Supporting the Teachers’ Union in El Salvador – 1985

and Santo Tomás – 1988

By Steven Kant

In June of 1985, I was preparing to wake up the next morning to fly to El Salvador and Nicaragua. Only then was I starting to really think about what it would be like there for me. El Salvador had been going through a turbulent uprising against the U.S.-backed government, and Nicaragua was in the midst of a hopeful revolution.

I was traveling with a delegation of U.S. teachers and union activists. The trip included people from Seattle, Los Angeles, and other U.S. cities. Beth Harris of Olympia was one of the organizers. We were responding to a request from ANDES, the Salvadoran teachers union, to attend their union convention. ANDES had not been able to hold a convention for years because of the violent repression, so they invited teachers and activists from all over the world to attend as witnesses and participants.

The delegation. Beth Harris and I are in the back row right.

We had been busy raising money for ANDES and for the expenses of the trip, so there had been little time to be worried or afraid, but when we arrived in El Salvador, we immediately saw the signs of what life was like there. The airport was occupied by the military. We had brought suitcases full of pencils and school supplies; the government apparently considered this contraband and we had to work hard to avoid getting it all confiscated. I had brought a slide projector and a camera in response to requests from ANDES, but the slide projector was considered so dangerous that the border officials demanded I take it out of the country when I left and wrote this on my passport. Although the government officials were certainly vicious and dangerous, they were not overly skilled in these matters, so we were able to leave everything with the Salvadoran teachers when we departed. Shortly after this time, the U.S. government blocked public access to El Salvador.

As we traveled to our hotel, the streets were full of ancient buses and cars, but what stood out were many brand-new black Jeep Cherokee vehicles with groups of armed paramilitary men riding in the back. I had, of course, heard of death squads before, but I did not realize that this type of repression was so open. The Jeeps were clearly a result of the generous U.S. funding.

The US delegation marching in a demonstration with union allies, confronting the police. 

Our work in El Salvador included attending the convention sessions as well as visiting and confronting government officials. We also attended a workers’ demonstration. In Central America, where having a demonstration could be very dangerous, the route of the march was not revealed in advance. Organizers carried yellow ropes on the side of the march and the ropes were moved at intersections to guide the marchers on the previously secret route.

I spent a day at a local elementary school. The generous U.S. funding had not made it to the schools. The teachers had not been paid and parents were running food booths at the schools to raise money for supplies. When the students found out that I was a math teacher, they demanded that I teach them a math lesson. I proceeded to lead a fun algebra game that did not require many words. I was prepared for this since my specialty is teaching visually, and, in the same way I teach algebra to kindergartners, I could teach algebra without a lot of language. At the end, the students asked very directly why I could not speak correctly. They were not familiar with people who spoke another language, so they assumed something was wrong with me.

Bravely presenting an algebra function game

Guns were everywhere and were pointed at us as well as at the Salvadorans. During one meeting at the union headquarters, we were suddenly told that we had to leave immediately in small groups. We left quickly and jumped on buses. Of course we didn’t have the right change, but we got out of there somehow. At our meetings, I realized that the ANDES officers never entered the building in any noticeable way. Instead, they just magically appeared in our midst, and disappeared later in the same way. Being a union officer was a dangerous job. They did not have their own place to live but spent the night at different locations, and their families were often sent to live in Nicaragua. As a union officer myself, the most dangerous things I ever had to face at home were a few mean comments from union members or staff that disagreed with something I said or did.

Before I went to El Salvador, I had wondered how activists, or for that matter anyone, could live in a situation that was so repressive. I quickly realized that the answer was simple—it was what you had to do and you just did it. My grandparents had described how they organized garment industry strikes in the early 1900s. They didn’t do this because they read a book or took a class—this was what you did to survive, to protect yourself and to improve life for yourself and your family.

I was handicapped initially by my almost non-existent Spanish skills, but we were lucky to have many fluent bilingual speakers in our delegation. I had taken six years of French in junior high and high school and could never say anything spontaneously, but I found that I learned a lot in a week in the real world. When the guns are pointed your way, you pay close attention and the words become somehow understandable.

This was a statement that the delegation put in the newspaper in San Salvador (you can see the signatures of Beth and I). Groups would publish statements like this, and the right wing groups would publish death threats against them in the same newspaper.

The delegation’s next stop was Nicaragua. The revolution was in control of the government and the U.S.-backed contras were attacking the population, so again we saw a lot of armed police and soldiers. After El Salvador, Nicaragua was a wonderful place. Despite the sounds of the contra war around us, it seemed safe. This was the first and last time that I have ever been in a place where it felt like the police and the military were there to protect us.

I had the opportunity to sing a rousing song to some Salvadoran refugees in Nicaragua. I also spent a day and went to the city of Esteli where my friend Kris Hammer was building a health clinic with a brigade from Seattle. I found the clinic somehow and worked on the project myself, where I successfully repaired the gas-powered sand sifter without the benefit of tools, parts, or the necessary language to ask for help.

On the return trip to Seattle, I was traveling alone and almost missed the plane because I was waiting in the arrival section instead of the departure section. The first plane went back to San Salvador with a long layover for most of the day. I chose to spend the day at the beach with the bizarre experience of frolicking in the surf while fearing for my life.

Back home, SUVs did not really exist yet, but there were the same black Jeep Cherokees around. These still looked like death squad vehicles to me and I found that I was always hyperaware when one passed by.

In 1988, activists in Olympia organized their own construction brigade to create a building for a sewing cooperative in Santo Tomás, Nicaragua. To pay for the building, we raised $30,000 for materials and local labor. At the time there were no ATMs and there was no way to transfer funds into a bank in Nicaragua. Traveler’s checks could not be used, so we needed to send cash with the brigade members.

I was the brigade bookkeeper, so I happily went out the day before the brigade left and stopped by our local savings bank with a request for the bulk of the funds—$20,000 in small bills. Hopefully the teller’s silent alarm was not working, and the police and FBI did not in fact appear, but the teller politely informed me that a savings bank did not actually have $20,000 on the premises (good to know). I went around town and found a larger, multinational bank where my request did not seem to be a problem (what were they doing there with those large sums?)

Now I was carrying around $20,000 in small bills. I have never liked to carry cash in any amount as I am afraid of losing it, and we had not arranged for an armed car or an escort. When I made it home, I felt the need to hide the money overnight in the basement behind a loose brick. The money made it to Nicaragua and the building was on its way. Today, the Thurston-Santo Tomás Sister County Association puts on a yearly plant sale that raises thousands of dollars for scholarships, delegations, and ongoing projects in Santo Tomás, Nicaragua. We all buy plants or make a donation, but I always think of that $20,000 in small bills hiding behind the loose brick.