It was a long shot. If this were any ordinary airport experience, three hours would be a long enough layover. But what my mom was suggesting I do was not ordinary.
OK, I told her. Tell them yes. I’ll meet them outside the airport for a quick cup of café. Maybe a pupusa.
I arrived at the airport in San Salvador, El Salvador in June. The last time I had been here was in 1999. For my mom, that was the first time she was back home in 12 years. 1999 also marked the year that my mom’s own mother, my grandmother, was diagnosed with cancer. I accompanied my mom back to her homeland 20 years ago to say goodbye to her own mother, a woman I met for the first and last time.
I was awarded a fellowship with the International Women’s Media Foundation this year. I was awarded a four-day course in Hostile Environment and First Aid training in México City, and then flown to Honduras to carry out two weeks of reporting. My mom saw my flight itinerary, and suggested I use the three-hour layover in San Salvador to see the family I had not seen since 1999.
It was a long shot, sure. But, I knew that if I could pull that off, it would make my mom very happy.
As fate would have it, three hours ended up being just 30 minutes. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. After the many long lines, I arrived at customs, where many employees were suspicious of someone who would wait in the longest lines and pay $30 to be in El Salvador for just 30 minutes. When I finally got out and ran in the thick humidity to find my aunt and cousin excited to see me, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was totally worth it.
The thirty minutes I spent with them consisted in big hugs, a cup of coffee, a bean and cheese pupusa, a few photos and as much talking as we could fit in. When I told them why I was in Central America and what stories I would be reporting on in Honduras, they all told me how proud they were that I was reporting on the experiences of our people for an American audience. They insisted that I come back to El Salvador very soon. I agreed. I have to come back.
Those 30 minutes with them set my foundation of reflection for the next two weeks. I was more cognizant of who I was and on the soil I was setting foot in. I was more aware that I was one of two women of Central American descent on this reporting fellowship in Honduras. I was so grateful my Central American heritage allowed me to form connections with people I interviewed.
One night, I went to a bus station in San Pedro Sula to interview recently deported migrants. I told one man that my father had immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1981, and likely along the routes they just took. “Entonces, tú entiendes, tú entiendes porqué hacemos lo que hacemos,” one man told me. “So, you understand, you understand why we do what we do.”
I have long wondered where my path my career in journalism would take me and what issues I would spend my life dedicated to exposing. I created a bilingual newspaper in college out of a desire to fill, what I saw was, an untapped necessity in a community with a large Hispanic population. I spent a large portion of my career so far as a translator and Spanish-language news editor. After my last job, I was intent on following a different route.
But, after all the interviews I completed in Honduras and the conversations I have had with family and colleagues, I realized, I must come back to Central America and to El Salvador to continue reporting. I must invest my abilities and talents to a community I know pretty well, and have a longing to share with the world what I can continue to learn about and from them.
This fellowship provided me with invaluable training and education. It also bestowed upon me a period where I was able to reconnect with the soil, the people and the stories of people with whom I share a heritage. I plan to use this new energy within me to explore the experiences of Salvadorans and Central Americans living around me, and of those back in the motherland. If I decided to become a journalist long ago, and build a career that so often does not pay the bills, then I will focus on paying my soul, my heritage and my people.
Natalia Aldana, Adelante Fellow, 2019 Honduras.