Live Inspired: first impressions in El Salvador

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

The shrill, happy notes reverberated through Plaza Libertad, drawing a crowd of a couple dozen, and me — invited by the music and the gleaming red upright bass.

A woman, wearing a bright pink apron and holding a matching ladle, spooned atol — a sweet corn drink — into styrofoam cups to serve. Two other women had staked out territory in front of the little five-piece band and were dancing as though it was their jobs (it might have been; they later worked the crowd for tips). 

I whipped out my iPhone, as I always do, with a wave of reluctance. The nature of my job, these days, is to record what’s around me, but documenting other people in other places, especially as a white person, isn’t always popular. I’ve often stopped photographing because I absorb the glares around me. In more than a handful of cases, I’ve actually gotten visceral rebukes.

But on this glorious Friday afternoon, as I eyed the assembly, all I caught were smiles.

Why I came to El Salvador

After three months in the U.S., I’m continuing my travels in Central America. The next long-term destination? El Salvador. Here’s why I wanted to go.

On April 12, somewhere in between my cold brew and lunch, I found myself in an odd position: crying in a bathroom at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. 

A year earlier, I would have never been able to imagine myself here because, well, I didn’t even have the groundwork for the tears. And yet here I was, wedged between a couple of industrial-sized toilet paper rolls and a hand dryer, slobbering into my clay-caked jacket sleeve.

I had just participated in an exhibit meant to challenge the collective U.S. consciousness about our history in El Salvador, as part of a performing arts festival I had stumbled into. 

First, there was a short film on El Mozote, a sleepy village near the Honduras border and the site of the horrific 1981 massacre by U.S.-trained-and-funded Salvadoran troops during the country’s civil war. When the film was over, I was instructed to walk into an adjacent room. 

There, strewn across the floor, were tubs of red clay and ripe orange-and-yellow mangoes, culminating in a tumbling mass in the middle of the room, where a young woman sat on an upside-down crate armed with a tall stack of paper. 

Each sheet bore a single name.

Taking my hand, she sliced a knife through a bit of the mango she held and gave it to me to eat. She pressed red clay into my wrist. Then she handed me a piece of paper from the stack. 

Maria Santos Claros Marquez, it read.