August 2010 Exploratory Trip

Sister Cities Exploratory Trip to Morazán, El Salvador

Connecting Montgomery County with the World

August 7-14, 2010

Morazan Map

Departments of El Salvador

Nearly one-third of MontgomeryCounty’s one million people were born in other countries. This extraordinary diversity is one of MontgomeryCounty’s main assets in the global marketplace. In order to enrich our understanding of the cultures and economies of the major countries of origin of our residents, County Executive Ike Leggett created a Montgomery County Sister Cities board and asked the board to identify possible Sister Cities across the globe. A June 2009 event organized by the Sister Cities board identified El Salvador, the number one country of origin of our County’s immigrant population, as a top prospect. After researching possible Sister Cities, the board selected Morazán, a rural department (the equivalent of a state in the United States) in eastern El Salvador for an exploratory visit.

Representatives from the CountyExecutive’s Office of Community Partnerships were part of a nearly 20-member delegation from the Montgomery County Sister Cities program that explored potential partnerships between MontgomeryCounty and Morazán. OCP Director Bruce Adams, Latino Liaison Karla Silvestre, and Senior Fellow Mier Wolf participated in the exploratory trip to El SalvadorAugust 7-14, 2010. Each participant paid his or her own way, and the County employees used furlough and personal leave time to participate.

The goal of SisterCity programs is to foster understanding and partnership between communities. The August trip to El Salvador focused on economic development, culture, and youth exchange. One group of our delegation specialized on the history and culture of El Salvador. Another group met with students to learn about the educational system and identify potential exchange opportunities for youth. The third group met with government representatives to discuss economic development and visited nonprofit organizations and business cooperatives.

Here is a preliminary report on the trip based on a blog written by Karla Silvestre:

Day 1: Saturday August 7, 2010

Fifteen MontgomeryCounty residents arrived tired but happy in San Francisco Gotera, Morazán in El Salvador on Saturday August 7th 2010.  We drove through the City of San Miguel, the third largest city in El Salvador and stopped to get a snack at the large and modern Metrocentro mall. We felt like we were in Wheaton Mall. That night we were welcomed by the Association for the Integral Development of the Municipality of San Francisco Gotera (ADIMGO) and spent some time getting to know each other. We spent the night with different host families in San Francisco Gotera – or simply Gotera as we called it from then on.

Evelyn Gonzalez Pic

Our leader Evelyn Gonzalez greets us at the airport in San Salvador.

Assoc for Integral Dev

Members of the Association for the Integral Development of San Francisco Gotera welcoming the MontgomeryCounty delegation with a traditional dinner.

Day 2: Sunday August 8, 2010

We hurried to Morazán so we could see the last day of a week-long holiday. We spent the morning doing fun activities such as visiting the outdoor market, the Governor’s office, the Catholic Church, city neighborhoods, and a youth center. We then traveled north to a region that has been branded by the Ministry of Tourism as the Peace Route. Here we visited the Museum of the Revolution, a privately owned museum.  There we saw many artifacts that gave us insights into what it was like for the guerillas and members of the community that resided in this guerilla stronghold. We learned about the causes of the war, some of the key players, saw posters from the international solidarity campaign, and weapons of war. We ran into the Vice President of the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly who is good friends with our Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez.

During lunch we had a very happy family reunion.  One of the teens traveling with the “Community Bridges” group was reunited with her parents and family whom she had not seen in over 3 years. They took her to her hometown where she spent the day celebrating with her family. In another “it’s a small world” moment it turns out she also happens to be related to our guide Fredis Pereira.

We had learned much about the war in our morning at the museum but we were in no way prepared for what lay ahead.  In el Mozote, a nearby village, we learned details of how a U.S.-trained elite group of the Salvadoran armed forces massacred an entire village in a scorched earth campaign.  One woman, Rufina Amaya, lived to tell the story of el Mozote and the horrendous details of that day in 1981 left many of us in tears.  While what we learned in el Mozote was deeply disturbing, we came out of that experience feeling that all of humanity needs to come see this place for themselves so that the slogan Mozote, “Nunca Mas/ Never Again” can become a reality.

Delegation at town center

Members of the Sister Cities delegation in the town center of the departmental capital of Morazán, San Francisco Gotera.

Vp of leg assembly

Vice President of the Legislative Assembly Sigfrido Reyes (second from left) at the Museum of the Revolution in Perquin.

Poster at museum

Posters in Museum of the Revolution, Perquin, Morazán.

Community Bridges

Edith Bonilla, Community Bridges youth traveling with the Sister Cities group, is reunited with her parents and family in Perquin, Morazán.

Candle LightingEvelyn Gonzalez and CommunityBridges youth and staff lighting candles in front of the memorial that names the people murdered in el Mozote.


Mural at el Mozote dedicated to the children massacred there.


Mayor and Council of Gotera with representatives of Community Bridges.

Day 3: Monday August 9, 2010

Monday brought our overview of the socioeconomic status of Morazán by the Governor´s office. Unlike our governor, in El Salvador governors are appointed by the president. Morazán´s governor however is unique in several ways. First, community organizations in Morazán petitioned the president that he be appointed for his long history of community organizing in the department. Another characteristic that makes him unique is that he is a former priest that preached liberation theology and lived among the guerillas in Morazán during the war.   We also met a charismatic Irish priest who is the current parish priest of the Catholic Church in Morazán and who has lived in Central America for the last 40 years.

For the rest of the day we met an impressive group of people. First up was the Association for Local Economic Development in Morazán (ADEL-Morazán), a coalition of nonprofits working throughout the department. Most of the nonprofits we will visit the rest of the week are members of the coalition. Next we visited a coffee cooperative, Cooperativa San Carlos — another impressive and historic organization. It is historic in a sense because it is one of a handful of cooperatives in the country that remain from the original land reform efforts in 1980. This one was greatly reduced but survived and now its membership continues to grow with approximately 91 small coffee producers in its membership rolls. They produce extremely high altitude coffee, considered some of the best in the country – I can’t wait to try the coffee I bought there. Finally, after the roar of a tropical thunderstorm, we met with a women’s organization called the Association for the Integral Development of Women. We learned of their history, challenges, and successes, and shopped at their clothing store of indigo-dyed shirts and products.

Gov Argueta

Governor Argueta and Fray Alfredo with Evelyn Gonzalez at the Monday morning briefing.

Gov of morazan and parish priest

The Governor of Morazán and the Parish priest in front of the old army barracks. They would like to see the barracks demolished and turned back into the town’s central park.

ADEL Morazan

Members of ADEL Morazán, a coalition of nonprofits working together for 18 years for the economic development of the department.

San Carlos Coffee coop

Members of the San Carlos coffee co-op and Sister Cities delegation members Don Mooers, Neftali Granados and Karla Silvestre.


President of ADIM, a women’s nonprofit that empowers women with new skills that allow them to increase their family´s income (shown here with indigo used to make their products).

Ann Lopez Comm Bridges

Ana Lopez of Community Bridges buying indigo from the Association for the Integral Development of Women.

School Children

Elementary school children in Morazán.

Day 4: Tuesday August 10, 2010

Today’s agenda consisted of visiting a local high school and the mayors of two northern municipalities (Perquin and San Fernando). At the high school our young women from Community Bridges continued a series of exchanges with other high school students and their student leadership. In these exchanges they learned about each other’s hopes for their communities and brainstormed ideas for joint projects for the future.

In Perquin we visited a newly built community center that is currently pretty much empty. They are looking to stock it with recreational games and activities for people of all ages. At the community center, we learned of the northern region’s strategic plan for development and of the border dispute with Honduras. Recently the department of Morazán lost territory to Honduras in a border dispute that was settled in an international court. However, the people that ended up on the other side of the border still see themselves as Salvadoran and come to Morazán for school and other social services.  The mayors of Perquin and San Fernando treated us to local music considered “country” music as well as performances by students from the Casa de la Cultura/Cultural Community Center. Finally we visited a maternity center where expectant mothers are brought from all over the northern region of Morazán approximately 2 weeks before their due date. This center serves as a hotel so women who live in remote rural communities can be near medical care during the final days of their pregnancy and have transportation to Gotera’s hospital. The health department has drastically reduced deaths of women at delivery as a result of this effort. If that was not impressive enough, we learned that the surrounding community provides food and other supplies for the Center.

High schooler

Kalkidan Mekonnen from Community Bridges meeting with school leadership at a high school in San Francisco Gotera, the departmental capital of Morazán.

INGO High School

Edith from Community Bridges at INGO High School.

Cultural House

At the cultural house with the Mayor of Perquin.

Youth perform at perquim cultural center

Youth from Perquin’s Cutural Center/Casa de la Cultura performing.

Maternity Center

Arriving at the maternity center at Perquin.

Day 5: Wednesday August 11, 2010

On day five we met with the governor and representatives from the national government to hear about each group’s strategic priorities. The national government’s Ministry of Salvadorans Abroad is very interested in Sister Cities programs as a way to address some of their major challenges and channel the Salvadoran community’s energy toward helping their home country develop economically. Their hope is that Salvadorans living all over the world will be part of the strategy to improve the living conditions and standard of living so that people need not emigrate to the United States
and other countries.   The governor has created a strategic plan for Morazán jointly with the non-profit community so that, for the first time in history, there is a comprehensive strategy for economic and social development for the entire department.

We went from this very formal meeting where goodwill was established between various entities to a great reception in the town of Guatajiagua. We had heard so much of this town from Neftali Granados and the hometown association called Associacion (Association) Pro-Guatajiagua. They, along with the mayor’s office, organized a welcome luncheon and a visit to a local school and indigenous community center of the Lenca people. The Lenca is one of the indigenous groups that remain in El Salvador. The number of people that identify themselves as Lenca are few but as the Lenca leader we met stated, most everyone in the region is Lenca.

This was our last day in Morazán, so our day ended with a series of meetings where thanks were given to the many people that had helped to make this event happen. Some of these key organizers include: Evelyn Gonzalez, Sister Cities board member and counselor at MontgomeryCollege; the San Francisco Gotera Community Organization, many of whom served as host families with whom we stayed; the local officials; and the members of the delegation each of whom paid for their own trip.

Our next steps were laid out as follows.  We agreed to generate a list of opportunities for exchanges that we consider of interest to MontgomeryCounty residents, including areas where Morazán and MontgomeryCounty would be beneficiaries. This list will be vetted by the SisterCity committee that is forming back in Morazán to ensure that it fits their interests and priorities. We plan to begin with a few educational exchanges and talked about hosting a group from Morazán in MontgomeryCounty later this year.  The official signing of the Sister Cities partnership could take place next summer in Morazán, signed by the CountyExecutive and members of the Montgomery County Sister Cities Board of Directors from both MontgomeryCounty and Morazán.

Ministry for salvadoreans abroad

Staff from the Ministry for Salvadorans Abroad got up at 4:30 AM to meet with us in Gotera on Wednesday morning.

Woman making black clay pot

Woman making black clay pottery in Guatajiagua.

mayor of guatajiagua presents pot

Mayor of Guatajiagua presents a beautiful black clay pot to our delegation.


Just a kid at heart.  Evelyn jumps rope at elementary school.


The elders in Guatajiagua.

Dance of the Mare

Dance of the Mare performed at the Lenca community center.

evelyn and don

Montgomery College Counselor and Montgomery County Sister Cities Board Member Evelyn Gonzalez and Don Mooers, immigration attorney, taking a stroll down the streets of Guatajiagua.

farewell dinner

Governor Argueta presents a gift to our delegation at the farewell dinner.

Day 6: Thursday August 12, 2010

We had an intense first five days of travel and meetings, but day six was pure enjoyment and relaxation. A Morazán family hosted us in their beachfront property at Cuco where we enjoyed a walk on the beach and were treated to a delicious lunch of fresh fish, corn on the cob, tortillas, rice and chirimol (a side dish similar to pico de gallo).  We swung on the hammocks drinking coconuts and processing all the wonderful things we had seen and the impressive group of leaders we had met.  Some in our group created an “Amazing People” list which grew each day as we met more and more amazing leaders in Morazán doing amazing work.  By the end of the day we had feasted and enjoyed a laid back day at the Cuco beach in southeastern El   Salvador.  We traveled back to the capital of El Salvador that afternoon, passing the volcanoes, markets, and everyday people going about their daily routines. As we approached San Salvador, a city of nearly 2.1 million, we saw the usual traits of most modern cities: urban density, shopping districts, residential areas (called colonias) and traffic congestion.  That night the group was treated to dinner at the home of the general manager of ADEL Morazán, the coalition of non-profit groups that have worked together in Morazán for over 18 years.  In his spacious and beautiful house we enjoyed more good food and conversation.

lunch at cuco beach

Schoolteacher Emily Adams, Jaci Smith from Community Bridges, and our guide Fredis Pereira enjoying lunch at Cuco beach.

Dog gets lunch

Not much left for the dog after John finished lunch at the beach.

Day 7: Friday August 13, 2010

On Friday morning we visited the U.S. Embassy, one of the largest in Latin America.  We met with Embassy public affairs officials and briefed them about our trip and goals, and learned of their initiatives and ways they could support some of our goals.  After a very helpful meeting at the Embassy, some of us visited the Legislative Assembly where a delegate gave us a tour of some of the major chambers. He explained about his work to locate children that were orphaned during the war and sold into the international adoption black market.  We got to ask questions about the current political climate and the numerous parties in the Legislative Assembly.  A group then headed to the El Salvador Habitat for Humanity headquarters. They took us to see some of their newest initiatives in building entire communities as well community centers and schools. We traveled to Ahuachapan near the Guatemalan border and Santa Ana and saw firsthand the good work they are doing in partnerships with local leaders.   We took the scenic route back to San Salvador stopping briefly in Ataco, considered one of the most picturesque towns in El Salvador. Others in our group went to the artisans market and picked up various samples of arts and crafts from all over El Salvador.

National Assembly Building

Member of the Assembly Damian Alegria gave us a tour of the National Assembly building.

Habitat for Humanity

A Habitat for Humanity community organizer gives us a tour of a project in Santa Ana.

Habitat Community School

Habitat staff at a community school built by Habitat with Neftali Granados, Gaithersburg businessman and owner of Morazán grocery stores.

Ataco at dusk

Ataco at dusk, a popular tourist destination for both national and international travelers.

Day 8: Saturday August 14, 2010

This fabulous trip came to an end today. We each headed back home to our families in MontgomeryCounty having made new friends and learned volumes about El Salvador and the Department of Morazán.  At every leg of our trip we were greeted with friendship, warmth and great generosity. We hope to be as good hosts as the people of El   Salvador were to us. The group is excited to begin to craft the next steps which include building a strong Morazán Sister Cities committee in MontgomeryCounty.  Many people are looking forward to going again next year to continue learning from each other community to community.

Shopping in San Salvador

Time to shop at the Artisans Market in San Salvador before the flight.