Monday, March 15, 2010

El Salvador Anniversary

The ides of March means different things to different people. Maybe it makes some of you think of junior-year English class, back when they used to make us read Julius Caesar because it was just about the only Shakespeare play with no sex in it. Maybe it is just another day in your countdown to St. Patrick's Day (I know I am always thinking ahead to be sure I have something clean and green ready to wear on my mom's birthday) or to the first day of a longed-for spring. For me, it's always going to be the anniversary of the day I spent patrolling the courtyards of a large school in Izalco, Sonsonate, El Salvador, as an election observer.
That'd be one year ago today. I had been sitting in church a few months earlier when our pastor mentioned that a local organization was recruiting people to be official election observers to help keep honest the first Salvadoran national election that had a good chance of changing the nation's ruling party. With persistent trepidation I just kept saying I'd think about it until I had drifted into saying "Yes". So glad I did. The whole thing was like a crash course in grass-roots democracy in action.

I didn't catch anyone stealing a vote, stuffing a ballot box, stopping a legitimate voter from voting (although there a lot more things that can keep you from voting in El Salvador than in the U.S.--for one thing, you have to register six months in advance), or exchanging money or weapons for votes. I didn't see anyone that seemed to have been brought in from across the Nicaraguan border to impersonate a Salvadoran voter. I just saw an enthusiastic body politic doing its job, and then getting its thumbs dyed purple to prove it had done it.
And then, just before we left, we were thanked, over and over, for doing nothing but being there to bear witness. Here is the poem I wrote a few days later:
March 15, 2009, Izalco, El Salvador

We rose in the dark and raced through the streets
to see the set-up: rivals settling into their chairs
side by side, hip to hip, cheek by jowl
to do the country’s business,
showing their loyalties gently if at all
(unlike their neighbors who would come from church
to vote with their children beautiful in party colors).
At those tables, I couldn’t tell
who was ARENA, who was FMLN
until I saw who brought them food and drink.

The word “VIGILANTE” rode the backs of
watchers who stood all day, two at each table,
dressed in red, or
dressed in blue, white, and red.
Smiling at me all day,
the middle-aged foreigner
in the white vest with the black letters,
they answered my questions,
and asked me theirs.
That word will never again sound like
The evil that it sounds like here.
They were vigilant, steadfast
on their feet all the long day, until

The doors were closed,
the boxes opened,
the ballots unfolded,
the votes read aloud,
counted by the rivals
before the vigilantes
so no one could question
that this was a real election,
a real election.
At last, a real election.

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