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Let's Talk Human Rights

2022 Summer Fellowships: Cristosal

By David Quick & Ashley Walker

As part of the summer fellowship program, two University of Dayton students, David and Ashley, worked with Cristosal, a non-profit that works to promote justice, human rights, and democratic societies in the northern triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), through strategic litigation, research, learning, human rights monitoring, and assistance to victims of human rights violations. Below they describe their experiences.

David: Over the summer, I worked for Cristosal in its headquarters in El Salvador. Their vision is to empower and inspire intercultural organization through international solidarity. They use flexible methodologies that provide support and education for victims of human rights abuses and center the experiences of every person as the foundation for human rights progress. 

I worked with the human rights research team on four projects. The first was translations of a recent publication of stories, called “A la buena de Dios,” which documents personal stories of migrants in northern Central America. The reasons for displacement range from disparate opportunities, gang violence, state neglect, to LGBTQIA+ discrimination. For the other three projects I created infographics for Cristosal’s interactive map of forced displacement, Sistema de Alerta Territorial (Territorial Alert System) for Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The causes of displacement were similar to those described in the cuentas I translated, with the addition of displacement from climate change. 

I also did other minor projects, such as translating the press release about human rights violations promoted by the rising dictator’s regimen de excepcion, translating an infographic documenting mobility data from migrants returned to El Salvador, and assisting with several workshops dedicated to human rights education and mobilization.

I take away a number of skills and insights from this experience. First, I had never been outside of the United States before, let alone been in a country where English is not the primary language. On a personal level, I am returning with a sharpened skill (but certainly not mastered) of Spanish speaking.

Second, I also left the U.S. with expectations of the subjects of my independent research and expectations of the country. I have developed a greater sensitivity and understanding of how different societies shape the meaning of things. For example, I had an understanding that workers are those who work in the formal sector or perform some type of job consistently – however, workers still exist in insecurity, invisibility, and in informal spaces. For example, women’s work is largely invisible when performed in the home, despite the fact that they may contribute to an artisan industry, however insecure. Additionally, I had a perception of being in imminent danger  of El Salvador, given the press coverage on the state of exception and soaring murder rates and disappearances. I found though that this is mostly a matter of foreign perception and a legacy of racist communication. I would be forgiven for thinking that the country is not really as dangerous as the press conveys. But for many people in spaces I didn’t see throughout the country, the violence and gore is real.

I think that the theme that ties the two together is visibility. What we see and what is seen forms our reality, and greater exposure is what best reflects a more comprehensive sense of that reality. My increased/deeper understanding of work or danger is best understood through what I see given what my privileges afford me. For example, my privilege as a man allows me to not recognize invisible work because the work that men do is primarily in formal spaces; my privilege coming from a relatively wealthy country as a traveler allows me to enter or leave places I feel uncomfortable in whenever I want; my privilege as a student allows me to learn about the lived experiences without having to live them personally.

Finally, intercultural communication was the hardest part of my internship. But language is not the greatest barrier; fear is. It’s very easy to fall into using translators and using them as a crutch for communication, but I only learned so much from doing this. For me to learn the most and gain confidence in interpersonal communication, I needed to shamelessly make mistakes in speaking. I think this is a tactic that I will continue to employ with sensitivity when encountering different cultures. 

I also return to the United States emphasizing the importance of learning the realities and histories of other cultures, with the expectation that some things will be incomprehensible and illogical. By visiting historical places and hearing the stories of those who have been affected by human rights abuse, I learned to focus more on what others have to say rather than simply to understand how to overcome painful or simply different histories. 

My time in El Salvador with Cristosal and those who they work with has helped me to better understand the diversity of work in human rights, from the base to the top. I developed a strong network of human rights professionals, advocates, researchers, students, and teachers throughout El Salvador, with extensions throughout Latin America. I worked primarily in an institution catered to high-level cooperation on a governmental level, but I found my niche working at the base. I hope to continue my development as a human rights advocate in communal spaces by recording their stories and supporting their fight for liberation by utilizing recognition in research and grassroots mobilization through human rights education.

cristosal.jpegPicture by David Quick: Monumento a la Paz y Reconciliación (Monument to Peace and Reconciliation) to honor the 986 people killed in the massacre of El Mozote; featured in the monument (left to right): Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Pope John Paul II, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., (not pictured): Saint Francis of Assisi, Jesus Christ, a silhouette of the family

Ashley: Over the summer, I had the opportunity to engage with two unique learning opportunities. The first part of the summer I spent studying abroad in Prague, Czech Republic where I was able to immerse myself in a vastly interesting intercultural environment. In the second part of my summer, I worked as a fellow for Cristosal which is a nonprofit organization that works to promote justice, human rights, and democratic societies in Central America through strategic litigation, research, learning, human rights monitoring, and assistance to victims of human rights violations.

During my time working as a fellow for Cristosal I learned about the types and magnitude of human rights violations that occur in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. I spent most of my time sifting through field reports of human rights violations that had been collected by the Protection and Investigation teams to condense them into a more comprehensible report. Another task I had was making infographics that described what was happening in these three countries. One of the infographics I spent the most time on was about the state of emergency that had to be declared in El Salvador due to an uproar about unsafe circumstances related to gang activity. Lastly, I spent some of my time interpreting data on immigration and refugees. I became familiar with the fact that over half of those seeking refugee were doing it because of the violence and unsafe circumstances they confront in their lives in Central America 

While I was in the Czech Republic I studied international public relations and the history of propaganda. The international public relations course introduced me to the study of public relations across international boundaries and cultures. This course broadened my knowledge of what defines culture, what makes one different from the other, and how to interact with people that are not the same as you. Most importantly, this class showed me that despite all cultural differences, people are all human. We should take interest in what makes us different rather than isolating ourselves to a closed-minded perspective. This class provided me with the opportunity to visit the United States Embassy in Prague and Radio Free Europe which is a government-funded organization that broadcasts uncensored reports in various parts of the world.

The history of propaganda class laid out the framework of what propaganda is and how it has evolved over time. As part of the course we took multiple  experiential learning trips including one to Terezin, which is a concentration camp that was established during the Holocaust. This was a very eye-opening experience for me as I was able to walk the same grounds that innocent people once suffered on.

While I walked through the concentration camp where so many people suffered I realized that the suffering has not ended for a lot of people. With the Czech Republic's close proximity to Ukraine, I was able to meet and hear from numerous Ukrainian refugees. The stories I heard broke my heart but encouraged me to recognize my privilege and use it to do something beneficial to help those who need it. This shift in my mindset was something that the Czech people had already recognized in themselves. The Czech people all take part in a collectivist mindset that goes beyond national boundaries. A lot of this mindset comes from  the deep history with World Wars, revolutions, and communist regimes.

When I came home and began my fellowship, I became very aware of how little the United States government is doing to help Central America. Moreover, how little the citizens of the United States are doing to help. While the lack of effort to help Central America may be derived from ignorance around what is going on, much of it can be attributed to selfishness and laziness. Although the problem is complex, one google search is enough to get a basic understanding of what is going on. Acknowledgment is the first step in doing your part, after this, you can spread awareness.


David Michael Quick is a rising senior with majors in human rights studies and philosophy. He is studying the ways dehumanization and visibility affect the utility of human rights discourse.

Ashley Walker is a senior pursuing a degree in communication with a concentration in management and a minor in public relations. She has been working with the HRC as a marketing and communications intern and is passionate about environmental justice, women’s rights, and advocacy for racial equity.

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