Local delegates report gains in visit to a neighbor in El Salvador

Posted Jan. 22, 2009, at 9:15 a.m.

BANGOR – The city of Bangor in Maine and the village of Carasque in El Salvador are worlds apart in terms of climate, geographic location and size. But they have things in common, said Jessie Newcomb, 23, of Orono, an AmeriCorps volunteer who has been assigned to work at Peace through Interamerican Community Action for the past year.

She was one of nine PICA delegates who traveled to Carasque Nov. 15-23 to learn more about how issues of trade and immigration affect the residents of that community, which is a Sister City of Bangor.

In El Salvador as in Maine, Newcomb said, manufacturing jobs continue to disappear, small farmers find it hard to survive, and the best and brightest of the young people leave to find opportunity elsewhere.

While in the city of San Salvador and the town of Carasque, the PICA delegation conducted interviews with community leaders concerning issues of trade and immigration. They met with city council members, teachers, youth, elders and members of the local sewing co-operative.

“Many were saying that an influx of money from the United States [sent to them by villagers who have left to find work] is helpful. But the downside is that their best and brightest are going north to find work,” Newcomb said.

Even though much-needed money comes to Carasque from the town’s expatriate workers, the loss of these people to the north means a loss to the town – currently the population is 300 to 350. Fewer people mean fewer businesses in the village where money can be spent, making it necessary to travel to a larger town.

Job loss in Carasque, Newcomb said, has accelerated since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1993.

Newcomb said that 95 percent of those in Carasque have family working in the United States.

“We talked with people who went north to the United States, people with relatives there and people who stayed in Carasque,” she said.

Carasque natives in the United States, as a group, Newcomb said, send $50 each month to those in Carasque who have no relatives working in the United States to send them money. “It’s so they can buy clothing and other necessities,” Newcomb said.

Yet, even faced with economic hardship, the people of Carasque have managed to erect several new community buildings, the town council finding grants from other countries to fund the projects, Newcomb said.

“I came back with a deep sense of what the word solidarity means,” Newcomb said. “The connection between Bangor and Carasque is very strong.”

In Carasque, say the word Bangor, Newcomb said, and “immediately you’re family. They greeted us with fireworks.”

Kathleen Caldwell, 57, of Brooksville also made the trip to Carasque, her second. The first was in 2003, when she first became involved with PICA.

On the recent trip, she participated in general meetings on popular education and the economy. She also met with the members of the Sewing Co-op, who now work in a new building they helped design, and even helped clear the site where the concrete block structure was built.

“One woman talked eloquently about how much they enjoy going there to work, how young women come to work and listen to the stories of elder women,” Caldwell said. “The building is spacious, well-lighted and has a view of the mountains.”

The Sewing Co-op, Caldwell said, is thriving and has contracts for work such as making school uniforms and embroidered caps.

“Most stunning to me since I was last there,” Caldwell said, “is the accomplishments they have achieved – a soccer field at the school, a community store and restaurant, a gazebo in the middle of town, a library, the Sewing Co-op building and the community building where we stayed.

“It’s so impressive in a community that has so little. It attests to their ability to organize and figure out how to get what they need. And of course, we’re always treated like royalty. It was a regenerative experience,” she said.

Products that the Sewing Co-op and a crochet group create are sold at PICA, online, in local stores and at craft fairs. Items available include crocheted handbags, hats, table runners and hammocks; and hand-sewn and embroidered items such as aprons, tote bags, napkins, tablecloths, table runners and T-shirts.

Also making the trip to Carasque were Katherine Kates of Bangor, Sarah Bigney and Daphne Loring of the Maine Fair Trade Campaign, Ben Chin of Maine People’s Alliance, Katie and John Greenman of Old Town and Debbie Leighton of Bath.

PICA will hold its annual membership meeting from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 25, at PICA, 170 Park St.

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