“I don’t feel discarded. I’m a fighter:” Defending the Right to Live with Dignity in El Salvador
I had the enormous pleasure of conversing with the journalist, photographer and professor, Marc Espín, co-founder and co-organizer of the project called Descartados. This is a project supported by the NGOs: CORDES, Asociación Rural para la Tercera Edad (ARTE) and Coalición Nacional para la Dignidad de las Personas Mayores en El Salvador. Together, they form a support group and are a force in the fight for the rights of the elders in El Salvador.
The photojournalistic book, Descartados, along with the life stories of some of the elder members of ARTE, have been exhibited in El Salvador and Spain. Although the project is relatively recent, it has already achieved the implementation of a sponsorship program and the recognition of Pope Francis, who congratulated and thanked the effort of raising awareness about the Salvadoran elderly community.
I invite you to read the story of Descartados, the elderly of El Salvador, its organizers and collaborators. Between the lines in Espín’s recount about the beginning and achievements of this noble project, his ideology and experience allow us to reflect about various aspects of life, from the treatment of senior citizens to acknowledgment of our own privilege. The invitation extends to consider the elders in our own communities and to fight for the rights of the older citizens of El Salvador by providing resources that will allow them to live with dignity. Our elders are a source of wisdom, culture, history, let’s not discard them.
R: How did the project of Descartados begin?
Marc Espín: To understand the beginning of this project, you must first know who Emilio Espín Amprimo is. He is my father, but for the purpose of this story he is someone who has been fighting for the rights and dignity of the elderly in El Salvador for 15 years.
Older adults are a very neglected group in Central America, in general. Hundreds of thousands of them live in poverty and social exclusion.
My father called me 3 years ago to ask me as a journalist how to tell their story to have a bigger impact on public opinion and to reach decision makers. That moment marked the beginning of the project. My father’s call came at a time when I was closing a period of my life here in Spain, and I had decided to move to Central America to live.
I spent practically a year investigating the realities of older adults. There was a family bond, but also an attachment to the region. I grew up in Guatemala and my father has lived in El Salvador for forty years, practically, dedicated to the fight for social justice.
LR: How were the participants selected? Was it difficult to convince them or were they willing to share their stories?
Marc Espín: Much more willing than a journalist could imagine, but there is an explanation. The preselection of participants was performed by ARTE. This organization, started by my father 15 years ago, is today a self-managed association by the adults themselves over the region of the river Lempa where it serves 15 rural communities that are politically-conscious about their reality.
Therefore, they agreed to help me in everything I needed to carry out my investigation because they wanted to tell what happens in El Salvador. They introduced me to all the elderly who live in vulnerable situations and from there, I visited every individual to learn their stories. As a last step, we selected the stories to include in the book Descartados.
LR: It is a small treasure to discover organizations like ARTE with projects like the one you carry out. You tell me that your father has lived in El Salvador for 40 years while you have lived in Guatemala. I asked myself this question before knowing this detail about you, what are Spaniards doing fighting for the elderly of Central America?
Marc Espín: It is our land, too.
LR: Given the legacy of Spain in Latin America, there is some distrust, in lack of a better word. It is comforting, though, that you can simultaneously collaborate and break down stereotypes. Have you perceived your participation this way, that is, do you feel you are renewing ties between Spain and Latin America?
Marc Espín: No, the truth is that my collaboration goes beyond any institutional or national issues. I feel that as people privileged by the system, and we are privileged by the mere fact of being born in Spain, we have a debt with the rest of the world. With this project we try to contribute to improve the lives of people living in misery, among other things, by the simple fact of being born where they were born.
LR: Your answer leads me to the next question, is there support from Spain? Is there interest from the Spanish citizenry to participate in the sponsorship program?
Marc Espín: Yes, there is. It was not enough to make visible the living conditions of the elderly in El Salvador and wait for others to make the changes, which is what the original journalistic project intended. At some point the experience commits you so much to the reality that you have the need to go further. Then the idea arises: let’s look for donors committed to provide a minimum vital income to elders who are in extreme poverty.
I was convinced that, just as all this sensitized me, I was going to move others. I wanted to share the vision of the project with them. Some were more skeptical: Who will take care of people who are already reaching their last stage in life?, they said. For this same reason, because they might be in their last years of life and have suffered many decades, it seemed reasonable that there were people who wanted to contribute to improve their quality of life. And, indeed, I met a good number of people who, knowing the story, reading the book and learning about the project, decided to get involved with total generosity, trust and commitment.
LR: I see that you are also a tour guide, are these trips a way to raise awareness about your project?
Marc Espín: It has nothing to do with it. A friend who has a travel agency suggested I design and guide trips to Central America. I told him yes. I made a first trip in August of last year. It was a delight to take 15 people from Spain to Guatemala, to discover a land that I love very much.
Now, if you ask me if my conviction in respect for human rights is also present in other activities of my life that are not related to the project, the answer is, yes. How is someone going to know Guatemala without knowing that it is a country with inequality, corruption, where there is poverty, racism, and where the first world does business at the expense of people’s misery? We will also enjoy its waterfalls, beaches, volcanoes, its Mayan cities and enjoy the sympathy of Guatemalans, but the other part must also be told.
LR: How about in El Salvador? How have the book and project been received?
Marc Espín: Pretty good. There was a big impact when we launched the book in 2017. It was echoed in the media, and the organizations, CORDES and ARTE distributed the book among decision-makers. They made sure that many of the members of the Assembly and the government had a copy of the book.
They were also present in other types of events called by the Salvadoran Civil Society for the Dignity of the Elderly. The book and photographic exhibition that we inaugurated at the Museum of Art of El Salvador have contributed to placing the subject in public debate from the perspective of a social justice discussion and not from a positionality of pity, which is an approach that is usually done in the media. We wanted to point out that this is a portion of the neglected population with rights that are systematically violated.
LR: You just mentioned something important: how not to cause pity. Could you develop a little further this idea? How does one avoid provoking pity with pictures and stories that portray a community that is suffering?
Marc Espín: I’m not sure I accomplished it.
LR: I’m asking because the photographs enliven the person and is complex to separate the two feelings: on the one hand, you have admiration for the pictures as artistic work, but on the other hand, they hurt and you cannot avoid feeling sorry for the elderly.
Marc Espín: One of the mistakes in this book is that I focused too much attention on what doesn’t work. When you read the book or see the exhibition you see that story after story, it is drama after drama, which is the reality, though. But somehow you desensitize the reader. I think that, to empathize, to connect better with the person who approaches the project, it would have been smarter, from a journalistic perspective, to have told other more daily circumstances in the lives of the protagonists that appear in the book and the photographs.
Living in misery or poverty or in unworthy conditions, does not imply there is no space for joy or happiness. And, omitting that part can cause the work to get closer to what I precisely never intended, that is to make the readers feel sorry instead of allowing them to feel this could happen to them and react against that reality.
LR: But nothing subtracts credit from the tremendous photographic and journalistic work you’ve accomplished. Since we’re talking about the photographs, what were your thoughts as you were taking them? What was it you wanted to highlight? The focus on the hands and other parts of the body are very symbolic, what were you trying to represent in your work ?
Older people tell their story through their wrinkles, imperfections of the face or skin, which are signs of the passage of time. However, they are also the traces of labor exploitation, for example. The hands not only represent the hands of someone who is 80 years old. If you compare them to someone in the United States who has worked a lifetime in an office, there is an abysmal difference. They are the hands of people who have worked since they were 8 or 10 years old. They had to drop out of school to bring some money home and support the family.
They are the hands of someone who has worked for 70 years, 7 decades, in the field for a pittance, in conditions of absolute exploitation. Hands, faces, war wounds, punished eyes, early cataracts, spots on the skin, all these represent a type of life that explains the inequality, poverty and situation of exclusion that they have lived throughout a lifetime. Now it is even more serious because they are an especially vulnerable group. When they should be resting after having sustained a country with their low wages, not only are they not rescued or helped, but they are ignored and discarded, as the title indicates.
LR: Since you mentioned the title, why did you opt for Descartados? In the introduction, you refer to the use of this same label by Pope Francis to describe the population of older people. However, you also mention other ones, like disposable or dispossessed.
Marc Espín: We thought about it a lot. We wanted a short title that would synthesize the message of the book, and the message of the book is that there are too many people, hundreds of thousands of older people in El Salvador, who are discarded. Not just ignored. There is a perverse system that leaves them out in all areas of life.
In the economic sphere, without a doubt, because capitalism discards those who neither produce nor consume. But, there is also neglect of this group in the socio-political sphere, and in their family. It must be acknowledged because that capitalist culture extends to all areas of life. Older people bother. Then we learned of the Pope’s encyclical where he refers to older people as discarded and it convinced us even more that we had selected a good title.
LR: How impressive that the title was selected before the Pope used the same name to describe the elders in the world.
Marc Espín: Yes. When we published it, we sent him a copy of the book and he sent us a thank you letter celebrating it. He congratulated us for promoting the project. http://descartados.org/apoyos
LR: On the other hand, when you mentioned the consequences of capitalism: the older persons are discarded, even by their family. I perceive a change in values in Latin America, it can be a generalization or a stereotype, too. But, in the recent past, have you perceived this change? Did you witness family members caring for or attending their elders? Is there a change of values in the new generations?
Marc Espín: Sure, I grew up in Guatemala with Mayan Tz’utujil families. In Latin American countries I have felt this way, in very general terms. I see a greater respect for older people. I detect it, I have lived it, as well as the idea of a family nucleus to help each other, a greater sense of community; probably encouraged by historical abuse of Latin America.
In the Mayan culture there is this value of respect for the elderly, who occupy a prominent place in their communities. However, like you, I also perceive that the globalizing culture prevails even in these cultures that gave so much value to old age to gradually give way to the idea that older people bother. I feel that this is unfortunately changing in Latin America and also in indigenous communities.
LR: It is a great loss of traditions, especially a sense of community.
Marc Espín: I must say, however, that while this is happening due to a globalizing pressure, I also perceive resistance to the invasion of the local culture. Many people are fighting not to lose the culture of indigenous communities, which also implies respect for the elderly. We should learn from this way of seeing old age.
LR: Yes, I agree, we need to preserve these important values. Personally, mainly because I live in the United States, I’m interested in the topic of remittances and the intrinsic interconnection between the immigrants and the local and national economies of their countries of origin. Therefore, I focused on those who mentioned the topic, are any of the services these communities receive funded by remittances from Salvadorans in the US? What have you heard about this topic among these communities?
Marc Espín: Yes, without a doubt. Most of the people you will see in our project are people who do not receive remittances. Those who receive them have a slightly more favorable situation, obviously. It would be necessary to see how much they receive or what impact it has on their total income. But in general, luckier ones have a relative who has moved to the United States, and also to other first-world countries to earn a living; they have a less unfavorable situation. Since we focus on people in a disadvantaged situation, not many receive remittance as income.
However, remittances are 20% of El Salvador’s GDP. If they did not exist, families living in poverty would be many more, and therefore older people would also suffer much more as a vulnerable group within families. A Salvadoran journalist, friend of mine, told me that due to the COVID crisis, in the first 4 months of this year remittances entering the country have decreased by 10%. In other words, the precarious economic situation of those who work in developed countries translates into a lower arrival of income for older people in El Salvador.
In April, the reduction in remittances was 40% compared to last year and we do not know data from May or June, which could further aggravate the situation. Some 400,000 Salvadoran families receive remittances, which are many for a small country. For almost half of those 400,000 families, remittances represent a third of their income. This means that, without them, the situation of vulnerability will extend to many more families; something that is occurring right now in El Salvador and throughout Central America.
LR: The connection that Salvadorans from the United States have with their communities in El Salvador is essential, hopefully the Salvadoran contribution increases soon, and we get to see involvement from this diasporic community in projects like Descartados. With the pandemic, how has their overall situation been affected? What news do you have from both organizations and communities?
Marc Espín: As is well known, older people are the group most affected by the virus, not only do they suffer in the health sphere, but also in the economical one due to political measures to contain the pandemic. The informal economy makes 75% of El Salvador’s economy. People go out every day to earn a living. If they don’t go out, they don’t eat. People can get by with the help of a family member or friend for a few days, but they cannot afford long confinement like in developed countries.
In developing countries, such as El Salvador or others, this is a very serious problem. In other words, the virus on the one hand and the problems of earning a living on the other hand affect not only the elderly but the family. The economic crisis that results from this also affects them and will continue to affect them in the coming months. The situation worsens.
Illustrating this complication, is a very famous case, symbol of the State’s neglect of older people. The Sara Zaldívar public nursing home, with almost 250 people, where according to newspaper reports, more than half of the members have been infected and 15 to 16 people have died; although the State recognizes lower figures. It is a case worth of investigation in any case. There are political responsibilities because there were no clear protocols, no PPE equipment was given to workers to avoid infecting older people who were there.
LR: This is inconceivable, but many Latin American countries are suffering precisely due to the lack of protocol, as you say, or the lack of medical care because if you don’t have money, you don’t receive any medical services. On the other hand, although the focus should be on the elderly, could you comment on the young people who appear in some of the photographs? Did they talk about their views on the situation of their grandparents, especially as survivors of a Civil War?
Marc Espín: I did not converse much with the rest of the family or with the young, my perception, with great caution, is that the civil war in El Salvador sounds like a very distant thing to them. I believe there is no clear awareness of what it meant and what it still means today: How is the present explained from that episode in history?
I can tell you that among older veterans of war I have seen a feeling of disappointment towards the FMLN governments, which have missed the opportunity to change a society that before, during and after the war continues to privilege a few families at the expense of the misery of the majority of Salvadorans.
LR: What comments have older people made about their youth, their descendants?
Marc Espín: A recurring idea that I have heard among older people, those who are involved in this struggle for their rights, is that the fight is no longer to improve their living conditions, but those of their children and grandchildren. This reaction prompted us to undertake the sponsorship project. We had the necessity, to the best of our ability, to improve the quality of life of these people today.
LR: Now if we move on to something more personal, what did you learn from this journalistic work, not only about El Salvador, but about humanity in general? Did it change you?
Marc Espín: Yes, of course, journalism in that sense is a wonder because it connects you with other realities to which you are more or less alien and by delving into different worlds throughout your work opens up universes for you. It helps you think differently, and, in that sense, it was transformative to meet older people in such an unfortunate situation. It reaffirms my privileged position for something as arbitrary as having been born in another part of the world.
This realization has some consequences, it makes you responsible for those who are not as lucky as you are. Is not simply a matter of solidarity, but one of debt, justice, because you understand the system benefits some at the expense of others. On the other hand, this affects your own happiness. Knowing your own privilege, makes you move away from the material, a little more at least.
It makes you question if you really need what you thought you needed, and it makes you question what is essential to be happy, to be well, to be at peace. All these affirmations may sound a little paulo coelhioanas (from the writer Paulo Coelho), but they are present and are as true.
LR: It is amazing what you do. You have to be a certain type of person to achieve what you, as well as your father, have contributed in these communities of El Salvador. It is difficult to disconnect from our privilege to help others. I wish there were more people who could accomplish this.
Marc Espín: Thank you, although I must confess I am a little uncomfortable with compliments and thanks because I feel I do little. I also feel the little I do is my duty as someone who has already received much more than what I have put in. It is I who must thank them. Achievements do not give you a pat on the back, but they are a source of energy to continue working.
LR: You are right, we must continue the work to have more of these projects known, but I still believe you have done a great job. Do you have an anecdote that you can share with us? Or, would you like to add something before we say goodbye?
Marc Espín: Yes, two things. First of all, I would like to remember what Felix, a community leader in the area where we developed the project, told me which shows an inspiring attitude among the older people fighting for their rights:
“I understand that you call us discarded to report our situation to the government and the economic powers, but I don’t feel discarded, I feel like a fighter.”
And secondly, I would like us to give tools to those who read the interview and want to help us out. There are many ways to collaborate with the fight for the dignity of the elderly. To explore possibilities, contact us through our website www.descartados.org or our social networks.
Verónica Quezada | Board Member, Latina Republic
Verónica Quezada is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. As Xicana and part of the 1.5 generation, she has always identified with and fought for La Causa, for the immigrants. Her parents were undocumented for a long time, she has witnessed the injustice against and invisibility of this community. Now, she would like to help raise awareness and exalt all the great deeds accomplished by Latinx immigrants in this country. Verónica obtained a doctorate degree in Latin American and Chicanx/ Latinx Literatures from the University of California, Irvine. She is an Assistant Professor at Soka University of America, Aliso Viejo, in the Language and Culture Program where she teaches all levels of Spanish and Learning Clusters on Chicanx Studies and other topics.