Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gladdened by the quickening of the revolutionary heart

I am hostage to the 24 hour news cycle and the tweet deck configured to #Egypt on my iPhone. Tunisia is free, Egypt is demanding democracy, and now Yemen – I can’t turn away…

I am back in San Salvador: December 31, 1991. I hear the crackling of firecrackers out in the streets. I start, momentarily confusing the firecrackers for the report of soldiers’ guns, then remember that it’s New Year’s Eve and it must be midnight. I am alone in the house; my comrades are ringing in the New Year in the villages that they serve on behalf of the Jesuit Refugee Services. Inside the house it is quiet and still; a little bit scary. I find my watch, wanting to stand witness to the New Year in my solitary way and find that it’s only 11:50pm. The firecrackers are premature. The wild celebration I hear in the streets must be hope for the year ahead. I go back to the basin to hand wash my dusty clothing in the dim light.

Bent over the concrete stone, washing out my faded dress there is pounding at the door and I hear my name called urgently, with excitement and obvious joy, “Lezzleee!! Lezzleee!! Yo se que estas alli!! Abre, abre! Lezzlleee!” Even though I was adamant that I wanted to be alone on New Year’s Eve, I am happy to hear my friends. Typically I find it very depressing and prefer to be depressed alone rather than spoil other’s enjoyment, but I was feeling particularly lonely and sad that night and therefore relieved that they didn’t take me at my word. I went to the door, dressed in ragged sweat pants, flip flops and a loose t-shirt, and opened the door to a new and different El Salvador.

Apparently, an agreement to end the decade long civil war had been struck. In New York City, just minutes before the stroke of midnight when Secretary Perez de Cuellar would relinquish his role as Secretary General of the United Nations, the opposing sides agreed upon a compromise and a transition to a truly democratic government. The war, ostensibly, was over.

Astonished, I left my house dressed in my cleaning clothes (very un-Salvadoran) and jammed myself into the tiny Honda Civic with my friends. We bounced down to the “Salvador Del Mundo” monument and joined the rest of the celebrants. Watching the news coverage of Egyptian people in Tahrir Square, I can feel the jubilance and sense of wonder that I felt standing in front of the Salvador del Mundo Monument. I recognize from this distance the gradual awakening in the people as they sloughed off fear of the regime.

Two and a half weeks after that New Year’s Eve, the entire country celebrated the official signing of the “Accerdos de Chapultapec” by gathering in the center of the City. This time I was prepared and wearing my clean and ironed dress and closed toed shoes as I stood in front of the National Cathedral. The five leaders of the revolutionary groups that made up the FMLN stood on the stage, the sense of joy and hope palpable, and as was customary before any gathering, we all paused for a “moment” of silence to remember the fallen. For a full minute, the thousands of people gathered stood in silence and as the plaintive yet authoritative cry of the voice of Radio Venceremos called out the familiar call and response…


A gigantic banner unfurled, covering the left side of the Metropolitan Cathedral, a bold red with white letters:


A giddiness ensued… then the explosion of emotions – excitement, joy, disbelief, regret (for friends and comrades lost), delight (for having survived) – and for me, immense humility (shame?) that I was allowed to share in this moment that belonged to El Salvador and El Salvador alone. The people of El Salvador had fought bravely and stood up to the brutal regime and their patrons in the United States. My country.

I think I see on TV the same collection of emotions in the Tahrir Square protesters: the disbelieving joy and the tentative hope that the people might prevail. The delight at openly embracing dissent, regret and longing for brothers and sisters – comrades all – who suffered and died at the hands of Mubarak and his henchmen. As the nights become violent, I think I see the stiffening of resolve, the commitment to dying on one’s feet as opposed to living on one’s knees. There will be no turning back.

What I think I see is the quickening of the revolutionary heart. May it prevail.