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Nowhere is a Shithole: Travel More. Talk to your Neighbors. Think.

Title Photo by Oswaldo Martinez
El Encanto Country Club, San José Villanueva, El Salvador

Article by Kevin Heffernan

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” – Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States, while referring to foreign nationals under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) from El Salvador, Haiti and various Central American and African nations living, working, raising children and paying taxes in the US after leaving war, disaster, economic hardship, and more in their home countries.

Trump may be a racist, and/or ignorant, but his words do much more than bring shame upon himself and his administration. They damage our society. When the President of the United States says things like this, it strengthens the hateful rhetoric of other politicians, local and national, and media pundits. Because they lack the mental capacity to develop real solutions to our country’s pressing problems, they distract by blaming ethnic and religious minorities. It’s easier to cover ears and eyes and believe lies about immigrants and refugees than it is to get out of your comfort zone and find truths.  

Those who choose not to travel to countries where people look, worship, eat and live differently than them are more likely to believe rhetoric at face value. Not everyone has the privilege of being able to travel, but we in Buffalo live in an international city, full of immigrants and refugees here to build a new life. Those who choose not to step out and get to know their newest neighbors are also at risk of falling for hateful, ignorant rhetoric about foreigners. In regards to the places Trump has simply, easily, lazily written off as shitholes, I can speak personally about the most resilient people I have ever encountered – Salvadorans.

(Some photos from 2006)

Photo by SJ Velasquez


In 2006, while I was a sophomore at Canisius College, the O’Shei Foundation in Buffalo offered a grant that fully paid for students and professors to travel to El Salvador for an extended period to research the economics, politics and religion that made up the small country’s landscape. Every student was welcome to apply. Roughly 10 of us from various backgrounds were lucky enough to be accepted. El Salvador was never discussed in world history textbooks growing up. Before Facebook’s algorithms kept me surrounded by opinions exactly like my own, I caught news randomly on TV/radio about an earthquake, once, and never heard the country’s name uttered before or afterward. Having only traveled domestically and to Canada, I was shook to my core by the world I encountered outside of the United States.

In the summer of 2006, El Salvador was reeling from growing gang violence in each village, town and city, a devastating earthquake in 2001, and a brutal civil war in the 1980s. All three instances sent hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans to the United States looking for safety, economic opportunity, and a new start under TPS, a program that, for Salvadorans, survived Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama, before coming under the fire of racism and xenophobia in the Trump administration.

Photo by SJ Velasquez

We received firsthand accounts from those who were terrorized during the war as well as from neutral observers. The civil war was fought between a military-led government backed by the United States, and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of left-wing groups deemed a communist threat in our own backyard by the Reagan Administration. 85% of the country’s land was owned by only 14 families, and the economic elite stopped paying taxes to the government they controlled. Over 75% of the country was living in poverty, and a class war erupted. As in most wars, atrocities were committed by both sides.

75,000 people were killed. 1,000,000 were displaced.

But it was the military funded and trained by the US that was responsible for terrorizing the vast majority of civilians. The School of the Americas in Fort Benning, near Columbus, Georgia, along with US Special Forces, trained Salvadoran death squads. Children were kidnapped to be soldiers. Catholic priests and bishops that spoke out against the US-backed government were murdered while saying mass or in their front yards. We spoke to people who hid behind trees while government helicopters rained fire down upon them. All in our own backyard until international pressure and the ending of the cold war slowly brought fighting to a halt in the early 1990s. 

Photo by SJ Velasquez

Photo by SJ Velasquez

Photo by Max Panamá Concepción de Ataco, El Salvador

Most Salvadorans in 2006 were living off wages of roughly $5/day. The country used the American dollar as its currency and the economy stayed afloat because of remittances sent back home by those under TPS in the US. Many made clothes for supply lines controlled by The Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic. Others were struggling farmers, fearing the pending effects of a CAFTA agreement being formulated at that time, and others owned shops or worked shifts in a very small tourist industry. The same is true today. 

Not one of them that we encountered held hatred for us as Americans, despite all their hardships that our country was largely responsible for. They wanted to share their story, and to hear ours. They welcomed us into their homes, their schools and coffee farms. We caught fish and wrestled chicken together for dinner in the mountains. They added chairs to their largest tables to allow us to sit with them and their children, who whooped our asses in soccer. We also swam in lavish pools and ate at large hotels in central cities.

Photo by Kevin Heffernan

 

Photo by SJ Velasquez

Salvadorans practice religion with a fever unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the US.

They put ham on their pizzas. They slap beans between wet flour tortillas and scald them on the grill, calling them pupusas. We rip the wings off chicken and throw them in the fryer and douse them in hot sauce.

They participate with vigor in their politics, while half of us sit at home.

They welcome strangers into their homes, while we cheer pundits that say we should kick strangers out of our neighborhoods and cities.

They have teenagers with shotguns guarding doors of small businesses, while we hire armed guards for events and movie theatres in our cities and suburbs.

Just like us, they break their backs working to make better lives for their children. Unlike us, they do so by leaving them in country with their grandparents while parents go to the US to work and send money home, or by taking their children with them for a better, safer life in the US. The same life that we’re all privileged to have been born into.

Photo by Kevin Heffernan

Photo by Kevin Heffernan

El Salvador has its problems and challenges. They remain so severe that it is not a safe country to send 200,000+ people back to all at once. Its ambassadors are pleading with the US for more time to create more economic opportunity. In the meantime, its people down there and living here are beautiful, brilliant and resilient, resourceful, warm, and welcoming. To call it, or any other country that is not ours, a shithole is to advance a notion that its people are less than us, native-born Americans. To believe in American exceptionalism is dangerous, and covers up uncomfortable truths about our dark history and our own failures. We’re a country built on genocide of Native Americans and slavery of Africans. To welcome immigrants from all over the world with open arms is the first step in making up for the atrocities of our past. To think critically when we hear people speak in absolutes about the harm immigrants have brought to our shores is next:

Immigrants commit crimes at drastically lower rates than native born Americans. There’s simply no gray area at all.

Immigrants aren’t taking jobs away from Americans. They’re making our economy stronger, more competitive in Buffalo and Syracuse, for example. In the 25 Great Lakes Metros, And across the country.

When speaking about immigrants and refugees, ignorance is not bliss. Understanding people different than yourself takes effort. Stepping out of your comfort zone can be as challenging as traveling, or speaking to strangers right here in Buffalo, or as simple as reading the facts.

 

Centro Arte para la Paz from Jennifer Eberhart on Vimeo.

Shot by Jennifer Eberhart and Sarah Velasquez.
Edited by Jennifer Eberhart. A Canisius College Video Institute production.

Centro Arte para la Paz: The Center for Peace through the Arts.
Found in Suchitoto, El Salvador. The art center seeks to promote an atmosphere of peace, to teach the people of El Salvador, and to help them cope after surviving an all-too-recent 12-year civil war.