The Privilege to Change

Privilege. Oh, it’s a word that makes me think of my parents. They have always drilled into me and my brothers that we are damn privileged. If one of us tried to deny this fact, whining about whatever, they would tell us “stop playing the victim” “you don’t know how good you have it”. Even so I never really considered myself one of the privileged few. It’s hard to realize and admit when you have more than the person next to you. It’s much easier to make the comparison the other way, “I’m paying my own way through school” as opposed to “I’m able to go to university”, or “I don’t have a car” as opposed to “I can afford to take the TTC”.

Being told that your privileged, however, really doesn’t have the same impact as feeling it. Never have I felt it more than when I was in El Salvador.

I remember early on when I arrived in El Salvador, I really didn’t know how to deal with the fact that I would be seen as the privileged Canadian. I felt ashamed and guilty and a bit in denial. “I don’t have money” I tried to convince myself, “I gotta make ends meet too”. I’m used to just being in the mass middle-class. Suddenly becoming someone not only completely outside of this society, but also better off than most people within it, was a huge adjustment.

There was no chance of me being able to ignore the gigantic gap between my income, my opportunities for education, work, and the average Salvadoran’s. The reality of it all was constantly reinforced as I did my job. I interviewed the members of various artisan groups in order to make sure things are happening in a fair trade sort of way. I have to ask some pretty probing questions – income, education level, who they live with and their incomes, state of their homes, is there water? electricity? The answers I received never failed to shock me – families live below the already far too low minimum wage, many adults have only a grade school level of education, rural communities live without electricity, potable water is a luxury even though El Salvador has some of the highest water contamination levels in Latin America.

Despite witnessing this all the time and experiencing some minor parts of it, I’ll never understand what is means to live in these conditions and to have almost no hope of escaping them. I began to see this as another kind of privilege: the privilege not to have to deal with such a reality.  In Canada,  depending on where you live, you could grow up seeing hardly any poverty, not realizing that people are starving, being treated unfairly. To be able to exist as care-free as the majority of Canadians do is a huge privilege. Salvadorans also have a history that weighs heavy on their shoulders. Anyone above the age of 20 will remember the civil war and the atrocities that were occurring constantly throughout the twelve years that it lasted. This mental burden is much more permanent and ingrained than not having enough money.

As I saw and learned more and more of the Salvadoran reality, I became less and less certain of how to deal with my privilege.  At the very least however, I came to accept it. I saw the huge differences that remained between myself and the friends I had made. With that acceptance it became easier to connect with people. I couldn’t help feeling guilty still but at least I realized there was no denying my privilege.

And yet I still find it very problematic to just be accept the fact that one person is more privileged than the next. One of the experiences that baffled me most was working with a particular women’s group in a very rural area. The first time I visited them to do a sewing workshop, they were very skeptical of me. While I was slightly uncomfortable, I understood completely why they weren’t about to welcome me with open arms. What did I know about their lives? But by the end of the workshop we had made a shirt. They decided then that I should come back another time. Soon it just fell into place that I would come back once a week to work with them. They became incredibly welcoming over time. They would make fun of my cluelessness sometimes, but other than that I think it was just kind of accepted that, yes I was from Canada and yes I have things better over there but what can you do?

While I was thankful not to be judged for being privileged, I was still so frustrated that it was something that could so easily be accepted. I don’t like to just shrug my shoulders and say “that’s how it is”. But with its many variables – class, nationality, skin colour, gender, age – changing the situations that surround privilege is not something that can happen over night. So much of privilege is inherited, not literally in money, but chances are we are in similar social situations as our parents and so our level of privilege is similar. Slowly things are changing. Certainly I have more opportunities than my Grandmother did. But equalizing privilege between Central America and North America is a daunting task, one that I’ll need to work on as much as everyone else in the these continents if we want to enact real change.


Fear and Ignorance in El Salvador (and how the women won’t have it)

The first thing people will tell you about the gender dynamics in El Salvador is that there is a lot of machismo. But it’s not always obvious and definitely manifests itself in a variety of ways, some fairly harmless, others extremely harmful. The ways in which Salvadoran women deal with this macho, patriarchal culture is quite admirable.

So there are definitely degrees and types of machismo here. You find patterns in attitudes and personalities of the men here. Of course there’s grey area and contradictions, but I would say the two most obvious are: The Hero and The Womanizer. There are also a few Total Fucking Misogynists. Huge generalizations, yes. But some trends are undeniable.

The Hero is overwhelmingly courteous and hospitable. He wants to drive you everywhere or at least guards you while you ride the bus together. He opens doors and always gets the bill. He wants to teach you things: Spanish, how to dance, where to go in the city, philosophy, indigo dyeing.

When you get on a bus with a heavy bag, a hero will very likely offer to hold it for you. I mean probably not with your purse, but with your groceries, for sure. In fact many Salvadoran women are accustomed to handing their giant basket of food off to the first guy who can reach it.

I will admit, at first I thought I could get used to the heroes. All I need to do is glance at my empty coffee cup/beer bottle/pupusa plate and they’re out of their seat getting me seconds. But the novelty wears off quickly. I just want to do it myself. When I do it myself I know I’ll do it right and I won’t feel indebted to anyone for having given me something. Also, it’s just fucking offensive to have your ability to take care of yourself constantly undermined.

Next we have The Womanizer. These types will not hold your groceries when you get on the bus, nor will they give you their seat. But they will enjoy the view as you struggle to balance everything in the aisle of the bus. They leer. They’ve always got a comment. Their comments are more demeaning than friendly. The words “Tengo un novio.” mean nothing to them. They don’t understand how you can resist them. After all, you’re a woman and they’re men.

Womanizers are the reason I get anxious when getting on a bus or passing a group of guys on the street. While I’ve never had a particularly terrible experience, the accumulation of comments has stuck with me. “Princesa” is the most common. Sometimes its said somewhat genuinely as if it’s a compliment. Other times it’s muttered with spite and sarcasm. The result of this recurring comment is that now I feel that all the men I encounter regard me as a princesa. This may be as much a result of my colour as it is my gender. All the same, it’s not a comfortable position to be in.

And then there are the Total Fucking Misogynists that are the cause of the very high rate of femicide in El Salvador. I had read stories before that were terrible enough to almost make me decide not to come. While it would be easy to say that such terrible acts occur in all corners of the world, think Paul Bernardo, I believe in El Salvador it is a direct result of the culture and the history of the country rather than just the actions of individual psychopaths. There was so much excessive rape and mutilation of women that occurred during the civil war. It was done openly, as an intimidation tactic, so that many many people witnessed these atrocities. I’m not an expert on how growing up in, living through, or fighting in a war affects a person. I’ve seen people with extreme anxieties, people who are angry or sorrowful for all they have lost, people with a great deal of concern for their fellow countrymen. But another outcome, especially for men whose lives were interrupted and taken over for all of the war, is complete desensitization. This, and/or maybe an extremely developed hatred for women, is the only thing I can imagine would lead a truck full of a dozen men to pick up two women, rape them to pieces, bite at their faces, and then put bullets in their head despite their pleas that they have children waiting for them at home. This happened a month ago. One of the women survived despite the bullets in the head. But they probably won’t find the guys that did this. It wasn’t even in the news, it happened to a family one of my co-workers works with.

It’s hard not to distrust every single man you meet after hearing that. But it definitely isn’t such a common attitude. Most men simply want to be your hero. Like Enrique Igelsias.

Another common attitude of the men here is an absolute reverence for their mothers. And it is well deserved. Mothers in El Salvador work damn hard. And so many of the mothers here are single. Single motherhood isn’t something that is lamented about. It’s a fact of life. Many older families were left fatherless as a result of the war. Now it almost seems to be a norm that men take off once the kids are born. I have met a few utterly dedicated fathers, but the portion of fatherless families here is huge. This means that the kids frequently go to work with mama. Motherhood is much more visible here. It’s intertwined with the rest of life rather than something that’s confined to the home. I see women breast feeding all the time, anywhere. This might be more a result of the fact that there’s a lot of babies around, but women just seem to be more comfortable in their role as mothers.

Due to the lack of spouses, most women are extremely independent when it comes to work as well. Whether its a small business in the countryside or a career goal like marine biololigist, doctor, or diplomat, women here push to make things happen. Especially in the countryside, women just do whatever needs to get done. Need a house built? A tree cut? A chicken killed? They’ll do it between breastfeeding and laundry.

Admittedly this isn’t always the case in the city. You’ll never see a female cobrador (bus caller). It’s a job that requires the cocky strut of a true macho man. (Interestingly though, I did see a female cobrador as soon as I crossed the border to Nicaragua. She had the strut down.) And you will always see pretty girls in tight t-shirts advertising some product. But for the most part, women have higher career goals. And most importantly, they here have an attitude that if they want something, they’re going to work to get it. Mainly because they know they have to. It’s not easy being female in El Salvador, but Salvadoreñas seem to ignore this fact and just get on with their lives.

Culture Shocks

I jot this down as I’m sitting on the bus, trying to figure out what it is that I’ve experienced that could be called culture shock. Apparently it’s supposed to be a negative, uncomfortable thing. But I wouldn’t confine it to only that.  There have been plenty of surges of emotion for me, both good and bad.  There have been moments of literal shock. But more often it’s just a quiet kind of confusion.

There are some things that I would never be able to get used to. Children sleeping sprawled on the pavement of the streets, begging desperately, constantly, for money. What’s most shocking is the lack of compassion shown towards them. A little girl, ten at most, rides a hand-made skateboard barefoot through traffic , holding her hand out to people with open windows. People shake their heads, no one gives anything. I’ve been told not to offer money since it encourages begging. But when kids clearly are clearly suffering, gaunt and filthy, it’s hard to turn away.

There are also things here that will never cease to impress me. The work ethic of the people, especially of the women here, is astounding. Whether it’s families I’ve met, or just people I see on the streets, everyone is working themselves to the bone. The things that women manage to balance on their heads, usually while carrying or herding a couple kids, is astounding. I’ve seen: a huge bundle of branches, a full size cooler, a potted plant, a ceiling beam (8’x4”x4”- no shit) and many, many baskets.

There have been some hard moments. One of my first Sundays here I had to force myself to leave the house. I was tempted to stay in bed all day since I knew it was safe there. Sundays are extra creepy because the streets are empty and almost everything is closed. But I got out and felt better for it.

There have been a few frustrations due to cultural differences and language barriers. Most are minor and can be laughed off. But there was one day when I really offended a friend that I really respect. The next day, another barren Sunday, I was racked with guilt and bursting with frustration for my weak vocabulary. We worked it out on Monday and realized it was no big deal, but that Sunday I felt utterly isolated and helpless to make myself understood.

Other jarring, though less heavy moments have been when I am confronted with brash American culture. Let’s talk about Metrocentro for example. While it is actually the most used and least high-class mall here, it’s still a huge adjustment to walk into. Everything is big and shiny.  Prices in most stores rival those at home. Being in there for an hour or two, my tolerance for high prices starts to rise back to Canadian level. When I catch myself almost thinking that three bucks for a piece of pizza is reasonable I shake myself back to Salvadoran reality and run to take shelter in a pupuseria around the corner to get a 70 cent dinner.

But even more intense than the mall is watching American movies.  No moment has been weirder here than when the lights came on in the theatre after watching Sex and the City and I saw the people around me who had just watched the same film. Average Salvadorans packed the theatre. It was cheap Wednesday. I couldn’t imagine what they would have thought of the film. Sure there’s enough American pop culture that they’re probably used to it, but it is so far from the very narrow reality of this country. And maybe I just get too carried away in the movies, but walking out of the theatre into the night in San Salvador I had to very consciously remind myself where I was, what I needed to do to get home and what was waiting for me when the sun came up the next day.

However there is one bit of pop culture that I grasp onto for all its worth, which is music. Hearing a familiar song is the one and only thing that can make me a little bit homesick. When Neil Young came over the speakers in the supermarket, I almost cried. When Hopelessly Devoted to You came on another day, I had no choice but to belt it out. When Footloose came on in the bus, I stayed on an extra stop or two to hear at least the chorus and had to try very hard to refrain from dancing.

These moments are surreal more than anything else, I don’t even know what to do with them. Ah but that’s all part of the fun. It’s a good thing I like roller coaster rides!


This is the community centre in a village outside San Salvador where I teach english to an amazing group of kids. It\'s also the home base of a group of women that I do sewing workshops with to help them get their small business going. This is the community centre in a village outside the city where I teach English to an amazing group of kids. It’s also the working space for a group of women with whom I do sewing workshops so to help them get their small business going.Women from one of the artisan groups we work with. Teresa on the left get the clay from the river to make beautiful pottery. Then she brings it to this workshop where a group of women paint it with vibrant colours.

This is one of the artisan workshops I work with for my job. The woman on the left, Teresa, makes beautiful pottery from clay she gets from the village’s river. She gives her works to this workshop where a group of women paint them with vibrant colours and designs. These women were so much fun, they were chatting and joking all day long.

I will never get tired of mountains.

This is the wall of the University that I walk through to get to work. The graffiti here tends to eschew pretty pictures and get straight to the point. Propaganda is painted on the walls by the political parties as often as by the general public.

Environmental El Salvador?

So, what kind of ecological consciousness is there in El Salvador?. On the surface, El Salvador looks pretty rough. In the city you see tons of buses and trucks spewing black smoke. The smog is frequently visible and is particularly bad because the city is surrounded by mountains that trap it in.  Huge piles of garbage on the sidewalk or street are common. Recycling is possible in El Salvador but it doesn’t seemed to be practiced in most homes. There is garbage pick up but if you want to recycle, you have to take it to the facility yourself. In theory anyways. In practice if you leave a bag of cans or glass on the street, someone in need of a bit of extra money will take it to the facility to recieve the deposit on the items. And ya there’s no thought of abolishing the plastic bag yet. So the things that a Canadian would look to to judge environmental standards are pretty weak. And they definitely (thankfully) haven’t caught on to the concept of being fashionably green. 

However, what the Salvadoran system lacks in organized efforts towards a more environmentally conscious society, they make up for in their lifestyle which allows no room for waste. Also, because the waste disposal system is less than efficient, garbage is more visible. As a result, people are more aware of what they’re producing.

Ok, examples needed. The basics of Salvadoran life are wonderfully utilitarian. Hot water is just not necessary, even people who could probably afford it don’t bother to get it. But don’t think that just because its a hot country the water isn’t cold. It is cold. But you get used to cold showers pretty fast. Air conditioning? Only in malls. The houses here are built for constant ventilation. No need for a dryer. People just hang their clothes. During the rainy season dryers would actually be extremely useful, but whatever, you get by. Even their dish soap is less wasteful. Its in a paste form that you just dab into. I loveit!! I’m definitely bringing a couple tubs home with me.

Rural communities are much more bare bones than this. Homes rarely have electricity. Many buildings are made out of earth. This is done impressively well. You often can’t tell until the wall starts crumbling a little. We can say that this wouldn’t be possible in Canada due to our cold weather. But these houses withstand (most of the time) earthquakes and hurricanes. Eating locally isn’t a politically correct trend, its the only way to eat when you live at the top of a mountain or in the middle of a forest. 

You can’t flush toilet paper. Ok, this doesn’t seem like much, but trust me, you want to use less. The bins for throwing out your paper are always small, to discourage frivolous wiping. Plus eventually you’re gonna have to empty that bin and you want to do that as infrequently as possible. If you’re in the countryside, they don’t keep the paper in thier outhouse, its in a box or on a table somewhere so you gotta remember to ask for a couple squares. 

And some more examples of Salvadoran brilliance. Mop? You don’t need a mop. Just slip an old (really old) t-shirt over the broom (the neck goes around the broomhead) and you have a perfect mop that is way easier to wash when it gets gross. 

Also the garbage cans on the street are really not used, and I don’t think anyone actually collects their contents. But not to worry, they don’t go to waste. People break them off their posts to bring them in as scrap metal.

Ok these are just random observations really. I really don’t know what kind of conclusion to come to. But I gotta say, Salvadorans step up to the plate when it counts. Recently Canadian (and a couple US) mining companies have been making deals with the Salvadoran government to set up mines all around the country. If all the contracts go through, and its looking like they will, mines will take up over 5% of the land in El Salvador.  The run off from these mines will contain lots of toxins, in particular, cyanide. This will get to the main rivers that provide water for many people in El Salvador. Forest will also be destroyed in the process. Obviously this is a huge environmental and public health concern. But not in the government’s opinion. They see it as a way to up their economy. There’s much discussion to be had about this, but my point for this blog is, the people of El Salvador have produced a huge backlash against this. There is incredible movement to try to stop the government from selling their land and destroying their beautiful countryside.

So no, people are not buying hybrid cars or stopping the use of plastic bags. But they are mobilizing against their (and our) government with impressive power and solidarity. There will be more on this as I learn about it. And I’m sure there’s something that we as Canadians can do. 

I’ll let you know what I find out. In the meantime, here’s a couple articles:

Sides of San Salvador

Arriving in San Salvador, the thing that surprised me most was how calm I was. Since getting the position I had been extremely anxious about what it would be like. I imagined every possible situation that could occur and was pretty nervous about many aspects of Salvadoran life. But when as I emerged from the airport it finally sunk in that I would be living here for three months, and that I better start living rather than thinking about the various ways I could die.

It’s still hard for me to say what I was expecting. I had read lots. I knew about the weather, the traffic, the politics, the food, the bathrooms, the landscape, the crime etc. but it was still hard to put together a whole picture about what this place and these people would be like. All I knew was that most of it was stuff to worry about. So I guess it is a surprise that most of what I read turned out to be true, but I’m ok! In fact I’m really enjoying myself!

Ok there’s stuff to adjust to. There are security guards with huge guns everywhere. In fact the security guard for my neighbourhood has his office in a sectioned off part of my house, so I share the deck and my bedroom wall with him… I guess that should make me feel safe? And those noises at night. I was told Salvadorans really like fireworks, so that’s what I convinced myself those echoing bangs are. But I’ve yet to see a firework and those bangs still occur when it’s pouring rain. So if it’s raining it’s gun fire, but if it’s a nice night I can definitely sleep soundly knowing it’s fire works. I play a lot of mind games with myself here.

That seems to be something I’ll have to get used to- mind games- with myself and others. For example who to trust when the guy with the machete gives a smile and an honest ‘buenas tardes’ as you go by but a 9 year old kid sticks his hands in your pocket? How to be cautious without being paranoid? When someone said ‘don’t let you’re head hit the tree branches, they could be hiding weapons’ I thought ‘knives? guns?’ He meant thorns. Maybe I’m a little more on edge than I realize. Most people are genuinely friendly and kind here, but there’s enough stories to make is hard to let your guard down. Although if you do get robbed, you could always ask the thief to leave you with enough change for bus fare home, apparently they’re likely to oblige.

Buses. Buses are an adjustment. I did know that the bus drivers were crazy competitive for passenger and thus will race to get to a stop first. And I did know that they’re the ultimate venue for pickpockets. But I did not know how to get off a bus. I only realized this after getting on a bus for the first time by myself. Where was the string to pull? And do I have to hop over the gate at the front in order to get out? I couldn’t see the back door from where I was sitting plus I was scared to look due to a group of large men inhabiting the back. So I yelled ‘Necesito Salido’. Turns there was a back door and you’re supposed to whistle or knock hard on the ceiling to let the driver know. Then he might stop. Or he might just slow down. Or he just might wait til another stop when there’s people to pick up.

My host family is an enigma in itself. I really have to do a separate blog on them because there’s too much to say now. In a nutshell there’s a whole lot of family and a whole lot of crazy dynamics between each other and between the foreign white girl who’s she’s paying rent. While they’ve mostly just been overwhelmingly welcoming and hospitable… I don’t know, there’s definitely something awkward about the fact that in house where eight people other people are living, I have my own room with a TV and king size bed. I’m quite certain I took over someone’s room.

Ok this blog is looking a bit negative. That’s really not reflective of what my experience has been like so far. I’ve had an amazing week here. I guess I choose to write about these things because they were strong experiences. But let me share some of the super amazing things about San Salvador:

-My job! I’m organizing the fair trade craft business for CIS – a small activist english and spanish school and sort of community centre. I get to go to meet different artisan groups in San Salvador and surrounding the city. For example the first one I went to was a tiny town on top of a mountain where a small group of women have taught themselves to dye using indigo. Its based out of one women’s tiny farm. They were truly inspiring people.

– The food: 17 cent chocobananas (bananas dipped in chocolate and nuts). Pupusas: thick tortillas stuffed with delisious cheesy goodness. Ana Maria, the head of my house makes AWESOME ones. Turns out she used to run a pupuseria. And there’s version of pupusas stuffed with fresh pumpkin. Also today I bought a bright orange lump of sort of crunchy, stringy jelly with pumpkin seeds in it. Pumpkin is my love and my life. Who knew I’d find it in El Salvador? But top prize goes to mushed up plantains boiled with a bit of water and sugar and cinnamon. Why would I ever eat anything else for breakfast again?

– The landscape. I’ve never seen a more beautiful place. Ok in San Salvador its not spectacular, though you can see the big beautiful volcano from almost anywhere. But outside the city is amazing. I have never seen so many beautiful mountains and valleys. Everything is green. Being high up, you’re always close to the clouds.

– The people’s interest in politics: Salvador has it’s share of problems but most people really care about their country. People make politics a very personal thing and its something that’s they really think about. For example, my family has a home made candle on which they put the initials of the political party they support. It is proudly displayed on their mantle.

– $12 cell phones

So this is a little extensive for an arrival blog, but it’s not even a fraction of all there is to take in. I can’t wait to see and learn and puzzle over the rest of it.

Hasta mañana!

Some Culture

Culture is too fluid to be defined. My culture? How can culture can be confined to one individual – it’s a shared thing. It’s constantly evolving – through time, over space, within place, between people. To offer you a definition would be like offering you a 2-d, air-brushed and dated snapshot that would lie stagnant in your mind rather than attempting to reflect the whirling, vivid 4- dimensional reality that we are a part of.

So instead of defining my culture I will offer glimpses of some experiences in the last month that reveal something about my culture. You decide what. I wanted to reflect on how I function within culture and how I process it. Even this will be more static than the reality that my head is swimming in, but I gotta write something!


I went for a jog. I eyed people’s garbage piles for useful items. Waste not, want not! Influenced by my “hard-done-by” Irish heritage? Or the trendiness of recycling? That most of my neighbours would stare if they saw me going through their trash indicates that this is not a culture they share. Well some neighbours might join me – collecting scrap metal to pay for gas and weed. But I don’t do it out of need, so we’re different. I see class divisions in this culture – they have names like white trash, skid, suburbanite, PTA parents. I see my family’s fear that we’ll be discovered. “Pick up the butts on the lawn and tell your friends to stop pissing behind the garage” they say to my brother.


We parked at the edge of the forest, packed up all our food and clothes and began to hike the road. It can be done, my uncles have done it before. I was in awe of the beauty of the spring thaw, filled with pride for the land I walked on. I was terrified of the bears. I looked at the huge clearances made by the loggers and shook my head. But that was all I did about it. It was a roller coaster of mud, snow and puddles, but we made it. It was worth it to be able to show him the cabin that means everything to me, to glide through the glass lake, to be rattled awake by the hammer of  woodpecker.


We took my grandmother to church on her birthday. Church is not usually on my radar but as a 93rd birthday present? Sure. She greets the priest by his first name and they joke about their Florida tans. During the mass I stay inside my mind – I swell with pride thinking that my little brother has refused to take part in the sacrament of confirmation that the rest of his catholic classmates have just completed. I remind myself to renew my birth control prescription before the trip. I see this as cultural because I know it wasn’t a part of my devout Catholic grandmothers’ cultures. They each cranked out eleven kids. I use the term “crank out kids”. I think of “if I become a mother”. I don’t think there was an “if” for my grandmothers.


Everyday I am confronted with the challenge of understanding new parts of my friends’ cultures. When meeting people, I am on my toes; Will they greet me with a kiss? or two? or a hug? or a handshake? or a hello? I go shopping with a friend and realize how much our concerns differ when it comes to buying clothes. I see this as being a result of her Muslim background. Then I realize it could just as well be due to our different body types. Perhaps part of culture in Toronto is being hyper-culturally-sensitive.


I check my facebook. I add photos selectively. I get dressed. I think about who I’m seeing, where I’m going. Yes I think about the temperature, but before that I think about what I want to look like that day. What image am I going to project? Art student deluxe, maybe with a hippie twist? When did that happen? I get on the subway, as an art student. I sit beside yoga girl and straight up G. I watch people: Bay streeter, homeless guy, yummy mummy, high school ingenue, cougar, pothead. We put ourselves out in the world neatly packaged for labeling. Even if you don’t intend it, people will read you in one way or another. These images act as a fence, allowing judgement from a distance so that we can stay in our comfort zones.