Election observer in El Salvador, a recession-proof spring break job

By:
03/26/2009

Last Tuesday, I spent my morning in the noisy, sunlit streets of San Salvador and the night in Georgetown’s comparatively glacial climate. But the drop in temperature has actually been the easiest thing to get used to since my return. Not so easy have been my brief encounters with people I know, those friendly but slightly awkward and unfulfilling moments on the way to class when neither person has the time or desire to stop and talk. Each conversation follows a similar outline: “How was break?” One-word response. “Yours?” One-word response. Off to class.
I’ve been struggling to find a word for my break. Through Campus Ministry’s Magis Immersion and Justice Program, I spent ten days in El Salvador with nine other Georgetown students and three staff members. We visited impoverished and marginalized communities—places many Salvadorans themselves don’t see—where people showed us their living conditions and explained the situation in their country. We also served as International Election Observers for El Salvador’s March 15th presidential election.
Passing friends in a hurry, all the words I want to use—sobering, life-changing, uplifting—seem too heavy for a five-second conversation.
When I first heard of Magis, I wondered how much of a positive impact we could really have, since we weren’t doing typical service work like building a school or running a soup kitchen. But the more Salvadorans we visited, the more I realized that they weren’t asking us to save them, to pull them out of their poverty; what they wanted most was for us to see their reality, remember it, and tell their stories when we returned home.
To paraphrase Camus, they wanted us not to lead them, not to follow them, but to walk with them.
One encounter stands out in my mind. On the second day of the trip, we met residents of Las Nubes, an extremely poor community nestled in the San Salvador volcano. We hiked up to the house of a man who makes about five dollars a day picking coffee beans. His house is made of mud, wood, and sheets of metal, and the Salvadoran government provides no social services help his family.
After giving us pomegranates from his tree and showing us his tortilla-making equipment, he thanked us for bearing witness to the reality of his country and asked us to be vigilant on Election Day. His honor and graciousness, in spite of his circumstances, were incredibly humbling. The biggest service we could do for him was to listen and remember his story, and for that, he was incredibly grateful.
Everyone we met implored us to help them uphold the democratic process, so election day was infused with great significance. After several hours of election observation training, we arrived at the polls at 5 a.m., transformed into fierce “observadores” by our distinctive white vests and caps.
Our role was an impartial one. We could not intervene, only take note of any possible fraud and report it to Salvadoran authorities. Once again, I thought of the idea of walking with people: this was not our election to control; we were simply helping Salvadorans determine their own future.
Just our presence was a positive force. Whenever I’d walk by a voting booth, the Salvadorans in charge of it would perk up the way a driver does upon noticing a police car in the next lane.
The voting stations were run by coalitions made up of members of the two opposing parties, ARENA (the right) and the FMLN (the left), and I was impressed at how committed they were to working together. I saw all kinds of people—old ladies supported by a family member, men sporting red berets, and first-time voters my age, all dipping their fingers in the indelible ink after casting their votes. One old man came up to me and kept remarking how tranquil the elections were. He had undoubtedly lived through the country’s horrific civil war, which ended in 1992 .
At the end of a 15-hour day, we followed the counted ballots as they were turned over to the municipal authorities. Leaving the voting center, there was a palpable excitement in the air. Crammed around the TV at our guesthouse, we watched as the FMLN candidate, Mauricio Funes, became the first leftist president of El Salvador. We’d witnessed history—and taken part in it—by standing with the Salvadoran people as they ushered in a new era for their country.
The election changed both their lives and ours.
The Healy bells struck 9:00 a.m. as I headed toward ICC in the brisk morning air. “How was your break?” a classmate asked. “Good,” I responded automatically. Then, I changed my mind: “Walk with me and I’ll tell you about it.”

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2 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Election observer in El Salvador, a recession-proof spring break job”

  1. Sarah,

    What a wonderful reflection. I am also struggling to sum up our trip … I think I will just send them this link. Thank you — you are a blessing.

    –Matt

  2. Liam says:

    Sarah this is beautiful work. I just wish that when your famouse you remember the poor kids back in Brisbane.

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