses in the community, it is one of the busiest and most profitable times of the year.