Iris Perez is a high school student from Oakland, Calfornia who participated in an EcoViva Community Empowerment Tour co-organized with two other local organizations, Movimiento and Ella Baker Center’s Heal the Streets Program. She wrote this amazing article about her experience for the Oakland Teen Times.
November 13, 2010
By Iris Perez, Oakland Unity High
Coming from a community that so many call dangerous, how dangerous could it be for me to travel to El Salvador?
I was 16 last summer when an opportunity came knocking at my door: A chance to participate in a 10-day trip to Ciudad Romero, a community in Usulutan, located in the southeastern part of El Salvador.
The trip from July 27 to Aug. 6 was organized by Movimiento, a cultural exchange program in Oakland that has connections to EcoViva, an organization in El Salvador that supports communities in Central America working towards environmental sustainability, social justice and peace.
Movimiento 2010 included students from Oakland Unity High and Mandela High School, both in East Oakland.
An Ella Baker Center staff member attended, as well as Mandela students from its “Heal the Streets” campaign. The goal of the trip was to spend time with and learn from teens from Ciudad Romero. Applicants had to go through a application and interview process in order to be accepted.
Because of my age, plenty of people said “don’t go,” including my dad. He signed the permission slip just one day before the trip.
Adjusting to a New World
When we arrived, we students had no idea of what was to come. We spent our first day in San Salvador, the country’s capital, adjusting to the heat, which was suffocating. My first food was an ice cream milkshake, which felt so good in that heat, and even though it melted fast, I enjoyed every bit of it. I tried to sleep during the bumpy ride from San Salvador to Ciudad Romero, which took about an hour and a half. As soon as we got to our destination, I changed into shorts and sandals.
Once in Ciudad Romero, we talked to the leaders of a youth group called CEPAE, or Center for Popular Education and Expressive Arts, which provides training in community organizing as well as art and theater. Next came a series of ice-breakers, including a body massage, which I would’ve never gotten at home because of how uncomfortable people are around each other. The goal of these activities was to build the trust to express ourselves freely.
Helping Teens Help Others
Soon after, we Oakland students began helping the CEPAE students with some of their work.
CEPAE is a family in which young people take on leadership roles in their community. CEPAE teens are helping adults in Ciudad Romero learn how to read and write; for many adults, education is a luxury they have never been able to afford. We participated in planning lessons, and a writing workshop on our autobiographies.
It was shocking when we read what CEPAE teens wrote about their lives. Many had been tremendously impacted by El Salvador’s civil war from 1979 to 1992, either by suffering physically themselves, or by losing loved ones. Still, they were moving on and participating in a process of change.
We visited a radio station, called Mangrove Radio, where the DJ put us on the air and one participant made us all laugh by singing “Billie Jean,” by Michael Jackson. We also visited Isla Montecristo, a gorgeous island where CEPAE works to protect marine life in Jiquilisco Bay.
Another day, we hiked approximately five miles to get to a community that includes only one elementary and middle school. Kids there walk those five miles twice a day every day to keep their education going.
These five miles are a challenge; you have to be careful where you step if you are walking during the rainy season, like we did. Our shoes would get stuck if we didn’t watch out for muddy places. We had to step on rocks at times so our shoes wouldn’t be covered in mud.
We also met up with ex-combatants of El Salvador’s civil war in that community. We visited a museum of war that included exhibits about weapons and machinery used during this time.
Learning About Peace, Purpose
Working with the CEPAE teens taught me so much more about what we can be doing as teens in the Bay Area.