Thursday, June 15, 2017

Moises's Eyes

“How are you?” “How’s El Salvador?”

These are the seemingly straightforward questions that I was posed by the dear friends, family, and mentors I was lucky enough to reconnect with over the past two weeks in the US. Each of my responses felt inadequate at best, insincere at worst. I’d think quickly, “If I search for some semblance of the truth, I’ll still hardly scratch the surface, and I’ll again be the cynical, Debbie Downer of the day,” …. “If I whitewash the truth with dull generalizations, I’m doing a disservice to the lives I’ve encountered, many of whose tragic destinies are wrapped up in ages of deadly dosages of silence and small talk.” At times, I would try to plunge into the complexity, and in some cases, the horror, of these past few months, and I would find myself sounding like an emotionless recording. Or I’d use humor to bridge the gap between intractable darkness and something, anything, more relatable.

Moises’s eyes.

They are the most accurate image I can come up with to explain “How are you?” “How is El Salvador?” If only I could will everyone who asked to be transported to the emergency waiting room and to gaze down into Moises’s eyes, there wouldn’t be a need to say much more.

Five days before visiting the US, my dearest friend here received news that landed us in the public hospital emergency waiting room for several days, while he waited for a hospital bed to open up. As we waited, and waited, and waited, people kept piling in, waiting for bed space. Strangers quickly became neighbors and sympathizers with one another’s pain, in a place filled with crisis and dysfunction. Mothers exchanged updates on their children’s progress as well as that of most patients within earshot, as they commiserated and strategized about how to get the best care possible in a hospital operating for the most part without any medicine.  

After waiting for 9 hours or so, my dazed state was disrupted by a flurry of activity when a patient was rolled in by seven Green Cross volunteers and 5 police officers. He couldn’t have been more than 15 years old, and his slender body wriggled in pain as he winced and whimpered. He was covered in blood, which was flowing from his left leg just above his ankle where his bone was protruding out of his skin. The volunteers tied his feet together with a t-shirt as they talked amongst themselves. No one spoke to the boy; he might as well have been invisible. After nearly half an hour, one of the police officers walked over to him and told him to “grow a pair and suck it up,” as another, just out of his earshot, boastfully relayed to his peers that they’d managed to shoot and kill the boy’s friend, whose body now lay lifeless in a nearby hospital. 

Though there is a waiting room for cases of “maximum urgency,” the boy was not wheeled off to this room, nor given pain medication. Alas, he was accompanied by police officers, so he was fair game for scorn and presumption of all sorts. He was to be seen through the eyes of fear and blame, by those conditioned by the daily news to hate the scapegoats, to see the small picture, and to stifle curiosity, structural analysis, and compassion.

As last, the Green Cross volunteers left and the police officers disappeared for long enough for me to walk over to this whimpering child whose solitude in the midst of his unimaginable pain was breaking me apart. I stroked his forehead and wiped his tears as he winced up at me and told me the story that is at once unique to his own lived experience, as well as the carbon copy of the stories shared by so many youth across this country who are criminalized and killed in droves day in and day out.

 “I was sitting with my friend, and the cops showed up so we ran, because every time they see us, they beat us. As I ran they open fired on us and I lost track of my friend. I jumped from a 10-foot wall to escape the bullets and heard my bone crack, but I kept running. When I couldn’t take the pain, I collapsed, and the cops caught up to me. They beat me like a dirty rag, though my bone was sticking out of my leg. They wanted to kill me, but people started coming out of their houses and there would have been too many witnesses.” I asked if he knew how his friend was, wondering if he knew he’d never see him again, and he said he didn’t know where he was. I swallowed hard, deciding to spare him the pain of this news for the meantime, hating the fact that for this squirming, wincing child, the worst was yet to come.

“What’s your name?” I asked him. “Moises,” he answered, as he looked up at me and squinted one searching, glossy, brown eye open. In a strained voice he said, “Thank you.” I’m not sure what he was thanking me for. Perhaps for being the only person in this awful trajectory to recognize his fear and pain. Whatever it was, it felt cripplingly inadequate. As he moaned in pain I told him to breathe deeply, and as I did so, I was overwhelmed by the ludicrous nature of this request, thinking, “Your bone is sticking out of your ankle, you are in a hospital without medicine, you’re seen as dispensable, the cops nearly killed you, they killed your friend and you don’t know it yet, and I am asking you to breathe deeply.” I wanted to be a surgeon and to be able to heal him, though I knew the roots of his pain must reach much deeper than his ankle. I asked what he was feeling, and he groaned out between whimpers that he would never walk again. That he wouldn’t be able to go back to 7th grade. That he would have to be locked up for 7 days because the cops had found weed in his pocket (this explained the police’s lingering presence).  I looked again into his pained, squinted eyes with tears flowing down onto his stained hospital sheet, and I thought of each boy I work with in prison and of each of their scars. How many times had this been each of them? How much pain could they keep enduring?

His persistent groans brought me back to the present and I did my best to reassure him, though I knew I was lying through my teeth. “Tranquilo mi amor, respire. They’ll give you anesthesia and they’ll fix your leg. You won’t feel anything during the surgery and you’ll have to use crutches for several months, but then you’ll walk again. You can keep studying, your friends will help you with your books.” Wishful thinking at best, given the circumstances. A more truthful prediction would have been something like, “This hospital has no medicine, your leg won’t heal properly. The cops will be hell bent on killing you, since you got away. If you report the abuse to authorities, they’ll kill you even faster...”

I continued, “Do your parents know you’re here?” “Do you have siblings?” No. It’s just me. They don’t know… and the look on his face told me there was much more to this story. Suddenly, a woman tapped my shoulder and said, “Your patient!” and I turned around to find that my friend had fainted while they injected him. I followed, numb and shaken, as they wheeled him into urgent care, talking about heart arrhythmias and checking his chart only after they had injected him. “You can’t go into urgent care,” I was told by a doctor who looked to be in high school.

Standing in the hallway, overwhelmed with impotence and uncertainty, I called a dear friend and mentor. “Remember that the doctors work 30 hour shifts and have 300 patients each,” he reminded me, “The police are tired too, and they’re scared.” I hung up the phone, reminded of the complexities of structural violence but no less discouraged. Feeling light-headed with anxiety and uncertainty, I walked back to be with Moises. As I rubbed his forehead and mumbled reassuring lies, a man approached me and asked to talk with Moises. He told me he was his father.

As soon as Moises saw him, his demeanor changed entirely. His body stiffened, his whimpering stopped, and in a sarcastic tone he uttered, “Oh, I’m fine, they’ll just have to chop off my leg.” I stepped away to give his father space, and shortly thereafter his mother appeared, head covered by a white laced cloth, with a giant bible in tote. I watched from a distance as she leaned over him with a scolding posture. She didn’t touch him, she just talked and talked, and he silently stared into the curtain that divided him from the 50 or so other patients in the waiting area. I imagined her in a street-corner church with blaring speakers and 7 churchgoers, day in and day out, praying to a God in the clouds to come down and fix her only child, while he wandered the streets. In their company, his loneliness loomed larger.

I approached him once more, and a nurse asked me disapprovingly, “Which patient are you here with?” As I backed away, the police officers reappeared. My visit with Moises was over. Within the hour, he was wheeled off to surgery, and as he left the waiting area, he spotted a motionless boy in another stretcher who had fallen from a pick-up truck. He strained his torso to see the boy’s face, undoubtedly searching for his friend, not knowing that his friend lay dead for the crime of being young, impoverished, and guilty of anything and everything until proven innocent.  

Days later I found myself in the US, surrounded by the company of dear friends, wondering how these parallel realities can exist simultaneously. I was reminded of the simple advice Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez gave me years ago, when I was struggling to comprehend the loss of a young child in Uganda. “You have to stay close,” he’d told me. Close to the margins, close to the wisdom of those who have no choice but to learn to survive within (and in spite of) the systems that serve to oppress them.

I soaked up the time with loved ones and came back to stay close. At the airport, I was greeted by the rainy season, by my neighbors, and by my sweet godson Santiago, who waved at me above the crowd of people eagerly waiting at the arrivals gate. One wet pick-up ride later, we were home.

Monday, December 26, 2016

¿Feliz Navidad?

I have been back in El Salvador for 5 months, and stories and experiences keep piling up that I want to share in some way. I straddle the line between aching to write and to share (especially with the corners of the world so far removed from the everyday realities of violence and resilience), and feeling the protective urge to hold stories deep within me so as not to expose the lives of those who trust me with their own. Both responses seem irresponsible. Becoming a silent reservoir of stories that I believe should come to light seems to be a bow to the status quo. At the same time, in sharing the lived realities of those I love with a virtual public audience, I run the risk of turning their lives and their experiences of violence into a spectacle, and I wonder to what end this will serve them/me/those who read.

This being the case I will straddle that line and will continue to write, trying to partake in the delicate dance of stating what needs to be stated while still respecting the privacy and dignity of those whose lives are intertwined here with my own. Since moving back in August, there have been many, many days where I have woken up filled with awe and rage at the expressions of violence and inequality that I witness here. I tell myself I must begin to write. I plan out what I’ll write in my head. I sit down at the computer. And yet, I don’t write. I get swept up in the next crisis and the outrage of the previous crisis fades and sinks into a new “normal” as stories of ever greater violence and brutality become par for the course. I become more and more outraged by the way the world keeps on turning for some, oblivious to the depths of pain and fear others are forced to experience daily, and to their role in perpetuating such dualistic realities. I remember that I inhabit both worlds, if they can be simplistically condensed into two, and that as such I must not only witness and hold, I must write and share. I hope that my writing might in some small way serve as an invitation to encounter the humans bearing the brunt of the consequences of the sweeping issues like the “drug war,” the “gang crisis,” the “immigration problem” etc.; issues that are thrown around as mere topics of discussion or debate in some circles, while they continue to have paralyzing and terrifying daily implications in others.

Last week leading up to Christmas, soldiers (who have long since policed communities here) and anti-gang policing units had a hey-day in our community. For all intents and purposes, in marginalized Salvadoran communities, it is a crime to be a young male. Soldiers and police prowl through communities stopping, searching, and often beating and killing young people with complete impunity. Last Thursday as I sat in my neighbor’s house, my 5-year old god-daughter ran in and said, “The soldiers are here! If they ask me where I live I’m going to say that I live in this house and that you’re my mom! Do you think they’ll take me away?” I assured her that they wouldn’t take her away, and I stepped outside into the alleyway in front of our homes to see who they had stopped this time. Two houses down, 4 masked soldiers had five of my neighbors (aged 14 to 17) shirtless and spread eagle. When I walked down to witness the scene, with the hopes that spectators might reduce the chance of abuse and arbitrary arrests, I heard one of the soldiers calling the boys “gay assholes,” in an attempt to provoke them. I asked him to please treat the boys with respect, and I identified myself as their youth group leader, and I was told to get away because I had no business being there.

Thankfully, our community has a strong sense of unity, and soon there were about 20 of us witnessing this scene. The soldiers had the boys standing and coughing shirtless in the cold for over an hour as they went through every message and song in their phones, trying to find anything gang-related. They accused the boys of being spies for the gangs because some of their messages alerted their friends that the police were coming. One boy’s mother piped up and told one of the officers that her son had been beaten 3 times this month by soldiers who had stolen his necklace and cell phone, and that he warned his friends about their presence to avoid getting beaten for nothing. The soldiers denied these claims and insisted that these boys were dangerous because they were “in a group” when they should be in their houses, and because 2 of the boys had run from them (no doubt, to avoid being beaten and humiliated). He proceeded to add that he was doing us a favor by not arresting all 5 of them on the spot, and that he would have shot the 2 who ran had there not been so many children around. The boys were told that next time they were found in the street in a group, they would all be taken to jail. The same outspoken mother pointed out that 50 meters down the alleyway several men were making a drunken ruckus in the street, but no one stopped them, to which the soldiers replied "they're just drinking and they're not bothering anybody, but these boys are in a group in the dark." Finally the boys were released and as I debriefed with them back in their homes, they strategized about where they would do the secret santa exchange we had planned for the following evening, without risking being arrested for being in a group.

As I watched these boys who I know and love, who I've watched grow up over the past 9 years, stand spread eagle, coughing and enduring this routine act of public humiliation, I was filled with anger and with an overwhelming sense of impotence. I thought of the 100 million dollars in military aid that the US sent this year to the Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, and how policy makers would never have to watch their children be criminalized daily for their mere existence. They wouldn’t have to fear searching high and low for their son’s remains, after routine military raids. They wouldn’t have to spend sleepless nights with their 14-year old boys suffering from panic attacks, too scared to go outside. They wouldn’t have to hear their 8-year-old sons say what my neighbor recently told his mom, “I don’t want to grow up and be a youth, because youth get killed.”

The following night I spent the night at a friend’s place, and when I called home I was told that the soldiers had stopped another group of boys and that they’d taken one away in handcuffs. When I came home the next day, I heard the full story. This time several boys were sitting on my front stoop watching youtube videos on their phones when the soldiers came through and grabbed them and took them to the end of a dark alleyway. The soldiers beat them with their flashlights and their rifles and when a crowd emerged they finally let all of them go except for one. They handcuffed him and walked him out of the community in a public spectacle of shame, before taking his shoes off and burning them (claiming they were gang related), and letting him go. My neighbors later went to bring him new shoes, but the soldiers stopped them on their way, claimed they were gang sympathizers, and stole the shoes. When my 5-year-old god-daughter relayed the story to me she told me with a resigned look of sadness and conviction, “When I’m big, the soldiers will burn my sandals.” As I looked back at her, I thought of the safety and security that enshrouded my own childhood, and longed for a world where state sponsored violence and constant insecurity would not define the way she tried to make sense of the world.

Gangs are made out to be the the horrific cause of all violence here, and the violence they inflict is in fact, horrific. However, the state apparatus in charge of “serving and protecting” civilians, is seemingly doing all in its power to create an environment of constant insecurity, humiliation, fear, and shame, such that young people search for a way to have some sense of power and protection when they will be treated as guilty no matter what. As one of the leaders of the community youth group, I see the way in which the threat of police violence in our community aggravates cycles of violence in families and pushes young people to their limits. They are trapped and they know it. If they are in a group, they’re assumed to be in a gang. If they are found alone, they are assumed to be spies for the gang. If they leave their own community, they risk state-sponsored brutality and that of the rival gang, even if they are not the least bit gang-involved. They talk about wanting to go to the US, even if they die along the way, because there is no life for them here. Years ago, I used to urge them to stay. Today, it seems their lives are in jeopardy either way.

In the midst of this madness, 5 youth leaders from the community and myself have revived the community youth group to try to create a space for young people to feel validated and to be given the freedom to exist in a space without fear. We meet once a week with thirty young people from our community to learn from one another about topics like self-esteem, police violence, identity, creativity, trauma and healing, etc. We do guided meditations, play games, and learn together how to try to build a community of safety and support, even within a context that makes this nearly impossible once they leave the community center doors. Every Sunday we laugh and cry together and learn a bit more about ourselves and the world we inhabit. We have no external funding, and we make miracles with what we do have. We’re a tiny oasis in the midst of the madness and I’m convinced that if we don’t lose momentum amidst all of the challenges we face here, the same young people in the group who are still too shy to say their names, will be those leading the group in a few years, assuring that the next generation has a space to feel safe, to feel welcome, to discover themselves and their place in this world in spite of the noise and the violence.
Youth group members on their way to the National Theater.
Youth group members dancing at a community celebration they organized for the Day of the Child

Youth group members in the closing session of a Sunday meeting.

Youth group members in a writing workshop with guest facilitator Jennifer Coreas.

Last night one of the youth group leaders and I walked from door to door requesting letters from the participants' parents, so that we can surprise them with their parents’ supportive words at our Christmas celebration with them tonight. After two hours of going door to door, we were headed back home at 9:30, and what to our wondering eyes should appear? (hint: not a miniature sleigh, nor 8 tiny reindeer) But 3 soldiers crouched down in full gear…. Three soldiers, automatic weapons drawn, crouched down and moving quickly along the perimeter of our homes, making their way through our community, sending everyone running inside. In some twisted way, both of our evening rounds are construed as violence prevention efforts geared towards ensuring safe communities. Why the military policing strategy is given millions, while youth-led community organizing efforts don’t usually make the funding drawing board, is beyond me. Except for the fact that the violence and the resulting state of insecurity is incredibly profitable to many… who will certainly not bump into crouching soldiers in their communities on their way home at night. And yet… tonight we will celebrate life. We will celebrate the vibrancy of the young people in our community and their creative energy. And we will keep working to create a world where just maybe, one fine day, the soldiers might lay down their guns and celebrate with us.