Obies Using Languages: Laura McManamy ’19{0}

Laura McManamy is a second year Environmental Studies Major with a Food & Agriculture pathway. Laura spent Winter Term 2017 in El Salvador with Oberlin Solidarity with El Salvador.

The trip we went on is a solidarity trip that’s been happening every year for about 10 years where we go to a town called Santa Marta which is basically on the border of El Salvador and Honduras. It’s a town that has a lot of really intense history to it from the civil war that occurred there in the 1980’s. Something really incredible about it though is how politically organized the people there became throughout all of the attacks. So now they have a lot of really cool innovations because of it, including a community radio, greenhouse, health clinic, and education system, and the people there are just really amazing people.

While we were there we stayed with host families and served at a site pretty much every day, for example I worked in the greenhouse helping out. It had been about 2 years since I’d spoken Spanish so that made it difficult for me to connect very deeply with people on my end, but I was able to listen and understand a lot. In our formal sessions of listening to people’s testimonials from the civil wars it was especially important to have the language skills to hear these deeply meaningful stories about these events which affected people so personally. Hearing that from them directly, in their own language, is such a deeper experience than reading about it in a history book or another secondary source.

A huge part of being there was just knowing the context and history of everything that affected them in the civil wars. People who had orchestrated these attacks against them were English speakers, so English is a very threatening language to them, filled with this background of violence. Being able to speak Spanish with them made such a difference in the level of trust and comfort of interactions between all of us. Even if understanding and ease of discussion was maybe more difficult than if we all had the same native language, the power of the historical context of language meant so much more than anything else.