Widgets Magazine


Life lessons in liberation: El Salvador over spring break

This past quarter, I had the privilege of taking an unorthodox course called “Issues in Liberation: El Salvador.” Over 10 weeks, we learned about the culture and politics of El Salvador, a nation whose history is bloodily intertwined with that of the United States. Interdisciplinary by nature, the course approached El Salvador through history, liberation theology, development issues, immigration debates, films and guest lectures by Salvadorans.

Led by Professors Thomas Sheehan, Kathleen Coll and United Campus Christian Pastor Geoff Browning, the course culminated with a nine-day trip to El Salvador over spring break. We explored the capital city, San Salvador, talked to an indigenous youth leader, home-stayed with farming communities and marveled at the mangrove forests these communities protect. Throughout our trip, we reflected on what we were learning as a group and individually. Since returning, I have thought more about my experience.

This kind of hands-on course should be ubiquitous, not unique, at Stanford. Learning is a process that extends far beyond the four walls of a classroom. True learning does not come from what one memorizes in a library or lecture series, but through discussion and debate both inside and outside the classroom. By incorporating traditional lectures, seminar-style discussion and even a Skype interview with former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White, the course made us rethink, question and complicate our readings and discussions. Going into El Salvador, we had a more nuanced view of the country.

Yet even though we came into the country with this background, the practical experience of going to El Salvador was richer than anyone in the course could have imagined. The trip to El Salvador allowed us to learn from people who lived through the bloody civil war from 1980 to 1992. The war continues in the memories of Salvadorans, and in fact our country played a significant role in it.

Throughout the war, the U.S. financed and trained government death squads which repressed the resistance movement of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation (FMLN) front. In our conversations with Salvadorans, it was clear that the war is very much still remembered and present. At a Christian base community we visited — base communities are small villages where Christian masses are entirely democratic; there is no Church hierarchy, and women lead many of the masses — the walls of the Church were covered with pictures of martyrs from the war. In no way could readings about the war have prepared me for the images that these Salvadoran communities memorialize, and the experience of seeing how they remember it was invaluable.

We also had the privilege to talk with students like ourselves. A youth indigenous leader named Jose spoke about the importance of “living well.” Contrary to the predominant Western mindset, living well does not mean one has to have money. Unlike some of his peers who try to escape their indigenous roots by going to San Salvador or to the United States, Jose is committed to improving his indigenous community.

Jose does not have much money, but he is content. He wants to return to his community after college and farm the land. Jose admitted that his siblings are studying to leave the community, probably with dreams of climbing the socio-economic ladder, and that they do not understand his motivations. I admired his plan to live well without living rich, and I think that this is a lesson all of us at Stanford could do well to remember.

Going to El Salvador made me reflect on my own education. Stanford prides itself on its interdisciplinary courses, talented professors, and award-winning research. To be sure, this course was led by three of its most dedicated and passionate instructors. Yet in no way could they have prepared me for what I was to learn by simply listening to Salvadorans, traveling around the country and soaking up its politics and history. I hope you get a chance to have this kind of experience during your four years here as well.

If you are interested in learning more about this course and experience, join us on April 13th as we present a report to the Stanford community about our trip. There will be some excellent Salvadoran food to enjoy! Also, contact Geoff Browning at geoff.browning@stanford.edu to learn more. Come next fall, contact Geoff to get an application for the course.


Cole Manley is a junior at Stanford majoring in History. He is still dreaming about El Salvador. Contact him at csmanley “at” stanford.edu.