Leggett Leads Montgomery County Delegation on Visit to El Salvador Home to Over 50,000 County Residents; Exchange Agreement Signed with State of Morazán Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett last week led a local delegation to the Department (State) of Morazán, El Salvador from July 23 – 30, meeting with government officials and signing a “Sister City” agreement under the guidelines of Sister Cities International. The delegation also met with people from the local communities, visited schools, organizations, and historic places, and engaged in community projects.
The effort is designed to foster cooperation between the two jurisdictions on a people-to-people basis and to support already ongoing work by Salvadorans living in the County to support development projects in their home country. “It is estimated that 50,000 Montgomery County residents hail from El Salvador,” said County Executive Ike Leggett. “This trip gave all who participated a unique perspective on the situation in their homeland. It opens up opportunities for Montgomery County residents to collaborate with the residents of Morazan -- to learn and to lend a hand.”“The United States is a land of immigrants,” said Councilmember George Leventhal. “I have no doubt that this generation of Salvadoran immigrants and generations to come are making and will make valuable contributions to County life. The United States has much to atone for in fueling the Salvadoran civil war. It’s very important to start helping to clean up our mess. Sometimes you have to see the challenges and talk to people on the ground. I returned home with a great appreciation for the challenges ahead and how we might contribute in our own way.”“For the Salvadoran people we met, this encounter was so important,” said State Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, who originally hails from El Salvador. “The real relationship has to be people-to-people. We are bringing two cultures together.”“I was very honored to go along,” said former Congresswoman Connie Morella, who last visited El Salvador with a congressional delegation in 1988. “I wanted to see what people had been through and how they are rebuilding their lives. This can help to make a difference.”
About 70 individuals participated in the trip. All participants paid all their own expenses. The delegation from Montgomery County included County Executive Leggett and his wife, Catherine; former U.S. Congresswoman Connie Morella; Montgomery County Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez; County Councilmember George Leventhal; Public Information Director Patrick Lacefield, Silver Spring Regional Services Director Reemberto Rodriguez; Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Kathleen Boucher; Office of Community Partnerships Director Bruce Adams, County Latino Liaison Karla Silvestre, and Recreation Department Director Gabe Albornoz. In addition to the County representatives, 11 individuals represented Montgomery County’s Habitat for Humanity and helped build a home for an impoverished family in the town of Jocoro, the first of 38 planned in Morazán by the group. Montgomery “MoverMoms” -- a group of mothers and their children, ages 9 – 17 – spent the week performing community service at a school and a Centro Materno in the town of Perquin. Members of two of the Salvadoran hometown associations traveled with the group to support their communities -- the Guatajiagua Association, which purchased land to build a training center in Guatajiagua, and the Joateca Association, which has helped to build a multi-purpose community center in Joateca.“I was very proud to go on this trip,” said Neftali Granados. “I have raised three children here in Montgomery County and built a small business. This program can help a lot and I’m ready to work hard.”
The five-day whirlwind schedule focused on the northeastern Department of Morazán, the poorest Salvadoran state with 174,000 people and rates of 30 percent illiteracy and 36 percent extreme poverty. Leggett toured the cathedral and market at San Miguel, the country’s second largest city, before meeting with the AMC bank, which finances microenterprises and cooperative ventures and which recently opened its first U.S. branch in Wheaton. Leggett also visited a cooperative milk processing plant established outside town with AMC foundation support in route to Morazán. Following a community festival in the colorful plaza fronting the state capital San Francisco Gotera’s colorful church, Leggett joined Morazán governor Miguel Ventura and about 800 residents in signing an agreement for the two local jurisdictions to engage in cooperative efforts and exchange. They were joined by United States Ambassador to El Salvador Mari Carmen Aponte, who made the trek to Morazán to lend support to the agreement. While in San Francisco Gotera, Leggett visited the local High School and also the hospital, the only hospital for the State of Morazán’s 174,000 residents. Leggett spoke with hospital doctors and nurses and toured the pediatric ward where many children were two to a bed, one in a hammock hanging over the other. The Association for Educational Development in El Salvador worked with delegation members to bring books donated by County residents to establish a library at Gotera’s San Jose Elementary School. Bouncing over mountain roads that snaked around forest-covered peaks, Leggett, Leventhal, and Morella helped inaugurate a new park in the plaza of the village of Joateca. Nearly all the 900 residents turned out to celebrate and a Salvadoran Army band offered up their country’s national hymn and the Star-Spangled Banner. Joateca has another 600 natives who live in Montgomery County, the most of any jurisdiction in Morazán. Leggett and the delegation walked through the town to pay their respects to the family of Sara Ramos, a County resident who was slain by the Beltway snipers in 2002 as she waited for a bus in Leisure World to take her to work. Leggett and the delegation also paid their respects at what one delegation member called “perhaps one of the saddest places on Earth” -- El Mozote.
In 1981, during Salvador’s dozen-year Civil War, an elite U.S.-trained Salvador army battalion massacred 1,200 unarmed men, women, and children at El Mozote, where a memorial and children’s garden now stand. In Guatajiagua, known for its unique pottery made from black clay, the County delegation met with the mayor, visited with the Lenca indigenous community, and went to a site purchased with the help of Montgomery’s Guatajiagua hometown association to build a job training center. A visit in the far north of the department – to Perquin, the guerrilla stronghold during the Civil War -- included the presentation of a check for nearly $2,000 to the town’s mayor, raised by County residents through the “Hungry for Music” project, to buy musical instruments for young people.