January 13, 2015. I picked up the newspaper only to read that Robert White had died. Gasp!... He was one of my heroes. He was an American in a foreign land-a career diplomat whose courage and integrity led him to confront his own government’s policies only to be rewarded with dismissal from the Foreign Service.
My mind floated back to El Salvador 1986 as I flew in to that tortured country for the first time. I was shaking in my sneakers but armed with the spirit of Bob White and Jean Donovan. Jean was one of the four American churchwomen murdered in El Salvador in 1980 where Bob was serving as US ambassador. I had first met these indomitable spirits in a chance reading of Jean’s story in “Salvador Witness” by Ana Corrigan. That reading led me to the story of Bob White’s courage to speak truth to power. As I landed, I had two quotes running through my head; Bob White’s, ”This time the bastards won’t get away with it” said as the 4 church women were disinterred, and Jean Donovan’s “If it weren’t for the children…”, explaining why she couldn’t leave El Salvador at the height of the violent revolutionary war.
El Salvador has a way of grabbing you. There are so many contradictions: raw survival, deep-rooted faith, and inextinguishable hope midst unrelenting violence.
The children never fail to touch your heart, but where I found the inspiration that draws me back is amongst the women. My mantra has become “If it weren’t for the women...” During the violence of the civil war it was the women who maintained a strong front fighting besides their men, protecting the children and keeping their communities strong. At the close of the war, so many of these same women refused to look back. Today they are teachers, community organizers, politicians, business owners and heads of households. They are still fighting, determined to confront economic violence, family violence and gang violence. They are the caregivers with heart and conscience that will make El Salvador strong.
As I wake from my reverie, I feel grateful that the connections that were seeded 29 years ago by Bob and Jean are stronger than ever. As a SEW board member, It feels good to walk hand in hand with the amazing Salvadoran women who have taught me about the power of organizing, the freedom to dream, the patience and hard work it takes to make those dreams come true and the joy of knowing they did it themselves. If it weren’t for the women, and Jean and Bob, who knows where I’d be today.