Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, has all the contradictions
of a country caught between desperate poverty and multinational capitalism.
Blockbuster Videos, KFCs, and fancy car dealerships with gleaming show
windows rise skyward as ordinary people engage in the daily struggle
to provide for their families.
Our stay in this Central American city would be brief. Soon, we would
be setting off for a small town called Colima, where our group of 14
students would spend a month teaching art to schoolchildren as part
of a community service-learning course offered through the SFSU Art
Department. Yet already, I was confused and disoriented by what I was
seeing. I'd been to Italy and Spain, but when I first set eyes on these
European countries, I was finally seeing things I'd been learning about
my whole life. In El Salvador, I had no context in which to judge the
trash-filled gutters, the air choked with diesel exhaust, and the vendors
selling cheap trinkets and bags of fruit on the streets. I felt odd
being a sightseer, stepping carefully over litter on the sidewalk and
facing people's stares. Eventually, however, I discovered how to find
El Salvador utterly beautiful.
Our hosts greeted us at the hacienda where we would be staying with
big smiles and tall glasses of cold watermelon juice. We sipped our
refreshments on a veranda, serenaded by musicians playing ranchero music
on a xylophone. I was pleased but a little embarrassed. We were the
ones who should be grateful -- for a place to stay and an opportunity
to do meaningful work. But the town was so excited by our arrival and
eager to make us comfortable that all I could do was let go of my anxieties
The days that followed were filled with community projects. We taught
youngsters about print-making and drawing, gardening and recyling. One
day, we were painting a mural on an outside wall of the hacienda. Working
alongside us were several children and the Salvadoran painter Isaias
Mata, whose mural at 24th and Alabama streets is well-known to San Franciscans.
As our brushes slapped against a stone wall, a 9-year-old girl named
Griselda came bounding across a ditch, curious about the large, colorful
images that were taking shape on the wall. She had on a dingy dress
and a colorful bird sat on her finger. Completely at ease, Griselda
started to play around our trays of paint and dirty rags. She jumped
onto a mound of woodchips and hurled herself off, laughing the whole
My compañera Victoria asked Griselda if she would sing for us.
To our surprise, she burst into song. In a strong raspy voice, she sang
about butterflies and love. Every time a butterfly passed overhead,
she cried mariposa! and we would look up and see one flutter by. Together
we made little sculptures out of clay that we dug from the earth and
let harden in the sun. She had her birthday while we were there and
to celebrate we played Bjork on a boom box and danced. I liked the way
that Griselda found pleasure in the small things of life and it made
me feel good that she paid attention to what I had to offer.
Four weeks is not a lot of time. When we left Colima, some of us were
disappointed at what little we had accomplished. We traveled there with
big ideas about making a real change in a community that received little
attention from the outside. Today, I'm not sure what it all adds up
to. The things we left behind -- new friendships and cross-cultural
understanding -- seem to have little to do with our initial goals. What
I do know is that I learned things about people and the way they live
that will forever inform my perceptions of the world. I am going back
to Colima this summer, with new projects and a new determination. Besides,
I can't wait to see how much everyone's grown.
Collentine is a senior art major at San Francisco State. For more information
on the more than 280 community service-learning courses offered at SFSU,