It’s not a stretch to say that if it hadn’t been for the church I attended growing up, I would have never come to Chile.
How does a farm girl from a tiny town in Vermont get the desire to learn Spanish and travel to Latin America? How does she become the first and only member of her family to study and eventually live abroad?
I owe a big chunk of that desire to my church, and to my good friend and mentor, T.L.
In 1991, T.L. traveled to El Salvador with a delegation from a different church. The Civil War had recently ended and the delegation traveled to the small town of San Antonio Grande, north of the capital San Salvador. What T.L. found was a small village with children with a desire to learn, but who were not receiving an adequate education because the government wasn’t paying the teachers to come to the small school to teach. Upon her return, she proposed that our church become “sister parishes” with the church in San Antonio Grande. The church agreed and decided to help pay the teachers to go to San Antonio Grande so the children could go to school.
Over the years, the relationship evolved. Eventually the government started paying the teachers. But the school in San Antonio Grande only went until 6th or 7th grade. So the church started paying transportation costs so students could go to middle school, and eventually high school.
Throughout this time, various delegations from my church went to San Antonio Grande to visit the community. These weren’t mission trips, but rather a time of sharing and giving thanks for all of our many blessings. The delegations didn’t even go down to “do” anything, like dig wells or paint schools. They went to just “be” with the people of the community. To learn about their reality and share in their lives.
I first went in February of 2003, during my junior year of high school. To say the trip changed my life would be an understatement. Although I had been taking Spanish classes since seventh grade, I had never really taken it seriously. In fact, after completing the required four years of a foreign language, I wasn’t going to keep taking the class during my senior year.
Going to San Antonio Grande and only being able to communicate the most basic things frustrated me to no end. But the fact was that, besides our translator, I was the one who could speak the most Spanish. I saw that learning another language opened up a whole new world for me, a world that the other members of the delegation could only experience if they had our translator Jaime by their side.
Upon my return from El Salvador, I immediately changed my mind about taking Spanish my senior year of high school. In fact, I changed my plans about college as well. I had been looking into pre-law programs but quickly changed to looking at Spanish and Latin American Studies.
That (and a rejection letter from Wesleyan, yes I’m still bitter) brought me to Colby College, where I dove into Spanish and Latin American history classes. During the summer of 2005, after my freshmen year, I went on another delegation to El Salvador. With a much improved Spanish, I served as a second translator for my group. My mother, sister and grandmother were all on this delegation and it was such a privilege and a pleasure to share this experience with them. We were a group of all women and some of my best memories come from that trip.
Not only does Colby have an excellent Spanish and Latin American studies department, but it has a scholarship for Latin American Studies majors for community immersion and language learning during the summer. After my two experiences in El Salvador, I decided that I wanted to spend a longer time in the country, so I applied for the scholarship, and during the summer of 2006, I spent almost three months living in the very small community of La Florida, up in the coffee growing mountains west of San Salvador. I worked for a non-profit organization that promotes organic farming practices for campesinos.
By this time I had also chosen to study abroad in Chile. I decided that after experiencing Central American culture in El Salvador, I should venture to South America. I chose Chile because of its smaller program size (I could choose between Santiago and Buenos Aires) and arrived here for the first time in January 2007. If it hadn’t been for that first trip to El Salvador that made me keep studying Spanish and change my college goals, I could have easily ended up studying pre-law and never venturing to Latin America.
Meanwhile, students in San Antonio Grande were graduating from high school, and members of my church decided it was time to send some students to college. During the summer of 2008, two of the college students plus one of the community’s pastors visited our church in Vermont for the first time. Last December, the first student EVER from San Antonio Grande graduated from college with a law degree.
This weekend my church is celebrating twenty years of the sister parish relationship with San Antonio Grande. Even though I live so far away, I still keep in touch with T.L. and the members of the committee that works with San Antonio Grande and raises the money to fund the scholarships. I translate and send lots of emails back and forth, and recently my life has gotten easier because Facebook is finally becoming popular in El Salvador and I’ve been able to Facebook chat with a lot of the students, which makes communication much faster.
I wish I could be there tomorrow, to see the mural that members of the church have painted on the back wall, to sing, to celebrate. But I will be there in spirit, eternally grateful for my experiences with the special people of San Antonio Grande and my church, and the two communities that forever changed my life.