I recently visited El Salvador with a friend only to be surprised at the stark difference in the number of black people that are present in comparison to other Central and South American countries. The slave trade did not appear to have the same impact there, so we paid a visit to the David J. Guzman National Museum of Anthropology to learn more about the history. Unfortunately, El Salvador lost much of that African diaspora due to several purges of slaves to more lucrative plantations such as the economic boom for banana plantations in Panama and Honduras. The loss of the Afromestizo continued on in the 19th and 20th centuries when Salvadoran rulers prohibited the immigration of black people to the country and began to order the execution of residents who had African or Indian blood lines. This policy was not changed for decades and therefore black people never trickled back into the society, remaining settled elsewhere.
With this history, one with knowledge of America’s narrative regarding race would think that my friend and I would have been met with some measure of prejudice. In contrast we were met simply with wonder and awe. Many Salvadorans were eager to meet us, and even more expressed the sadness that they feel for having lost entire populations in their history that could have been their brothers and sisters today. In the beginning it felt as though we were some type of spectacle with drivers yelling things like “negras favoritas” as they sped past us on the street. People would stare at us intently and approach us just to ask where we were from and then turn around to walk away immediately upon answering the question. Being from the United States we are used to this type of attention being coupled with a negative perception of who we are. Additionally, we were two women travelling in a foreign country and therefore trying to avoid unnecessary attention. This, at times, made our intensely warm welcome somewhat uncomfortable.
We went to Santa Ana to hike the volcano there and stopped in at a cathedral. Inside we met a few people who were curious about our background and were fascinated that an African-American and American-born Ethiopian could have known each other for so long and some could not tell that we were not from the same ethnicity despite our features being drastically different. Suddenly a young woman approached and asked if she could take a photo with us and another young black woman we had met in the town, to which we awkwardly agreed. Then another approached…and another…and another until a class of kids in school uniforms swarmed us begging for photos as well! I suddenly became uncomfortable due both to the additional attention we were drawing to ourselves as women travelling in a foreign country but also because of the praying that our paparazzi moment was disrupting in the front of the cathedral. We left as quickly as we could, but not before taking at least fifteen photos with fascinated locals who were no doubt looking forward to going home and bragging about the black women they had met that day.
As our time in El Salvador reached the third day, it became easy to notice the huge smiles on the faces of those staring at us, the genuine kindness and openness of the local people and the feeling of being watched grew endearing. Overall, I was touched by the people of El Salvador. In my life of travel I have never encountered such a level of gentleness, thoughtfulness and sincerity as I did while there. As an Ethiopian I am lucky to still be connected to so much of my heritage in spite of being an American but most of the African continent has experienced deep loss in the human history in their home countries. The African diaspora’s loss of history is even more tragic in that the connection to African roots is hard and sometimes impossible to trace precisely. That loss has contributed to hatred, divisions, and the evolution of race relations in most countries even those that are majority black. In spite of that history in El Salvador, the people have not internalized the hatred or shame that some of their ancestors had geared towards the black race and I strongly encourage any avid melanin-blessed travelers to experience the world’s friendliest population in the same way that we did.