El Salvador Day 3: Serious Business

Hi! Today was another very big, eye-opening day… & I’m just as exhausted. We had awakeup call at 7:45am, and quick breakfast downstairs. Then around 8:30 we headed to the province of Santo Tomas, to first meet with another CRISPAZ delegation from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They were nice, but lesbehonest.. LMU is waaaay more good-looking. (Heh.) After meeting, both delegations headed to Mujeres Transformando (Women Transforming), an organization started in 2003 that assists “manquilla workers” (textile/clothing/factory workers – mostly female) in attaining labor rights and starting unions. We met with 3 amazing women–Mercedes, Ana Claudia, and Dina–who helped organize the foundation after seeing that many of the laborers in the area were not aware of their own rights. Many of these manquilla workers are subject to abuse, discrimination, unfair wages and hours, and even violence in the workplace. They are forced to work 10, sometimes 12 hours a day with no breaks in run-down factories with little ventilation or proper air-conditioning during the hot Salvadoran heat (think: sweatshops). Many of these laborers are women who have no choice but to work in these sweatshops because they have families to take care of. Even working from home, women sew for hours at a time; making intricate patterns & even getting their children to help. The women dedicate so much of their time to work that they often don’t have enough time to spend with their own families. And even more shocking, the pay for the amount of time spent on sewing clothes is completely unbalanced & therefore, totally UNFAIR. An average manquilla worker’s salary, according to Ana Claudia, is $107.47 per MONTH. That’s barely enough to cover a family’s basic needs, at a cheap quality. I sat there, completely shocked & unaware that all of this was going on. Here’s how it works: many of the sweatshops in small, poor countries like El Salvador are employed by international companies, big-time businesses like clothing brands & sports attire. Salvadoran factories are known for sewing well-known (American) brands, includiing Old Navy, Gap, Columbia, Penguins, Northface, and other t-shirt companies. The NFL (National Football League), for example, hires one factory in El Salvador to make thousands of t-shirts for the Baltimore Ravens after their championship win. These thousands of shirts are made by hundreds of factory workers, who are placed in uncomfortable environments where they are expected to work for hours on-end and meet a certain quota (say, 10 shirts) each hour. An NFL Baltimore Ravens shirt that sells for $24.99 in a U.S. sports store–the employee who hand-made and sewn that shirt is paid only 8 cents. 8 cents out of $24.99. I was so shocked when I heard that statistic, I felt almost guilty. It makes you question what clothes/brands you are wearing, and where they really came from.. and how much labor was put into it. “We’re not saying to not support these companies because without them, our people would not have work,” Ana Claudia said. “However, we do need to be more conscious of what we buy/wear, so that we can make better decisions and take a stand against unfair labor.”
I kept thinking about how I could help bring about change in this world, no matter how big or small. I asked myself, why are we in the United States who are blessed with everything, who don’t have to make the clothes we buy or sell.. why are we still so unhappy with what we have? Why are we always desiring more? What was most inspiring about their testimonies was how dedicated the women are to taking a stand against the injustices of labor throughout the nation. Today, Mujeres Transformando continues to fight for advocacy and to work for better labor rights & conditions in El Salvador. They provide counsel and legal advice to those in danger and to unionizers. Through their work, they help women understand their labor rights and laws, have peaceful dialogues with brand/factory owners, provide human rights workshops, etc. As Mercedes said beautifully at the end of her presentation, “We are a people that struggle, but even if the struggle is uphill, we do it. We don’t lose hope.” 

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Morning! DSCN0943 DSCN0944

Kevin enjoying the graffiti on the way.DSCN0945

Beautiful church on the side of the road!DSCN0952

Meeting with the University of Michigan DSCN0955 DSCN0958 DSCN0960

These were some of the dresses/designs they showed us during the presentation. An average Salvadoran woman can spend up to 8 hours working on such an intricate, beautiful design like this one, on a baby girl’s dress. The amount of labor she puts into making the dress is practically worth nothing, considering the amount of pay she receivers for it. DSCN0961 DSCN0964

Everyone at Mujeres Transformando!

Right after we left, also parting ways (until later) with the University of Michigan, we headed right to lunch downtown at a restaurant called Nelly’s Eatery, known for their cafeteria-style food & handmade pupusas! I was so excited; my stomach had been grumbling the whole morning. We had a delicious lunch–one of the first and only times I had meat during the whole trip!–with the group; I got the chicken with vegetables, rice & beans. It was sooo tender and definitely fresh; I still remember the taste hah!   DSCN0973 DSCN0976

Elaine & me! DSCN0978

Nestor & EJ with the graffiti!

After our delicious meal, we headed straight to Catholic Relief Services, an international Catholic humanitarian agency that has been in over 90 different countries, including areas in Africa, the Middle East and all over Latin America. The CRS in San Salvador was located in a shaded neighborhood, more up in the hills surrounded by bigger houses. It was a comfortable little building, designed to look more like a house than an office space. We first met with Erica Dahl-Bredine, one of the representatives for CRS from the United States, who gave us the brief lowdown on what CRS is, and its mission for environmental, full lifestyle and sustainability. She then introduced us to Francisco & Francisco, the two gentlemen who work on different important projects through CRS: the international coffee trade and “My Water Basin,” a CRS project focused on national water access/irrigation issues.  The Franciscos talked about their different lines of work, also being very humorous and light-hearted throughout their presentations. It was really interesting listening to what they had to say. Here’s some of my notes throughout the presentation:
– The problem: Water in El Salvador is contaminated and not evenly distributed throughout the country. Also very little accessibility, creating huge social issues for the nation.

  • Loss of vegetation/plants (deforestation affects the ability of soil to absorb water) –> NO WATER for El Salvador.
  • Pollution (“gray water”) – contaminated!
  • About 50% of the population does not have access to running water, which leads to dehydration and disease.
  • CRS is trying to pass a new water law that would make water both cleaner and more accessible; an effort to change the current agricultural practices
  • Also educating citizens how to be more economically and environmentally conservative!  EX. Working with people directly in their homes and communities to educate them on soil/water conservation.
  • Key elements: conservation & management! By increasing water absorption, we can decrease water contamination.

– The coffee issue: Coffee is one of the most popular products in the northern El Salvador region, especially up in the sierras. International coffee trade brings in big business for the country.

  • Two kinds of coffee trade: 50% on the New York Stock Exchange; 50% organic/fair-trade coffee
  • Families that produce the coffee/own coffee farms are often very poor, making salaries of sometimes $200 a year. 
  • 1 lb of coffee = $12 in the US. The Salvadoran producer makes only an 89 cent profit. 
  • Currently, there is a fungus/virus plant going around that is killing the coffee leaves (see previous post!). This is a serious situation, especially for rural families who depend on the business in order to survive.
  • The people at the top have total control over coffee trade & production.
  • No coffee/water –> tension and violence in the rural communities; and increasing migration.
  • About 80% of the food consumed here are actually from other countries. Very few natural crops are  produced here, so there are virtually no food sources.
  • CRS has been talking to offices in the US and other countries in order to raise awareness on these very serious issues, and to reveal their social vision of renewal. They stress the importance of loving our world!

After hearing all of these surprising and concerning facts (which even involve the US), I asked myself, how can I help?! Here are some ideas the Franciscos mentioned:
– Buy coffee that is fair-trade/you know where it came from.
– Join an alliance; learn more about environmental issues and how this can affect you and future generations. Talk to others.
– Stand up for those countries who either respect or ignore it. Pray for them.
– Conserve water! Water is very precious in El Salvador and many nations in the world, so don’t put it to waste!
– Become aware. You can’t make change or have a positive impact if you don’t know what’s going on.

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Yeah, we love lollipops. DSCN0988DSCN0990

The Franciscos sharing their knowledge!

After the 2-hour presentation, we said our goodbyes, stopped by a Salvadoran market for some snacks, and headed back to the CRISPAZ office for our final activity of the day. We watched a quick 30-minute documentary, “The Invisibles: A Hidden Journey Across Mexico,” which was produced by Amnesty International & well-known Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal. Again, another moving and eye-opening film experience. It talks about the migrant journey that many immigrants take from Central American countries (like El Salvador, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, etc) to get to the U.S. for a better life. This isn’t an easy journey across the Mexican border, as the film shows.. it is filled with miles and miles of dessert, gangs, and murders. These migrants have left their homes/families in search of a better life, and many of them don’t ever make it out. For instance, 6 out of 10 women are sexually abused along the way. Many of them have a contraceptive injection before they leave so that they don’t get pregnant. Many Central Americans who live back at home feel distress not knowing where their loved ones are, whether or not they made it across. Some never even return. “This isn’t the American dream,” one said. “It’s the American nightmare.” We cannot ignore them and their hopes for a better life, for as the film said, poor people are the spiritual reserves of the world. They are turning it over with a new hope, la esperanza. They never give up, ever. The flow of migrants will never stop, no matter what. They cannot be silent. We cannot ignore the invisibles.       DSCN0997DSCN0998

The view from our balcony at the guesthouse. Lots of wiring!

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Haaai, we’re cute.

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Jenna (& creepy Chris) DSCN1004

Reflection that night. Everyone was hyper! DSCN1007

After dinner/reflection, Chris wanted to take a dip DSCN1009 DSCN1010

Nestor & I sharing a drink of happiness. DSCN1011

EJ got pushed in! DSCN1013Oh EJ..

Finally after a long and eye-opening day, time to climb into bed & sleep. Big days ahead.. we’re going to the rural community of Agua Caliente tomorrow! I’m so excited; this is the part of the trip that I have been looking most forward to. :] Gonna get some sleep!

With gratitude,

Allyson Rae

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