Syracuse, NY _ La Estancia Sister Community
Who can tell at a first meeting if this is the one that will grow into a strong, meaningful friendship, or if it will merely be added to a growing list of acquaintances? For every new trip taken, will this place be one you'll want to someday revisit? When eleven Central New Yorkers traveled to the five caseríos of La Estancia, El Salvador in February 1993, the motive was nothing more than to hand deliver money for a bean cooperative in the mountains of the war-torn Department of Morazán.
What none of us realized, was that we would "get hooked!" Some reasons for this include witnessing real poverty and its accompanying needs; remembering huge black eyes of smiling children; receiving warm expressions of friendship and solidarity; being moved to tears by sad stories of helicopters, flight and death. For some, the US role in that suffering left its mark. A decision was made to lend a hand in the rebuilding; many wantedneeded to sustain this new relationship.
Return we did, and the Syracuse, NY-La Estancia Sister Community has flourished now for over nine years! Since 1993, over 25 individuals have made that annual journeyto learn, to share and be moved. For Salvadorans, each visit has solidified the distinction between the people from the US and its government. Welcomed warmly every year, both communities have learned more about each other. Many Central New Yorkers have come to realize the connection between those in our country who have so much and folks in Estancia and similar places who have so little. More than simply a week's vacation in the sun, this is one of the gifts we have received through the Sister Community experience.
Of course, projects funded over the years, have been fundamental. School supplies and medicines would remain scarce in this isolated mountain community if not brought by the group each year. Largely ignored by the Salvadoran government for decades, it is clear that Estancia's accomplishmentsa water project in Colón, a new school room in Naranjera, our emergency fund to finance countless medical services, and now the newly built Community Librarywould still be unfulfilled dreams but for the Sister Community. Faithful we have been, and so many of you reading this are part of the "WE." The Estancia Community knows that their world is indeed bigger than the five caseríos spread over those beautiful mountains, and below are some thoughts with which recent visitors returned.
Heart and Soul, Strength and Hope
At night in La Estancia we hung suspended from the ceiling in our hammocks like caterpillars in their cocoons. And like caterpillars, I did not leave La Estancia unchanged. I left a piece of myself in El Salvador, and I took a piece of El Salvador home with me.
The night sky comes quickly in La Estancia. The blue sky of day deepens into indigo and then, quickly, to a velvety black, thick and bright with stars. The moon hangs in the sky at a different angle. The mountains stretch and reach as far as the eye can see. All in all, it's breathtaking.
It was hard to reconcile the beauty of the mountains of Morazán with the extreme violence to which they have stood as silent witness. That ancient holy earth has endured countless bombs and bullets and has soaked up the blood of countless children. These very children, watching out for even smaller sisters and brothers, hid their huge dark eyes and dissolved into giggles when confronted with our foreign ways. Had they been born ten, fifteen years earlier, it would have been their blood to drench the earth.
How can I describe the embrace of tiny old women in bright dresses and scarves, smiling in their ancient wise beauty and calling me "sister"? Those arms that once held food and babies in frightened silence as they fled to the mountains to escape the death squads. Those babies of war, now slender youths growing into men and women, their eyes the eyes of the eternal, their very existence a beacon of hope.
I'm not sure what I left behind in El Salvadora piece of my heart, or maybe a piece of my soul. But I do know what I brought home. A little piece of their strength and a little piece of their hope for a better tomorrow. And most of all, a burning need to fight against the greedy misled powers of the world that take this kind of beauty and try with all their might to crush it into the dust.
I MADE IT!on Horseback
I could write a book! The title would be, "La Estancia From the Height of a Horse and My Great Old Age." But this is not a book and my challenge is to get an overwhelming experience into an article.
"My Great Old Age," pushing seventy-nine, I had ignored. I convinced the group traveling to Estancia that their warnings were unnecessary. I could withstand the rigors of a steep uphill climb, fording a rocky slippery river daily. I was agile; I could do it.
I couldn't! I didn't even make the first climb to our host village. Being young of heart doesn't cut it. I had a problem. Even worse, I was a problem. The only alternative would be to stay put while the rest went off each day to visit the other villages. That was my solution, not theirs. "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." The next morning there were a horse and a guide waiting to carry me and to point out with pride the sights along the way.
At each village we were greeted with affection and gratitude, but also with well-organized financial reports, reports from teachers, reports from a woman's organization, addressing their input and needs of the village.
Each member of our party was introduced and thanked for their special part. I was introduced as "Rita who at her Great Age" traveled so far to see us. By now I was getting to like my Great Old Age!
So what did I learn traveling on my noble beast? That I was glad it was the dry season as my horse and I eyed every downward stony path with trepidation. We couldn't have made it in the rainy season, nor could children get to school or others get to the clinic. The Torola River we crossed every day swells in the rainy season.
Ah yes, the river. A few years ago La Estancia was threatened by a proposed dam. The plan was discarded but now has moved to another community, La Carolina. Both raise their voices together in solidarity, but get no representation in a decision that clearly affects both communities.
They need roads, bridges, teachers, jobs, health care, but mostly they need a voice. I think their government decision makers should get a horse and follow the trail we followed - but in the rainy season. Too bad they have mud in their eyes already. They are blind to their most precious resourcethe spirit of their people.
Eye Openers to Reality
Last July I took part in a fact-finding delegation to Colombia sponsored by Witness for Peace and School of the Americas Watch. We had briefings with spokes-persons from labor, peace and justice groups, displaced people, women's groups and campesinos. We also met with the Colombian military and the U.S. Embassy. There may be no better format then this for getting a quick snapshot of the political realities of a country caught up in a complex civil war and US intervention.
Our on-going relationship with La Estancia has been and is a very different approach. It has been like a nine-year video of a community that has lived through and is recovering from a civil war, also with US intervention. The relationship between Syracusans and the people of La Estancia has deepened each year.
On our yearly visits we receive the hospitality of the people in La Estancia, listen to their stories and see their struggle not only to survive, but to grow into a strong Community. It is a time to feel their pain, offer support and hug away their tears, to share their joys and laugh together, to walk the mountain paths and ford the Torola River on foot. We share the commonalities of our lives.
I was fortunate to have both these delegation experiences. To encounter the realities of our neighbors to the South, it is important to have both briefings and day-to-day living together. I don't have a complete understanding of these two countries and their people. But I do value my contacts and know that I can speak with some knowledge of how US policy effects these countries. The people inspire me to continue my work as a Latin American Solidarity activist. I have been touched by the grace, the faith and the courage of the people of El Salvador and Colombia.
For further information about the Syracuse, NY-La Estancia Sister Community contact Shirley Novak, 315-446-6099, email: shirleynovak@ yahoo.com.
The contributors were all part of this year's multi-generational Sister Community delegation to La Estancia in February, which included Rita Gabaccia, 78; Laura MacDonald, 22; Shirley Novak, 54; and Ann Tiffany, 66.