Return to El Salvador: Photo Essay

This trip to El Salvador was a lot different. I got a chance to look at what my life here might have been like. I got to see the effect of American culture here. I learned more about my father and my mother’s side of the family.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to find before I arrived. Now that it’s over, I left feeling more torn. I was reunited with such wonderful people from my family. I feel a little guilty for not returning sooner. If anything has complicated things, I now have another group of amazing people to split my time between.

Something I want to start doing in the new year are more posts with pictures. I love photography and capturing moments that represent the human condition. Why wait until the new year to start. Here is a collection of photos from my trip that I think capture the essence of my trip.

Empty rooms can tell us so much about life in other countries

Getting ready for our cousin’s wedding while watching football(soccer)

Aunt Dalilla and Aunt Vilma

Aunt Tiña. Tiña and her family were the first people we met when we reunited. We met in Boston because they were there visiting. What a small world.

My cousin Cesar and his beautiful family

Cesar’s wife and their son

My cousin’s children playing in the fireplace

The Bride and Groom

Diana and Nicolas

Luis’ little daughter was watching TV and dancing in front of the TV

Monic talks to me. In the background is the table where Mariano and I talked.

Time to go

We stopped by to see my Uncle Sergio. Like most of the Cotos, he didn’t say much.

At my uncle Toño’s house we have a lunch of pupusas

Toño talks with his duaghter in the U.S. over skype

Group picture outside the store

Return to El Salvador: Visiting Mariano

Luis, Mariano and Myself

After spending a couple of days with the Escobars, I thought I should reach out to my father’s side of the family. My cousin Luis picked me up at my Aunt Dalilla’s house. We were going to his brother’s house for dinner. Before we got to dinner, we stopped by his house to wait for my cousins Cecelia and Doris. Luis lives in a small apartment on top of his father’s car parts and accessories store.

Luis’ father Mariano meets us at the doorway and invites us in so we can talk. I make my way up to the second level which is filled with chairs and other supplies. Clearly it’s being used as storage for the shop. We go up another flight of stairs to the apartment. There is one main living room. To the left is a kitchen and study room. The bedroom is to the right. The only bathroom is in the living room and is not entirely closed off. It’s tight quarters with little privacy, but it’s home. We take a seat at a big table in the living room.

I met Mariano once before in 1998. It was an emotional experience for his wife. She remembered bathing me the night before my mother and I fled the county. Mariano looks a lot older now. I don’t remember exactly what he looked like back then, but now he looks old enough to be my grandfather.

He tells me about how they used to listen to the clandestine radios during the war. They would have to turn the radio all the way down so no one could hear it. He explains that people couldn’t sit and talk as we are. He tells me how he and his wife helped my mother during the war. They took care of me and helped her get things she needed.

“Is this where you lived back then?” I ask.

He says “yes”.

I look around as I realize my mother must have stayed here with me. I can almost picture her walking around the apartment with me in her arms.

Talking to him reminds me so much of my father. The way they move is so similar. However, there is something different about Mariano. He is calm and collected. There is a sadness about him but he is not resentful. He has had a hard life and yet, I feel no bitterness or anger from him.

“Do you think things have changed?” He’s not so sure. He says, my parents fought because people were repressed and poor. 30 years later, they are still poor and all that is different is the leadership.

“What do you think about what they did?”

“Your parents were fighting for change. They believed in what they were doing but it didn’t turn out the way they thought it would. The U.S. was helping the government and this is why it didn’t work out”

I explain to him that I am in many ways the product of America. It was American foreign policy that separated me, and American culture that made me who I am. Then he says something I did not expected.

“It wasn’t the people of America that did this, it was a few powerful people who acted in their own self interest that did this.” I’m blown away by his insight and wisdom. Most of the people I have talked to about the war do not have such a clear understanding of the situation.

He talks about the gangs in El Salvador. How people will rob the busses and shoot you if you don’t give them what they want. Sadly he knows all to well how about this. A couple years ago his son was killed during a carjacking. He was sitting next to him when it happened.

“Thank God that you, Ernesto and Eva didn’t have to grow up in this.”

From where he sits we are the lucky ones. In his eyes even though we were separated from each other, we were still better off.

This trip has been difficult because it showed me what life here might have been like and it made me question the decisions my parents made. It made me wish for a simpler life, where my family is not separated. But what if we had never been separated? Would it have worked out like I imagine, or would life have been just as hard as it has been for Marino.

Would I have been happy with a life in El Salvador, or would I be searching for more? Searching for the life I have now.

Return to El Salvador: The Escobars

For most of the past 12 years I have gotten to know my father’s side of the family more than my mother’s. This is because I usually stay with my father and sister. My family there is very “Coto,” and it’s easy to see how similar we are. When I first met my family, I noticed right away that the Cotos walk the same. We have a distinctive duck waddle that is easy to spot when we are together. The more time I spend with my bother, sisters and father, the more of these traits I have noticed.

Since most of the Escobars are still in El Salvador, I haven’t had a chance to get to know them as well. During this trip I really got to see what the other side of the family was like.

One night after going out to eat Pupusas, a typical Salvadoran dish, we stopped by my Aunt Haydee’s house. As she was talking, I noticed right away that my brother Ernesto and she make very similar facial movements. I chuckled a little and hoped she didn’t notice. I could just picture Ernesto making the same face.

I looked over to my aunt Tita on the couch and there she was, sitting just as I would. Back to a corner, one arm stretched resting on the sofa back, the other in the air supporting her head. Up until that point I always thought my mannerisms came exclusively from my father’s side. It was nice to see one from my mother.

I’ve often wondered what else I got from my mother. Looking so much like my father, I thought a lot of my personality might have come from her. Watching the family interact, I got to see their characteristics. My Aunt Tita and her daughters are warm, fun loving, and silly. My Aunt Dalilla and her sons are more quiet, reserved, and pensive. What a wide range of personalities! I definitely see these same traits in myself. It appears my hunch was correct, I am very much an Escobar.

That weekend was my cousin’s wedding. It was one of the reasons that I decided to go back to El Salvador. In attendance were all but one of my aunts and cousins I had not seen in 12 years. Some of them resembled my sister and her daughter. Others reminded me of my late grandmother. My cousin Cesar bares a striking resemblance to Ernesto. He was there with his wife, daughter, and newborn son. Again I’m reminded of the life I might have had. We danced and laughed the whole night.

Besides figuring out which family members looked alike, I also learned more about our family history. I learned that my grandfather, Hector Escobar, worked in construction and even helped build the Panama Canal. It’s very cool to think that our family had a small part to play in its creation.

Getting to know the Escobars was a lot of fun. I got to see another side of my family and myself.

Return to El Salvador: Exporting Americanism

“Welcome to San Salvador,” says my cousin as we reach the city limits.

“Now, roll up your windows.”

One reason I hesitated to return to El Salvador was the fact it’s not as safe as Costa Rica or Panama. It is still a post war society, and riding down the streets this is very clear. Most major establishments have armed guards outside; “vigilantes” as they are called by the locals. The fire arm of choice seems to be a shotgun the size of my arm. It makes me uneasy and very conscious about my personal belongings. The guns are meant to scare robbers, but I find they have the reverse effect. They intimidate the very people they are meant to protect.

My first outing in San Salvador was to a flea market to pick up some decorations for my younger cousin’s wedding. It’s an interesting place with lots of people and stuff to look at. I wanted to take a picture of everything, but I didn’t bring my camera. I didn’t know if I could walk around here with it, so I thought I better not take the chance. What a big contrast from my visit to London earlier this year. There, I walked all over the place taking pictures and never once had to think about personal safety.

We left the flea market and headed toward the mall. “Empire state of mind” by Jay-Z was playing on the radio. Less than two weeks ago I was in NYC, one of the biggest global hubs, walking through Times Square listening to this very song. Now I’m driving down the streets of a Latin America, in a country that the world has pretty much forgotten about.

Listening to this song reminds me of my first visit here, 12 years ago. My adoptive parents and I went to a remote village in El Salvador because they were sponsoring a child there. As we walked down the dirt roads I heard “California love” by Tupac Shakur playing in the distance; a song I listened to a lot back then. I remember it amazed me how this tiny little village in El Salvador had the same music as I did. It was the first time I experienced the reach of American culture.

12 years later, I’m walking around the mall I again and I notice America’s reach. Many of the people here are very fashionably dressed. This is not the first time I have seen a culture of fashion in Latin America. San Jose, Costa Rica is also a fashionable city. However, this is different. The fashion in Costa Rica is Latin, whereas the fashion here is “western.” There are hairstyles and clothing that I’ve only seen in the US. When I point this out to my cousin she commented that it could be because of all the Salvadorans in there. It seems they are not only sending money to their families back home but also culture.

It’s fascinating to think that our biggest export in America might not be goods or services, but culture. Our music, fashion and way of thinking reaches all corners of the globe, infecting the people who live there. People in countries where the “American Dream” is a lot harder to come by. People who have to constantly worry about the well being of themselves and their family.

How ironic, we spread Americanism to all corners of the world and then turn away the very people who buy into it.

Returning to El Salvador: The Life I Might Have Had

It has been 12 years since I last set foot in El Salvador. When I first came, I was 17, I didn’t speak any spanish, and had just met my birth family the year before. My adoptive parents, my brother and I had decided to spend the holidays of 1998 touring Central America. We went to Panama, Costa Rica and then El Salvador. I don’t remember much from back then, only meeting lots of people who looked like me that I knew little about. I had a feeling this time it would be very different.

As my plane made its final decent, we flew past the city and out towards the coast. We headed out to sea, as if we only passing by this tiny country, the same size and population of Massachusetts. Over clear blue waters we did a 180 degree turn and headed back toward land. Moderate winds bounced us up and down some as we got closer to the runway. Instead of thickly settled housing I saw small shacks and green fields. Instead of grid locked city traffic I saw famers on horse back.

I got off the plane and headed toward customs. An agent greeted us and directed us into the appropriate lines. She asked me if I was Salvadoran and with a little smirk on my face I replied no. After sorting through all the days luggage at the only operational baggage carousel, I was on my way. Walking out of the airport I was confronted by a couple hundred people waiting for various family members to arrive. This was a little overwhelming, but luckily I found my cousin without any difficulty. We then made the 45 minute drive back into the city.

That night my cousin, her two sisters and my aunt took me out for buffalo wings. Watching the three of them interact and joke around reminded me of me and my siblings. They seemed so close and…almost normal. Then a strange thought hit me. Am I looking at the life I could have had? Is this what it would have been like if we had never been separated?

Rarely do we get to experience “what could have been.” We often imagine how our lives might have turned out, but to be confronted by it is something else entirely.

It made me question the choices my parents made. El Salvador is still a mess. There is still a lot of crime, violence and lack of opportunity. Did the revolution really change anything? If they had not joined, would it have mattered? My aunts and uncles didn’t fight and their lives seemed to turn out alright. I’m sure life in El Salvador isn’t easy, but at least they have each other. At least they are together.

The Hardest Question to Answer: What’s next?

Funding Graph

After an amazing ending to our Kickstarter project, people have been asking me “What’s next?”.

It’s a great question and a hard one to answer. How do we keep up the momentum and gain more support for our project? Films are typically done with little or no interaction from the outside world. Is there a way we can include everyone in the making of this film?

We would love to make the filming process as interesting and engaging as possible. This is something John and I have been talking about at length. We have some ideas about how to accomplish this. For example we want to broadcast as many of our interviews as we can over the internet. This allows everyone to watch and ask questions during each interview. We might do this in a type of web series. We are still trying to figure out what the format of this type of show would be.

I wish I had more of a concrete idea about all of this, but I think this is part of the process. This type of interactive filmmaking is a very new concept, and it’s hard to say what the correct approach should be.

Looking for ideas

Keeping to the ideals of the project, we would love to hear your feedback about any aspect of this project. What would you like to hear about? What would you like to be part of? What parts of the story are most interesting to you?

I’ve talked with friends about everything from what the web series would look like to a music score or the film. If you have some ideas or questions I would love to hear them. Please feel free to contact myself or John if you want to talk about anything.

A Week in El Salvador

This week I’m in El Salvador visiting family. I’m going to go through old family photos and build a list of people to interview. It’s been really interesting reconnecting with everyone. I even learned that my grandfather helped build the Panama Canal!

I’ll have more thoughts and photos from my trip in the next couple days. Hope everyone is doing well and is getting excited for the holidays.