10 Amazing People I Met In El Salvador
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Wow. It has been a month since I’ve returned home from my trip to El Salvador with Unbound, but the dear people I met are still on my mind often.
I think of my sponsored friend, Josefa, in the morning when I drink my morning coffee from the matching mug I gave her. I think of women like Blanca Estela, who work hard in the El Salvadoran fields each day actually growing and harvesting coffee. I think of Maria, who spends her days in the kitchen cooking food to share with people just as I love to do. I think of Victoria and Kristin, two of the Unbound staff members who traveled to El Salvador with us, working hard each day just a mile or so away from my house in Kansas City.
It’s the people who make a trip special, right?
And man, I had the chance to meet some extra special ones on this trip. So as I’m thinking about them today, and sending some long distance prayers and thanks and abrazos their way, I thought I would share a few of their stories with you. If you followed my trip via Instagram or the #blogunbound hashtag, many of these faces and stories may be familiar. But for those who missed it, I wanted to be sure that you met them and document their stories on the blog so that I can always remember them.
You can also read more about my trip in this post and get a context for what we did in El Salvador in my post about 10 Things I Learned In El Salvador.
The first person I met in El Salvador was actually my seat-mate on the plane to El Savlador, Cirila. Thanks to some very rusty Spanish (on my end) and very patient Spanish (on her end), we chatted nearly the entire flight to San Salvador. Cirila is a spunky 58-yr-old widow who has raised 7 children, now has 19 grandchildren. She was never taught how to read or write, but is damn proud to have helped pay for her children’s education by working in a chicken processing factory (on her feet) 8 hrs day, 6 days wk for decades. She also tells the best stories, giggles like a young girl, was scared to death of flying and stopped to pray for our pilot every few minutes, and gave me cooking and dating advice galore.
When I asked her to tell me one important thing she has learned in life, she thought about it, and said “Good girlfriends. Find good girlfriends. They are sometimes the most important.”
The Ortiz Guys
Goodness, those smiles. I had breakfast on my first morning in El Salvador with the Ortiz family who have 4 kids, 2 of whom are sponsored by Unbound. There’s Cesar (on the right), a math-loving, futbol-playing 12-year-old who wants to be an accountant. And Carlos Elias (left), a shy 13-year-old who dreams of being a teacher, tried PB&J for the first time during breakfast (big moment!), who also struggles with unexplained strokes and health problems. (Thankfully Unbound has connected him with a doctor to get a CAT scan, for which his anxious parents are profoundly grateful.) And then there’s Carlos Antonio, their kind and humble father who sells bread for a living and absolutely adores his children.
When asked about his dreams, he said that he wants to support his kids’ education so that they will experience the opportunities he never had. But more than anything, he says he just hopes that they can be “una familia mas feliz” — a family that grows even happier and happier together.
Anselma & Erica
Anselma is a 40-yr-old mom of four, who helps support her family by sorting through trash for recyclables to sell for six (long) days a week. Her daughter, Erica, is a 14-yr-old who has stayed in school while most of her friends have dropped out due to pregnancy. She talked candidly about how she has been approached by some men who wanted her to move away with them, but she is determined to stay in school and become a forensic specialist. Strong women, these two.
Merida & Margarita
I have been beyond inspired this trip by the strength, influence, selflessness, and strength of MOTHERS. Merida, here, is one of them. She said that her family was in a very difficult place in the past, but is now happy and moving forward in life thanks to Unbound and the fact that her kids can attend school. She is also a part of a mother’s group co-op that started recently, and works hard to contribute $1/month to help provide small business loans for other women in the community. (SO cool.) Her quiet 15-year-old daughter, Margarita, accordingly says she wants to study small business. And when I told her she was going to rock it and taught her the English phrase “girl power”, she teared up and broke into the biggest smile. When I asked both what they have learned in life, Merida said “patience”. Margarita said to “have friends next to you who encourage you and help you do good things in life, and keep them close by”.
One of the highlights of the trip was getting to spend a morning visiting the home (and unbelievable garden the size of a field!) of my new friend Maria. She also happens to be quite the cook, and she and I together whipped up a wonderful feast of tortillas, cheese-stuffed egg-batter-fried huisquil, vegetable rice, local-style salsa and horchata, all from her enormous garden. But even more wonderful was getting to talk for a few hours while we cooked about how the lives of women in her community have changed (COMPLETELY changed, she emphasized) due to the the formation of an Unbound Mother’s Group five short years ago.!Before the group began, she said that all of the women in her rural village were all completely isolated in their homes 24/7 doing housework and taking care of kids. But now they have made it a priority to get out of the house and meet regularly to hang out and encourage each other and study things like parenting and health. They are saving money to invest in one another’s small businesses. They are creating some pretty epic parties and fun events for their community to enjoy. They are starting to dream big dreams for themselves for the first time, instead of just for their children. And even more, she says she believes they can achieve them because they are no longer limited. As she said, “I’m free. I get it now, I’m free.”
I spent one morning on the trip with Blanca Estella, a 33-yr-old single mom of three (including a sweet daughter with special needs). She works in 15-day stretches on coffee plantations — with 2-day breaks in between — planting, weeding, fertilizing, picking, and roasting coffee. Although for reference, picking a huge 35 lb bag of coffee only pays $1, and then she has to haul it many blocks away to the weigh station. So with all of the transportation required, she can usually complete just 5 bags in a 9-hr workday. Afterwards, she returns home to a small house on the hillside where she lives with 13 family members. But when one family member struggles to make ends meet, the others always chip in and help. So her advice for life makes sense. She stressed, “It is so important to be close to your family.”
On the last morning of our trip, we had the chance to meet Daniel. Today, this 22-year-old is working as an intern at a local television station and has hopes of becoming a journalist and “giving a voice” to those whose voices are not heard in El Salvador. But he himself has an incredible story to tell. After his mom walked out on the family when he was young, Daniel helped his dad — a single father (notable amongst all of the families with single mothers we met) — to raise his two younger siblings. And at one point, his hard-working father was unable to find work, and Daniel made the decision to leave school to help his father earn money to support the family. But both knew that education was his hope for a future, and with help and encouragement and sponsorship from Unbound, Daniel returned to high school (a 4-mile walk each day, even in the rainy season) and has worked hard to pursue an education in journalism. While attending school, he also became an integral part of the Unbound team, and has volunteered countless hours over the years to give back. He credits Unbound with changing his life in just about every way, and has big hopes to continue to give back to his community in the future.
The Unbound Staff
Oh, how I love these people right here. And admire them. And respect them. They are just a few of the amazing staff who work in the Unbound office in El Salvador.
One of their incredible leaders is Henry (front), who was the fearless driver of this truck on some very windy roads, and who also (much more importantly) fearlessly works to advocate for those in need in El Salvador. I wish you all could have been there to hear him talk with such passion about the work of Unbound, and with such respect and admiration and care for the hard-working people of the country whom Unbound works to support. This guy is an absolute force for good in this country. And he works tirelessly to build the program there, and foster relationships in the community, and help create new opportunities and change in the country that will actually be sustainable. I wanted to pick his brain on everything — so much experience and knowledge there. And he was thankfully always willing to talk and share.
One of the other leaders I so admired was the Santa Ana project coordinator, Yessenia. With each passing day on the trip, we began to understand more and more of this quiet leader’s impact on the community. She would be the last person to draw attention to herself, but she is undoubtedly leading the way in working to help equip, encourage and mobilize the mothers within the community. And through them, families and kids and “aging friends” and communities as a whole are being changed in very real and stunning ways.
We also met so many other amazing staff with Unbound, from other lead staff to many young translators (who accompanied us daily and also translate hundreds of letters each year from sponsors to their sponsored kids or aging friends, and back and forth), to the wonderful cooks on campus, to the staff who work with the aging community, to the Kansas City staff and more. Let’s just say that they all blew me away. Truly. Their love for people all over the world, and their courage and dedication to work to support them, was so inspiring.
So grateful to them for all the do.
My Blogging/Journalism Team
I didn’t know any of these women before we took off on a plane to El Salvador. But now I can’t experiencing this trip — making our way through mud-soaked alleys, splitting up to meet the most amazing people, processing through their heartbreaking and inspiring stories afterwards, dancing with 80-yr-olds, speaking forgotten Spanish, squealing over bugs, drinking wine in styrofoam glasses, and talking for hours about social justice — I can’t imagine it without them. Grateful for each of them and the legacies they are leaving in this world, and to now call them amigas.
Easily one of the top 10 moments of my life. On the first afternoon of our trip, I finally had the chance to meet my “aging friend” I am sponsoring through Unbound — Josefa. And she is the absolute COOLEST. She’s 90, birthed 15 kids and raised the 10 who survived, and says she has lost track of how many grandkids, great-, and great-great grandkids she has. She was widowed 28 yes ago but has been fiercely independent since. She had this fabulously dry sense of humor, has made over 1 million tortillas in her life (seriously), loves to nap in her hammock in her tiny hut, never learned to read and write, but she absolutely loves to sing. She said, “When you’re sad, you should sing. When you’re happy, you should sing.” And when asked about the most important thing she has learned in life, her answer was simple: “Love.”