PATTY CORDERO DE ARCIA
“I was embracing situations and families around me and it hit me that I was doing something bigger than myself. . . . . . I wondered how to make a bigger impact in the world.
Editor’s Note: How does one complete writing Patty’s story, I ask myself? Just when I have a rough draft completed, Patty was chosen to be among a prestigious international Habitat for Humanity team to go to Haiti. I wanted to hear and report about that, of course. As I re-worked her story, in October, 2011, El Salvador was hit with the deluge of “storm 12-E,” its worst storm in a very long time dumping 50 inches of rain affecting 1 in 20 Salvadorans and resulting in an estimated $840 million of economic losses. Habitat for Humanity sprang into action providing disaster relief.
I am struck in watching and listening to this animated, gregarious young woman recount how she channels her energy into a job that demands exactly her personality and skill set. She manages to handle more details in a day than most of us do in six months! No wonder Habitat for Humanity in El Salvador hosted almost 200 teams of volunteers in the last couple of years. Patty coordinates every last detail; homes are being built or improved all over the country as a result of her tireless efforts.
As a hyperactive child, I could be described as very curious and outgoing. The impulsive trait so typical of hyperactive kids got me into trouble at times when I would make inappropriate comments such as the time I told a friend of my mom’s she was wearing “clown pants.” I took piano and singing lessons as a way to control my energy. (Now the only singing I do is in karaoke bars.) I was always an animal lover and dreamed of becoming a vet. As an active nine-year- old girl, I had a strong admiration for Princess Diana whom I saw as fresh and lovely.
I was born here in San Salvador on August 19, 1984. My older sister is 29. She and I remain extremely close and have this weird connection with each other where one of us will call the other and say, “I’m thinking of you; I love you” at the exact same time the other is thinking of calling or texting. We tend to be on the same wavelength. We lost our youngest sibling, a brother, who died of leukemia at one-and-a-half. Even though he was with us only a short time, he made a big impact on our family, and his memory remains vivid with us today. I was twelve when he was born. So often there is a Daniel in the workplaces I coordinate or a young 20-month -old boy who resembles him. In Haiti this summer it hit me on his birthday that, had he lived, my brother would be 15 this year and old enough to be part of this trip. I longed to call home, but there was no way for me to contact my family but short e-mails.
I was raised Roman Catholic. It is hard to understand that what God does sometimes doesn’t seem to make sense, but I need to be patient and not become frustrated. I am not a religious person, but a spiritual person. I pray and read books that will improve my spiritual life. Working for Habitat makes spirituality easy because every Monday we have devotions and every Thursday we have a thank you prayer. I see God in every person I meet, and I go to Mass when I can.
The image of Archbishop Romero was taught at the girls’ school I attended as a child, but his stature is getting bigger for me now as I get older. There I attended an all- girls’ Catholic school in the outskirts of San Salvador called Santa Tecla. In school I was highly competitive academically and usually at the top of my class. The competitive nature did not follow me into sports.
The nuns in my school showed no passion for the country’s civil war and I think it was more like the regular thing to do with kids back in those days. I have learned more details about the war since I began working for Habitat. Because I was only eight years old, I have little memory of the war other than two events. During the offensive we all had to stay in the center of our house because the army or guerrillas (not sure which side) occupied our backyard. The second memory I have was on the Saturday morning the Peace Accords were signed, it was all over T.V. Instead of watching cartoons as was my custom, I was watching President Cristiani. (president from 1989-1994).
Because I had always been a top student academically, it was not a problem getting into UCA (University of Central America). In fact, it was the only university where I applied. My sister attended there which allowed a sibling discount. I was a general psychology major. I assisted in the psych clinic at UCA during my last two years of school.
My parents are my heroes. They could have left the country during the war. My grandpa on my dad’s side lived in Guatemala and offered for them to come live there, but my parents didn’t want to leave their family so they remained in San Salvador.
Both my parents graduated from high school in 1976. They attended National University. Due to its frequent closures during the war interrupting their studies, they transferred to another college, got married, and had my sister and me. They continued to study and graduated with degrees as architects when I was five. My dad has a construction company.
My parents’ divorce in 2002 was a big shock to me. But I used the free time to explore different outlets and discovered I was more of a people person than I realized. All through college I became involved in music, theater, and became a youth group advisor at church.
Most of my family is very non-political in their thinking. Many of them work for the government and for the most part have survived different administrations including the ARENA party and the current change of FMLN party. My mom works for the Vice Ministry of Housing. One of my aunts works for the Ministry of Economics; another aunt works for the Ministry of Health. However, my uncle was forced to retire three years ago after a long career. When he was 18, he began as a pollster and worked his way all the way up to director in his government job. We are all very proud of his accomplishments.
My dad’s uncle was part of the army, but my dad was never interested in it. As far as their involvement in the war, I heard a family story that one day the army came to my parents’ house to do a search. My mother was very worried because she and my dad had student ID’s from the National University (and back in those days, having that ID meant to the army you were a guerilla member, even though you weren’t) and my mom was concerned about a book she had, part of the “Black List,” Forbidden Stories of Tom Thumb by Roque Dalton. The commander leading the search greeted my great-grandma with “Oh, you’re the grandma of my coronel” and went on his way. She was very relieved.
My husband’s dad, Stte. PA David Arcia, was the first Air Force pilot that died during the war on Oct. 13, 1982. They still celebrate that day as the starting point of the Helicopter’s squad of the Air Force. My husband was 40 days old at the time. A friend of ours lost his dad during the war when his mother was still pregnant with him.
Both sides did some good things during the war; both sides lost important people, also.
I understand the reasons for the war, more equality, but the war wasn’t the way to get it and we lost so many people who could be working and contributing to our country now.
Unlike my family of government workers, I was looking for a job in the NGO field that might better use my people skills. I was looking at something geared toward human relations.
One of my teachers thought I would be good at this Habitat job, so I applied and began working here at Habitat as their Global Village Coordinator while finishing my degree. I started at age 22 and have been doing it for five years. I use my social skills in my job, which I do see as part of social psychology. Social psychology is the study of communities and interacting with one another. I like to think that this job is somehow related to my psychology field.
I need to be flexible and adaptable to meet the needs of many kinds of people and situations, including the masons and builders at the job site, the families for whom the houses are being built, the presidents of various companies, the teams of workers coming from all over, etc. The goal of my job is to make the Habitat experience as smooth as possible for all concerned.
My job responsibilities (as well as the other five persons on my staff) include communicating with the team and scheduling with them before they arrive in El Salvador. When they arrive for their 9-10 day short mission trip, I coordinate all their transportation, accommodations, meals, construction site, and relate to the family. (It costs about $45 a day for the accommodations which includes a reasonably priced motel, three meals, two snacks, ample supply of water, and transportation to and from the work site). We do our best to provide for our teams’ safety when they visit by choosing their accommodations and places and times of their movements carefully. We have seven regional offices across El Salvador with provider contacts for things like accommodations that are safe for our teams. There is an experienced foreman at each job site.
I handle the details and logistics that the individual team requires including such odd requests as vegetarian meals, making special health care requirements, arranging for postcards and disposable cameras, checking for laundry facilities, etc. When the team arrives, we arrange a day of sightseeing which may include the Romero sites, martyred churchwomen sites, etc. We accompany our groups and handle the translations at these sites. On the day before the work begins, we have an orientation where we go over all the do’s and don’ts and meet the family whose house we are building for some interaction time. Interspersed throughout the week are some recreational/social interaction times such as a pupusa (Salvadoran specialty food) night. At the end we may do more sightseeing or a beach day. I check on whether they want to become involved in long-term relationships in El Salvador or in advocacy programs. After the team leaves, I follow-up and coordinate previous trips. 90% of our teams show interest in making return trips or stay involved in the Habitat mission.
Within Habitat we have a department that is in charge of international funds. They follow up on groups who have served here and ones that are affiliates or tithe to our organization. We are blessed with groups such as the one from Charlotte, North Carolina, right now making work in the Santa Ana department happen because of their generosity. When times are tough, the philanthropy of kind people continues.
Habitat operates somewhat differently in this country from in the U.S. in terms of what we expect from families getting the houses. We don’t expect a certain percentage of “sweat equity” where they need to be involved in “x” amount of participating hours. We do expect them to provide us with two helpers during the construction period, however. We refer to it as “hand -up rather than hand-out time.”
Generally it takes Habitat six weeks to build a home, but with a team of volunteers, that can be reduced to three weeks. Our families typically do have some income, but it is not enough for them to go to the bank to get a loan to borrow funds.
In addition to building new homes, Habitat also does improvements to existing structures, such as changing from a thatched roof to a metal roof or a dirt floor to a cement floor.
We may also help families purchase a piece of land by using our donors who help subsidize the cost.
Besides working with individuals, we also help with communities by increasing the amount of homes from 60-100 homes or building a community center. We have worked within campesino communities such as Torola in the Morazan Department and Valle Nuevo in the Cabanas Department.
Family selection comes in various ways, including radio propaganda, word of mouth, and the central government’s seeking out our help. Right now there are 80-100 houses being built across the country by Habitat.
Our teams comprise individuals, churches, high schools, companies and university groups. The minimum age to participate is 14 and the maximum depends on the age a person feels able to contribute. We hosted an 82- year- old who painted in the shade recently.
My biggest joy in my the job is at the end of the week when the family says, “Thank you; this house has been our dream.” I get goosebumps and my eyes tear up and I realize that I’m doing something bigger than myself. I’m not sure I would get the same job satisfaction in private industry that I get in my job here at Habitat. Habitat fills my expectations in every single way.
The most frustrating part of my job is that we don’t always see the family involvement we would like to see due to their situations, such as time and scheduling constraints. Because I have no control over that sort of thing, there is no point in my becoming upset about it. On a larger scale, the promised housing policies of the new government have been disappointing. False expectations were raised that housing would be available for everyone; even the central government recently recognized that.
Last year at Habitat we had “Lent Build,” which was dedicating 30 homes to the memory of Romero’s 30 years of martyrdom. We are continuing the concept this year, also. They are located within the Getsemani Community in the Ahuachapan Department (62 miles from the capital) which borders Guatemala. This area contains some of the poorest of El Salvador’s poor. Families generally earn $150 per month. (More information is available on Google.)
In August, 2011, I had the good fortune to be one of fifteen members selected on the first international Habitat volunteer team to go to Haiti since their devastating earthquake in January, 2010. There were 70 applicants for the ten-day session, but housing challenges limited the number. It took one and a half years for Haiti to be ready to host a team. We were chosen based on our backgrounds and diversity of experience as well as our willingness to return to our home countries to advocate for Haiti’s needs. Some of the other team members included a medical student and a CNN production member. The poverty in Haiti was worse than anything I’d ever seen in El Salvador. I was overwhelmed and sometimes just cried. I was embracing situations and families around me, and it hit me that I was doing something bigger than myself. I wondered how to make a bigger impact in the world. I hope to return to Haiti in 2012.
In October, 2011, El Salvador was hit by a tropical depression system, named 12-E, that stalled over Central America dumping 50 inches of rain over several days with devastating results comparable to Hurricane Mitch in 1998. At that time I was part of our office’s executive director staff since my boss was on maternity leave. It was quite an experience dealing with all the flooding, collapsed roads and bridges, and other resultant dangers. Our first concern and emergency response focused on our own staff and their families. Many people lost communications, but had no big losses. Once we knew our staff members were not in imminent danger, we branched out to help others. Bill Clinton’s foundation worked with President Funes to offer help. We have been working with the UN to present a proposal which would provide 400 more houses, to give microloans for 200 home improvements such as roof collapses, and to lift existing homes up on pillars to prevent future flooding. During that time our international Habitat delegations that were already here were not interrupted but did alternative activities such as spending a day working at a shelter or a distribution center. Disaster relief is projected to take a couple of years. It is discouraging that our organization hasn’t been able to officially finish a project of 132 homes we built after the 2009 Hurricane Ida due to government bureaucracy.
El Salvador needs to have more economic options in order to grow ourselves forward. Right now too many families rely on someone within the family to send them remittances from jobs they hold outside the country. Eventually that source will dry up and no longer be available. We must develop ourselves. We have a port in La Union on the Pacific coast that is useless. At one time the idea was to develop that port in order to assist Panama’s increasing needs. However, Panama acted faster and expanded its own land instead. China is not going to be able to produce goods at the same rate forever, so other countries need to be able to show they too have good labor and production. We have a minimum wage of $206 per month for “formal” business in which the boss pays taxes. Informal businesses are self-employed.
Changes I would like to see in El Salvador include a more consistent legal system. For example, a person with a minor offense may be in jail for two weeks, whereas a murderer may get out of jail in two nights. I wish the human rights advocates would work more on behalf of the victims and their families. We also need to educate our kids about violence. It is such a cultural thing to mistreat people, especially women, that it becomes acceptable.
Lack of education and lack of opportunities for jobs are prevalent. Kids will not go beyond the sixth grade because the closest high school may be an hour away and the family does not or will not pay the $1 a day for them to travel the distance to attend. It is really sad when you go out into some of the rural campesino communities and see kids who have never seen their picture in a camera before. You encounter people unable to open a car door because they have always ridden on the back of a truck. There are people living in campesino communities who are bright and skilled but who have no opportunities to take advantage to develop their gifts. Likewise we have educated people such as doctors with no place to practice and so end up working at call centers because they speak English. Their medical skills are wasted.
Regardless of such problems though, the Salvadoran people have this relentless hope. Even the kids selling their bracelets at the beach are happy just to talk with people. Those who attend the soccer games at the stadium are hopeful we will go to the World Cup someday, even though our team is terrible.
My biggest gifts I offer people are happiness and good energy. I generally have a smile on my face. Few people would describe me as serious. My husband of four years, David, provides me with strength. He keeps me on track and helps me remain calm. Spending quality time with my young niece and nephew are important to me. They are the lights of my life.
For fun I enjoy playing video games such as on my Play Station 3. I love music and spending time with my family. I get through the hard times by listening to music that gives me comfort.
Personally I know I am making a difference with Habitat. My husband is currently working on his Master’s degree in environmental administration, and I plan to begin working on my Master’s degree next year. I am considering psychology or administration of non-profits. I would consider remaining within Habitat and going wherever they send me, or perhaps someday I could move on to a higher position such as with the UN to work on behalf of Salvadoran women on a larger scale. So many have unprotected sex and are victims of domestic violence.
Editor’s Note: If interested in participating in a Habitat team in El Salvador, there is a four- person minimum number. Patty assures me no one is EVER turned down. You can also contribute financially by going to the same site.
If you read the positive feedback from previous Habitat team members, you will have no doubt that being involved in a Habitat team will guarantee you a positive and productive experience for a short term mission trip. Thank you to Gladys Lane from Gainesville, Florida, who recommended Patty as a person in El Salvador worthy of a story! She and her grandchildren have been on many of Patty’s teams.
On a personal note, our local Rotary Club is expanding its work in El Salvador from well drilling to a much broader and far-reaching initiative. Patty was instrumental in making connections for this to happen. Thank you, Patty. She is no longer with this organization, but Habitat continues to thrive. We meet Habitat groups every year; often Canadians enjoy coming during their harsh winters to catch some warmth while productively using their muscles. What their members tell us is how flexible Habitat is in finding jobs for all ages and all ability levels.