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marta benavides
Reflecting on Gifting and the Gift Economy in El Salvador

I was born and raised in El Salvador. I have been through many exiles. Because of this I have learned so much, especially to appreciate diversity, the unity in diversity, the many cultures of the world, and the real meaning of solidarity and caring. Now I am back in El Salvador, and my work is with people of various political, ethnic, religious, social, and educational backgrounds. My sister Ana and I take care of our father, who is 96, and our mother, 86. It is both good and challenging and difficult.

I returned to El Salvador just before we signed the peace agreements in 1992. I thought then that the time had come when we could all do the things that we had been dreaming about as a nation. When we signed the accords, I expected us to be loving to each other, to start doing what we needed to do for the better- ment of our country. Much of the urgent work needed was about taking care of Mother Earth and our Indigenous roots. Though I look European, I am, as are most of the people in my country, Indigenous and black. Some of us look white and thus some people refer to us as mestizos. This is a racist term, created by the colonizers to divide and more effectively conquer us. Our culture is mostly based on our Indigenous roots, in spite of the fact that the language and religion and many ways that we have to live by in the larger society are western.

After the peace agreements there was much conflict in the country, despite the progressive peoples’ movement. And even progressive people wanted leader- ship positions, power. Today we are paying the price of divisiveness within the progressive movement, while a very close-minded government goes about its business, which has resulted in increasing poverty, repression, and hopelessness. Often we can be busy being the Left, but not busy enough in effectively support- ing the work people must do in order to transform society to meet their needs and aspirations, and to become a nation of peace and justice for all, in a healthy, natural environment.

It is important to pay attention, and to be clear, that is why I am sharing this experience on how change is generated. My mother would reflect on our situation and say, “Well, things are the way they are, because that’s where we [humans] have allowed them to get to.” All of us participate in creating the reality/ies we live under. As an example, the peoples’ movement lost the last presidential elec- tion in El Salvador, though there was a good chance that we could have won. But the same situation that happened in the U.S. happened in my country: fear was instilled in the people. Many people voted for the government that is in power right now, which is not the Left (even though the Left was almost ready to win) because of fear. This fear is related to the well-known fact that more than one-fifth of the population of El Salvador is in the USA, a good number without documents, and these Salvadorians are sending remittances to their families at home that amount to one-third of the budget of El Salvador, even more than is exported annually.

Everyone in El Salvador was aware of this. The people in government and the people’s movement knew this; there are a few in the middle who also knew this, but they usually vote the status quo anyway. The present government which ac- knowledges itself as the Right and those in the middle vote together all time, so it was hard for the opposition to win. There was a program of intimidation, of threatening that if the opposition won the election, the country would become like Cuba and in Cuba they are dying of hunger, with no jobs, no social services, and lots of people in jail. In the media, the leaders of the people’s movement were shown with gangs burning and destroying properties and businesses, and so there was great fear. This is because when one does not have an education, and is not trained to think critically, then there are no parameters, no points or reference and therefore an inability to discern the truth, thus people only react in fear.

This is the trap of poverty and lack of education. Thus, this is one of the key gifts we must work for: to facilitate people coming of age so that they can carry out their own discernment. Critical thinking is a gift. For it is on this basis, with available resources, that we can figure out and decide the process for what is the best, for ourselves, for others, for future generations, and for the health of the planet.

In spite of all the propaganda, and the fear that was generated, about two weeks before the elections, it still it looked as if the Left might win, although the Left is not so Left any more, but much more to the Center. There is very little Left left—just like in the U.S.! But here is the key: we have to be smart and pay attention because we don’t want to be back-pedaling—we must know now that the work is not going to be done by any political party, the church, or an NGO. The work for change is going to be done by us. We are the people, we are the community, and whatever we want and whatever we need is up to us. The party is just an instrument, a means to an end, and not an end in itself. This is historically true. If we take a good look, we can see that it is in the leadership of women, the people’s movements, affirmed by Indigenous cultures, that change happens and is maintained. That is the way it has been throughout history. The pressure for change comes from below.

About two weeks before the elections the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Latin America arrived in El Salvador and he appeared in all the media, which in most countries, ours not the exception, is owned by the richest people. In interviews he was asked what would happen if the Left were to win and how would the country’s relationship with the USA be affected. The U.S. representative replied that he could see there would be problems;that probably those Salvadorans liv- ing in the United States without immigration documents might not have their time extended, thus they would have to return, and even those legally in the U.S. might not be allowed to send the monthly help. Thus, fear was instilled as this situation would be an enormous problem for there are no jobs in El Salvador, and how could the country survive without the support the Salvadorans in the U.S. regularly send back home?

“Did you hear that?” the people were saying. Therefore, everybody voted for whoever they had to in order to maintain the status quo. Whole towns, even those with mayors of the opposition party, voted for the conservative party because of that fear.

Indigenous people in Salvador have a phrase that goes like this: “They have your tail under their foot.” If somebody stands on a dog’s tail, it cannot go very far, it cannot move. This is what colonialism has done, and today is a modern- day colonial practice.

Yet, it is here that we must remember we are beings that have the power to create. Even in Salvador we are thinking, “We have to take the power for ourselves.” In this case, “taking the power” meant having everybody vote for the opposition, so that from the top down we can have the kinds of laws that will give justice and peace and freedom to the people—thinking that political power is the key.

I have come to understand that it doesn’t work like that. We concentrate on taking, getting the power, and we maneuver and fight and struggle to do that. Even within the party itself people fight for control, because they see this as the way to have power. This I understand to be the wrong analysis, the wrong way of thinking. For we are power. We don’t have to take over power because we are power. What we have to figure out is: why, if we are power, have we come to believe and understand that we don’t have power, and that we powerless, and worse, we act that way.

We are the children of the universe. The universe has created all that we have and see, and much that as of yet do not see. Why then do we think that we are so helpless, and so powerless? We can create programs to empower people. If we work to empower someone, there is an important implication: that someone has power, is empowered, and that someone else is not. But if we start from the under- standing that everything in the universe is power, and everybody in the universe, all human beings and all of nature are power, then we have a different way of working, because then it is about creating the conditions, together, for exercising or manifesting power to bring about those basic things that are our dreams and our aspirations, as persons and as humanity, and for the health of the planet.

When talking about reaching a state of wellness in society, people in El Salvador say, “Oh, but you’re crazy, talking about that. It can never happen.”
“You don’t think it can ever happen?” I ask.
“Well, it might take a bunch of years,” they answer.
“Like, how many years?” I respond.
“About 200, and then maybe we’ll have what we have been dreaming about, but by that time I won’t be around, so who knows?” is their response.

Conversations like this suggest we do not, cannot, create the future, and so we continue to allow our country, our nation, to be destroyed.

El Salvador is the second most environmentally destroyed country in the Americas. We continue to experience ever increasing violence that has made our country the most violent in the Americas because we continue to think it is not possible to be different due to the existing conditions. But it is up to us; we are the possibility. When we say that another, or many other worlds and better worlds are possible, they are! So we have to discern what world we want and what would make it possible, and start doing exactly that—intentionally and in real time, in community. We cannot wait for someone else to do it. That is a colonial mentality. We are human beings; we have the capability, we are pure potential.

What we are, and what we have to understand we are, is that we are creators. We cannot escape that. We come from the great Creator Spirit or force, Father-Mother, therefore we are creators. We must own this, and be responsible. We must figure out how to be responsible, intentional creators. That means we must develop a conscious culture, because what we have now is unconscious culture, unconscious practices. Culture is everything that we do, everything that we cultivate through our every day practices. But it must be an intentional, conscious culture. That means that every step we take, everything we do, has to be done with the consciousness of this totality, this wholeness, this oneness in diversity, consciousness of who we really want to be, and how we want the world to be.

So people kept saying to me, “Two hundred years for this or that, Marta!” And I respond, “Well, that would be the twenty-third century, right?” And they say, “Yes!” And I say, “Okay. So how about choosing to be the twenty-third century here and now?” What is stopping us from exercizing the future now?

Whatever our actions are today create the future even if we are not conscious of it. So we must use the gift of consciously and intentionally being the future in the here and now.

The way this is done is by practicing discernment, which is about figuring out what we want to manifest as an intentional choice, paying attention, and then creating a process together. Dis-cernment is a compound word. The preposition “dis” is a negative, and “cernir ” is to spread out, as when one needs to sift flour, when you bring it together you are discernimiendo, and that is when one can proceed to make the bread. So this is the important thing: we must embrace the gift of taking the time to discern situations, our work, the future, and to develop such skills for ourselves and support others to do the same. We already have the power, because we are power itself. Now we must develop the skills to manifest the power that we are in a conscious, intentional way, and in community for the best results.

In what way can we do this, in a country like El Salvador? If we were to take the International Criminal Court (ICC) under the present cultural and political conditions, we could say that it is about 200 years away. Because this institution is an important deterrent against violations and crimes against humanity, we must be about creating the conditions for the society to support and press the government to adhere to and implement the International Criminal Court in our legal processes. Thus, we have created the Salvadoran Coalition for the ICC, and now we have the regional coalition, the Central American Coalition for the ICC. In this way we are creating a new environment not only for our country and the region but for the world.

We can figure out what the future will be like if we continue to move and be, as we are, and then figure out what best expresses the hopes and aspirations of our nation, a country of peace, justice, freedom, in a healthy environment. It is like visiting the future, then envisioning how to start manifesting it in the present, day in and day out. By doing so, we can change the past, have a different present, and arrive at the future we aspire to.

In colonial times, the colonizers in El Salvador would demand of the Indigenous peoples: “When I am talking to you, you look down. Don’t look at me. And before I finish talking, you start running!” We were forced to learn those ways. Many people still do not look at someone eyes when they are talking, and then, before s/he is finished, they start running, but they are running in the same place. As I observe our society, I see that often we continue running in the same place. Then we feel like we cannot really move ahead, but we can. We must know what we want, though. It means that every day we say to ourselves when we get up in the morning, when we wake up, that we can. It means that everyday we remember to live with a thankful heart, because we know that everything has been given to us—the air that we need to breathe, the water, the earth, everything that we need to be alive has been given to us, as well as the power to create, the power to create and resolve everything in community.

So we must choose, every morning, to do this. There are times I don’t feel like doing it, to tell you the truth, because the work is hard and very tiring at home. So I support myself. I have created a mechanism to give me the spark. When I wake up, and I don’t feel like getting up, I breathe deeply, and since on purpose I leave my window open, I pay attention and listen to the birds sing, and then I say, “Oh, the whole universe is waking up and letting me know that everything is ready for me to go out to work,” and then I start intentionally to give thanks. Then my heart opens up, and I begin giving thanks consciously, and yet naturally.

This is the thing. We must figure out how to live that. In El Salvador we are very ready to be in resistance, and in opposition. It’s been more than 500 years of exploitation, and the oppression in our country is really terrible. Even now my parents become very frightened if I have not returned by 6:30 in the evening. They worry. My father, 96 years old, says, “Tita, you know that your mom is too old to go out of the country. We cannot travel!” He is making an allusion to a life again in exile. And I answer, “Si, papa.” And then my mom says, “Your father is too old to travel, to live outside the country.” And I answer, “Si, mama.” I know that I cannot go into exile again, and besides, the purpose of life doesn’t have to be to live in resistance, in opposition, or to be in exile, or to be fighting all the time. Life is to be lived and so my work in El Salvador has to be to work with people to create conditions so that we don’t live to work. This is what is happening in all of Latin America, in Africa, and all over. People are merely surviving, living to work. We must create conditions so that we live to enjoy life. Whatever we do we have to keep that in mind, because otherwise we end up living to work and that is not living.

When I witnessed all the fighting within the party and didn’t want to go into the communities and work with the people, which was what we were supposed to do, I discovered that we all wanted to have peace, we wanted to have justice, we wanted to have freedom, but we wanted the revolution to give it to us. More than 80,000 Salvadorians gave their life for that, and many more were ready to also give their lives for that peace. All of us were living in a culture of giving. Our people have always given, helping and taking care of each other, many women especially as single heads of households, but we have been forced to give and to maintain the society through our giving. But the time has come that we must be choosy and give because we are willing to give, to give from our hearts. If we are willing to die for our aspirations—peace, freedom, and justice—why not live for them instead? This is a conscious way of living and giving. This is the gift we must give! It is easier sometimes to struggle and endure, but it’s not about struggling, it is about being efficient so that we can really have what we dream about.

I found out that there is a qualitative difference between being a revolutionary to being the revolution itself. We must manifest it. There is a difference between building and constructing, defending and struggling for peace, and being peace. It’s easy, and it’s hard. It is being very mindful and intentional. So the work that we have to do is to be in this consciousness, and understanding how the universe works, be responsible and intentional about this knowledge.

For example, in El Salvador everybody says, “Oh, but look at all this violence! We cannot do anything about that, we cannot change that.” The UN Economic Commission for Latin America-CEPAL has declared my country the most violent of the Americas. So people ask, “When is the violence going to stop?” Because we have at least a dozen terrible murders every day, and we have gangs and we have corruption, we become more militarized. Currently, the President of El Salvador has given us a “gift”—that is what he calls the “dollarization” of the economy. The President pushed for our national coin to be substituted by the U.S. dollar. His political party in the legislature, and the other political allies, approved it without discussion, but in violation of our constitution. This is legal, but it is illegitimate and immoral. The purpose of the legalization of the dollar for our economy was to support industry, commerce, and international investments in our country. This has made the cost of living go so high in El Salvador that today we are one of the most expensive countries on the continent.

The government of El Salvador has now given us another “gift” for security and against terrorism. El Salvador is the only country that has a contingent in Iraq. These soldiers have recently been honoured since they saved a U.S. contingent. Besides the medals the soldiers were given, we are reminded often of: “How brave you Salvadorians are and what great things you are doing!” The government declares, “We are fulfilling a commitment that we made to you when we were campaigning,” and now we also have the Super Iron Fist Law.

That is its the real name: Super Iron Fist Law. It is a versionof the U.S. Patriot Act II. It means repression, especially of the young people, and the poorest people. Many gang members have parents working in the United States, and these young people have been sent back to El Salvador because while the parents were work- ing very hard to maintain the family, these kids were on the streets. These young people, back in El Salvador, are often in very violent gangs. The government now has an arrangement with the national police in each country of Central America to fight terrorism, to fight the gangs. But, in response to this, the gangs joined forces and are now organized throughout the whole region. Today, as per the ar- rangement of the governments, the police from any Central American country can run across the borders, persecuting the gangs, regardless of sovereignty, and the youth are doing the same. Violence and crime have increased as a result.

The people say, “What can we do?” It is a responsibility to figure out what to do. To do this is to practice governance, and to practice governance is a gift. We have to see what it means in each place. It might mean, for example in the little town where I live, to develop a team of people to meet even with the conservative mayor. I live in an Indigenous town of very impoverished people. I need to pause here to say something about language. Notice that I don’t say “poor people.” I use the word “impoverished” because there is the process of impoverishment and a process of enrichment. We have to pay attention to language. (Also, I never call the people of the United States “Americans.” I call them “United Stateans,” or estadounidenses, because all of the people in the Americas are Americans.) In my little town, the gangs and drunken men have taken over the public park so no one can use or enjoy the park. We negotiated with the mayor take the park back for the people. We proposed creating a butterfly garden in the park with his support. We would provide ten people to do the work, we asked him to provide another ten, including council members. We wanted the high school kids to come and work with us in the park, and we wanted him to provide the equipment we would need. We explained to him that this would be a way to save animal and plant species, the diversity. He had to be there and if possible work with us. He agreed.

And there we went: us and a very conservative mayor, working in the park together. The mayor with his team came, and the students, and the government- sponsored House of Culture, and the church came, and they witnessed how everybody was stopping to see what we were doing. Then we explained Agenda 21—the 1992 Rio Declaration for a healthy planet and a peaceful planet. We then took time to reflect on how by creating a garden together, we had practiced a level of governance, caring for the Commons, and making them safe for the townspeople, working on plant and animal biodiversity, the filtration of water, the purification of air, and how this is part of what we have to do at the national and international levels for a healthy planet, what Agenda 21 is all about. And when we finished, everyone saw the beauty that we had been able to create together, in a collaborative way, in a short time, and even with a conservative mayor. People were pleased, and some people said, “And it was good.”

Now we are creating new projects with the mayor for the benefit of the town and the safety of the people. The butterfly and humming bird garden is beautiful, and people are coming from everywhere just to stand and look at it. There are butterflies, birds, and flowers. We have claimed back the park.

I am giving these examples because this is what I am writing about: understanding globally and acting locally. In order to act locally, we must do it personally, with our families, and then we have to really involve all the stakeholders, including the decision-makers or facilitators, not necessarily the people who are the most powerful. It is important for people to know the power they are.

The best way to mount resistance is to have this intentional culture, this con- scious culture, and to create whatever you have been dreaming about. It is not a matter even of believing and having faith; it is a matter of knowing that we are power, knowing and affirming that we are creators, knowing that we are always cause, and never effect. We need to be conscious that whatever we decide to do, at any moment, will have an impact on what happens and on what we do later, on the people around us, even to the seventh generation, and on the health of the planet. Thus, as women, we must choose intentionally what to give, how to give, to whom to give, and what to give, for we are power, creative power, and with our actions we create; we are always cause and never effect.

Marta Benavides is an educator, a theologian, and permaculturist who works on social transformation through culture, culture of peace, life-long learning. She is the International President of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and part of the United Nations and UNESCO Women, Sustainability, and Peace Caucuses. She worked for a political, peaceful, negotiated solution to the war in El Salvador in the 1980s. During the war, she also worked with Monsignor Oscar Romero, who was slain in 1980 in El Salvador, and together they established the first refugee centers in the country, and directed the Ecumenical Committee for Humanitarian Aid (CEAH ). Marta’s father rested on Earth Day, April 22 , 2005, and her mother on April 19th, 2006. In their memory, on September 23, 2006, she and her sisters opened the Culture is Peace and the AHA Folk Arts and Cultures Museum in Santa Ana, the second city of El Salvador, for the purpose of promoting a culture of peace through social transformation and global and planetary citizenship.


United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). 1992. Agenda 21: The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Sustainable Development. Online: http://www.un.org/esa/sustdev/documents/agenda21/index.htm.

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