El Salvador Experience is instructive

Thursday, October 31, 2002

By Andrea Essner

You never know what you've got till it's gone.

This applies to many aspects of a young adult's life: parent relationships, love and friends.

This summer, I came to value one thing that many young Americans take for granted: U.S. citizenship. Through my internship with the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, El Salvador, I saw 700 Salvadorans apply for a visa everyday. This visa would allow them to travel to the United States for five months.

Salvadorans pay $65 just to apply for this visa. Once he or she pays the money, that person gets an interview date. On that date, the applicant must go to the U.S. Embassy, wait in the hot sun and heat for a full day and finally interview with a foreign service officer for about two minutes. Of the approximately 700 Salvadorans who interview each day, about 100 are approved.

Americans would be outraged if any government forced them through this process only to come out empty-handed. We do not realize how lucky we are to be citizens of the United States. When I was traveling to El Salvador, I never once worried about applying for a visa into their country. However, for a Salvadoran, receiving a U.S. visa changes a life.

As a college student, I often find myself complaining about women's rights and annoying police officers, but when I lived in El Salvador in the absence of these, I began to truly cherish them. I will never forget the machismo men who laughed at me for wanting to be a politician someday. Nor will I forget the horrific fear I felt walking down the streets of San Salvador knowing that I could be kidnapped at any time.

Throughout the summer I met Salvadorans from all areas and classes. Many were governmental figures, and others worked in the maquilas for 60 cents a day. The gap between the rich and poor is extremely wide.

In one valley I visited million-dollar mansions standing next to tin shacks without electricity and a dirt hole as a toilet.

In the United States, many Americans complain that their tax money is going to support the inefficient welfare system. After visiting Salvadoran textile factories run by American corporations, I start to wonder at whose expense American riches are generated.

The Salvadoran workers earn $100 a month producing American goods. It is partially through the hard work of these low-paid citizens of Third World countries like El Salvador that the United States' economy remains strong.

Now when I hear someone complain about taxes, I remember that American money is available at the expense of the Salvadoran employees who work for 60 cents a day. Also, I will remember that the welfare system in the United States alleviates the most extreme conditions one sees in El Salvador.

In El Salvador, life is hard. Without living there, I would have never realized how blessed I am to be an American. When I returned to the United States, I had an incredible sense of fullness and confidence. I returned a feminist with a positive outlook at security and welfare that knows the complexity of American foreign relations. Now when someone asks me who I am, I will be proud to answer: I am a United States citizen.

Andrea Essner is a native of Dexter, Mo., and currently is studying political science at Providence College, Providence, R.I. "My experience in El Salvador opened my eyes to the world and the beauty of the United States. My message is one I feel the readers of the Southeast Missourian should know."

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