"Is there anyone here who could give us a donation of $50?" Margi Clarke called out, starting out her pitch to the crowd of 200 that had packed the Hungarian Hall on Pico Boulevard and St. Andrew's Place. The walls of the hall, a grand, drafty old structure with fine woodwork and pealing paint, were hung for the occasion with revolutionary posters all but obscuring a few folk art vestiges of Hungarian kitsch.
"In Arcatao, $50 can plant a corn field," she said. From the back of the room came a $50 pledge. The crowd expressed its approval in a triumphant roar.
The Saturday night fund-raiser was for NEST, a support group for rural Salvadorans, and most of the audience were Salvadorans themselves, along with a handful of North American supporters and die-hard movement people. They had paid $5 at the door, and got their hands stamped with indelible ink for re-entry, and milled around the tables where Che Guevera T-shirts, books on revolutionary movements past and present and Central American crafts were on sale.
The Salvadorans, many with babies in arms and strollers, were a study in contrasts--some so simply dressed they looked as if they had been uprooted from the Salvadoran countryside hours before. Others had the look of the city about them--young women with lots of makeup, dressed in skin-tight stone-washed denim jeans and spike heels; men in leather jackets.
A Peasant Organizer
All had come out to hear Mireya Lucero, a 25-year-old peasant organizer from war-torn Chalatenango province who was in this country on a NEST-sponsored 40-city tour. She had just finished describing the village of Arcatao, which people like herself have stubbornly repopulated in defiance of the government.
In all, the evening had cleared about $500, Clarke, 24, an interpreter for the San Francisco-based NEST who was traveling with Lucero, said later--the take to be split between NEST and the two local host groups, CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) and the support committee for UNTS (Spanish acronym for the National Union of Salvadoran Workers). Considering the crowd, Clarke said, they had done pretty well.
Out of the war zone and into Los Angeles. The last two weeks have been full of rewarding and disappointing moments for two visitors from El Salvador: Lucero, and Oscar Hernandez, a member of the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of El Salvador. Both have ended extensive U.S. tours with stops in Los Angeles. Hernandez was hosted locally by El Rescate and CARECEN, two Central American support groups. Coincidentally, the two visits overlapped slightly, Hernandez' ending last weekend, Lucero's later this week.
Their exhausting experiences here have been less harrowing but arguably as surreal at times as they have found themselves dealing with another country, another culture, another world.
'I Sleep Better'
At least here, Hernandez said, "I feel safe. The psychological pressure is less. I sleep better."
They come out of different worlds in El Salvador. Lucero, 25, said she is a coordinator of village councils in the rural repopulated areas, traveling the countryside seeing to councils' needs for books, medicines, seeds, often leaving her 3-year-old son in the care of others. Hernandez, 32, said he lives with his wife and two children in a suburb of San Salvador, and spends his time with the commission doing research and working with statistics.
For all their dissimilarities, on their tours they traveled the same world: formal dinners, wine-and-cheese living room parties, press interviews, hard-won introductions to members of Congress and other elected officials, private meetings with potential donors, closed meetings with the Salvadoran community and their supporters.
The level of information and ignorance about El Salvador can swing wildly, both Lucero and Hernandez said, with some people still confusing the country with Nicaragua, and others not wanting to hear the criticisms both had of the U.S.-backed regime of Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte. Both visitors, and the groups they represent, support the leftist guerrilla opposition, the FMLN, which, they stressed, did not mean they were members of any armed movement, a distinction, they both added, that is never made in El Salvador.
Fundamentally, both had the same purpose--to win the hearts and minds of Americans. Specifically they want to win them over to their work in opposition to the government and, to persuade them to pressure the American government to end economic and military aid.
"I am here to talk about human rights and make people aware of the situation in El Salvador so that they will stop economic and military aid to El Salvador. It is only causing death and destruction," Hernandez told a dozen or so members of the National Lawyers Guild who had gathered in a Fairfax area living room to hear him.
'High Level of Corruption'