Unidos en La Solidaridad - United in Solidarity
by Donna Mühs-McCarten


One of the members of the Congregation of Mothers at the “molina” grinding corn for the villagers. Photo: Donna Muhs-McCarten

In February 1993 eleven Central New Yorkers trudged over steep rocky paths and crossed rivers on foot in the province of Morazán, El Salvador in what they thought would be a one time visit. For four hours they carried medical and school supplies in heavy suitcases, filled also with other necessities; no vehicle access into the community existed at that time.  Accompanied by a Salvadoran who had fled his country’s civil war to escape deaths threats (living for a time in Syracuse, NY, before legally gaining admittance into Canada), the group was declared a “Sister Community” by a revolutionary priest. The journey continues to this day, seventeen years later.

In February of this year, the Syracuse delegation still travelled to the same five caseríos (hamlets) only this time the roads have improved and a truck from Doctors of Global Health (DGH) partner group, Campesinos para el Desarrollo Humano (CDH – Peasants for Human Development), met us at the airport. Our bags were still filled with supplies for the children and antibiotics for the clinic; our pockets carried checks from generous CNY contributors still aiding the widows and families of the former fighters for social justice and reform.

At this year’s meeting, the participants sat on the patio of one of the closed school buildings in La Presa, one of the tiny caseríos. The twenty or more women and men gathered for our visit expressed their deep appreciation for all that sister community coordinator Shirley Novak  and others from the Caribbean/Latin American Coalition (CLAC) have done for the people of these caseríos in northeastern El Salvador.

Early in the 12-year civil war, the women of La Estancia had formed a group, the Congregation of Mothers, to increase their chances of survival – growing chickens, rabbits and sowing crops cooperatively.  Another important function was to accompany their villagers who feared disappearances by the repressive government, and to travel on foot to the dreaded police barracks demanding the release of their loved ones who were disappeared.  It was this government and its military that were responsible for the murders of Monsignor Oscar Romero and others, including those nine hundred plus victims of the horrible massacre in El Mozote in 1981, a hamlet not very far away from Estancia.

“The war is over. We have fought the lion and now the government is ours,” say our hosts, “but the pain remains. Finally, three generations later, we have the land and we must do much with it.”  With the historic 2009 election of Maurico Funes of the FMLN party (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front: the leftist opposition force that became a legal political party with the negotiated peace), our hosts say that this election is what the people had been hoping for during the war. “We now have hope in our local and national governments. We have no jobs; we are as poor as can be, but we have a dignified relationship with our government and are working together toward solutions. We have a strong culture and tasks which include education and health. You, the Sister Community, are holding our hands, like parents. You are our moral support.”

Projects indeed are moving forward with improved access to medical care, roads now being built directly to the schools, and electricity is on its way. These proud independent people still rely on a subsistence economy aided by our efforts and solidarity with them. Poverty, land reform, poor nutrition, illiteracy and continual medical issues follow them as they undertake new plans for further development.

At the same time, many projects are initiated by the Congregation of Mothers. With our dollars the women raise chickens and sell the eggs at the markets. Family gardens, as well as the raising of a few calves, also supplement their diets. The expert weaving of hammocks and purses bring in much needed cash, as does the successful operation of a molina, a mill for grinding corn for tortillas.  Operated cooperatively by the Mothers, it was purchased a few years ago with start up funding from the Syracuse hermanamiento.

With great hope for their future, teenagers have now formed youth groups patterned on the organizational skills and leadership of their parents. Their youth projects include a traditional dance group and the production of handicrafts. Over many years, the Sister Community has been funding five scholarships per year enabling worthy young people to attend high school, an improbability for most. These recipients staff the now well used library, non existent before our group’s efforts. Teachers and mothers who once taught their young under trees during the war under threat of their lives, now see their children attending universities, teaching others and continuing la lucha, the struggle for human rights and justice.

  It is a tribute to the perseverance of La Estancia’s people and the Sister Community’s coordinator, Shirley Novak, that the caserios now have a physician of their own. After six years of medical school in Cuba, Dr. Juan Carlos Martínez has returned to the community to serve the needs of its people in a CDH clinic, aided by DGH volunteers and funding, with some support from the Sister Community. Discrimination of the poor in the hospitals is still a problem; medical testing and travel to referral medical offices and hospitals is expensive. To assist with medical, food and housing emergency needs, the Sister Community’s annual emergency fund to each caserío fluctuates between $250-$350, depending on local funds raised.

The work in La Estancia continues amid hardships and progress. As one villager stated, “We walk into the future, taking double steps now. We keep walking… we keep walking.”  May we continue to walk with them in hope and in solidarity.

Donna, a member of the Syracuse-La Estancia Sister Community, has just returned from her third trip to La Estancia.