San 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 and relax.
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 time.
My compaÃ±era 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.
Caitlin 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, visit www.sfsu.edu/~ocsl.