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.

The Last Time I Saw Her: Remembering My Grandmother, Mama Chila

May 2008

A Remarkable Woman

Two years ago last week, my grandmother Mama Chila passed away. I’m not sure I can describe what an important person she was to the family. It was due to her pure determination that we were even reunited.

After the war, she went back to El Salvador to look for her lost grandson. She asked questions people didn’t want to hear and had doors slammed in her face. She kept pushing until her dream of finding me came true.

When we were reunited she played a crucial roll in bringing the two families together. The first letter she wrote to us after our initial visit was to my younger brother Derek. It started “Dear Grandson.” This was a very meaningful gesture because Derek was not related to her and the reunion had been hard on him. She knew the only way this would work is if we became one family. She set the tone right away.

Since I can’t put into words what she meant to us, I want to share with you my last memory of her.

Remembering Our Last Days

In May of 2008 I went down to Central America for three weeks. Mama Chila had started to get sick the fall of 2007. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to go visit, but I was pleasantly surprised to see her condition had improved. She was a little frail, but up to her old tricks, cooking, cleaning and doing chores around the house. I gave her a big hug and greeted the rest of the family. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew this could be the last time I saw her.

I’m pretty sure the first thing she asked me was if I was hungry. She would make a traditional Salvadoran dish called pupusas. Knowing that I was coming she had already gone to the store to get all the ingredients. Mama Chila and my aunt got to work right away.

They must have been really good that day because I ate a lot. I had four for five for lunch. Then I had another two as a snack and three more for dinner. As if I knew this was the last time I would enjoy her cooking, I had more than my fair share.

She loved to cook for me. I think it was her way of taking care of me. I had my own life in America and didn’t need anything from her. The one thing she could do for me, that she knew I loved, was to cook. I didn’t even have to ask. She was always ready when I came to visit and if I didn’t eat at least four she would ask if something was wrong.

This was our relationship. We never talked much about life or about the events of the past. We just had those little moments together. I think they were special in their own way. After everything we had been through, the separation and the journey to reunite, the only thing we needed was that.

Nervously Going Back to El Salvador

I recently booked tickets to El Salvador for a week in December. I’m going down for a cousin’s wedding. This will be my first time back since 1998 and I’m a little nervous.

Since the end of El Salvador’s civil war the situation in the country has steadily declined. The war was supposed to improve life for its people. Instead the country has become less economically stable and more violent. Now a country the size and population of Massachusetts has an average murder rate of 16 people per week. Over 2,000 people have already been killed this year alone.

My family is no stranger to this violence. A cousin of mine almost died when her husband went on a shooting spree, attacking her, killing their baby and himself. She recovered both mentally and physically but other family members were not so lucky. An uncle on the other side of the family witnessed his son’s murder when they were carjacked.

I hear a lot about how violent the country is. It always makes me ask if everything my parents did was in vain. They gave up so much to try and change things. Here we are 30 years later and it’s about the same if not worse. My family made it and are better off now, but what about everyone else?

Maybe it’s the violence or the state of the country, but the thought of going back “home” makes me uneasy. I don’t think anything bad is going to happen but I know this will not be like visiting Panama, which is much safer. My family has been asking me to come back and I never go. I feel bad sometimes but it’s tough when my immediate family is not living there anymore. Even though I’m nervous I think the trip will be good. It has been a long time coming and I can’t wait to see my family.

A Couple of Updates

Our Network Grows

A couple months ago I wrote about how myself and other Salvadoran adoptees are working to build a support network for Salvadoran adoptees looking for their families. As I said in the post, people adopted from El Salvador during the war face a lot more emotional challenges than other adoptees. I know for myself it took several years to really reconcile everything that happened. Our hope is that we be a resource and a support system for each other.

Saturday night we will be having a dinner to welcome some new adoptees to our group. I’m really excited about meeting everyone and continuing to develop the group. I think this is an important step for the group and everybody attending.

We are planning more events in the future, including a conference type event that will focus on some of the human rights violations that took place in El Salvador at that time.

New Facebook Page

I’m a big fan of Facebook. I was the third person at my school to sign up (thanks to Caroline.) It’s a great platform for connecting and interacting with people. I set up a fan page for this site because it’s a great way to connect with everyone interested in this story and the upcoming book. If you are on facebook, we would love to hear from you.


Telling the Story

I’ve been asked to give a talk at Wentworth about story and hows its influenced my life. The talk will be tentatively be at 12pm on October 14th. I realize most people won’t be able to attend, but I am planning to stream the event live. More details about the talk and how you can watch coming soon.