Two Quaker Families in Suchitoto

Suchitoto, a small Salvadoran town and municipality (similar to a U.S. county), was virtually emptied during a decade-long internal civil war that included numerous massacres. Since the Peace Accords of 1992, Suchitoto has become the poster city for Salvadoran tourism, environmental protection, community social development, and artistic and cultural expression. It is also unique in being home to our two Quaker families, the Brozes and Cummingses, whose separate paths to Suchitoto began during the war in the 1980s, with roots in Palo Alto (Calif.) and Atlanta (Ga.) meetings respectively. Here, we relate our families’ journeys and work, and how we see Quaker values expressed in a country still seeking peace across its many divisions.

Robert Broz:

I was born in California to Perry and Carmen Broz, who were members of Palo Alto (Calif.) Meeting. I fondly remember the younger Friends who provided my first contact with Quaker values and history in First-day school. My sophomore and junior years of high school at John Woolman School in Grass Valley, California, changed my life forever. As I am sure many of my classmates would admit, life in the ’70s at Woolman was something many did not recover from. For many years after my time at John Woolman, I held Quaker values but did not practice them. Jamie Newton, a lifelong Quaker and close family friend, tells me reassuringly, "Perhaps all those years you think of as lost were part of the path that brought you where you are today." So where am I today, and how did I find myself in El Salvador? Considering these questions has made me more aware of how I feel about my life.

My mother left El Salvador in 1942 as an immigrant hoping to study economics, with the dream of returning as a young professional to improve her country. As a young woman she studied at the normal school for teacher training in El Salvador. In her early 20s, she moved to the United States and lived in San Francisco for some years with Hor-tensia, a woman who had married into the upper class of El Salvador and informally adopted my mother. Volunteer service with American Friends Service Committee in Mexico drew my mother to Quaker values, and to study at Haverford. It was my mother who brought our family to Quakerism, convincing my father to attend meeting in San Francisco; then in Phoenix, Arizona; and finally in Palo Alto, California.

My mother’s mission to return to El Salvador to make a positive change was delayed by 36 years of education, raising four sons, and a teaching career. After her retirement in 1986, she traveled to El Salvador with an international group sponsored by the Share Foundation to accompany peasant families returning from refugee camps to reclaim their land and rebuild their homes. This was the first civilian effort to repopulate an area within a free-fire zone, from which the campesinos had been chased out by the military with campaigns of terror that included massacre. Just a couple of miles from their community of El Barío, the group was detained by the National Guard. After three days of negotiating, a Spanish priest was allowed to continue with the Salvadorans to assure that they would not be killed or "disappeared," although Carmen Broz and the rest of the internationals were deported.

In 1989, my mother returned to find El Salvador devastated. Within days, she was doing service work in rural areas. In 1991, Palo Alto Friends formed a support group and began to seek donations. Soon, Carmen had initiated projects with Quaker support in 14 communities, offering daycare centers and medical checkups, providing notebooks and uniforms to enable poor children to attend school, and obtaining desks and chalkboards for schools that met in empty buildings or outdoors under trees.

In 1992, my father passed away, my marriage ended in divorce, and, most importantly, I almost instantly stopped 17 years of what I now refer to as "life abuse." In late 1994, I packed my bags and flew to El Salvador. Within the first two weeks I fell in love with the country: its people, the pace of life, the food, the climate, and seeing children with nothing but a stick and a rock playing, enjoying life, and being happier than most kids I had known in the United States. My mother once said, "Simplicity in a developing country is not an option; it is a way of life."

Since my arrival, I have been fortunate enough to work for groups and projects directly related to or managed by Quakers. From 1997 to 2004, I was employed by a group of AFSC volunteers who had worked in El Salvador in 1954 and had known my mother from their time together working with AFSC in Mexico in 1952. Working as an advisor for the agricultural cooperative of Santa Anita led me to move to nearby Suchitoto in 2000. As my work with The Friends of Santa Anita and Cuscatlàn (LADSAC is the acronym in Spanish) was ending, my mother decided to return to the United States. Our committee in Palo Alto asked if I would take over local management of the projects I had become familiar with over the years: driving for my mother, helping with the budget and financial statements, and running the projects while she was in the United States (two to three months each year from 1996 to 2002).

Today the "El Salvador Projects" of Palo Alto Meeting work with four communities in El Salvador. Although we still provide some teacher salaries and scholarships to junior high and high school students, almost 80 percent of our budget is used to finance a zero-interest university student loan program. Since 1999, we have supported 62 students in many fields, including education, nursing, and law. Although my work as project director is part-time, I stay busy, sometimes acting as a career counselor or a friend to a distraught university student in addition to my more formal duties. This diversity in my life and work is as much of a challenge as it is satisfying. Having a part-time job also allows me to participate in other aspects of life in Suchitoto, where my Quaker values find expression in education, politics, and business.

Frank Cummings:

My wife, Carol, and I began attending Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting when I started teaching at Atlanta University in 1967. With the Central American wars intensifying in the early 1980s, Carol worked with a small group that helped the meeting to declare itself a sanctuary for Central American refugees in March 1985 as part of the nationwide Sanctuary Movement. The meeting helped numerous refugees over the next decade, and our home became both a way station for refugees and a hotel for visiting speakers. In February 1991, during the conflict, Carol came to El Salvador as part of a delegation that visited the community of El Sitio Cenicero, just after refugees returned from UN camps in Honduras formed it. The town of Suchitoto is close to a hydroelectric lake, with El Sitio situated lakeside, a ten-minute launch ride from a little Suchitoto port. To Carol’s surprise, that ten-minute journey took her from the government-held town to a rebel-held area. She stayed in a makeshift house of black plastic walls and aluminum sheet roof with the sister of a woman who had sojourned in Quaker House in Atlanta prior to obtaining political asylum in Holland. Soon Atlanta Meeting joined El Sitio in a sister community relationship fostered by annual visits of the Cummingses from 1992 to 2001. Carol and I were accompanied several times by meeting members and by our eldest son, Andrew, who began working with a Salvadoran think tank, FUNDE, in San Salvador in 1993, a year after his graduation from Swarthmore College.

Accompanying the people of El Sitio set deep roots in our family. With each visit we learned more about their life as they built new houses and a school, struggled to educate their children, and eked out a living raising corn and sesame. They started economic projects that often failed, but always maintained a sense of hope and community. So, in the late ’90s, when we realized that Quaker prudence allowed us the option of early retirement, we decided to live in Central America to use our talents as the way opened. It took a few years for this to come to fruition, but finally, in May 2001, with our goods sold, stored, or packed into two foot-lockers and various suitcases, we took a flight to El Salvador with the fleeting sense that we were jumping off a cliff.

In reality, our years of working with Central Americans, the numerous visits, Spanish study in Guatemala, and the presence of Andrew and his family in El Salvador meant the cliff was not so high. Returning to visit the United States, we were startled to hear our friends say, "Aren’t you brave!" We didn’t feel so, but we understood that if there was bravery, it was in deciding to downsize our material lives to be able to do the work we actually wanted to do.

In November 2001, we moved to Suchitoto, not wanting to live in the capital and wanting to be close to El Sitio. After a year of observing life in Suchitoto, we decided to focus on opening opportunities for youth in the urban area in art, education, and limited small business development, there being virtually no youth work in the city. We found a key ally in the local Parish priest, Padre Salomón, whom we had first met when I asked if he could mount an exhibit of photos I had taken of Holy Week activities. While hanging the exhibition in a parish space, I commented to the Padre, "You know we are not Catholic." A bit startled, he noted that he had seen us attending mass. It was not uncommon to hear negative references to the "separated brothers" in the priest’s homilies, or to hear him referred to in deprecating terms in the town’s many evangelical services. As outsiders, we were able to bridge one of the town’s major divisions.

We soon broached the idea of using a large room in the Parish center as a youth space. This idea resonated with his hopes, and our mutual goals initiated a close and fruitful effort, the Youth Space Initiative. It opened a room for young people to play Ping-Pong, use computers, and study. It organized a wide gamut of activities such as print making; open mic evenings for dance, poetry, and music performances; and tournaments of women’s soccer and Ping-Pong. The most popular events were several competitions of local break dance groups, despite the police suspicions that incurred with their formation.

The Padre, a progressive Baptist minister, and I met weekly to plan activities and discuss events. It was not unusual to hear snatches from these conversations in the Padre’s homilies. Over four years, these meetings developed a level of "social capital," or mutual trust, that is scarce in Salvadoran society, which still retains a great deal of polarization across several divides: urban/rural, religious, and political. While Quakers don’t use the sociological language of social capital, we accomplish much with few people because our way of acting, derived from the Testimony of Simplicity, engenders mutual trust.

Carol joined the municipal environmental committee and other neighborhood committees and helped out in the kindergarten in a small school near our house. She used her flute to teach the kids songs and filled bottle caps with paint for art lessons. Students, folks in El Sitio, and whoever came to visit enjoyed her famous oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. She died suddenly during Holy Week of 2006. At that traumatic time, the tenderness of the neighborhood committee, neighbors, and friends taught our family much about the value of community and how much people appreciated her quiet willingness to help unselfishly.

I took up tutoring eighth and ninth graders, plus teaching a weekly intensive English class for a select group of ninth graders in a large public school, thus getting to know a whole generation of Suchitoto youth. This close contact led us to establish a small program of high school scholarships and then, naturally, a few university scholarships. When the Padre asked for support for some parish students, I responded that I preferred not to give support directly to individuals but wanted instead to work through an established group that offered transparency in selection and finances. A week later, the Padre had not only created a committee, but also convinced the extensive group of parish lay workers to give 25 cents a week each toward a scholarship fund. The Parish Scholarship Committee, now in its fifth year, helps 22 students without regard for religion. It is unique in receiving support from poor, mainly rural Salvadorans, as well as from our family. Separately, Atlanta Meeting members funded a scholarship loan program for rural youth patterned on the Palo Alto program, and our family continues helping students who studied English in our house. These efforts, along with the Palo Alto program, now provide some $50,000 a year in scholarships or loans to over 60 students. The wealth, however, is in the close relation with the students—listening, working through problems, encouraging, and sometimes commiserating.

I maintain the connection between El Sitio and Atlanta Meeting, which continues to provide seed funds for economic project loans and youth development efforts.

Joint Statement

When we first met, we were surprised to learn that our meetings had been working for years in communities two miles apart. After Carol’s death, we, Frank and Robert, became closer friends. We meet for worship occasionally, especially when other Friends visit. We were founding members of the local language school and of the Art Center for Peace, where we have been trained as teachers for the Alternatives to Violence Project, the trainings being partially co-financed by our programs and meetings.

But our principal cooperation has been in expanding and strengthening the university scholarship and loan programs. To help convince youth that university education is possible, we organized an annual University Fair in 2007. A third, expanded fair took place in June 2009. We have increased outreach to the five high schools, arranged for aptitude tests, collected information on graduates, and shared that information widely. We are slowly making progress toward convincing the municipal government of the need for educational support. Given the limited work available in Suchitoto, there are two options for youth: to make the dangerous and socially disintegrating trip north to the United States, or get a higher education. Surprisingly, the financial cost is about the same.

Two Quaker-supported projects in the small town of Suchitoto, El Salvador—is it a coincidence, or have we been brought together for other reasons? We are two families of Friends working to change a country where education has historically not been an option for the majority. We find ourselves living in a small town that could be a model for all developing countries. We work by convincing members of the local population, one by one—politicians, school principals, nongovernmental organizations, the old and the young—that through active participation we can all make a difference. We question the system. We work with others to try to provide solutions, each of us living a life of simplicity and service to build community.

Robert Broz

Robert Broz, an attender at Palo Alto (Calif.) Meeting, has been project director of the meeting's El Salvador Project since 2002. Frank Cummings, an attender at Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting, is a retired professor of Chemistry.