Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett last week led a local delegation to the Department (State) of Morazán, El Salvador from July 23 – 30, meeting with government officials and signing a “Sister City” agreement under the guidelines of Sister Cities International. The delegation also met with people from the local communities, visited schools, organizations, and historic places, and engaged in community projects. The effort is designed to foster cooperation between the two jurisdictions on a people-to-people basis and to support already ongoing work by Salvadorans living in the County to support development projects in their home country.
“It is estimated that 50,000 Montgomery County residents hail from El Salvador,” said County Executive Ike Leggett. “This trip gave all who participated a unique perspective on the situation in their homeland. It opens up opportunities for Montgomery County residents to collaborate with the residents of Morazan -- to learn and to lend a hand.”
“The United States is a land of immigrants,” said Councilmember George Leventhal. “I have no doubt that this generation of Salvadoran immigrants and generations to come are making and will make valuable contributions to County life. The United States has much to atone for in fueling the Salvadoran civil war. It’s very important to start helping to clean up our mess. Sometimes you have to see the challenges and talk to people on the ground. I returned home with a great appreciation for the challenges ahead and how we might contribute in our own way.”
“For the Salvadoran people we met, this encounter was so important,” said State Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, who originally hails from El Salvador. “The real relationship has to be people-to-people. We are bringing two cultures together.”
“I was very honored to go along,” said former Congresswoman Connie Morella, who last visited El Salvador with a congressional delegation in 1988. “I wanted to see what people had been through and how they are rebuilding their lives. This can help to make a difference.”
About 70 individuals participated in the trip. All participants paid all their own expenses.
The delegation from Montgomery County included County Executive Leggett and his wife, Catherine; former U.S. Congresswoman Connie Morella; Montgomery County Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez; County Councilmember George Leventhal; Public Information Director Patrick Lacefield, Silver Spring Regional Services Director Reemberto Rodriguez; Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Kathleen Boucher; Office of Community Partnerships Director Bruce Adams, County Latino Liaison Karla Silvestre, and Recreation Department Director Gabe Albornoz.
In addition to the County representatives, 11 individuals represented Montgomery County’s Habitat for Humanity and helped build a home for an impoverished family in the town of Jocoro, the first of 38 planned in Morazán by the group. Montgomery “MoverMoms” -- a group of mothers and their children, ages 9 – 17 – spent the week performing community service at a school and a Centro Materno in the town of Perquin. Members of two of the Salvadoran hometown associations traveled with the group to support their communities -- the Guatajiagua Association, which purchased land to build a training center in Guatajiagua, and the Joateca Association, which has helped to build a multi-purpose community center in Joateca.
“I was very proud to go on this trip,” said Neftali Granados. “I have raised three children here in Montgomery County and built a small business. This program can help a lot and I’m ready to work hard.”
The five-day whirlwind schedule focused on the northeastern Department of Morazán, the poorest Salvadoran state with 174,000 people and rates of 30 percent illiteracy and 36 percent extreme poverty.
Leggett toured the cathedral and market at San Miguel, the country’s second largest city, before meeting with the AMC bank, which finances microenterprises and cooperative ventures and which recently opened its first U.S. branch in Wheaton. Leggett also visited a cooperative milk processing plant established outside town with AMC foundation support in route to Morazán.
Following a community festival in the colorful plaza fronting the state capital San Francisco Gotera’s colorful church, Leggett joined Morazán governor Miguel Ventura and about 800 residents in signing an agreement for the two local jurisdictions to engage in cooperative efforts and exchange. They were joined by United States Ambassador to El Salvador Mari Carmen Aponte, who made the trek to Morazán to lend support to the agreement.
While in San Francisco Gotera, Leggett visited the local High School and also the hospital, the only hospital for the State of Morazán’s 174,000 residents. Leggett spoke with hospital doctors and nurses and toured the pediatric ward where many children were two to a bed, one in a hammock hanging over the other. The Association for Educational Development in El Salvador worked with delegation members to bring books donated by County residents to establish a library at Gotera’s San Jose Elementary School.
Bouncing over mountain roads that snaked around forest-covered peaks, Leggett, Leventhal, and Morella helped inaugurate a new park in the plaza of the village of Joateca. Nearly all the 900 residents turned out to celebrate and a Salvadoran Army band offered up their country’s national hymn and the Star-Spangled Banner. Joateca has another 600 natives who live in Montgomery County, the most of any jurisdiction in Morazán. Leggett and the delegation walked through the town to pay their respects to the family of Sara Ramos, a County resident who was slain by the Beltway snipers in 2002 as she waited for a bus in Leisure World to take her to work.
Leggett and the delegation also paid their respects at what one delegation member called “perhaps one of the saddest places on Earth” -- El Mozote. In 1981, during Salvador’s dozen-year Civil War, an elite U.S.-trained Salvador army battalion massacred 1,200 unarmed men, women, and children at El Mozote, where a memorial and children’s garden now stand.
In Guatajiagua, known for its unique pottery made from black clay, the County delegation met with the mayor, visited with the Lenca indigenous community, and went to a site purchased with the help of Montgomery’s Guatajiagua hometown association to build a job training center. A visit in the far north of the department – to Perquin, the guerrilla stronghold during the Civil War -- included the presentation of a check for nearly $2,000 to the town’s mayor, raised by County residents through the “Hungry for Music” project, to buy musical instruments for young people. Recreation Director Gabriel Albornoz also brought soccer balls donated by DC United. The delegation also toured the Museum of the Salvadoran Revolution, also in Perquin. Leggett, Leventhal, Morella and others also visited Montgomery’s Habitat for Humanity volunteers, hard at work in a blazing sun constructing a cinderblock home on the outskirts of Jocoro.
“Habitat for Humanity has built over 10,000 houses in El Salvador over the past decades,” said Montgomery County director John Pauksis. “This will give a teacher who is widowed and raising a grandchild a home of her own, paid off by her over 10 years with a mortgage.”
“I came back blown away,” said County Recreation Director Albornoz. “Half the population in Morazán is under 16. They are not just the future; they are the present. This trip gave me a much greater appreciation for the kids in our programs here and for those Salvadorans who work on my staff.”
Returning to the capital, San Salvador, with over two million residents, the delegation met with the United States Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte and with the President of the National Assembly, Sigifredo Reyes, both of whom hailed the delegation’s efforts and the signing of the Sister City pact. Some delegation members, including Leggett and Morella, took in a soccer game at the capital’s massive Cuscatlan Stadium, watching the professional U.S. soccer club from Dallas beat El Salvador’s “Alianza” club by a 1-0 mark.
Before leaving, delegation members paid their respects at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador’s Metropolitan Cathedral in the teeming downtown. Romero, a voice for peace and an end to repression, was assassinated by a right-wing death squad while saying Mass in March 1980 as the country’s civil war was getting started. Leggett and Morella also visited the small chapel where Romero was killed on the grounds of the Divine Providence hospital, where he also lived. They also paid respects at the Central American University where six Jesuit priests were murdered by an elite Salvadoran army unit during the FMLN offensive of November 1989.
The Montgomery Sister Cities Inc. is an independent community association associated with Sister Cities International. Morazán, El Salvador is Montgomery County’s first Sister City and Bet Shimesh in Israel is set to become the County’s second Sister City. The purpose of the program is to encourage and foster friendship, partnership and mutual cooperation through educational, cultural, social, economic, humanistic and charitable exchanges between the people of Montgomery County and communities of other nations. Morazán was selected for partnering because El Salvador is the number one country of origin of Montgomery County’s immigrant population and many Salvadorans came here from the eastern part of El Salvador. There are currently several active hometown associations in Montgomery County which support projects in Morazán.
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