BRENDA RENÉ HUBBARD
“Opportunities have opened up for people and education regarding peoples’ life decisions. I feel my life has a grain of meaning.”
Editor’s Note: She left the land of sushi and financial security that netted her every material thing she could ever want, and she moved to an impoverished nation that was in the midst of a brutal civil war on an entirely different continent across the ocean. Why? She felt the indignation of having been lied to by her government; she wanted to see first hand how U.S. tax dollars were being spent in our name. Twenty-two years later she is still there.
I had done a variety of odd jobs in life, including waiting tables, working in auto garages, and cleaning other peoples’ toilets to support myself and son. I was working as a theater technician in Los Angeles when an opportunity to go to Japan opened, and I followed that journey for five years. The job supported me very well economically. I had everything I could want materially. But at some point I felt empty. I guess you could say that I had this epiphany. I remember passing by McArthur Park in Los Angeles seeing Salvadorans demonstrating and shouting with megaphones and wondering what they were going on about. My friend, Nancy Louise, gave me a copy of North American Council on Latin America (NACLA), an investigative bi-monthly magazine that reports on current events and U.S. policy in Latin America. One article reported about Comadres, the Committee of the Mothers founded to aid the victims and families of victims of disappearances and murders during the Civil War in El Salvador. This article described the women of El Salvador risking their lives facing off against the military riot squads as they manifested in the streets and market places demanding to know what happened to their children and family members. As a mother I was emotionally pulled into the story. I got in touch with the Washington, D.C., Comadres office and learned about their Accompaniment Program. This was in 1988 during El Salvador’s civil war. It awakened me to their plight.
In Japan, when I made a conscious decision to seek truth and accept my compliance in our U.S. Foreign Policy, I spent two full weeks in seclusion. Literally I turned off my phone, did not answer the door, and did nothing but research non-stop the U.S. involvement in the war in El Salvador. Until then I had denied that MY government was investing our tax dollars into brutal military efforts and training military officers of dictator governments within the United States. When I finally accepted the truth that what MY/OUR government was doing to the people of El Salvador and in so many other Latin American countries, it hit me right up side my head, and I cried and cried because I had to accept the truth of my own compliance. I could no longer live as a mindless consumer on the planet. At that time I was a 38-year -old single parent.
After processing all that information, I made a very deliberate life choice. In 1989 I left the lucrative life in Japan and came to El Salvador to meet these mothers of Comadres and to witness their daily struggles and protests. It was a very stark reality as I watched these women in the middle of a public marketplace or in front of the National Cathedral and Government Palace change into their black dresses and white scarves and begin to talk loudly through megaphones, often facing off the riot police, demanding to know where their children and/or family members were, who had disappeared them, and why they had to go and identify the mutilated and assassinated bodies of their loved ones. Those mothers changed my life.
Listening to the mothers’ stories, I felt them in my heart and the core of my soul. We hear or read about war and brutal injustices and we intellectualize; we think “Oh, how sad”; but living it is when it becomes more than intellectual when it becomes visceral, and when there is no going back. Living with the mothers, accompanying them daily, was when their reality became visceral reality.
This was the time during the war when the FMLN party wanted to go into the National Cathedral and the mothers, the Comadres as they later became known, were there every single day. They asked me to stay there with them to remain with the war wounded (lisiadas/os ) of the FMLN. The action was launched with eight lisiados; 55 days later there were 56 lisiados taken to the Mexican Embassy for asylum before they boarded a plane to Cuba where they received wonderful medical treatment. After the first few days of occupying the Cathedral, a North American doctor evaluated the wounded, took a look at me, and said, “You are now the health promoter”. That is how I became the person responsible for cleaning wounds and in charge of the meager first aid kit. Once in front of the Cathedral, a young man was attacked by a taxi driver with a machete; one of his wounds was deep and about 7” long. I didn’t know what to do, so I asked if anyone had a Kotex. After getting one I applied pressure to contain the blood and then bandaged him. The most impacting part of that experience was the children and adults surrounding us while I cleaned and bandaged his wounds. They watched on as if it were an everyday occurrence, as if they were observing street theatre in downtown San Salvador. We received several death threats and many times were surrounded by riot police. It was an amazing 55 day experience working with this group of Liciados, all the great and very brave folks who came to accompany us during that action and, of course, the fabulous women of Comadres.
I was born in Phoenix, Arizona, on July 13, 1948, and have a younger sister, Sandy. Our parents died when we were very young. At age 14 my sister and I were separated and did not see each other for many years. My life’s experience of being in and out of foster homes, being a single parent, and knowing life on the streets has given me an education not paid for in any university. My sister is now my best friend and inspiration. Neither one of us ever ceased to dream and set goals for our lives. I was raised with and by Mexicans in Arizona. Consequently, I feel a love and appreciation for the Latinos and Indigenous cultures of my country, the United States of America. Speaking Spanish is always a challenge but with a lot of help and patience from my Salvadoran friends, I am able to communicate.
Before our parents died, I was sent to a Roman Catholic school and remember wanting to be a nun/missionary and to go to South America to “help” the poor native people. Well, I consciously left the church at the age of 12; moreover the Salvadorans have taught me that I do not “help” anybody. I have learned that 1) it is a privilege and an honor to contribute toward providing alternatives through education, 2) people are so very smart and 3) with a few options, they help themselves.
The historical persons who appealed to me tended to be the peaceful protesters of their time including Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Chief Joseph (of the Nez Perce tribe), Gandhi, and Joan of Arc. I never appreciated the confrontational Rambo / George Bush-type personalities.
There were various people in my life who have been influential in my life’s decisions: my sister Sandy Mickey; human rights activist Cristina Starr, and my friend, Nancy Louise. These women have been patient and loving, and have guided me with their passions and convictions.
It has been a combination of my early childhood experiences, the silent period of my research on U.S. foreign involvement in Latin America, the many experiences I lived and survived with the women of Comadres, and those brave historical figures that have influenced me to commit my life to working and living with the Salvadoran people. At any rate, I have been here ever since my first visit over twenty years ago. I am blessed to have a good friend, Yoshitomo Oda, from Japan who gave me enough money to purchase some land and build a home. That land also is home to the office for the youth organization, the “Association Committee Against AIDS Cabañas – CoCoSI”, founded for HIV and Gender Based Violence education and prevention. We work in rural and repopulated communities of Santa Marta as well as El Zapote, in prisons, schools and isolated border communities in Honduras. For many years we worked without funds but now have a little money to pay these courageous young Salvadorans who contribute towards diminishing new cases of HIV and violence against women and girls.
Here in the northern zone of the Department of Cabanas, which borders Honduras, between Morazan and Chalatenango, on March 18 and November 11, 1981, people of Santa Marta and surrounding rural communities were forced to leave their homes and animals and became victims and witnesses to horrendous atrocities and massacres. The people I live with have experienced the horror of up to 7,000 military soldiers advancing relentlessly over the mountains in huge sweeps raping, mutilating, murdering, burning, and stealing their children and animals. Before these “guindas” (an exodus, when people are forced to leave their land), a mother or family member would go to the corn field to search for her husband or father of her children because he did not return home after work. They often found his murdered and mutilated body in the cornfield. Sometimes even his head was on a fence post. Why? Because he was a potential community leader. Yvonne Dilling, who writes extensively about this in her book, In Search of Refuge – (Herald Press, 1984) was about 20 years old in March, 1981, when she swam many people from Santa Marta and surrounding communities across the Lempa River seeking refuge in Honduras. She is remembered to this day and is like a saint to them. I have asked many of my friends and neighbors how they could have survived such terror day in and day out, year after year. They have all told me that they survived this because of their faith.
In 1989 when I accompanied the mothers out to prisons in different departments of the country to visit their children who were political prisoners, I often saw U.S. advisors, armed with weapons. Was that their part of their role, to carry arms?
These are the people with whom I live. The young founders of CoCoSI were born while fleeing the masacres or were born in the Mesa Grande Refugee Camps.
Salvadorans in the Mesa Grande Honduras Refugee Camps began to organize their return. Santa Marta was among the communities that returned to El Salvador in1987 to repopulate the native lands still in the conflict zones of El Salvador. El Zapote, 2 1/2 hours northeast of San Salvador, where I live and home to the Association CoCoSI, is one of the five repopulated communities in this zone. El Zapote is also the name of a delicious tropical fruit, burnt orange and sweet on the inside with a hard dark shell.
During the 1989 offensive, after being captured by the Treasury Police (Policia Hacienda) and witnessing torture, I was told to leave the country and went to Washington, D.C., where I lived with Maria Teresa Tula, a brave Comadre who survived extreme torture (see her book Hear My Testimony). Later, I spent six months studying physical therapy and lower limb prosthesis making at Proyecto Projimo in Sinaloa, Mexico. Giving massage has always been natural to me, and I had heard about this project in Mexico specializing in exactly what I was wanting to learn, taught by physically challenged Mexicans. They have expertise in lower-limb prosthesis making and to this day still make the best wheelchairs I have ever seen for country settings like where I live. Project Projimo inspired David Warner’s book Disabled Village Children, an appropriate technology approach for family members and health care promoters.
I returned to El Salvador and to Santa Marta at the end of 1991 to carry out this work with persons who were war-wounded. No one was doing any rehabilitation there. (This was quite different from studying music and Mexican History at Lane Community College in Oregon).
My areas of focus from 1991 to 2002 were in physical therapy, massage, and Cranial Sacral Therapy. These techniques are especially helpful, not only for muscle strengthening, but also for working with women who suffered greatly during the war, lost children and spouses, many witnessing dismemberment and the murders of their loved ones. So many women fell while being chased by government troops, having broken bones that were never set, or were never treated for damage to connective tissue and muscles. Cranial Sacral Therapy intentionally addresses the pain that is trapped in body tissue caused by abuse, torture, poverty, and trauma (physical, emotional and pyschological), appropriate in a community where people have suffered war, repression, and poverty. Now the Santa Marta Rehabilitation Center that I founded is run by two young Salvadoran women who are doing a fabulous job working with physically challenged children and adults. They also have programs dedicated to developing playful relationships between parents and their children. In this culture women did not learn to play with their babies, so we are having fun smearing shaving cream on mirrors and in other playful activities. Now, I treat people occasionally from my home.
Currently I spend my time working with the youth managed Association CoCoSI (Committee Against AIDS Cabañas) educating in the prevention of new cases of HIV and Gender Based Violence. We discovered very early on that in order to have an impact in this work we must also strongly include gender equality, sexual orientation, masculinity, sexuality and human rights while teaching both women and men to take care of their bodies.
Nothing was being done in this rural area and very little in the country about educating people on the HIV virus. The Ministry of Health was doing nothing; the Ministry of Education was doing less. People were scared to death that there could be people living with HIV or AIDS in their community. In August of 1999, I invited CONTRASIDA to come give workshops in our communities. From that initiative we decided to form a group to replicate those workshops. We started with zero money. I used to work a delegation once in awhile, so I could keep this group funded for a short time. Then, DGH (Doctors for Global Health) saw value in this youth- motivated organization and started finding us some funds. It helped when we received our NGO (Non Governmental Organization) status, making us legal. It is important to credit the local NGO, ADES, Economic and Social Development Association Santa Marta, for their help in finding funds during those first years.
These brave, young CoCoSI members are making differences in peoples’ lives. The downside is that funds are drying up. The global economic crisis has caused faithful church donors to be financially strapped themselves.
At present our primary donors are: Trocaire of Ireland; Primate World Relief and Development fund of the Anglican Church of Canada; U.S. based DGH – Doctors for Global Health; and Central American Women’s Fund in Nicaragua. Most of the HIV prevention, gender equality, and masculinity work is happening in the big cities, a natural result of the concentration of the majority population. However, there is a huge need to work in gender equality and HIV prevention in rural Latin America. The small Central American country of El Salvador has a population of 6.8 million which comprises the second-largest number of people living with HIV in Central America. But with an adult prevalence of less than 1 percent, El Salvador remains a low HIV prevalence country with a concentrated epidemic mostly affecting groups that engage in high-risk behaviors, such as men who have sex with men and sex workers.
We know that the registered number of HIV infection is not accurate. However, the government of El Salvador has taken an initiative in prevention of the spread of HIV. The Minister of Health and Central Penal System recognizes CoCoSI’s work in prisons, with sex workers in rural communities and in other institutions.
Discrimination and lack of understanding continue to stigmatize and influence peoples’ decisions to get tested. Often, when receiving an HIV positive diagnosis, people become very afraid and will not even tell their parents, family members or best friends.
Young people are at risk, “Seven percent of new HIV cases in the last two years (2009 – 2011) have been among adolescents. This is a cause for concern in our country,” said Ana Isabel Nieto, Director of the National HIV Program at the Ministry of Health.
Machismo plays a role in the inability of health care workers to convince men to use protection. In rural communities many men who have multiple sex-partners believe that AIDS is not real, but instead believe it is a scare tactic of the government. There is denial and controversy about using condoms; consequently, a huge sector, such as the wives and partners of unfaithful men, are being infected and remain unaware. We have discovered that older women ( 30s to 60s) never know they are infected until they are on their death bed. El Salvador is not decreasing new cases of HIV, and the situation here in the countryside is not given the attention needed.
Our new five-year Strategic Plan 2011 – 2015 complements the United Nations AIDS strategic plan to diminish new cases and promote condom use. People are just not using them despite all the proof that they do work and the fact that they are available for free. We need to discover convincing strategies and methodology. Simply saying to not engage in pre-marital sex or to be a faithful partner DOES NOT WORK. People MUST know how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections. A huge part of our work is in gender-based violence and masculinity – men working with men. The formation of the masculine gender is a very controversial area.
CoCoSI created a course for children, adolescents, and teenagers. Unfortunately, we have been told by the Salvadoran Ministry of Health that they were going to implement a sex-ed course, and we non-government organizations were denied access. Much money from the Global Fund was spent to create beautiful texts that we were shown in the Ministry of Health office but have not been seen in our schools. Teachers were not prepared to give these classes, and they continue to seek out CoCoSI educators to go into their classrooms and give classes on sex-ed and prevention. We used to have a question box at the end of class where a student could put a question in a box, allowing topics to come out in an open forum. Productive discussions came out of those questions. We found that people can now make good decisions for their lives if they just have the information.
For those folks who refuse to come to our workshops, we have two theater groups that go out into rural communities using clowning and street theatre to educate. People will come out for fun things like that and learn about these controversial topics.
We have made progress in women’s health and reproduction rights. When I started working in repopulated Santa Marta 20 years ago, 45% of all pregnancies were adolescents and teenagers. Those statistics now are less than 5%. That is a drastic improvement, and it is because girls realize they have control over decisions regarding their bodies. I also contribute it to the consistency of the work in sex-ed by our “popular teachers” at the Santa Marta School, our health promoters and CoCoSI. I’ve seen peoples’ lives change because of the information we are providing them.
We do conflict with the teachings of the church in terms of birth control. Some of the tactics used by some churches are oppressive and backwards. Their oppressive and sexist attitudes and practices are highly questionable and should be investigated. The Jesuits and Maryknolls are more apt to address human rights issues. Oscar Romero, one of my saints, stood for everything I believe in, although I no longer embrace Christianity. I don’t think you have to be involved in an organized church to have Christian values.
Joyous points in my life have been raising a son and being permitted to live and work here in rural El Salvador. I reminisce about a dear indigenous friend with 14 children who recently died. In 1991 as we were sitting around one night talking, she spoke to me of the many times she risked her life to get medications to people in the conflict zone while her own children were dying. Half of her children died because of the war and/or malnutrition. She asked me one night, “Brenda, what is an orgasm?” I asked her to repeat the question because I thought I had heard it wrong. When I got through being angry and crying, we talked about what sexual relations can and should be like. I realized this was the common experience of the women in these communities. That moment triggered a turning point for me, and I committed myself to stay and build a center that would provide massage and physical rehabilitation for women and men. That work naturally took me to my current work in gender equality, sexual orientation and health rights, sexual and reproductive health rights, education in the prevention of AIDS, and violence against women and girls.
During the war and even now in El Salvador there are times when it gets scary or I complain because I am uncomfortable. Then I remember my women friends in my communities, the brave women of Comadres, some who will never have closure of knowing what happened to their loved ones, and I think to myself
” What am I complaining about?” I think of the struggles in Africa and how awful it is for so many thousands of people because of this stupid bad virus and so many harmful taboos. There’s a lot of work to do, and if I can contribute anything at all towards basic human rights, then I am complete.
I LOVE IT HERE. For fun I really just enjoy living where I do. I enjoy my animals and reading mysteries, and working in my hydroponic garden.
I do fantasize about having my own little motorcycle for transportation. (I think I may need a 3 wheeler now) Currently I hitch rides on the back of a truck or get a bus; they are those buses the U.S. threw away 40 years ago …. recycling at its best. Although, in the capital because of the high incidence of violence, buses are becoming increasingly dangerous.
Another dream, and more important than a motorcycle, I would love to take some of our theater group to Africa and work together on popular and entertaining strategies for teaching about HIV infection. And I would love to bring a group from Africa here to Central America.
A more short-term goal revolves around the 2012 international AIDS conference in Washington, D.C. The D.C. “Global Village” setting will be the perfect place to organize a Latin American and Caribbean Corner. This space would promote relationships in the Americas and the Caribbean. It would provide a space to share methodologies, materials, and strategies and to debate.
My dreams for El Salvador as a nation include keeping the money in the country. Right now all monies leave the country. Everything is foreign owned and foreign run with low or no import and export tariffs. All of our telecommunications (radio, TV, phone companies) have majority if not complete foreign investment. Our food, including produce, is imported. We have to take a strong and critical look at the not-so-fair trade agreements and completely revise them. 50% of our work force is the informal working sector (eg. musicians and vendors on buses, women selling candy on street corners with their newborns in a box under their little table).
Since the signing of Peace Accords on January 16, 1992, extreme poverty continues to depress the Salvadoran people and force migration to the United States. El Salvador does not produce anything; since everything is imported, all monies leave the country. If jobs were created, providing a dignified life for Salvadorans, money would stay IN the country, providing jobs, creating an opportunity to invest in rehabilitating ex-gang members, and people leaving the prison system. Salvadorans do not want to migrate to the U.S., but they have no economic alternatives. An economically developed Salvadoran economy would contribute towards insuring that thousands of young Salvadorans do not have to go into debt, risk their lives, contribute to more family disintegration and cross that desert seeking employment and a dignified life in the U.S. We all have lot of work to do!
Salvadoran issues in need of immediate attention include gangs, repression of environmental activists protesting mining in their communities, and a very corrupt security system. Some cleansing is going on but still the greedy factions continue to use gangs to do their dirty work such as in this zone; three environmentalists have been murdered in the last two years because they have investigated the damage done in their area by the gold mining company- Pacific Rim Co. of Canada. The mayor of the Municipality where the mining is taking place has aligned himself with Pacific Rim. Radio Victoria is calling for an investigation into his possible involvement in the assassinations. Radio youth employees are receiving death threats because of their outspoken denunciations and some have been forced to seek asylum outside the country. One young man receiving death threats is a CoCoSI Board of Directors member.
I, too, have a dream, and that is for the U.S. government officials and policy makers to take moral responsibility and know what to do with U.S. tax dollars. It is not acceptable and never has been to kill people in other countries, to murder other women’s children. However, U.S. citizens need to WANT to know the truth of how their tax dollars are being spent, and in their names. We should not be afraid to seek truth and let the pain of the truth wash over us. That pain will heal; we will be empowered with truth allowing us to choose how we live, make informed and intelligent decisions as to where we shop and what we consume. People must get their noses out of their bank account books and see the consequences of our consumerism and lifestyles and how that is affecting so many people on this planet. Entire races are being killed off, and an enormous percentage of the planet lives in abject poverty for someone’s profit. How is it possible that so many people, human beings, are dying from an HIV virus and hunger, when treatment and prevention are available? Too expensive? Or … too much greed and on so many levels!
Editor’s note: When asked what her own personal story (not dream) was, Brenda responded: “If anything is my story, what we are doing here in rural communities for AIDS prevention, for gender equality and human rights is something productive and not destructive in our little corner of the world here in El Salvador.” That says it all. Ruth Cruddas of California, who recommended we hear and tell Brenda’s story, affectionately refers to her as
“Rev. Billie Bob Brenda.”
Brenda is obviously undaunted by the forces around her which discourage her group’s efforts toward education and condom use. In Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky – Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, 2009, p. 136, . . . “In El Salvador, the Catholic Church helped push through a law requiring condom packages to carry a warning label declaring that they do not protect against AIDS. Even before the law, fewer than 4% of Salvadoran women used condoms the first time they had sex.”
While working on this, Brenda writes with much pride and excitement that she, a health promoter, and two CoCoSI youth have recently returned from LA where they were invited to present their work including their creative theater groups at a doctors for Global Health Annual Assembly.
For more information or to donate to http://cocosi.org/