Chicago’s troubling rates of gang violence aren’t an isolated issue. El Salvador, one of the violence-affected countries making up Central America’s “northern triangle,” is also home to significant gang violence that’s driving attempted migration to the United States.
Reset talked with Rosa Anaya, a Salvadoran organizer with Catholic Relief Services who brings insights to her work rehabilitating prison inmates through a philosophy of restorative justice.
On connecting violence to social conditions in Chicago and El Salvador
Rosa Anaya: One of the things that is similar is our youth, our childhood experience. We grow up in an environment that’s not peaceful, and I always tell people we know what violence is. We can smell it. We can taste it. It’s breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Usually people automatically think, “Oh, people are poor, then they’re violent.” And to me, it’s about the conditions that happen around poverty and how structurally that affects how we grow up and how we understand the type of relationships that we have. I’ve seen in my country and here in Chicago how people that are living in poverty and have those conditions can also be just amazing human beings that, despite the situations, always come out stepping on the right foot. But it makes it a lot harder. … I am not quick to say poverty is the reason for you to become violent, but definitely the conditions that bring that to your experience that you have, because of that lack of your human rights, then that does create the sense that you don’t have hope and that you are not worth what a human being is worth.
On visiting Cook County Jail
Anaya: It’s been really interesting to be able to see the type of work that different organizations here in Chicago are doing that are very similar to what we’re trying to do in El Salvador. … I’ve listened to many of the stories, horrible stories of, you know, violence and … things … especially youth here have to go through, and I can see and relate to those stories back home in El Salvador. So we visited with one of our partners that works in El Salvador, the institution is called Contextos, and they also brought what we started in El Salvador to the Cook County jail. And what basically they tried to do is to help people through literacy and giving them the right tools to process their story and to be able to write those stories. … I could compare the stories written in the jails and prison in El Salvador to the ones that I’ve heard here, and it could be the same place.
On toxic masculinity
Anaya: In our context, El Salvador, the machismo is part of the culture. … Men were given a role, and they are expected to be the macho prototype. … I’ve listened to them say, you know, “I was expected to be the bad person that comes home and is the one that’s going to scold the kids because they did something wrong. I’m the one that is always expected to bring the food to the table. I’m always going to be the one expected to be bad to the women so that, you know, they behave.” All of this causes like, “How did they ruin me so bad? I want to be the father that comes home and is able to hug their kids. I want to be the father that comes home and is able to listen. I want to cry … and that is not allowed from us.” … It creates a toxicity of what concept we think a man should be.
On the restorative justice model
Anaya: Society is all of us. The guys in the prison are part of this society, whether we like it or not. We need to stop thinking that, you know, there is a group of people that are disposable, because they’re not. … Everybody talks always about the issue of gangs and violence, and I always ask people …”What is it that we’re doing wrong as a society that our children are willing to go to a gang to gain respect that they deserve and the love that they think they’re getting because they’re not getting that at home?” And, you know, it’s not to blame the families. It is a system that is pushing us away from this idea of what we need as human beings besides the economic need. And it’s not only about getting things, but it’s about how do we build a different type of relationship and society that we really want it to be.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.