On 20th March 1991, 350 refugees from Nicaragua returned to war-torn El Salvador to settle on land that had previously been owned by large land-holders. The group consisted of people of all ages and genders, including children. They had had to leave El Salvador during the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, the army and a quasi-feudal government and landholding class were fighting against the guerrilla group FMLN – Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, El Salvador. The army received the support of the U.S. government, including weapons, funding, and training. The army and death squads mercilessly persecuted and often tortured, forcibly disappeared and assassinated anyone who was suspected of supporting the guerrilla, or who was engaged in any struggle for social justice, labelled wholesale as ‘Communist’ by the army and the government.
Many among those returning from Nicaragua had lost family, friends, communities and livelihoods to the repression. Some of them had supported the guerrilla, or had been part of it. When they first arrived in Nicaragua, the country was governed by the FSLN – Frente Sandinista para la Liberación Nacional, Nicaragua – themselves a former guerrilla group. They had overthrown Nicaragua’s tyrant Anastasio Somoza. Some of the Salvadoran refugees married Nicaraguans and started families. But in 1990, the FSLN lost the election and a right-wing government took power. They branded the Salvadoran refugees as insurgents and terrorists. Nicaragua was no longer safe for them. They decided to return to El Salvador and to set up a community of their own, with their Nicaraguan families.
Upon arrival in El Salvador, the group found that the land allocated to them was not suitable for cultivation and could not have sustained their community. They decided to take suitable land nearby. Tents and shacks were built, and the returnees started to cultivate the land. They founded cooperatives to organize collective work and to sell their products, their community being governed through assemblies and councils. Over time, Salvadorans who had taken refuge in other countries, like Honduras, joined them. Even some former members of the armed forces became part of the new community, named Nueva Esperanza, ‘New Hope’.
When the group had set off from Nicaragua, they were seen off by a group of British people who worked in Nicaragua and were active in solidarity work for Nicaragua. This group had been told by a local contact about the refugees’ decision to return home, and wanted to support them. Two of them, Mogs and Tim Russell-Hollins, were teachers from the UK. For years to come, they visited the new community several times, from Nicaragua and eventually, from the UK. In Birmingham they set up a local solidarity project with the community. They focussed on fundraising for the training of the community educators and for building local schools and nurseries.
Mogs and Tim were also in charge of what they call ‘reality tourism’. People from the UK who shared the ethics of the community visited, to learn about the challenges and joys of the inhabitants of Nueva Esperanza. The groups would stay for about two weeks. One of those visitors was musician Katherine Rogers. She had brought her guitar with her and was frequently jamming with members of the community. She soon realized that despite many community members’ love for music, the community lacked the funds to buy instruments. Once back in the UK, Katherine started to fundraise. Her initiative turned into what was initially a project and is now a charity, Music for Hope, which has teamed up with a group in Catalonia to support music in the community.
Music for Hope not only helped community members to buy instruments. Soon, it started to support the training of community music teachers from within the community. The teachers create groups of young people aged 6 to 18. Many of the groups have now started to write their own songs and lyrics. The groups play a variety of musical styles, and there are even some choirs. They perform at celebrations and festivities.
Resisting Gang Violence
The strong social and political cohesion of the community has recently had to contend with a new danger: the gangs that rule much of El Salvador. In a country with few economic opportunities, gangs initially promised many young people a sense of community and upward social mobility. Gangs fund themselves through extortion, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and other illicit activities. They fight each other with vicious brutality, and demand complete loyalty from their members. Those who do not obey are tortured and often killed, with the same fate often awaiting their family. Young people are coerced into joining gangs through threats of rape and assassination, of themselves and their loved ones. Meanwhile, death squads hunt down anyone suspected of any sort of association with the gangs. Many young people see only one escape route: to leave the country.
The strong social fabric in Nueva Esperanza resisted the infiltration by gangs for a long time. Over the past years, though, some gangs have become active in the surrounding communities, and death squads have killed several people. Music for Hope’s work with young people is now a stronghold against gang involvement: the young people involved in the project have a community and social purpose, and are not vulnerable to the allure of gangs. However, due to threats and coercion some of them have had to leave the country, including one of the main organizers of the community who has received political asylum in the UK.
Dr. Cornelia Gräbner is a member of the Board of Trustees of Music for Hope.
This blog post is an abridged version of an article published by Nerve Magazine: Celebrating 30 Years of Hope | Nerve Magazine (catalystmedia.org.uk)