Entrenched in past scars, ex-gang members lack almost every ingredient for hope; they’re baking anyway

Both the U.S. and the El Salvador governments call the current gang epidemic in El Salvador a crisis of epic proportions. But opportunities for gang members to escape the cycle of violence — with their lives — remain incredibly dangerous, and rare. This is one unfunded organization that’s trying, anyway.

The young men carefully guided the large, metal trays out of the industrial-sized oven and onto standing racks to cool.

The artisanship was evident: perfect, buttery coils of pan con ajo; creamy-topped novias; rows of soft picudas, their delicate peaks adorned with golden beads of sugar. In the other room, a few others were masterfully shaping the dough before it went into the kiln — twisting spirals to form decadent cachitos; filling jalea-replete gusanitos with the second nature sort of motion that comes only with time, repetition and dedication.

As the air filled with warmth and rich wafts of butter and yeast, I felt like I might be in any typical Salvadoran bakery, except for notable context: all of these delicacies were being made by ex-gang members.

In the back of a makeshift church in one of the most brutally violent territories in the country, these tattooed hands that not so long ago embarked on very different tasks were now rolling out thin ropes of dough, gracefully arranging them in circular designs atop sweetbreads.

Confronting my privilege in my work

Some recent online criticism took me by surprise. It probably shouldn’t have.

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Last week, Twitter punched me in the gut.

After someone reposted a link to my project explainer, noting that with a white person behind it, it had the chance to go sideways, a small community of Latinx U.S. Americans jumped on board with the criticism, which got pretty extreme in a few cases.

I’m embarrassed to say, it took me by surprise.

I wanted to create this new docu-series exploring U.S. imperialism because I see a real dearth of those kinds of stories in U.S. media — and because these lesser-told accounts that may seem distant and long ago to some are actually critical context for the issues we’re all concerned about today.

In many ways, we’ve forgotten our own history or we were lied to from the start. Revisiting some of those stories and bringing light to them is what I’ve been driven to do.

But since I began the project, I’ve also described, in part, my motivations for what not to do. I’ve talked about being hyper aware of the history of white people in other countries — colonizing and enslaving, diminishing and extorting, profiteering off of faces and experiences and controlling narratives for their own gain.

I’ve explained that as a white person moving through non-white places, one of the few ways I felt I could do good and not harm was to make my work a critique of my own people, my own government; to be a voice in examining that influence so that we can work to change the direction of the tide.

Still, when some of those accusations were slung my way, I was shamefully taken off guard.

Visiting El Mozote: behind the scenes of my reporting

I had read a lot about El Mozote, about this horrible chapter of Salvadoran history and U.S. complicity. Then, I went — and felt the bullet holes, smelled the earth, saw the tears. Here’s what it felt like.

I glared the at the Google map as we got closer.

I stretched and shrunk my screen, checking the estimated arrival time again. I tapped my notebook and looked out the window. The surrounding pueblos faded to pastures and morro groves. The mountains of Morazán looked gray in the distance.

I was anxious.

I was high up in the hills of El Salvador, but I was heading toward a piece of my history. Well, both of our histories. My companion Luis and I were nearing the site of the greatest civilian massacre in modern Latin American history — a three-day horror in which his people were killed … and my government helped.

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.

While we get outraged about Russian interference, we should consider our own history too

Last week, the redacted version of the Robert Mueller investigation into possible Trump collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections was released, and seemingly all of the U.S. — particularly its media — took the opportunity to find new ways to be aghast, disgusted, horrified by the idea that a foreign government could be involved in dictating our leadership, our way of life.

It’s disturbing, certainly. I’ve been among those enamored with fury, too.

But lately, I’ve instead been thinking back to a conversation I had a few months ago in a bar in Belize.

My Belize City friend, Ian, chuckled then as we shared a glass of wine, talking politics in a small bar in Placencia. At some point the Mueller investigation came up.

“Americans are outraged that Russia helped choose your president,” he mused, “even though it’s what your country has done with leaders of countries all over Central America for decades.”

Despite knowing the history, foggily, the statement hit like a 2×4 block of concrete to the face.

Because, well, let’s face it: as U.S. natives, we don’t like to think of ourselves that way.

How are Hondurans reacting to Trump’s aid cuts? A perspective from San Pedro Sula

Thanks to a long, complicated and overwhelming negative history of U.S. influence in Honduras, the reactions on the ground aren’t as straight-forward as one might expect.

At the top of Rotulo Coca Cola, where the heat of the city weakens with altitude and the pavement edges up against the jungle, a plateau rises from the mass of banana trees.

From here, all of San Pedro Sula, Honduras looks small — a city of almost a million stretched beneath the humid haze, its raucous soundtrack replaced by the drone of crickets.

“It looks so peaceful from here,” Eduardo Hermida said, overlooking his home town. “That’s why I like it.

“From here, it looks like everything down there is going well.”