San Salvador is a city designed for cars. Perhaps for this reason it is best experienced on foot. To get to know it, to get a taste of everyday life for most of its inhabitants, you have to walk the streets. This is true of most cities; indeed the best, most vibrant cities, Paris or Manhattan, Venice or Cartagena, are eminently walkable cities, cities defined by the people and places you run into when you’re on foot.
San Salvador is not such a city. It is a car-centered city par excellence, with smooth blacktop streets to draw the envy of any California low-rider, bordered by pocked, cracked, chasm-ridden sidewalks to rival the decadence of Port-au-Prince. Everything in the city is an aggressive proclamation of scorn for pedestrians, and since no more than 10 or 20 percent of people here have cars, the contrast between street and sidewalk is perhaps a fitting allegory for Salvadoran society overall. The ubiquitous catering to the tastes and lifestyle of a razor-thin elite stratum of the people, the neglect and even active humiliation of the proletarian majority.
This is why you must walk San Salvador to really know it, to identify with the popular majority and understand the dynamic of scorn and exclusion that has long defined life for them. You can feel something similar by walking the inner suburban fringes of many major US cities, where the low-income workers that keep the economy running either in exurban malls farther out or chic urban centers farther in must walk long distances along unshaded, intermittent sidewalks next to raging rivers of deadly vehicles, or wait in the nighttime cold for buses that rarely come. In such contexts most people, even those marginalized by this car-based culture, understandably opt to ride in these deadly vehicles, either private or collective. In the process they of course add further to the danger of the streets and the desolation of the sidewalks. But if you do choose to join the meager trickle of those few who brave the landscape on foot, you can learn a lot about life in these places, learn about the larger society from a vantage point alien to most in that society.
Many people will tell you that San Salvador is too dangerous to walk in, that crime is so rampant you’ll get mugged or worse. Almost by definition, these tend to be people that have never themselves walked in the city, some of them despite having lived there their entire lives. Their fear may be genuine, though inaccurate, or it may simply be a more socially acceptable way of saying that they don’t want to interact with any humans outside of their own social or racial group. Either way, if you do walk the city despite their advice, you’ll find that the major threat is from careless, arrogant drivers, which is to say from some of the very people warning you of the dangers of the streets. You will most likely not be accosted by roving marauders. The busy streets with infrequent crosswalks and even fewer traffic lights, the underpasses and overpasses that allow drivers on two intersecting busy streets to continue at full speed, while pedestrians must come to a full stop and engineer a way to continue beyond sidewalks that dead-end; these are the true dangers of San Salvador.
You can test this for yourself walking some of the grittiest-looking sectors of central San Salvador. Do not walk in Soyapango, a slum sister city to the east of San Salvador that concentrates much of the homicide in the area. But you can walk from the soccer stadium through lonely streets of walled and fenced buildings, to Parque Cuzcatlan full of living of all ages, (on the soccer fields, under tree-lined esplanades, walking their dogs), and dead of all ages too, memorialized on the black granite wall etched with the names of victims of forced disappearances, massacres, and assassinations over decades of grueling civil war. From there you can continue towards the center of town, one of the few areas with what might be called a streetscape, as graffitied walls topped with concertina wire and broken glass give way to businesses and offices that open directly onto the sidewalk. You start to see more and more people and fewer cars, culminating when you get to a few square blocks in the true center of town, where pedestrians and merchants have totally overrun the streets. The market stalls selling socks, fruit, CDs, toys, gradually move from the fringes of the roadway into the very middle, eventually with cement-and-tile floors raised from the street surface that show just how long ago the cars were chased away.
There is no rampant violence here, no terrifying gangland massacres, just hordes of people buying and selling, sitting or strolling, eating or heading to church, and a constant song of “el mango la cora la cora la cora”, “cuadernos la cora la cora la cora”, “medias veladas la cora la cora la cora”, “cora” of course being the Salvadoran rendering of the US 25 cent piece that seems to represent the standard price for everything in this dollarized economy. If you buy anything, don’t be dismayed at the yellow Chuck-e-Cheese tokens that you get for change. They’re not pawning off counterfeit money on the foreigner; it’s just the failed Sacagawea and presidential gold dollar coins that the US Mint has been trying to push for decades now.
Go to Mass in the cathedral. Its original vibrant façade created by Fernando Llort, El Salvador’s leading artist, has been removed, but the spirit of solidarity and revolutionary love has not been whitewashed from the preaching within the church. Thirty-five years after the death of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Catholic Church in El Salvador continues to exhibit an inspiring commitment to social justice. From the bishop’s homilies in the Cathedral to the sermons in nondescript parish churches, there is no let-up in the call for Catholics to fight injustice, to work with and for the poor, to tear down the prejudice and exclusion that still plague Salvadoran society. After Mass you must go down to pay your respects to Monsenor Romero, whose crypt bedecked with homemade posters from the faithful is both a site of pilgrimage and devotion as well as a primer on the progressive Church today in Latin America. You can wait in an unmoving line for half an hour with peasants come in from their villages, waiting to get their religious and civil documents ratified, before you realize that Romero’s tomb is not hidden behind the door at the end of the line, but right behind you, open to all with a bronze statue of the Archbishop in repose. If you look foreign and simple and hauntedly pious (which looks remarkably similar to just being sweaty after a long walk), your peasant linemates may ask if you are with The Company, presumably meaning the Jesuits. You can wish you were, wish you’d been in the front lines in the 1970s and 1980s with Father Rutilio and the many other Jesuits who stood by the poor and paid for it with their lives, back when the root of injustice was held within a regime with a name, and not dispersed confusingly throughout a nominally free society.
If you want to see really seedy neighborhoods, there are plenty of those. They are just as fenced and walled and boarded up as neighborhoods of every other class in San Salvador, but there are fewer attempts to make them look respectable, there are more indigent people living under overpasses, more feces and garbage on the sidewalks. The seedy, smoggy area around the bus station is vibrant with businesses catering to motorists—auto repair of all types, gas stations, upholsterers. To the south of the center, however, it’s just like a ghost town, especially of a Sunday morning after Mass. But no one will bother you, not even the ghosts of people living between cardboard and blankets, vibrant life scooped out of them by poverty and addiction, as you walk through on the way to greener surroundings, namely the excellent zoo with its unfenced Monkey Island, or the quirky, undervisited agro-natural history-Japanese culture-peace park created by a Japanese textile tycoon whose heart belonged to El Salvador.
If you wander the neighborhoods around these verdant parks, you will suspect that they are upscale, though they might actually be downscale people attempting to look upscale, with well-manicured mini-lawns and hard-to-get-to, winding cul-de-sacs. In much of San Salvador it is hard to get a fix on which residential neighborhoods are middle-class or better, and which are on the lower end of the class spectrum. Most residential blocks consist in long, continuous walls lining the sidewalk, broken only by garage doors and changes in paint color. In other words, they are uniformly ugly, regardless of the income of their denizens. On the other hand, Salvadorans (as many other peoples of the world) seem to be convinced that living well is less about enjoying what you have and more about making others feel less than you. Since this ethic informs the architecture and style of neighborhoods rich and poor alike, it reinforces their homogeneity. Could it be that a collective obsession with excluding others has leveled the class structure in some sense by making everywhere universally ugly and hostile? Again, this does not seem far from the aesthetic of most of US suburbia, where rich and poor alike are united by pretense and exclusion of others.
You can check out the supposedly hip, fun part of town along the Bulevar de los Heroes, though you will quickly realize that for many people “hip” and “fun” mainly means possessing of many fast food restaurants. Here as in other neighborhoods, you’ll be surprised at the lack of middle-income dining options. There are air-conditioned, cordoned-off fast food chains catering to those with money, and iron huts directly on the sidewalk serving bean-filled pupusas to eat standing up or sitting on an iron stool set into the concrete. But for sit-down places with modest prices for actual complete meals, you’re out of luck in most of San Salvador. A glaring exception is Los Tacos de Paco, which from outside looks like an auto body shop or a Colombain roadside barbecue joint, but inside is home to delicious tacos, thoughtful, simple paintings, and books of revolutionary poetry, history, and art. This is all under the care of the eponymous Paco, a Mexican transplant whom you’ll find either sauteeing up your taco meat or working on his latest rendering of the San Salvador cathedral or the city’s skyline. He will also make detailed book recommendations for you, and ring you up when you buy an armload of puzzles, poetry, and children’s anthologies.
You can pass by the University of El Salvador and see the bright-eyed kids kissing and catching buses and dreaming about the future, or go to the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen and learn from former guerrilleros about the past. You can visit a ceramic workshop run entirely by deaf artisans, or go to the popular art museum to see miniature figurines made in a village with clay-working roots stretching back before the Spanish arrived.
Are you up for a long, ungratifying walk on busy, smoggy streets, your only human contact the occasional bank or auto shop security guard who’s surprised when you acknowledge his humanity with a nod or a smile? If so, you can get to some holy places. Perhaps the holiest place in the Hemisphere. It’s a chapel called el Hospitalito, and it is where Monsenor Romero was assassinated in 1980 while consecrating the Eucharist. Assassinated because he spoke for the poor and the oppressed, in a way that few who reach positions of power are brave enough to do. You can sit and pray in the chapel, which has a calm beauty to it despite its angular 1950s design. The breeze wafts through open slats in the concrete wall, and ruffles heliconia flowers in brass vases.
Another holy place is way to the south of town, in a comfortable area of gated streets. Yes, many ostensibly public side streets have gates and guards at either end to protect the residents from outsiders. You can ask yourself who protects them from themselves as they’re shut in their houses. Amid these residential side streets and youth-centered commercial drags, there is a serene, expansive college campus. Show your ID, walk down lanes lined with emerald tropical exuberance. Enter the nondescript residence hall, then a room within it housing display cases of bloody robes, burnt books, bullet-ridden religious icons. This is where six Jesuit priests and two women who worked for them were executed, then their dwelling thoroughly sprayed by machine guns and lit afire. This was not long ago, 1989. You might have been watching “Muppet Babies” at the exact moment it happened.
If you are on a business trip, you will inevitably end your walk around town at your hotel in the Zona Rosa and Colonia Escalon, the truly opulent part of San Salvador. Here the walls are older, higher, more elegant than elsewhere, and the junk food restaurants even more abundant and varied. The vista from your hotel room at night is of gleaming signs for every US fast food chain imaginable. No one in the history of the US has ever eaten willingly at a Denny’s—it’s usually the only option on a lonely highway, or seems like a great 4am idea to youngsters under the influence of some mind-altering chemical. But in San Salvador, the grand opening of Denny’s was a huge event, and it still seems to occupy a prominent place in the culinary map of the Zona Rosa.
This neighborhood does have its gems though. An excellent museum of anthropology, an artisan market not too dominated by tacky imported junk, a convention center where you can catch an annual exposition by local orchid enthusiasts, an art museum that in two hours will take you through the fascinating and little-known trajectory of Salvadoran painting and sculpture. In the middle of the posh stores and walled manses rises a towering mosaic dedicated to the Revolution, a sort ofPrometheus breaking free of his chains and reaching skyward. If you look too much into it, you’ll learnthat it merely commemorates the deposition of one military dictator by anotherin the late 1940s. But it’s more poetic, and perhaps truer, to think of it as a monument to the revolution that Monsenor Romero wanted, that humble working people wanted, maybe even the one that the FMLN guerrilla wanted—not a strict dictatorship of the proletariat, but a place where the poor could at least live unpersecuted, able to raise a family in peace and dignity. You can think that this is an unfinished revolution, since it didn’t triumph resoundingly but was rather subsumed into the peace accords in 1992.
Or you can think that it’s best the Revolution didn’t win resoundingly only to later succumb to abuse or ineptitude. You can think it profoundly marked the heart of El Salvador, to the point where 20 years later the Catholic hierarchy really preaches and practices solidarity with the marginalized, the people commemorate victims but also try to move on and forgive, the former guerrilla movement wins the presidency for multiple terms by adopting a conciliatory tone while still striving to make society more inclusive. You are after all in Central America, a region uniformly hostile to US imperialism where half the Spanish language has been replaced by Anglicisms, in San Salvador, where a monument to the Revolution stands watch over the neighborhood of the landed aristocracy.
In a land where stark differences abound yet clean generalizations are impossible to make, perhaps this nuanced sense of the revolution has the most promise. It is not a revolution to create a perfect society from scratch, but rather to coax a liveable society from deeply flawed raw material. If realized, even this modest revolution would be such as the world has never seen before.