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Tamales become high school educations

Making tamales
Lillian Dubiel and Laurel Fish watch Gloria Milla and Esther Orellana set out vegetables and meat to put in tamales.

By eating tamales, beans, rice, salads and desserts, having cars washed, buying valentines and giving to other fund-raising activities, people in Spokane have helped 24 local high school students support a high school in Huisisilapa, El Salvador.

Students from Lewis and Clark and St. George’s high schools have helped raise more than $40,000 in four years to provide for the school building, equipment, teaching supplies, books and teachers’ salaries.

Some paid their own way to travel to El Salvador in 2005 and 2007 to take the supplies and to learn about life there.

Las Hermanas, a group of local women in solidarity with El Salvadoran women, helped start Los Hermanos, the student group.  Some of the women have gone to Huisisilapa, too.

The groups are committed to building relationships and strengthening the solidarity between Spokane and Huisisilapa

Laurel Fish was entering her freshman year when she went to El Salvador for two weeks in the summer of 2005. She went with 12 other students and six adults.

Before they went, Phyllis Andersen, who helped organize the trip, provided Spanish language and cultural training.

Participants each stayed with different families and learned how to communicate about the basics of life.  They spent the days with local students.

Huisisilapa is the only rural high school El Salvador not located in a town.   Huisisilapa was pasture land repopulated by refugees, returning from Mesa Grande in Honduras, Phyllis said.  It celebrates its 16th anniversary on April 1.

Salvadoran mothers wanted to start the high school because they did not want their children to grow up as ignorant as they felt they had been.  So after building houses, they built the school.  The El Salvadoran Ministry of Education funded schooling through ninth grade.  The community, with volunteer teachers, started the high school program, and the government gave them conditional status, but no funding. 

They needed science equipment, computers, textbooks and supplies.  Through solidarity with Spokane, the community built the high school program, which is in its fourth year and has 45 students.  They have outgrown the facilities and need to build.

Supporters in Spokane are helping with plans and looking for funding options to build new “green” classrooms.

Phyllis, who grew up in Minnesota and spent two years in the Peace Corps in El Salvador in the 1960s, learned about the need when she spent a year in 2001 at Huisisilapa doing research for her doctoral dissertation in leadership studies at Gonzaga University.

Her study focused on the change in consciousness of women before and after the war.  She learned that women resented the expectation that they silently take care of men and do what men, the church and the government said.  That previous isolation kept them silent about the domestic violence they had experienced then.

Phyllis had been in El Salvador many times in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.  She married and later divorced a Salvadoran.  Her daughter, Juanita Andersen, who has also lived in and visited El Salvador several times, found going last summer with Los Hermanos stirred a sense of compassion and started friendships she continues.

When St. Ann’s welcomed the Orellana family from El Salvador into sanctuary in 1985, Phyllis, who came to Spokane in 1984, volunteered full time for a year and a half to help the program.  Over the years, she has taught Spanish and since 1994 has taught at Whitworth University and Spokane Community College.

Laurel, Juanita, Lillian Dubiel and Sean Severt recently shared their experiences of visiting El Salvador in 2005 or 2007.

Lillian, who has been co-president of Los Hermanos for two years, graduated last spring.

“When I went in 2005, it was the first time I experienced the severity of poverty there,” she said.  “The two weeks were no vacation, but I grew as a person, establishing community with the village.  It was easier when I came back to raise funds.

“I knew that they needed and appreciated our efforts,” said Lillian, who goes to the Unitarian Universalist Church where Los Hermanos held the first dinner.  The 2008 dinner was at St. Ann’s Catholic Church.

She is now at the University of Washington and wants to major in international relations.  Enough other Los Hermanos students are there that they are building a community of university students eager to be involved in the world.

“Going to El Salvador gave me a different perspective.  I realize how lucky I am growing up in an upper-middle-class family and how important it is to be involved in the world.  We in America can’t be an island with our tremendous resources,” Lillian said, aware that the United States gave guns to El Salvador’s military government to use in their civil war in the 1980s.  “The United States has a violent history related to El Salvador.

“I hope if people know the history of U.S. involvement they will be upset, realizing the U.S. is often a warmonger, not a peacemaker.”

Lillian, who studied Spanish three years in high school, hopes to go back.

Sean Severt, a sophomore at Lewis and Clark, went last summer and lived with a Salvadoran family.

“It was eye-opening to see how people there live, the difference between the wealth and poverty. I realize things I take for granted are privileges, such as going to high school.  Few go to school there,” he said.

Laurel, a junior at St. George’s, went in 2005 and returned last summer on her own.

“I met someone my age, and we have written letters.  Last year, I stayed with her and her family,” said Laurel.

Although the living conditions are different, she found the people similar.

“At first I was shocked by the conditions, but I had fun hanging out with people my age.  Here friends feel El Salvador is far away, but I feel I have a second family there,” said Laurel, who has studied five years of Spanish.

“I now realize how every action here has a consequence.  The products we consume do not come free,” she said.  “Someone makes them.  The Rio Saucio, the Dirty River, flows through the community, carrying chemicals used to make the goods we consume.”

Her visits interested her in studying economic development and global issues.

“High school students there now have hope.  We met with the school board and city council.  They thanked us for giving their youth opportunities,” she said. 

Making tamales2
Mallory Whittaker, Amanda Long and Madelyn Greeley roll tamales.

Las Hermanas and Los Hermanos are supporting four college students at the University of El Salvador. 

“They see education as a way to change their situation, a means to self improvement and a tool to provide for their families.  They now have dreams of going to college like we do here.  The school has more girls because the guys are in the fields,” Laurel said.

Many students in Los Hermanos help with the fund-raising events, but have not gone.

Amanda Long of Lewis and Clark joined the group this year because a neighbor invited her to help raise money so others can go to high school.  She also met an El Salvadoran teacher who visited. Amanda now hopes to go there.

“It’s important not just to take but to give,” she said. 

“The idea is to help for the greater good,” said Mallory Whittaker of Lewis and Clark, whose sister, Erika, was among the founders.

For information, call 455-7611.