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Volume II, No. 8; May 11, 2005

Service Learning and Social Justice in El Salvador

Dr. Rosario Diaz-Greenberg
Associate Professor
College of Education
California State University San Marcos

I am back in Chalatenango in my native El Salvador. It has been 25 years since my last visit to this area. No more bombs or mines. No more fighting. No more shooting. I see the Guazapa hill and I think about the many lives that were lost during the 11-year civil war. The land is no longer barren. New trees have grown in place of the ones that disappeared during the war. I am back to the land that buried so many people. They died trying to serve their country. I close my eyes and I remember the young, the innocent, my teachers, my friends, my father, and so many more who are no longer alive. I grieve in silence and thank them for their sacrifice. It is because of them that I am back. It was in their memory that I dedicated my dissertation and later, my book. I am back, and this time I am here to share my international service-learning project, which I have named Solidarity not Charity.

Unlike those who stayed and suffered throughout the war, I had the opportunity to go abroad and start a new life, far away from the daily scouring of the war. I had to leave my beloved country; it was a matter of survival. Yet I vowed to continue my commitment to service and learning. I vowed to return and try to make a difference. It was the war that made me leave a country that I love, a place that taught me the value of service learning at an early age. The years I have spent abroad have taught me many lessons. Above all, I have learned that service learning is a powerful tool to promote civic engagement and social justice. I have learned that, no matter where you are, you can go on and serve. Perhaps this is the reason why I had to leave. Living in exile gave me a chance to grow professionally, earn my doctorate degree, and be able to link international service with learning. Thus I was instrumental in connecting students and teachers in countries so far apart and yet so close in terms of needs.

I left El Salvador in 1980, the year Monsignor Oscar A. Romero was assassinated. He was killed while saying mass because he had become the voice of those in need. He believed that all human beings were called to serve and to learn while serving. His mission was cut short. Romero’s voice was silenced, but his legacy is still alive. It is alive among Salvadorians like Dr. Paco Acosta and his wife Barbara, who became the founders of the first rural university in El Salvador. Their dreams to serve while learning were fulfilled when they founded the university and named it after their friend and advocate, Monsignor Romero. It is here at the University that I have been invited to share my experiences at the international gathering commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of the Monsignor.

Like many other Salvadorians who left the country due to the war, Paco believed that one day he would be able to go back and make a difference. My own brother, Francisco, lived in exile for 10 years. It was at that time that he met Paco Acosta. My brother returned 10 years later and founded a center for the study of civic engagement and the defense of human rights (FESPAD.) We gathered before my presentation and reminisced about the war, the friends who died, and the work we still have ahead of us. As we sat, friends and acquaintances came by and greeted us. Some of them asked if I was the American who teaches at CSUSM in California and who is going to speak about service learning. They seemed shocked to find out that I was born and raised in El Salvador. It saddened me to realize that to them I am no longer a local; I am part of the “hermanos lejanos,” the Salvadorian brothers and sisters who reside outside of the country. The expatriates’ monthly monetary contributions not only keeps the economy afloat but also results in hundreds of community service projects, such as bringing water and electricity to remote areas or creating computer technology centers or helping rebuild schools.

It’s almost time to start my presentation. The president of the university thanks the visitors and acknowledges those of us who have traveled from other countries to participate. Dr. Acosta speaks about the work being done by Salvadorians abroad and stresses the fact that, regardless of where they are, Salvadorians continue to pour aid and support to the country. I begin the presentation by telling them who I am and how my father always stressed the importance of not forgetting your origins and giving back to the community. I speak about my childhood and the different service-learning projects I participated in since I was 5 years old. As I speak, I sense a change in the audience. All of a sudden they seem to see me as one of them. I tell them about the service-learning projects I have developed during the past 14 years. I share my experiences as a high school Spanish teacher in Florida when, at the end of the war in 1991, I developed the “Pencils for El Salvador” school supply drive. As a result of this drive, the 2000 children at the Segundo Montes settlement school were able to begin the school year with one notebook and one pencil per child. This was such an accomplishment that the local radio announced it as a first in the history of the school.

I relive each experience as I share my struggles to connect service and learning in a teacher preparation program. It is hard to explain the difficult times I have had reconciling theory and practice, especially when dealing with issues of social justice and equity. Above all, I try to convey the fact that it is not possible to teach about theory in a vacuum and that students need to find ways to apply what they are learning in a meaningful way. Making such connections not only helps the students realize the value of service but it also provides an excellent opportunity to learn about the needs of the community. The audience claps as I talk about surviving the 7.8 earthquake in San Salvador and how the CSUSM students and I were able to collect, ship, and personally distribute over 2,000 pounds of brand new school supplies to the children who lost everything during the earthquake.

The project built classroom spirit and an incredible sense of pride in the outreach program. Additionally, the project intensified the classroom community-building process in a foundational teacher-preparation course. Each member of the class was enriched by this humanitarian experience. It still stands as one of the brightest moments of my educational career.

My time is almost up and I end my presentation by offering testimonies from my students’ reflections on service learning. I give examples of how my students’ efforts in California have impacted their lives, my life, and the lives of thousands of children in El Salvador and Guatemala. Above all, I exhort them to believe in their own ability to become effective agents of change by implementing service learning in their own courses. I conclude by saying that they are not alone in their struggle. They can count on the efforts of Salvadorians living abroad who, like myself, believe in service learning and solidarity not charity!

Content Contact:
Judy Botelho
(562) 951-4749
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Last Updated: May 06, 2016

Last Updated: May 06, 2016

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