Behind the Scenes


written by Caroline Sheaffer

Whether we are talking with hushed tones in a cathedral, behind double-locked gates with armed guards of a facility in a gang-infested area, high on a remote volcano at a business meeting of coffee growers, along a working beach, in a priest’s office, at a famous artist’s home, or at an outdoor worship service, our interviews provide us with unequaled experiences. Some of them are hysterically funny; some are totally unexpected; some are scary; some are frustrating and maddening. These are all part of the adventure in making this story project experience so riveting and addictive. Because the Salvadorans themselves feel the story project is so worthwhile, we continue to give them voice. Join us as we share a few memories.

We have left the guesthouse far ahead of schedule to interview a high- profile individual who stressed that we be prompt. We are cool, composed, and confident we don’t need a translator only to end up at the wrong location; after discovering our error, we hurried to get a taxi to the correct location on the other side of town in rush hour traffic and arrived in the nick of time, all sweaty and flustered.

We have been in a taxi whose driver can’t find the address we provided him because the organization which has been the site of several arson attacks has chosen not to put its address on the door.

DOUGLAS OSURY – taxi driver

While some interviews are short due to time constraints of the storyteller or us, others are 4 hours or longer. Others are based on a series of interviews over many days or even years. We feel those stories are the richest and most accurate because those individuals have the chance to build a trusting relationship with us and confide more details about their lives.

Sometimes our project and timeframe are not communicated well to the storyteller before we arrive at the interview. We hire a taxi and translator (all on our own dime) to get to an interview expecting a 2-hour commitment only to discover this person has only 15 minutes or has been double booked to lead a tour or teach a class at the same time. We’ve traveled thousands of miles for this one and only opportunity now preempted by other commitments. This is unfortunate and very frustrating for both parties.

We have been whisked off the street as soon as the taxi doors open and before we can pay the fare because the neighborhood is not safe for us gringos.

Picture this — taking notes in the back seat of trucks and cars while driving the switchbacks up and down volcanoes. That is common practice while interviewing a driver, but later trying to re-read the chicken scratch notes on a legal pad that I took while swerving around potholes and washed out roads when my pen goes haywire across the page makes my eyes cross. Likewise, it is a definite challenge taking notes while standing in the back of a pick-up truck on a dirt road.

One skype interview between two Spanish speakers sitting at their respective desks in San Salvador and Spain was interesting as pauses for English translations had to be made.

Blink. That is one of the games I played with a young girl we wanted to interview but needed first to build a rapport with her. She picked up the rules quickly and beat me fair and square – over and over! She left the interview with the game in hand delighted to teach her friends.

We had been traveling several hours toward our interview when we were asked by our friend driving us if we would be willing to take a detour to accompany him to his childhood home. He hadn’t been there since he was three years old and would appreciate our joining him to face some trauma he experienced at that time in his life. He didn’t know if the house was still there or who lived there. Being a scaredy cat, I feared being shot for trespassing or bitten by the barking dog baring his teeth; however, the couple living there was so understanding, kind, and gracious. What was I afraid of? It’s El Salvador. What a privilege for us to be invited into this moment of healing.

There are the critters! Doing an interview with chickens pecking at our feet are the norm, but the day the 300+pound mamma sow and her piglets crossed my feet, I thought I’d pee my pants. I also kept a wary eye on a parakeet perched on a storyteller’s shoulder; birds are just not my thing; they belong high in the trees, not within pecking distance of my eyes. (I confess to seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds maybe one too many times.) Then there was a raccoon-type animal very close to another interview location on top of a mountain just before dusk. I think I spent more time watching for it to re-appear than honing in on the words I was supposed to be capturing. I was sure the critter was rabid. And just when I began to feel brave (or at least pretend) and casually meander past the large horse at the gate, the owner ran out yelling for me to steer clear because the horse nips. And trust me, when I have to cross a field of cattle and see one with horns, I make sure that it is tethered or that I’m in the middle of the group and I’m wearing sneakers. (I used to wear sandals until I was warned about snakes!)

We once went to an interview that a friend set up for us and realized we had already interviewed this person a few years ago. It worked out fine because we got an update on her life and this time saw her in a different location interacting with her clients. Flexibility is key.

The expats living in El Salvador have been an interesting group of interviewees. They are there by choice working in NGOs, regular jobs, studying, researching, or volunteering. Some are there with families, and some are single. Their commitment to make contributions to their adopted country is admirable.

A juvenile accused of murder shared her story, but her lawyers had to be present (due to her age and the conditions of her pending litigations.)

In a couple of cases, former gang members were compelled to tell their stories. In one case because the person had escaped the gang and remained in danger if found, we used a pseudonym and no photos. In the other cases we were extremely concerned about the safety of the individuals going public with their stories and checked many times before posting them. Sadly, one was killed before we got a chance to post it.

Sometimes we begin an interview in person and then follow-up by Skype with questions we thought of later or vice versa.

When no translator is arranged, we have to scrounge our contacts for someone to help out at the last minute. We’ve also had times when a storyteller has to cancel on us at the last minute for unforeseen circumstances. It is not uncommon to try to catch them on the next trip.

Sometimes family members shared the stories of loved ones after their deaths. They saw it as a way to pay tribute and honor their loved ones. Tears are a part of many interviews when the individual is sharing tough details and grim, horrific facts, wringing a handkerchief, and showing yellowed newspaper clippings they’ve held onto for 40 years and want to share. How to console someone whose language you don’t speak is difficult, so offering hugs and embraces are universal means of support.

Twists and turns abound even amid interviews. We naively went into one session unaware that the two brothers had some unresolved issues that we stumbled upon during our session. Afterwards our friend announced, “My brother and I have NEVER talked about that period of our lives! Thank you for opening that conversation we’ve been avoiding.”

We have learned some things along the way. One is to schedule a much longer trip than we originally think we need. Having extra time works to our advantage when trying to schedule certain folks who are coming into the city from four hours away and can only get there when they can find rides. This was the case of two artisans, survivors of massacres, whom we really wanted to interview. On the fourth attempt and on our last day of a month-long visit, we finally managed to connect! Their stories were so powerful that it was worth the effort and wait.

Intense heat is part of every Salvadoran interview. Sometimes it is so oppressive that you want to strip down to your skivvies. There are not enough water bottles to get through some of these long interviews, and when they are scheduled in the mid to late afternoon, it is hard to remain awake, let alone focused.

It always amazes us that these Salvadorans are so willing to share such intimate details of their lives with us unfamiliar people. Perhaps they think this is their only chance. At any rate, these folks don’t hold back; one dropped his pants to show his bullet wounds and revealed the sidearm he was carrying (gasp!); one gave us a gift of her poetry book; another presented us with a set of her watercolor paintings. In one of our earlier interviews, the teary-eyed woman shyly initiated, “No one has ever asked me to tell about my life before. You are the first people to show interest and let me know my life matters. Thank you for that.” She then asked for a blessing. We often receive invitations to return. Each and every individual we have interviewed has thanked us for the opportunity to be heard and to be part of this project. Even on hot Salvadoran days, I continue to get chills when I hear how important it is to give these people a voice.


    Afflicted with Hope / is one of many outreach ministries at
    Saint Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA)
    30 West Main Street, PO Box 266
    New Kingstown, PA 17072

    Tax deductible donations for support of this work in El Salvador may be sent to the above address.