El Salvador Journal
Mark Vitalis Hoffman

Back to El Salvador: Romero start page

February 28, 2000

I am going to start a journal of my upcoming El Salvador trip, but first I will need to relate a bit of background. This past fall, I did an adult education series at church focusing on how we make decisions as Christians. We looked at a number of topics which have been somewhat controversial, and I asked participants to let me know if they had some topic that they wanted us to consider. Roger and Margaret Haglund approached me with their concerns about economic justice. They have been active in Central American issues, Sister Parish, etc. I encouraged them to lead a session and that I would help them. In November, Roger ended up leading a session on the situation in El Salvador based on his experience there. After the session Roger and Margaret indicated to me that they would be interested in sponsoring one of Hope's pastors to go on a mission education trip there. I shared this information with the rest of the staff, but I was beginning to think about whether this was something I wanted to do or not.

I had a number of reasons for choosing not to go. The trip was in the middle of Lent which meant that I would not be able to do a Lenten series on my own as usual. I had only a passing familiarity with Central American issues, and I had done practically nothing in terms of promoting economic justice issues. I was also not sure what I would do with the experience. I am quite oriented to thinking in terms of doing Bible studies, and so this is not my area of strength. Finally, I am not a particularly bold traveler. I prefer something a bit more predictable and safe.

I did check out the Center for Global Education web site thoroughly. I watched a video on Archbishop Romero that the Haglunds loaned to me and another on the controversial School of Americas. It is kind of hard to watch these things. The injustice seems so great and the remedy seems so impossible.

When Aunt Dorothy died in early December, I had a lot of time for thinking on the drive down to Rockford and back for the funeral. I decided that it would not be a bad thing for me to move outside my 'comfort zone.' I also realized that the experience itself would determine what I would do with it. I do not need a plan in advance of how I am going to interpret the event.

So, the week before Christmas, I told Haglunds that I wanted to take them up on their offer. It was quite... significant? poignant? rewarding? to see how glad they were to support this trip for me.

I got all the application materials in shortly thereafter. I had to get a passport. There were some difficulties getting the airline reservations from Fargo to San Salvador, and I ended up having to arrange things myself. A week ago I got my Hepatitis A vaccination, and I start the seven week long course of malaria medicine this week. I met with Community Health who have information on travel to developing countries. It is a bit daunting. Hepatitis and malaria are the ones you can do something about trying to prevent. Not much can be done except being careful in trying not to get cholera, dengue fever, typhoid, rabies, or meningitis. Also, and I quote, "Most Salvadorans are armed, and shootouts are common." I am not really feeling any anxiety, but knowing me, I shall be quite cautious. I am also trusting that CGE knows what it is doing, and counting on their experience with hundreds of others who have done this before me.

Reading Oscar Romero: Reflections on His Life and Writing


I remembered this past week that I once wrote a song about El Salvador. Dug it up and found that I had written it 3.29.81. The lyrics are not very good, and the song is basically hand-wringing about doing something, but it is interesting to me to recall that I had some awareness of the situation there at one time. (I didn't learn about Bruce Cockburn until Yale.) Anyway, the song is "Some Day"


The sun sets red, another day's gone down,
And where have we gone but once more around?
We've got to get moving, we can't hesitate.
Some day soon it will be too late.

The guns don't stop, The Savior can't sleep tonight.
The poor keep working to live, their hungry children don't feel alright.
One they say's a war for peace, the other's an ugly blight.
Well, you tell me who fights the better fight.

The killings add up, the children have nightmares tonight.
One city's problem reveals a nation's plight. 
Something's broken down, something just ain't right.
When will it end? When will we see the light?

We can't wait till the moon is blood, till the sun fades from sight.
We need to start right now, start to set things right.
We need to move for peace till no one's hungry tonight.
Let love be our guide. Let love be our light.

on the web, learned that their has been a four month long strike by medical workers. Things have started turning nasty, BUT just today an agreement was reached. Good thing, because national elections are tomorrow, and some disturbances are expected. Just hope things are settled by next week and nothing violent happens on the 24th on the Romero anniversary.



first visit to Equipo Maiz - a community center for educ. on history of ES in popular / simple form

Father Jon Sobrino companions of Jesus- with Jesuits killed asked if still had hope

some ambiguity about canonization of Romero - fear of just putting him up front of church and worshipping him without remembering his teaching

Jack N-P’s Ten Minute Introduction to Liberation Theology

some things about today: went to a food court sort of place for lunch, nothing fancy, just a variety of hole in the wall places - turns out this is a rather "posh" place in ES - Jack N-P noted that since the last time he was there that they had built a wall so that you couldn't see down into the valley/ravines where the tinroof shacks are and have your meal disturbed

at Huizucar about 15-20k = 9-12 miles south west of SS:

armed security guards at every big store or gas station - by armed, I mean big rifles, shotguns or automatics

strange mix of chain stores: BK, Pizza Hut, Wendy's, etc and little hole in wall places


visit to UCA where 6 Jesuits and 2 women killed in Nov 16 1989

Identification and solidarity with poor

diff between mother Theresa and Romero is that MT only tried to help; Romero touched structures that created poverty

sense in which we heard about Romero killed in some 3rt rate country // a person in Rome hearing about some Jew killed in Palestine 2000 years ago

meeting with Father Dean Brackley

a - structural / institutional
b - theological
c - social relations

Senor Martinez at Romero Fdtn

after a good supper went to opening of art exhibition at Parque Cuscatan commemorating Romero; interesting crowd, for the most part quite well-dressed and middle/upper class

etc: mosquitoes aren't bad at all; there are some but no bites so far ; am glad I treated my clothes before coming

sent email today - another strange mix: computers everywhere but no running water - sewer system not sufficient to handle tp, so all tp must be thrown in garbage

- still cleaning up by wash cloth and using cistern water

learning that situation is more complex here: eg people at art exhibit or the bus admin and mech and elec engineering students we met at UCA - but I think this is good as it blurs lines of us vs. them or rich vs poor


left at 6:15am for 4 hour drive to Ciudad Barrios (about 75 east and a little north of SS; quite a bit longer distance by road - took about 3 hrs) and visit Radio Mons. Romero

walked thru town and met some distant relatives of Romero; saw old church where he had his first mass and the newer church (with mural) where he also later presided; also saw place where he was born (now office for coffee cooperative)

- long drive back (3+ hours) in back seat of van - not comfortable!

- got a number of pictures of countryside, volcanoes, etc. on way back

- dinner at guest house then went to a local hotel where we joined with semester long CGE group to hear guitarist Guierrmo Cuellar; best known for his Campesino Mass and Mass for Central America - turns out he also knows well and has performed often with Bill Dexheimer- in other group also was a woman from Concordia who has come to Hope

- the variety and complexity of the place continues to be so striking; as we drove along today, had chance to see people sleeping by road and digging through garbage; also saw large groups of school children walking to school in their uniforms, though it appears that poorest families or those who more isolated and distant from schools do not attend

- hard to get a picture of anything too "typical" - most houses outside the city are of similar construction: brick with sheet metal or tile roof, but after that many differences: size of building, accompanying buildings, some have vehicles parked alongside, others with 1 to many horses or cattle

- garbage and pollution are a major problem though it does not seem to be an issue to most people - here you have this beautiful countryside and all these beautiful plants (even though we are near the end of the driest months), and then there is garbage everywhere - you see houses built on hills or alongside ravines, and down the hillsides you see where the garbage is just regularly dumped - smells and bugs and vultures and dogs

- pollution by vehicles is incredible - and so is the driving! everyone is very aggressive, but it seems to work okay - if we should get rearended while I’m in the backseat of the van, though, my knees will be history

- interesting that in Ciudad Barrios Romero remains a controversial figure - nothing really planned for the March 24 anniversary - we were surmising that the Radio Romero folks made a point of escorting us through town to enhance their message and perhaps also their security - it may be harder for their opponents if they are more aware of the US support for what they do

- while in Ciudad Barrios, saw a number of drunks and mentally handicapped; they appeared to just wander around the town; they weren't harassed, mainly just ignored - there seems to be nothing in place to assist them


water was running this morning! Just a trickle but able to wash my hair and feel clean

- have been going to bed around 11pm or so and waking at 6am or so; actually start waking much earlier since it starts getting light by 4am and then the roosters start crowing then the dogs start barking; quite a few loud birds join in; then about 5am the traffic starts and since mufflers are not a priority item on most vehicles and since honking is a common way to clear an intersection, it gets pretty noisy in a hurry

- meeting with 2 women from Committee to Close the School of the Americas

- meeting at Morada Dela Mujer (Purple House) with Ima Rocio Guirola re: women in ES


While we were at the meeting, Christina and Mauriso went to run some errands and exchange money for the group. After they left the bank, 3 heavily armed men in police uniforms with flak jackets and shotguns stopped them in the middle of the street. They dragged them out of the van and threw Mauriso to the ground. They made lots of noise to intimidate others who were around and smashed the windshield of the van and took Christina's bag with the money. Christina and Mauriso are okay, but everyone and especially they are shaken. Welcome to reality in El Salvador.

It is not clear whether they were police or ex-police or disguised as police, but reporting the crime to the real police accomplishes nothing. The audacity to commit such an assault in the middle of the street in the middle of the day only shows the extent of the problem here and the impunity with which such crimes are committed. The ARENA solution to crime of simply adding more police is not comforting at this point. You also have to figure that someone in the bank observed and reported that a significant sum ($590) had been transacted.

I wonder how people live with this, and I am aware of the desire to retaliate over something as little as the $70 I lost. Can non-violence achieve its desired ends? It seems awfully easy simply to remove the non-violent with little consequence. I keep thinking about the Bruce Cockburn (an entirely non-violent guy) song about the Honduran? refugee camps (as I remember the lyrics):

Here come the helicopters, second time today. Everybody scatters and hopes they'll go away. How many souls they've murdered, no one can ever say. If I had a rocket launcher, I'd make somebody pay.

a little free time this afternoon then meet with Carlos Ramos, political analyst in FLACSO (Latin Amer social science faculty)

- went to the national university for a concert commemorating Romero - some of the musicians hadn't been on that stage for 20 years and had only gathered at that stage during the war for the funerals of friends but this was now a great celebration - fun and the place was packed

- went to supper at Nelly's for a variety of ES food: pupusa, fried yuca, two different tamales and more


Meeting at FUNDE (Fndtn for Natl Devel - a progressive think tank for economic policy)

Raul Moreno:

The ES govt says that the ES economy is an example of economic stability for the the region and the world BUT Raul goes on to explain the "incredible magic" necessary behind this false claim.

> families in more precarious situation, also elderly

Financial structure in ES:

Exchange Rate:

Fiscal Deficit and Balance of Payments

Public Spending:

Maria Eugenia Ochoa

- visit to Central Market

- did cost comparison survey: What cost to feed family of 5 for one day? (c8.7 = US$1)

- visit to Cathedral and plaza; bldg on left is palace from which roof troops shot at those gathered for Romero funeral

- visited Romero tomb in basement; not very impressive (part of new archbishop plan)

- meeting with Procuradora of Defense of Human Rights Office, Marcos Alfredo Valladires

- mayor's reception for intrntln delegations at archbishop residence

- mayor is Hector Silva, very popular FMLN, perhaps next president?


- reception for intl delegations at Divina Providencia

- Fr. Dean Brackley on impunity and reconciliation

from Jon Sobrino: 2 things to remem about poor

1) poverty is death - any ugly, does awful things to people, breaks family and community, internalized: anyone who idealizes poverty of the poor has exper neither

2) diff between un/organized poor - between those who have exper liberation, discover worth as human and those who still live out despair

a note about xxxx who showed us his pictures from the war; he was apparently a ranking FMLN officer; has pictures of himself with the top people and Daniel Ortega and UN officials; he met his wife xxxx during the war - she is this sweet, cheerful little woman, and here are pictures of her in fatigues; she was in combat up to 5 months pregnant!


- some reflections on the Procession last night

- visit to environmental CESTA with director Ricardo Navarro

- 4 levels of work

  1. eco centers: 4 of them - in ES a bike center - another forest of reconcil with 1 tree for ever one killed - another is marine working with sea turtles etc
  2. eco communities with variety of projects
  3. conciencia - publ and communic - promoting laws
  4. eco movement - the macro cooperation of people working together - intl connections

- go to Izalco Cabaņa Club on Pacific coast

- closing reflection

- jack reflecting on survey by Illacuria shortly before being killed

- survey of power in 1989

4 oligarchy
2 military
1 us embassy

2000 (our list)

1 intl econ interests (imf)
2 natl financial (hanks - 12 families)
3 political parties (ARENA - FMLN)
4 military - police

issues facing ES


- closing time together


up early to drop rest of group at airport

went to La Resurrectione Luterano Iglesia - 2 other church groups there: Vera Cruz (5 Amer + 1 Canadian) and a group of pastors from D.C./VA ELCA synod (5 pastors + Bishop +CGE guide)

OK: what am I taking home?

- an appreciation for this country of amazing contrasts: poor/rich, beauty/blight; hope/despair. It's amazing that they exist together so strongly. It's amazing that the privileged and powerful can exert so much influence and be so violent and manipulative and death-dealing. But it is even more amazing that hope not only refuses to be destroyed but that it flourishes and keeps on rising anew. From whence does it get its power and endurance and vitality? Human will that refuses to broken? A sense of what is right and true and real? Clearly the church has played a role in its message that all people are of worth in God's eyes and that God has a "preferential option" for the poor. I think also of the people we met at Equipo Maiz or FUNDE or CESTA. These are incredible people who could 'succeed' anywhere in the world but have chosen to stay and try to make a difference in El Salvador. Partly it is the sense of just 'swimming' as long as one is able, but when there are easy options out, why keep choosing this struggle?

It perhaps goes back to a sense of what is right and ultimate. We do something despite all discouragements simply because it is the right thing to do. I think that is what Chris from Fresno saw. He wasn't sure why his boss sent him on this trip. On the last day, however, he said that what this trip inspired him to do is go back and finish his high school degree. He had thought that as long as he had a good job that was making money, that making money was the main thing. What he saw were people committed to something greater than money and greater than themselves.

So perhaps for me this trip is the incentive to define what is most important and to recommit myself to it. I suppose I have thought more in personal terms: what is the right thing for me to do? What is God calling me to do? But what is the 'big' thing we are all called to do? What is the course we all have to 'swim'? I believe that it has to do with proclaiming the love of God, and that this trip has helped me to see more clearly that this is not just an intellectual abstraction but one that has concrete implications expressed in righteousness/justice with all its social, financial, and political aspects.

What do I do in response to this? I think I will be more active in supporting groups sharing this vision: like Equipo Maiz or Radio Romero or CESTA. I will also be more active in encouraging others to support or be involved with such organizations.

I also keep coming back to envisioning how I will teach such things. I still think that is one of my gifts.

One thing I would like to do is simply tell about El Salvador, the situation, and its people here.

Second, on a different level, I am still intrigued by the relationship between DESPAIR (nothing can be done) and PRIDE (the belief of those with power who think they can do it all themselves or that it is all about them) and HOPE (the conviction that with God something will be done and that God can use me in the process).

Once I see all my pictures, I am anxious to see what I can do with them in addition to simply creating an online photo gallery.

I will also take back with me more questions and things to think about.

I am struck by how much MONEY seems to make the world go round. The role of the IMF and World Bank and World Trade Organization set more rules that order the world than we imagine.

The USA needs more accountability. Clearly the School of Americas is a tragedy as is our role in the just mentioned economic organizations. The citizens of the US need to know more about such things and ask how we can change them. What are we willing to sacrifice or pay more for or do if we are convinced about what is right.

I am also still needing to understand poverty better. I think there indeed is a difference between the un/liberated poor. And if that is true, how do you liberate them? Where are the poor in the Fargo-Moorhead community? All the poor I seem to have encountered are unliberated ones who aren't looking for liberation. (Had an interesting mistyping there. Started typing lieberation. Lieben in German is to "love." Liberation = Lieberation, ie to love them?)

Still wondering about the use of force to resist injustice. Will peaceful non-violent resistance always work? Even Romero spoke about how violent resistance may be necessary when all else has failed.

I need to keep thinking about the validity of the approach and premises of liberation theology. (Learned today that there is a Lutheran counterpart to it here in ES called a Theology of Life.) LibTh starts with describing life as it is experienced and then turning to the Word for interpretation. This is not well-received from a 'scholarly' point of view because of its outright subjectiveness. The academic ideal is to start with the Word and provide an objective interpretation and then turn to see how it applies to and interprets life. Maybe there isn't any real difference. No 'objective' reading of the Bible can ever be more than less subjective! If you doubt it, consider all the interpretations that are asserted to be the right one!

I will have to work more on seeing what this approach might look like in my own work.

Finally, I am sure that I have not yet realized all the ways that this trip will impact me and change my life. Whatever those things might be, this was a great experience, and I am excited to see what is still to come. I have great hopes!


5:30am and so far so good! Didn’t sleep well wanting to be sure I didn’t miss my taxi to the place to catch the airport shuttle - this Taxi Acacysa de R.I. is a good deal (c40 + 25 = c65 as compared to c140 for a taxi all the way

couple more things

- comment from Duane: in a Bible study group in one of the communities, people asked what they thought it meant in Luke 19.40 at entry to Jerusalem when Jesus was told to silence his disciples, and he responded: "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."
- they said it was easy: it just meant that the graffiti on the stones/rocks would tell the story

On clothing customs in ES:

- the better dressed a person is in ES, the more respected
that is why even the poor out in the villages have one dress up outfit for church at least
- kind of nice and does affirm a sense of self-respect but it also serves as a way of reinforcing status structures and hindering upward mobility
- as US culture continues to pervade ES (and it is everywhere! TVs are everywhere and they get all the shows and cheap movies and nickelodeon dubbed into Spanish along with MTV), it will be interesting to see if clothing becomes more relaxed
- it will be both a good and bad thing
- On larger scale, the whole US cultural influence is going to be a mixed thing. I have no doubt that a primary goal of our influence will be to make them better consumers. If money becomes more available, my prediction for one of the first areas to expand quickly: tobacco. Not many people here smoke now, but where we saw the most was at the Natl University.

I have this picture of a society marked by youth with the worst of American characteristics (cynical and disrespectful; alcohol consumption is already a problem and will only get worse; drugs are just starting to become a problem) who are attuned to US consumeristic values. There will be a generational struggle as the older generation who knows how hard they worked and how much they have sacrificed just to see their kids acting irresponsibly and taking for granted what has been won for them.

Ultimately it comes back to something Dean Brackley said, that really what is needed is a new, transformed person. This is, of course, also what the Bible says, and I hope it is also what I always say as well.

Mark Vitalis Hoffman

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