The Faces of Crisis

"THIS IS the face of Maria. She's always in trouble and she has a hard time doing the right thing," the 12-year-old girl mumbles as she displays a sketched self-portrait to the class.

"This is me, Ernesto," an adolescent boy pipes up confidently. "He likes soccer and he's really good at it."

Maria and Ernesto are in the classroom of the Santa Cecilia barrio, a Christian base community in San Salvador, El Salvador, for a session of art therapy offered by the Astac Cultural Center. The teacher concludes the lesson by asking the children to take their pictures with them and search for the positive attributes behind the faces.

El Salvador's youth are suffering from a lack of identification with their roots and culture. Not only do they seldom reflect upon a civil war that ended less than a decade ago, they are living in a country that is more violent now than during that 12-year conflict.

I spent the summer of 1997 working with deported members of Los Angeles street gangs in El Salvador through a program called "Homies Unidos." With the support of Save the Children, Homies Unidos is a group of non-active gang members, mostly from the rival groups "Mara Salvatrucha" and "18th Street," who are working to educate themselves and others on violence prevention and job creation. My project focused mainly on the reintegration of deported gang members into Salvadoran society—a society as foreign to them as to me, since they were refugees in the United States during the war.

EL SALVADOR IS RANKED among the most violent nations in Latin America, with more daily assassinations now than during the war. The tiny nation ties with South Africa for the highest number of murders per capita. An average of 150 people per month deported back to El Salvador (including many gang members with criminal records), combined with overpopulation and economic and environmental strains, fuels El Salvador's spiraling cycle of violence.

The signing of peace accords in the early 1990s signified hope for tomorrow's youth, but that hope has not materialized. El Salvador has changed since the signing of the peace accords, with outward signs of an improved economy. One can walk down the Boulevardo de los Heroes or through the Zona Rosa and have the illusion of being in a posh U.S. city. But the youth are falling into serious societal holes. Today the Salvadoran public considers juvenile gangs to be their biggest social problem.

"So many psychologists and social workers are too weary from 12 years of war," says Marceleno Diaz, a professor of psychology at the National University of El Salvador. "They don't have the energy to assist in the psychological struggle of at-risk youth."

Homies Unidos plans to set up workshops and vocational training for the purpose of teaching English and marketable art skills. Members believe that if there were more jobs, there would be less violence. Surely that is part of the problem, but psychological and moral healing are also needed.

One day during a Homies Unidos meeting a young man spoke of going to jail for attempted murder.

"What did you do?" I asked.

"I stabbed someone 17 times and it felt really good," he replied.

The youth who stayed in El Salvador during the war saw their parents tortured and murdered with machetes. Many youth who left sought refuge in inner-city Los Angeles. But peace was not to be found as they formed Salvadoran street gangs to combat existing L.A. gangs in heavily armed turf wars and drive-by shootings. Many were deported.

Some of these refugees are old enough to remember fragments of life before they fled El Salvador. But their main family and financial ties are most likely still in the United States, so they cling to gangs for identity. Gangs also appeal to Salvadoran youth who stayed in the country. "When we came back to El Salvador, the kids saw us as the prototype of what street gangs should be and everything changed," said Homies Unidos President Hector Pineda.

While many poor Salvadoran youth are sporting baggy pants and an L.A. gangster strut, even the rich youth, called fresas (strawberries) because they can afford to smell good, dress in grunge angst. Wearing torn Levi's and blasting Nirvana and Pearl Jam from their cars, they are atypical for a Central American country more caught up in salsa dancing and Selena. With little knowledge or reflection on the country's history, these youth have no indigenous foundation from which to move forward.

A former guerrilla combatant for the FMLN, 21-year-old Debora, joined Homies Unidos not as a gang member but as a youth in crisis. "The Homies are my new family," she said. "I don't want to remember the war even though I know I should."

Debora was raped by the Salvadoran military at age 11 and joined the guerrillas shortly thereafter. By age 14 she was a powerful urban commander, organizing thousands of guerrilla fighters. She has also proved to be a strong leader in Homies Unidos, with the ability to articulate a clear vision. Still, Debora is finding her own identity amidst other youth who didn't live through the revolution.

THE CRIME STATISTICS and the fatalistic attitude of the youth in El Salvador are grim, but various organizations are doing their part to stop the violence and provide hope among the youth. Homies Unidos plans to build an office in the San Salvador airport for meeting and assisting deportees. Other programs are working on the reflective and spiritual levels of violence prevention.

Youth at El Movimiento Juvenile say that when there are no jobs, the next best thing is a safe place to go, a place to share with friends and talk about their lives. Self-esteem, they say, is developed through people who believe in them and a sense of belonging to the group.

El Movimiento has put together a donated library with human rights resources. They also offer guitar and folk dancing classes to bring back Salvadoran heritage and tradition.

"Sometimes my work day consists of just sitting and listening," says CRIZPAZ volunteer Matthew Eisen. "Sometimes I'm amazed that just being a presence can make such a difference in their lives."

Former gang member Juan Carlos agrees. "Those homeboys, they need a place with a roof that doesn't leak and some people who are willing to stick it out with them. All they're really asking for is love—I'm talking tough love."

Many "at-risk" and gang youth in El Salvador attest that conversion to nonviolence is a spiritual process. "I was in the gangs and I had a lot of power, but I was a bad example," says Alvaro Rafael, a 20-year-old catechist in the Santa Cecilia community. He helped to organize a nonviolent youth program in his barrio.

"We always had solidarity in the gangs. We shared our food and our drugs," says Rafael. "Here in Santa Cecilia we maintain the solidarity but it's more positive. We share food, beds, parents, art, and moral support."

The Santa Cecilia youth program is influenced by active leaders of the Catholic Church who carry on the vision of Archbishop Romero and other liberation theologians. While many fear that liberation theology in Central America is dying, it is alive among those perceived as unreflective gang youth.

"We get our hope from the intellectual church," says Rafael. "We're trying to implement reflective living in every aspect of our lives. We even try to eat natural foods."

DURING THE TWO months with Homies Unidos, I struggled with my original goal of organizing a formal human rights education program. Instead, some days it was all I could do to keep from running out the door when violent, graphic remarks became overwhelming.

"I love youth and I believe we can be of assistance to those at risk," Diaz said, "but we're still dealing with a lot of psychopaths and manipulators."

What restored some faith was discovering that human rights education and psychological spiritual healing were subtly taking place. This was happening in basketball games and team interaction, cooking meals together, and going for hikes out of the city, tangible lessons in positive, nonviolent interaction. But those lessons happened because troubled youth could find moments of escape and sweet relief from the violence.

Some say El Salvador is heading for another civil war or urban anarchy, a society filled with violence and lacking in identity. Yet, perhaps, if enough psychologists, social workers, church leaders, and inexperienced volunteers are willing to persevere, it might not be too late to save El Salvador and its children and youth.

JULIENNE GAGE is working on a master's degree in cultural anthropology at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Her work in El Salvador was funded by a Patrick Stewart Amnesty International scholarship.

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