Earlier in the semester of my study abroad program in Costa Rica, we heard a lecture from Elmer, an El Salvadoran refugee who grew up in a trash dump. Our program did not invite statisticians or economics professors to present facts about food deserts, income inequality or infant mortality rates.
Instead, Elmer, a neighborhood guard and struggling artist, came to speak to us about poverty. How do we talk about poverty? The idea was to ask someone who actually lived it.
Every day Elmer and the other children of the dump would dive through the trash searching for treasure: aluminum cans, leftover rice and beans, clothing they could sell. Every day he would pray the rich people wouldn’t stop throwing these things away.
To the young volunteers who visited the dump with their guitars and perpetual cheeriness, poverty was a class, another problem to study and solve: an experience to let them feel alive and add color to their resumes.
To Elmer it was his skin. It was part of his veins, bones and brainwaves.
Hunger never left him.One day, he found his greatest treasure: a postcard of the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. He would look at this card and wonder about the children in the United States.
Were they like him? Did they search for food in their own dumps? He worried about them in all that snow. How did they keep from freezing?
He would pretend he was with them. He imagined himself eating the snow. How rich it must be! How filling!
Elmer took refuge from the hunger, sinking into his imagination.
When he was older, Elmer heard the sounds of planes overhead. There were bombings. Later on, they heard the Bishop Oscar Romero, champion of the poor and hurting had been murdered in the middle of Mass.
People said the planes belonged to the United States. People said the U.S. government funded the El Salvador government and their attacks.
Elmer didn’t want to believe it, but he saw the U.S. flag. He saw the sign that read “dollars helped genocide.”
They found the bodies in the dump.
He tore up his postcard of the snow in Nevada and substituted his hunger with rage. He was angry for many years. He came to Costa Rica as a refugee and became a painter, guard, writer and poet. Today, he sees himself as someone who imparts truth.“It’s not me speaking but the voices of the victims,” Elmer said.
Now, he doesn’t feed on rage but on poetry. His true message: solidarity between the rich and poor. Look beyond what you think you see.
Get rid of the labels poor people have been given and look at the person.
“They could be the best person you’ve ever met.” Everyone has value.
“How can I become your brother if you look at me as someone who is less?” This was one of my most influential lectures.
From Elmer, I learned hunger has a color, and poverty is more than a word I throw around when I want to sound charitable and kind.
Hunger will chase Elmer for the rest of his life. It will never leave him, but will be waiting in the caves to devour like the wolf from Ruben Dario’s poem.
Yet, Elmer is transforming his pain, fury and hunger into artwork, into a way to speak for the voiceless. For Elmer, fulfillment is the great exploration of solidarity and stories: the fight for fellowship.
Sometimes we are forced to abandon our utopias, no matter how beautiful they were. This allows us to open up, leave behind societal stereotypes and work toward true relationship.
Today, Elmer has written and published a book about his experiences growing up called “Under the Sour Sun.” It can be bought here. I personally have three copies and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a well-written story. He also sells painting of life in Costa Rica and is a recurring lecturer at the Latin American Studies Program.
To learn more about the civil war of El Salvador and Bishop Oscar Romero visit here.