Today I went to an event sponsored by ISD (Initiativa Social para la Democracia). I still don’t know how to process what I observed. But it was totally a kick in the pants to keep learning Spanish because I missed so much by not having stronger Spanish.
The topic at hand was gender equality. There was a presentation starting from the basics (gonads) going up to more advanced topics like gender roles. We did activities where we had to assign roles we thought were male, female, or suitable for both. I just observed since my opinions were completely different from the others’.
Again, I missed a lot, but the very fact that this was being discussed at such a basic level says a lot. Apparently many women in the villages here have it pretty hard and this is a serious topic. It’s part traditional, part machismo/macho culture.
I couldn’t help but feel kind of bad. Having experienced what is probably the most equal society in the world (Scandinavian/Danish), I guess it was a wakeup call that what I see in society does not necessarily reflect what is really going on. And since I believe in equality in all cases, I guess I sometimes forget that this ideal takes a lot of work to achieve and is at varying levels of achievement across the world. Opinions and customs take generations to change, and I am impatient…
Whether it’s innocence or ignorance, either way I need to start remembering that I experience each place in snapshots of a few days or a few weeks. But there’s a whole other world beneath the surface I should try and reach and understand.
The Promised Land
During the break during the workshop, a young guy approached me and asked me if I was from the U.S. I guess he was maybe 20-years-old, but I don’t know.
Immediately he started asking about visas and stuff. I am probably just as ignorant of the U.S. visa process as he is of the Salvadoran one since neither one of us would ever have to go through it. All I know is that the process is long, expensive, and a humiliating interview is often involved even if you just want to be a tourist and visit Mickey Mouse or see the Grand Canyon.
It seemed like he was pretty serious though since he quickly turned to how things would work if he were there illegally. To be honest, I didn’t understand a lot of what he said. He was talking in a low voice, presumably so the others around us wouldn’t hear, and he spoke too fast despite repeated requests to slow down.
But it was a telling conversation. I asked him what he thought he could do in the U.S. given that his English is worse than my Spanish. I don’t think he ever considered this very practical question.
It has been my experience here, given the huge Salvadoran diaspora in the U.S. that people think all things American are better and life is perfect in the U.S. Saying something is American here means you can charge more for it, for example. It’s like the American “brand” is very strong here, but much stronger than I’ve seen it most other places.
I think he thought he could just cross the border and everything would be better. I had to explain that he’d first have to, probably, sacrifice his dignity and do some extremely menial work since he can’t speak English.
Then, if he is there illegally, he’ll have to live in fear of the authorities. Worse, if something bad happens he can never go to the police because he’s illegal. I’ve heard in some states reporting cannot incriminate someone there illegally, but I’m not sure how it works – and whether the illegal immigrants would trust that anyway.
Then there’s the living in the US part. Many things here are available for a quarter, or as they say “una cora.” The cost of living is extremely different. While $7.25/hr minimum wage may translate into a solidly middle class life here, it won’t get you very far in the U.S. And that’s if the employer doesn’t pay you below minimum wage since you’re there illegally.
Another problem when a country has so many emigrants is that they often report back to the motherland that all is well and life is perfect. It could be so the family back at home doesn’t worry, it could be for pride and ego, or it could just be flat out lies, but many people do exaggerate when they check in with the homeland. I’ve witnessed this in my own family. But it propagates the idea that life in the U.S. is easy and life would just be so much better if they could come. I know this not to be true, and many Mexicans I met, legal and illegal immigrants, all counted down the days until they could return home.
The grass is always greener on the other side. I have used this phrase a million times since entering Latin America and it applies here as well. On top of all the negatives mentioned above is the fact that anyone and everyone will miss things from home, whether family, food, sports, traditions, etc. That’s just salt in the wound.
We’ll see what happens. I didn’t discourage him from going to the U.S. I just cautioned him to seriously think about what he’s doing and whether it makes sense to leave El Salvador. By being part of this organization he is already showing commitment to improving his community and country. He is a change agent and that’s exactly what places like this need – young people with fresh ideas, energy, and a stake in the future.