All of the windows in my house have iron bars on them. At the end of my street, and at the end of every street in my neighborhood, there is always a 24-hour guard on duty. Each time I leave my house, I double lock the door and I prepare myself in the event I should be robbed: I make sure I am carrying some cash but not too much. (If I am going on the bus I have my quarter in my hand so I don’t have to dig through my wallet).
El Salvador is a violent place – one of the most violent countries in the world, actually. The civil war is over, but there are probably more guns floating around here now than there were in the 1980s. During the civil war, Salvadorans who fled to Los Angeles to flee the violence found themselves in the midst of L.A. gang conflicts, and in order to protect themselves from the other gangs, the Salvadorans formed their own gang: the Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13. Violence begets more violence. After the war was over, many of these Salvadorans were deported back here. One war was over, but another began. The 18th Street gang and MS-13 fight for control of this country, and in some places, they have won. Even the police don’t go there. The violence here is a combination of turf wars and random violence which keeps the general population in fear and the government with their hands tied, unable to protect its people.
I am lucky. I live in a middle class neighborhood where I feel very safe. I, unlike many of my Salvadoran friends, can afford to live in a neighborhood where the kids play soccer and ride their bikes outside on the streets, and neighbors trust one another and share soda and gossip and live in community. There are no gangs here, and I suspect that there won’t be anytime soon. You see, since the kids from my neighborhood are mostly middle class, they don’t go to bed hungry and they don’t worry about how to afford books for school or how to pay the hospital bills. And since they aren’t so desperate, they don’t have to do desperate things.
How does this “culture of violence,” as it is called, manifest itself in my life, then?
On a field trip to the beach with families from Centro Hogar, the pre-school where I work, a grandmother takes off her shoe and uses it to beat her grandson Mario. Hard. She yells and chastises him for not listening to her and he screams and cries in anger and pain and terror. Annie and I stand in shock, watching, wanting her to stop but not really knowing what to do. Everyone else just walks by, as if it were normal and maybe we should just stop staring and pretend it were not happening. Do I have the right to tell her to stop chastising her grandson with violence? Do I have the right to lecture her about how violence does not work as a discipline method? Suddenly, I am aware of the fact that I am a foreigner. Is this one of those “cultural differences”? Are all these Salvadorans just used to seeing this kind of violence? Has it become so normalized that it takes an outsider to be shocked by it? If Mario grows up being beaten, won’t he also learn to use violence to discipline his children, or his wife, or the gang from across the barrio?