It’s a balmy evening and the atmosphere is electric in the small town of San Marcos Lempa. San Marcos is normally bustling; the unassuming cluster of buildings along the two-lane coastal highway is the gateway to the Lower Lempa and a point of convergence for people going to the market, looking to catch a bus, or meeting with friends. Tonight is special, though, because the fourth round of San Marcos Baila is about to start.
Twenty years ago, El Salvador was still recovering from a twelve-year civil war that killed tens of thousands of people and displaced many more. The conflict and its aftermath marked the newly-arrived residents of the Lower Lempa, who struggled to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives and communities. Today, their children and grandchildren face different but equally daunting challenges: poverty and gang violence that have pushed countless Salvadorans to seek greener pastures elsewhere. For outside observers, it would seem that poverty, violence, and migration are all that have distinguished El Salvador over the last three decades.
Young people in the Lower Lempa, however, refuse to be defined by suffering and violence. In fact, as they take the reins of community organization and development through involvement in local youth groups, they are actively challenging stereotypes and redefining roles for rural youth. Guillermo, a youth leader from San Marcos, echoed the sentiments of many of his peers when he said “I want the community to see that we’re not a danger to society. I want people to see [us] as useful to the community. I want them to see that young people can be agents of change.”
With guidance and support from the Mangrove Association’s youth program coordinators, young people are developing innovative initiatives to address the most salient issues affecting them. To address poverty, they’re forming businesses to bring value to their communities and support themselves and their families. Youth are building micro-enterprises around farming tilapia, raising egg-laying chickens, and reselling clothes. To counter the spread of violence, they’re promoting arts and culture to enrich community life for all residents. The one-room library in San Hilario is run by the local youth group, who host regular reading circles with young kids, and is a part of a network of community libraries connected to the National Library of El Salvador. San Marcos Baila is another one of these initiatives.
San Marcos Baila isn’t just entertainment. It’s the product of the hard work of youth organizers who are securing sponsorships from community institutions, inviting local musicians to perform, marketing the event through word of mouth, radio, and social media, setting up stages and sound equipment, filming and photographing the festivities, and MCing the event, as well as that of the talented dancers who choreograph and perfect their own performances. Young people are flexing their organizing skills and contributing to the cultural life of the rural communities of the Lower Lempa — all while reaching out to their peers in the dynamic social sphere that is defining the next generation of organizing.
The popularity of the dance show is evident on Facebook, where San Marcos Baila’s page has garnered over 1600 “likes” in the two months since its creation. The page is also a testament to the organizers’ commitment to their communities. They recently posted:
In only 19 days we’ve had 46,870 visits to our page. That’s 46,870 people who know that in El Salvador there’s a little place filled with talented young people, enterprising people, simple people, but more than anything, hardworking people. That’s San Marcos Lempa, that’s our beautiful home!
Young people in the Lower Lempa are proud to be serving their communities. Through their ingenuity and effort, this new crop of inspiring local leaders is countering the prevailing narrative of poverty and violence and building a better future for themselves and their families.
Our 6th Annual Viva Fund campaign to support empowered youth leaders in El Salvador is wrapping up! Please help us meet our goal and donate to the Viva Fund today.