Never Too Late to Learn a Language (or, Why Carole King was Wrong)

Does this look like a foreign language class you have taken? If not, good; that is how it should be. If yes, I am sorry, but it’s not too late for you.

You’re wrong Carole King!


Having studied how to teach a foreign language while at the same time learning a foreign language has helped me learn how humans actually learn language. And it turns out, the overall concept is not too complicated.

Through this experience and through traveling, I have also had the opportunity to chat with many language learners about learning language.

What I hear time and again (from native Spanish and English speakers and especially from U.S. citizens) are things like:




“Stop!” I say.




They ponder.



“You listened to it, non-stop for about a year.

image Then, you mumbled a few words. After a couple years of mainly listening, you formed some sentences.

imageThen, after about six years of full exposure, you learned to read. Last came writing.”



So if you think you were a bad student or “are just bad at learning languages,” that is a load of baloney. The myth that toddlers learn language faster is also baloney (although they beat us on the accent thing…)

The load of baloney dance.

So, if you want to learn another language–DO IT!!!

I imagine it is like having a child…definitely can be a pain in the a**, but is rewarding in the end.  I mean, hey, it brought me here.


Arcatao Says “¡No a la Minería!”


As promised in a post a couple months ago (click here to catch up quick), it is time for an update on Arcatao’s mining consultation.

After months of prep-work, the people of the municipality of Arcatao went to the polls on November 8th to vote “yes” or “no” on allowing mining in their region. Over one thousand people voted “no.” There were three “yes” votes and one null, meaning over 99.9% of voters voted against allowing mining exploration and exploitation in their municipality. With a 53% voter turnout (including people who have immigrated to the U.S. as eligible voters, so realistically the turnout is much higher), Arcatao is an example of political participation we can all learn from.

The Delegation: A Super Brief Summary

Our team of reporters, professors, and activists met in San Salvador on Tuesday to embark on a journey through the past and present of mining in El Salvador. Our group had representatives from Canada, Germany, France, and the U.S., and observers from Denmark, Italy, Guatemala and Norway joined us on the day of the consultation.

The adventure began in San Sebastian, a municipality that had a strong mining presence throughout the twentieth century. From 1904 to 1968, thirty-two tons of gold were extracted from the hills from the U.S. based Commerce Group. These riches went outward, but contaminated water, illness, and cyanide tanks stayed.

Cyanide tanks left by U.S. Commerce Group
Cyanide tanks left by U.S. Commerce Group

The San Sebastian river runs through town and was its water source. Now, all drinking water must be brought into the town on truck. They have to rely on rain to water their crops, or risk contaminating them with irrigation. With less and less rain due to drought, this becomes increasingly difficult.

A tributary to the San Sebastián river

The next day, we went to La Maraña, a community impacted by the El Dorado mining project and the Pacific Rim/Oceana Gold lawsuit.  We sat 1.5 kilometers from the project with various community leaders and discussed what they noticed in the surrounding area. They said they have been successful in keeping the mine out of their community, but at a cost. When the mining company first made its presence in La Maraña, the people didn’t know what the mine was and were told it would provide jobs and a better life for their children. They soon realized, however, that the wealth would go outward and they would be left with destroyed natural resources which their livelihoods depended on.

Community members in La Maraña
Community members in La Maraña

With the help of the local group ADES, international support, and organization within the community, the people were able to take a stand against the mine. When the company learned people were against it, however, there were multiple reported murders in the area and even more threats. Don Alejandro, one of the leaders who spoke with us, told us they continue to receive threats by phone, and once he and his thirteen-year-old daughter were shot at. She was hit with 21 pellets and is still recovering two years later. The Attorney General found the material persecutor of the crime, but not the intellectual planner behind it.

Emotionally drained, but still in hopeful spirits, the group loaded the microbus and headed to Arcatao, which Katie and I now call home. We spent the night with host families and got ready for a hike and observer training the following day.

Our morning started with a trek up Cerro Patacon. We munched some pineapple on top while we learned the historic and environmental significance of the dirt under our feet–where there was also gold.

Katie sitting on valuable turf
Katie sitting on valuable turf

Sunday, Arcatao went to the polls and we stood by as observers, ready to support whatever outcome the community decided. We were there to lend validity to the process, and to note any anomalies which we will eventually turn into a report.

A woman voting at one of 9 voting centers in the municipality
A woman voting at one of 9 voting centers in the municipality

As stated above, Arcatao overwhelmingly said, “No,” to the mine and is now the fourth municipality to do so. Working community by community, El Salvador can be an example of how to make a country free of mining.

“They are so brave,” I told Coordinator Catie as we watched people in line to vote. “Even if El Salvador becomes free of mining, Guatemala and Honduras can mine and contaminated water can enter watersheds in El Salvador anyway.”

“True,” she said, “but they can also be an example to follow of how a country in Central America can fight exploitation and ban mining.”

El Salvador can also be an example of how an informed community in the United States can make a difference nationally, too.

Counting votes and marking unused ballots after the polls closed
Counting votes and marking unused ballots after the polls closed
One of our observers from Canada representing our group at a midmorning press conference in Arcatao
One of our observers from Canada representing our group at a midmorning press conference in Arcatao
Observers from Europe, enjoying a cup of coffee before the polls opened at 8 a.m.
Observers from Europe, enjoying a cup of coffee before the polls opened at 8 a.m.

Arcatao Remembers

Imagine you are 14. You are told you have to leave your home because the people are organizing. You don’t know why. You go to the mountains with a group of people who explain to you the political situation of your country. You cook for soldiers and walk for miles each night for 12 years. The majority of your lifetime you can remember, you have been in a war. You don’t imagine ever seeing your home and loved ones again.

This, along with many more details (falling in love, having two children who you must leave with your mother) is what one of my closest Salvadoran friends endured during the country’s civil war.

El Salvador’s civil war officially began in 1980, and lasted until 1992. The war was between an oppressive, military government right funded by United States’ tax dollars, and the Faramundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) or “guerrillas” on the left. However, like most wars, those who suffered the most were civilians. Over the span of the war, 75,000 people died and many were terrorized and tortured.

Researching this war under the supervision of Dr. Molly Todd at Montana State University is what eventually led me to volunteer with Sister Cities. Living in El Salvador the last few months has brought to life for me the aftermath of the war.

One of the first things that surprised me most about El Salvador is people’s willingness to share their testimonies. I was inspired by these survivors at home, but when they are your friend and they share a part of this past, it adds a new dimension to these stories.

As soon as Katie and I arrived in Arcatao back in August, we were welcomed by Rosa Riveras, a founding member of Arcatao’s Historic Memory committee. We met her at the town’s small museum, and she gave us a detailed tour, complete with the general history of the civil war, as well as specific stories of people from the community. The next day we had our first historic memory meeting where a woman told us her full testimony and invited us to lunch.

Arcatao's museum entrance
Arcatao’s museum entrance

According to Rosa, the purpose of the historic memory committee is for survivors to write their own history to discover the truth, or as she puts it, not to erase all the pain and suffering, but to learn from the past in order to not repeat it. The committee meets, without fail, every Sunday to discuss project ideas and events happening in and around Arcatao. Some of the most recent events we attended were an exhumation and a workshop sponsored by the Museo de Palabra e Imagen (San Salvador).

In this workshop, we split into two groups and did an activity that consisted of creating the museum of our dreams. These museums were complete with multiple rooms, visitors, employees, gift shops, cafes, and additional exhibits to tell what the present-day situation in Arcatao is like. We then wrote down the five main things we wanted from our dream-museums and presented to the other group. We then split into two new groups to discuss what steps we need to take to actually achieve these dreams.

Group 1 dream museum
Group 1 dream museum

Like all ideas this organized, driven committee has, the inhibitor is almost always funding. Where can they get the funds to buy a proper building, let alone pay one or two employees to have visiting hours?

Group 2 dream museum
Group 2 dream museum

As “Historic Memory Interns,” one thing Katie and I noticed was the main reason we are useful is because of our gadgets. Our two main tasks we have been assigned so far is transcribing interviews that are already filmed and interviewing different community members about the post-war era. Both of these tasks most people on the committee could do better than us, but they are lacking simple things like a computer with a disk drive, and a camera that can record. A basic laptop with a disk drive and camera could go a long way for both these projects. (If you are interested in helping make this a reality, please contact Sister Cities.)

Historic memory committees are not unique to Arcatao. The majority of municipalities have them. Through these committees, survivors and families of survivors can write their own history to remember loved ones and the past in order to take charge of their own futures. I cannot adequately cover in one blog post how powerful it is to hear the testimonies of people in Arcatao. It continues to amaze and humble me how people who have suffered so much from U.S. tax dollars welcome me, a U.S. citizen, warmly into their homes and share not only a warm meal, but painful stories of their survival. It probably goes without saying–their is something special about Salvadorans.

The Power of Laughter

As long as you can laugh at yourself, you will never cease to be amused. -A Wise Person

This almost-cliché-quote is one of my life mottos. More often than not, we take ourselves way too seriously. Whether it is or work, our studies, or how we think others perceive us, there are moments every day that we can choose to either take personally, or laugh at. I try my best to choose laughter.  A great way to test this is by traveling or living abroad. The past two months I’ve spent in El Salvador have taught me more than I imagined. Not taking myself too seriously has been a top lesson.

(Disclaimer: This post is by no means intended to poke fun at Salvadoran culture. It could just as easily be written about my day to day life in Montana, but I am here now and as a foreigner probably do more silly things than normal so that is what I will share about.)

Things I Can Choose to Either Cry or Laugh at:

1. The veggie truck. Every day, a pick-up truck drives through town blaring ranchero or rap music while a nasally, staccato, super speedy voice says something like, “Papas, tomates, dos libras un dolarrrrr,” over a loud speaker. For some reason, this really irked me at first. Every time I heard a truck engine my shoulders would go up to my ears, I’d begin to sweat and hold my breath, bracing myself for that advertisement to disrupt every peaceful part of my being.

One day, I decided to picture what this would look like in Montana: a Ford F-150 cruising down Main Street, Bozeman bumping some Wu-Tang Clan and saying aggressively over a loud speaker, “We’re selling potatoes! Eat your veggies!”

…not unlike Gwen Stefani’s passion for bananas.

I now love the veggie truck.
2. My nine-year-old host sister/child is wonderful. We hang out every day and learn a lot from one another. I can confidently say my best friend in El Salvador is a nine-year-old. That said, sometimes she forgets I am a full-grown human.

During dinner one night, the power went out. Cruz went to get a candle. As soon as she lit it, the lights came back on and Karen tried to blow the candle out but was repeatedly failing. “Put your hand behind the flame like this,” I showed her. She did, and blew out the candle successfully. “Wow!” She said, “you already know how candles work.” My only response was to slow-blink-blank-stare at her.

Some other things Karen has explained to me:

  • how capital letters work (although we disagree…)
  • what an oven is
  • what fire is
  • that chicks become chickens
  • that I shouldn’t cut the clothesline with fingernail-clippers

The list goes on, but it also contains some very useful explanations. Karen is the person I go to with many questions, and she always has an answer.

My favorite teacher running some errands.
My favorite teacher running some errands.

3. Showers are an adventure. I shower outside among the fresh air and elements, which I feel is much more sanitary than an indoor tub. It also gives you a sense of freedom. However, when you shower outside, you are never truly alone.

Beings that have been in the shower with me:

  • chickens
  • mushrooms
  • geckos
  • a giant spider
  • a giant spider with an egg sack
  • cockroaches
  • toads

One day, after a nice morning jog, I was showering as Abba’s Take a Chance on Me blared from the neighbor’s house. I was feeling pretty into it and dancing along in my flip flops under the cool water.

Our Shower
Our Shower

IMPORTANT DETAIL: A tin roof covers our shower head, and a branch from a tree in the chicken pen covers the roof.

I was scrubbing away and thew my fist in the air as Abba said, “Gonna do my VERY best, and it ain’t no lie.” Suddenly, two loud bangs hit the tin roof and sounded like fireworks going off. I let out a shriek, “IS EVERYONE OK?!” I heard laughter. “Just some chickens jumping on the roof,” my family explained. I didn’t dance as freely the rest of that particular shower, but now nothing holds me back (except toads for some reason).

4. A little dengue for your birthday. My birthday was a couple weeks ago. Katie and I decided to celebrate by taking a vacation to the beach. The day we left, we both had hot/cold flashes and sore lower backs. We thought it was from sitting so much and vowed to walk around when we reached our destination. As the day progressed, we had identical, specific symptoms including eyes hurting when we moved them, achey legs, and rashes that we thought were sunburns. The symptoms did not go away with walking, sunshine, fruity drinks, or hammock naps. In fact, I even gained a new symptom that made me run to the bathroom every time I ate (they call it “the runs” for a reason *boom boom symbol crash*). As we sat at dinner (Katie sweating and me wishing I had a down jacket) we decided to cut our vacation short and go to the clinic.

After waiting a few hours and having our blood drawn, the doctor called us both in to her office and shook her head looking at us like a disappointed teacher looks at a student who failed her test but shouldn’t have. I spared her breaking the news to us, “We have dengue,” I told her. “You have dengue,” she replied, “And you,” she pointed at me, “have amoebas.”

The next day I turned 24. To celebrate, Katie and I went to the supermarket to stock up on superfoods (oreos and gatorade) and spent the rest of the day on our boss’s couch (and toilet–Thanks Catie!) I couldn’t help but crack up from time to time as I saw little blonde Katie curled up on a pillow itching herself and pictured myself sipping my gatorade like a baby bottle with my legs elevated to try to ease the pain. Picturing how funny this story could be in the future is what kept me sane. The dengue went away, I got antibiotics for the amoebas, and we returned to Arcatao with a story to share.

I look forward to what the rest of what living in El Salvador and being 24 will teach me, and hope to keep practicing the power of laughter.

Kickin’ it With the Kiddos

Finally having the free time I yearned for throughout my five years in college (the only thing better than being a Senior once is being a Senior twice), I have had some moments to reflect and reminisce on how my life brought me to where I am today. Part of that reflection is on my childhood. My childhood was awesome (thanks Mom and Dad) and lucky for me, being a foreigner is a bit like being a child–you say funny things, have simple things explained in great detail to you (yes, Karen, I know what an oven is…), and get super excited about things like ice cream (or maybe that’s just me). One thing I noticed from all the traveling I’ve done is that kids, in whatever country, are pretty much the same. Teaching English and playing games at the Centro de Bienestar Infantil (childhood well-being center or CBI) a couple times a week has reinforced my belief in this.

Majority of the CBI roster, getting ready to play some games and learn some English

A Bit About the CBI:

The CBI operates as both a daycare and a preschool for 30 children and families of Arcatao. It did not start this way, though. After the war, a few women got together and created a space working women could bring their children to. In 1995–just three years after the official end of the country’s civil war–the institute began to receive some funding from the state to improve the structure. In 2001, my friend Sonia started working there. They began to incorporate a curriculum to match the local school. She said teachers in the school constantly give them feedback and say they note the difference in children who went to the CBI (in the way of social skills, participation, etc.).

A Chat With Sonia:

I asked Sonia how funding works now.

Her answer: Parents pay two dollars a month to help cover the cost of food (the kids get breakfast, milk, and lunch each day).

“But what about you guys?” I asked, referring to her and her two coworkers. She smiled and explained that a woman on the Junta Directiva (city council) was a mother of a CBI child. She advocated that the JD give a small stipend to the women who work full time there. They agreed, and the women now receive a small gift of $125 every six or so months. That’s less than a dollar a day. They are truly doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, and the passion for their program.

Another thing that impressed me was the organization of curriculum and assessment the CBI has implemented. The unit they are working in now is ”Caring for Our Water.” This means kids in Arcatao from age 2 to 6 are learning about the water cycle, where their water comes from, and where it goes to.

Every six months, the staff at the CBI do an extensive assessment where they check five areas of psychosocial/cognitive development for each child.  They also measure height and weight of every kid to make sure he or she is growing and gaining weight normally.

The children of the CBI aren’t the only ones getting assessed. Each year the parents and Junta Directiva evaluate each staff-person and say whether or not they would like them to return. These are some high standards for full-time volunteers, but with the combined X years of the 3 staff here, their work is appreciated and the community notes the difference.

Madison-Arcatao Sistering Relationship and the CBI:

Thanks to the solidarity-driven, sistering relationship between Madison, and Arcatao, the Junta Directiva was able to pay locals to fix the plumbing system and bring clean, potable water to the CBI. This means they can do things like…

Día de La Niña y El Niño Fiesta!

If the women who work here aren’t amazing enough, they threw a party to celebrate National Kid’s Day.

Cake! (Second only to ice cream in my level of excitement )
Homemade piñata shenanigans
Musical Chairs = Classic

‘Reuniones’ and the Art of Organization

How I feel half the time at meetings in El Salvador. Also, someone should make a Salvadoran version of Parks and Rec.
How I feel half the time at meetings in Spanish. Also, someone should make a Salvadoran version of Parks and Rec.

“What time is our meeting today?” I asked my host dad/grandfather as I was swinging in the hammock.

“It’s at two,” he responded as he walked across the yard to the shower with a towel around his waist.

I glanced at my watch. It read, “2:03.”

I continued reading.

Arcatao is an organized community. One way this is demonstrated is through the different committees they have who meet on a regular basis. As volunteers, Katie and I attend many meetings. It is a great way for us to meet people and see what projects are going on. Here is a list of meetings, assemblies, and workshops we’ve attended so far:

Historic Memory
Women’s Association Ana-Elsi
City Council (of Arcatao and others)
Children’s Rights
Radio Sumpul
Mining Consultation
Delegation Planning
DHP Scholarship Committee
City Youth Council
Town Assembly
Women’s Assembly
Skype call with Madison
CCR/CRIPDES workshop
Department of Agriculture Project

Department of Agriculture workshop
Department of Agriculture workshop

Although the topics of these meetings vary extensively, most meetings are run about the same. We’ll use the story above as an example:

Santos and I arrived at the meeting place at about 2:30. We were the second group there. If the meeting had already started, we would have interrupted by saying, “Buenas tardes,” and walked around the table shaking people’s hands because it is rude to just sneak in quietly.

This is common here and makes sense for the culture. My hypothesis is that Salvadorans know what real stress looks like so they do not bother creating fake problems for themselves like worrying about being on time.

Once everyone arrives to a meeting (or if it is an hour past the planned meeting time, which ever comes first) we will begin. If there is not a typed agenda, someone will suggest they make one. They will discuss it, but it always turns out something like this:

  1.  Greetings and Welcoming
  2. Introductions (Katie and I have been getting really good at tag-teaming our story so we don’t say the same thing twice. One of us talks about how long we’ve been here, how long we are here until, and how comfortable we are here. The second will say what work we are doing and that we researched the war in the university and that is why we wanted to come here. This part sometimes gets an applause.)
  3. Announcements/Report “Informe”: People list this part in the beginning when they are making the agenda. They basically have a mini discussion of each point, then discuss it again after introductions.
  4. Misc./Agreements: After the “informe,” there may be group work at a larger meeting, planning of an event, or time to resolve some problems that arose during the announcements.
  5. Refrigerio: If you are lucky, the meeting is only a few times a year, or if it is a large assembly, you get a refrigerio. Katie and I spent an entire weekend in  Comosagaua wondering what this was. Now it’s all we talk about.

So, like in the U.S., meetings have their time and place. They are a great way for communities to organize and discuss what is going on.

Also like the U.S., people get side-tracked and off topic. When that happens, it is harder to follow and we might do something like this:

Haiku’s in Spanish! (and English translations not in mitre):

El aguacero //The downpour
viene de repente//comes suddenly
Estoy mojada //I am wet

Gato pequeño //Tiny cat
Te gusta comer todo //You like to eat everything
¿Por qué tan flaco? //Why so skinny?

Katie getting a full mimed spa treatment during an ice-breaker at a women's workshop.
Katie getting a full mimed spa treatment during an ice-breaker at a women’s workshop.

A Day in the Life

Not a God-Given day goes by when I’m not up by five.

This quote comes from Manlio Argueta’s famous Salvadoran novel Un Día en la Vida or One Day of Life. Banned by the government in the 1980s, this story reflects the dramatic social conditions Salvadorans lived in during the time of its publication.

On a less intense note, this opening also relates to my life in El Salvador today.

Here is, more or less, what a typical day in my life is like in Arcatao, El Salvador.

5:00 a.m. – Wake to roosters.

6:00 a.m. – Wake to Rosa yelling at Karen to get dressed. (Meet the family here).

7:00 a.m. – Actually get out of bed. Karen goes to school. I go for a run with Katie, shower, wash my clothes by hand in the pila, and begin to sweep and mop (I just get in the way on the farm and in the kitchen, so this is my way of convincing myself I am a thoughtful houseguest/family member instead of an oversized gringa in a hammock).

8:30 a.m. – Rosa comes home from work and we eat breakfast. It may look like this:


9 a.m. – ? – Life moves slower here. Midmorning to afternoon I may do things like…

read in the hammock,


observe our growing family,


pester the neighbors, or ponder life’s complexities…

Why did the chicken cross the road? It actually didn’t because it was tied to a tree in a fenced yard.

Afternoon – after re-nourishing myself from this hectic morning with a fried fish and tortilla, I will either go to the CBI (Centro de Bienestar Infantil) or attend a meeting or two with either the Historic Memory Committee, the Junta Directiva (city council), Women’s Association, or Youth Committee.

My late afternoons are then spent reading, writing, playing with Karen, practicing English with Jose, asking Santos what actually happened in the meeting if he was there too, or making tortillas with Cruz. We eat around 6 and I am in bed by 8.

But some days are different.

Santos and I were walking home from a meeting the other day. I asked him to clarify a few muddy points for me, then it somehow got brought up that he never went to school. He grew up in a village far from any school, so he never went. He learned to read when he was fighting in the war. He said it was hard, but he really liked it and wanted to become a veterinarian. However, he also met Cruz during the war, and they soon got married and started their family, putting his vet dream to the back burner.

The following day was going pretty much as the schedule above described. I was walking home during the hot afternoon at a Salvadoran-strolling pace when it began to rain (when it rains here, it pours). I decided to take one of my many shortcuts through town:


I was jogging along in my sandals and skirt when I suddenly had to leap over something that was not a rock… it was a dead dog. Sad, I thought. Then I saw something worse. One of the family dogs was foaming at the mouth and shaking violently.

I hurried up our steps and put my things in my room. When I went back out, I saw neighbors gather around and speculate. Apparently there were more dead dogs up the street. Karen went to investigate and confirmed, “Yup, there are four,” she stated matter-of-factly. People speculated that they had gotten into some poison and suggested milk and lemon to cause her to vomit.

But no one did anything. We just stood there watching.

Then Santos came home. Without hesitation nor any real hurry, he calmly squeezed several limes into a plastic bottle and shoved it down the dog’s throat. He did the same with some milk. Our dog stood there for a bit, then finally vomited.

We sat around and chatted about our day like life was normal (because apparently this happens all the time) when I, being the gringa I am, decided to start talking about the animals again.

She's a survivor.
She’s a survivor.

“The dog is smiling,” I observed.

Everyone laughed, “She better be,” responded Cruz.

“You really are an animal doctor,” I said to Santos. He cracked up because he thinks everything I say is hilarious, especially when I’m actually being serious.

Santos relaxing in the hammock after a long day in the field.
Santos relaxing in the hammock after a long day in the field.

Rosa was persuading Karen to do her homework when Santos chimed in, “Karen,” he said with a slight head tilt and a serious face, “Your mom doesn’t have to do homework because she already graduated. Jacey doesn’t have to do homework because she already graduated. I never graduated, but Jacey says I’m a doctor so I’m off the hook!” Everyone chuckled and began to prepare dinner.

Special thanks to Dr. Molly Todd for lending her copies of Un Día en la Vida to Katie and I.

No a la Minería: El Salvador’s Anti-Mining Campaign

“Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others; our wealth has always generated our poverty by nourishing the prosperity of others – the empires and their native overseers. In the colonial and neocolonial alchemy, gold changes into scrap metal and food into poison.”
― Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent

A professor of mine once explained the irony of Latin America being a region rich in resources, but poor economically.  An overly-simplified explanation of why this is is because the wealth the region boasts historically went outward, that is, through exportation of goods and exploitation of people.

El Salvador is no exception to this phenomenon. In 2004, the Canadian mining company Pacific Rim applied to dig for gold in El Salvador. The company promised the mining would be “eco-friendly” and provide jobs. However, they did not provide an environmental impact report and with 90 percent of the country’s surface water already contaminated, the Salvadoran government refused the proposal. Pacific Rim fought back. In 2009, the company filed a lawsuit against the country of El Salvador. The lawsuit is now at $301 million and a verdict is expected this year.

While this is happening, the people of El Salvador are not idly sitting by. In 2006, CRIPDES and SHARE (grassroot organizations that Sister Cities is a part of), began to stand by communities through education outreach and fundraising efforts to allow the people to decide for themselves what was best for their community. Starting in 2014, communities in the provinces of Chalatenango and Cabañas have been holding consultations where citizens vote “Yes” or “No” on whether they want mineral mining in their communities or not.  So far, three out of the three municipalities who voted responded with 95 percent against allowing mineral companies into their region.  Complications arise because mining is not banned nationally, but these are the stepping stones the people must take to reach that goal and protect their water source.  Read more here.

What does this have to do with “Adventures in Arcatao”?

Holding a consultation in a municipality is a five-step process.

Sign explaining the 5-step process to hold a consultation. 1. Educate yourselves. 2. Collect at least 40% the municipality population’s signatures. 3. Hold a conulstation – Vote! 4. If the town votes against mining, the local government must make a “municipal ordinance” banning it. 5. “Guard” and “promote” the process.

Arcatao just finished the second step, which is getting 40 percent of the population to sign a petition that they would like to vote on this topic.

Community members from Arcatao and people from other regions of El Salvador counting up the signatures, and checking their validity.

The third step is voting! The municipality of Arcatao will go to the polls on November 8th. A delegation will be coming with representatives from Canada, Germany, Honduras, and the United States. The delegation’s main purpose is to observe the voting process. This lends validity to the consultation and brings it to an international level, making it increasingly difficult for mining companies to exploit these towns.
Katie and I will be working with leaders in the community to help organize the consultation, as well as being a part of the international delegation coming in November.

This is an exciting time for Arcatao, and we will do our best to keep you posted in the coming months!

Butterfly and Chocolate Milk

“What’s this dog’s name?” I asked my host dad/grandfather. “Black,” he responded shrugging his shoulders. Ha. Clever, I thought. A few days later, I was playing with the cat. “What’s the cat’s name?” I asked my host mom/grandmother. She blinked her eyes slowly and replied, “Gato.” Alright, they don’t name their pets. That makes sense. Life went on. I called the birds “Bird One and Bird Two.” I called their pet rodent “Cus” (like ‘couscous’ because I couldn’t remember what the full name of the animal was). I called the dog “Black.”

Problem: There are two black dogs.

How do they solve this? I was bewildered.

The answer came at breakfast. We dine outside among the elements and the animals, which is quite lovely. The chickens roam around and cackle in contentment. If you’re lucky, the breeze blows and refreshes you. The dogs and the cat patiently stare at you while you eat, hoping there will be leftovers. If they come too close, my host sister/child yells, “Fuera!” and aggressively stomps her feet at them. She is the scariest and most intimidating of the family, so this role was bestowed upon her. Anyway, during this particular breakfast the dogs were tired after running around in the campo that morning. They were napping in the yard when my host mom/grandmother threw one tortilla to “Black” and three tortillas to…wait for it…”Mariposa.” Yes, poor little Butterfly was coming down with something and needed some extra nourishment.

Mariposa, hoping the camera is food

Now the moment you’ve all been waiting for. It’s time to meet the family! I live with an older couple named Santos and Cruz. They have four daughters, two of which are moved out of the house. The two daughters who live here are Lupe and Rosa. Rosa has a nine-year-old named Karen and is expecting a second child in December. Her husband, Jose, lives with us as well.

Rosa is a nurse at the local clinic. She comes home looking pretty tired each day, but not too tired to take care of the garden, joke around with Cruz and I, nag Karen to do homework, and help cook dinner. One day, she brought a sandwich and chocolate milk home for Karen. “Let’s give some milk to Cus,” she suggested.

Although I am still unsure what species Cus is, each of his meals is an experiment, and he is the guinea pig.

‘Cus’ enjoying his bottle-fed life with Karen

Rosa filled his bottle with no more than an ounce of chocolate milk. Cus went berserk. He drank that milk down like he was a stranded marathoner in the Sahara. Suddenly, he was calm. I actually enjoyed his company for once and petted him a bit.

“Se pone mal…” observed Cruz, “he doesn’t look so good.”

And sure enough, his eyes were squinty and he was slowly swaying side to side like he had had too much sun and tequila on Spring Break.

“QUE NOOOOOOO!” Howled Karen, and she began to yell at him like Rosa yells at her when she doesn’t do her chores. She aggressively grabbed him off the floor and shoved him into Rosa’s arm. Give him to the nurse…good thinking, Karen.

Rosa grabbed him by the waist, shook him a bit, and stared at his face. Then, she bounced him up and down on her lap, “Responder, responder,” she chanted calmly as Cus flopped from side to side. They tried water. They tried tortilla. No success. Finally, they put him back in his cage and hoped for the best.

Five minutes later, he was back to his scampering, annoying self.

More Photos:

The latrine: where the magic happens
The latrine: where the magic happens
We have over twenty chickens. Fresh eggs anyone?
The kitchen! We mainly cook over fire here, but there is also a gas stove in Santos and Cruz's room.
The kitchen! We mainly cook over fire here, but there is also a gas stove in Santos and Cruz’s room.
‘Gato’ enjoying his second morning nap

Intro to Arcatao: Fiestas de San Bartolome

A Bit About Arcatao

Katie and I arrived in Arcatao Friday. Arcatao is a town of about 3,000 people located on the Salvador-Honduran boarder. Like many Salvadoran communities, the war had a strong impact on Arcatao. In 1986, without warning, the military government (funded by the United States government) came here with firing squads. Those who were not killed fled the town and were either internally displaced or took refuge in Honduras. The Madison sistering committee was founded days after.

Mural at El Centro de Martirez Sumpul, Arcatao

Today the community, overall, is peaceful and organized. Check out this video for a better understanding of the Arcatao-Madison sistering relationship:

Fiestas: The First Few Days

As I said, we arrived Friday just in time for the town’s patron saint fiestas. We had a meeting in the afternoon where we met with the leaders of each committee in Arcatao (many were absent because of the fiestas).  The meeting began with each attendee introducing themselves and their work. It was nice to get a feel for what opportunities for involvement there are here. We also got to check out the historic memory museum. The historic memory committee is in charge of running this museum and keeping the history of Arcatao alive so future generations can learn from the past.

After the meeting, we helped people blow up balloons and decorate for a party for the elderly. It was a nice ice breaker to see these people who were so formal during the meeting make dirty jokes about some oddly shaped balloons.

My host dad/grandpa (bottom) and Katie's Host dad (top) get creative with their decorating skills
My host dad/grandpa (bottom) and Katie’s Host dad (top) get creative with their decorating skills

Saturday morning, Katie went to the elderly party and I went to the regional meeting for the sistering communities of Chalatenango. This was a great opportunity to learn about what other communities were up to in this region (they are busy people…)

Sunday was action packed. I went to mass with my nine-year-old host sister, Karen.

La Iglesia
La Iglesia

Still dressed in my Sunday best, I helped my host brother/father (I’ll explain my host family in a later post) move rocks to expand the entrance to the house so he could park his work truck there. Then, a group of us brought a picnic to the river where there were a bunch of waterfalls and pools. After a nice swim, we piled back in the truck and returned home. Karen and I went to check out the rodeo, which consisted of bullriding with football helmets, and a live band with a girl dancing in between the singers.

Rodeo Clown

That evening, my host mother/sister (bet you can’t wait for that post!) invited me to evening mass. I kind of thought going to mass twice in one day was overkill. Luckily, my host mother/grandmother stepped in, “You already left the house three times today. You went there, there, and there,” she said, pointing to the church, river, and rodeo respectively. “You probably want to rest.” These are my kind of people! I went ahead and declined the invitation to mass that evening, but agreed to help milk the cows at 5:30 the next morning.

Fiesta Foto

Two rides came to town for the Fiestas: a kiddie merry-go-round and a giant-squeeky-sketchy ferris wheel.  Since these are the only options, they put the ferris wheel on full throttle.  Man can that thing crank.  When Monday evening came, I took a big sigh of relief that I did not have to ride it.  I felt I had avoided a booby trap–I had survived the fiestas.  As I was getting ready for bed, Karen told me we were going to the fiesta one more time.  The family sat down in a comedor for a Coca-Cola.  My host mom/sister looked at me, “We’ll wait here for you,” she said as Karen grabbed by hand…


The bar that held our chair up moved side to side and made a “clunk” noise every time it rotated.  With each revolution of the wheel, the full throttle made it seem like a roller coaster drop, like I would fall to my death at any moment.  I planned escape routes.  I thought of how I would save Karen.  When we finally dismounted I looked at the stars with gratitude.  It never felt so good to have my feet back on Tierra Firma.