How Violence Can Become Normal

As I walked to the weekly children’s class I started to ponder to notice the small details the surround the slums. The entranceway to the slums is riddled normal enough, but it starts with a dirt road. There are no paved floors here, or pavements or even running water. The grey water curves through the slums stinking up the air with stale detergent and rancid water. The houses are like tin cans, completely made of metal walls tiny little cupboards one on top of the other. Here they live , one hundred and fifty people in squalor and poverty.

They are given the option to live in apartments but they would have to pay forty bucks a month something they say they cannot afford. Most of the people here do not have jobs, and it’s a microcoosm within the city,  a slum unnoticed by most of us who live here. They are separate, other.

The kids have lighter blonde hair because of malnutrition and walk around with blackened soles on their feet. Does anyone really know when they are poor? These children do not seem to be unhappy with how they live, they don’t know any other way. It is normal for them

What indeed should be the accept concept of what constitutes normalcy in someone’s life?Image

A couple years ago in Madrid I was walking with my salvadorean friend in the mall. All of a sudden a loud noise went off that could have been mistaken for a bomb. Everyone cried and scurried off like ants desperate to get away, some were shaking and crying others ducked under pressure. But us? We didn’t even look twice , we shrugged and kept walking because we knew the real sound of a bomb and we knew that wasn’t it. IN some ways, I don’t even know if we would have reacted shocked if it was a bomb. It would be almost normal for us.

A couple of weeks ago he brought that moment up and asked if somehow what we live through shape our experiences or recollections of the world. I believe it does. The way I see violence, from someone who has seen it firsthand is much different from someone who never has.  The same might go for poverty, it’s only normal if you have lived through it.

After the war in El Salvador, a whole generation has grown up without the sound of bombs. But in other ways, the violence is more prevalent here like rancid wildflowers blooming on every corner. During the war , there was a type of organized chaos to the violence. You knew what time the bombs went off, and where they were. You knew not to stand in tall grass were homemade bombs were. And yet, it was safer than it is now.

Now the gangs fester on the surface, are everywhere and nowhere. You learn to live with fear, to keep your head down and not look at people in the eye on the streets. It’s normal not to walk at night, to see graffiti as a tattoo of violence and marking territory. Your walls in your houses are lined with barbed wires, your streets riddled with guards with huge menacing guns.  And yet, and yet…. we want to see this as normal. We make ourselves believe that everyone goes through this.

The streets are always riddled with car accidents, because we think this is normal the way we drive in the city.  We want to become more than the violence, more than the stereotype the world has painted on us. Yet we are riddled with paranoia, we are stifled by our own news feeds.  The rich put up walls and the poor pay extortion fees to the gangs. And they are allowed to bloom everywhere, their initials like black tarantulas on the walls.

And because we think of this as normal, we continue on with our lives like this. It is only when we leave that we truly realize how dangerous things are. I remember walking at mdinight in London when it hit me : I can walk here at midnight and it it’s o.k. Sure there is always some level of danger, but there is a way for you to not look from the back of your eye at any possible intruder lurking in dark corners.

That’s the thing about living with violence, you are constantly aware alert on your surroundings. You know what might make you a target : Your white skin, the shirt you wear, the telephone you carry. It can come at any moment anywhere.

And yet… I have never been held at gunpoint. My brother has, who fits in better than I do. I have had scarier things happen to me in Madrid at 4 in the morning when some crazy idiot decided to follow me and stalk me. Yet why do I feel much more unsafe here ? Is it because Iit has drilled on me to be constantly tasting fear? Is it because it is more tangible, as the constant threat of violence has held us captive for so long?
And that ‘s the thing : Violence becomes normal. Human beings are amazing adaptable to anything that comes our way, especially if we have experienced it as children. Being rich or poor can become normal.  Living in the suburbs can become normal. Living with millions of people in  a crowded city can become normal. What we don’t realize is that nothing we live through is normal, because that word is such a cop out a quintessential quirk of our daily existence to try to shelve our lives into something we can cope with or understand. But nothing really is ” right” or ” normal”. For every child that lives in wealth there are billions that live in poverty.

For some reason, God placed us on this earth for a reason, and that’s what we have in common. We all love. We all fear. We all hate . We all cry. That’s what normal really is about.


Mara Salvatrucha, Child Soldiers and War : Why not Thinking Ahead Can Make Things Worse

A month ago I was pondering on the issue of how easily junior youth  are targeted. In the media, adolescents are identified as the top consumers and movies and television are directly targeted for them. They are made for teens to consume more, to gobble up the latest trends and to ultimately feel towards themselves as the media sees fit. The genius of this is, they make it in a way that adolescents think that they are rebelling by becoming part of this movement.  It is highly reported that the more you expose adolescents to, the more likely they will consume what you have to offer.  We numb are kids with gadgets, we make their sense of worth be based on material wealth and consumption.

I usually do an exercise with the junior youth , which is for them to flip a magazine and ask them what they see. I then ask them to identify things with a critical eye, to see what the advertisement is really trying to tell you. We get so many messages piled on everyday about how we are supposed to think, act and identify with that we don’t even think about it. But the junior youth can make significant changes around them and actually teach their parents how things are done.

These are problems that junior youth face everyday. Usually people will say ” Well it’s not my problem,  the family has to be taking care of this”.  Well, I don’t feel that way. I feel that we should all work together, the parents being in the forefront , to allow themselves to become empowered.

Junior youth are targeted because they are at an age where their identity is still being formed. They are susceptible to all the messages and ideas around them. There are also times when in severe situations of war , this can become advantageous. An adult is not so easily swayed but  a junior youth can become swayed by the rhetoric which will have lasting effects on the world around them.

Literally, how we treat junior youth will lead to a lot of problems later on.  I will give you an example.  During the civil war in El Salvador, thousands of junior youth were recruited to become soldiers or guerrillas. They were exposed to a lot of violence, and were witnesses to  their families being murdered. Some of them became part of the very side that had murdered their families. Despite right-wing or left-wing rhetoric, both sides were to blame for this as both of them used adolescents to be part of their armies. Those kids , after the war, were now either adults or in their late teens. They knew nothing else but violence. That is what they were taught to be and that is their reality.

The United States granted many political asylum, and the idea was that if they left somehow they would have a better life. The reality was far more complicated. They arrived in Los Angeles and were targeted by the gangs in the neighborhood.  Whether they were attacked or they were again attracted to violence it was here that they formed two gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and the L18.

If you watch the rites of these gangs today you can see that there are some very similar rituals to those Americanized gangs. The Salvadoran gangs quickly grew, adopting violence and crime as the way of life that was so familiar to them. Of course, this high level of crime leads them to be deported.

This deportation was not the end of the problem.  The deported members of the gang became increasingly restless and hostile of having being kicked out of the home they had known for so long. I remember being at an event at Proteccion al Menor and a former gang member threw a box at me and started yelling at me because of my American appearance.  When he opened his mouth he sounded completely American…because he was.

Those gang members would recruit people via the prison cells or in neighborhoods. Who would they target? You guessed it junior youth.  Because of the excessive migration to the United States, and entire amount of kids are usually left to their own devices while the mother tries to get a visa for them. These kids feel abandoned, and the gangs offered a sense of family that they never had. For them, violence and killing are signs of love and loyalty.  Their distorted sense of self revolves entirely around this.

It is really tragic if you think about it. Today, those gangs are the most violent in the world spreading their wings to many countries around the world and giving a concept that Salvadoreans are violent and abusive. The reality is much more complex.  Many countries , idealogies and fragmented thinking lead to this problem.  They are no longer the victims but become abusers.

This is why working on prevention is so important.  In the school that I am helping out with the junior youth program in El Salvador it now has the lowest index of violence in Santa Tecla. This is coming from girls who are generally from very humble homes and live in those neighborhoods infested with gangs.

I think the same way as I did in Spain : If I can reach one kid , and that kid empowers herself she can literally change her neighborhood and make it become a much better place. When we think that it isn’t our problem, when we believe that it’s someone else’s mess… well that’s where things get messed up.

We are all masters of our own decisions…. the other day I found out that a junior youth that had stopped going to the junior youth group had ended up in prostitution. It made me sad, and I wonder if her life would have been different if we had kept track , and tried to show that we cared more.

Junior youth can change the world, literally. Because of their susceptibility , they can either become pawns to other’s agenda, or they can become true agents of change.

I bring this up in light of the kony2012 campaign. Perhaps they may have good intentions , but if there are children soldiers, they have to be placed in an educational program which helps them let go of their trauma. They have to find way to find the underlying causes as to why this has happened and work on prevention methods. They need to be working in the surrounding areas and find out what the local people are doing to combat this problem. There are so many issues here that cannot be solved by simply putting one man away.