I almost didn’t visit El Salvador at all. Many backpackers making their way through El Salvador either end up in the busy, party village of El Tunco, or skip it altogether after the sensationalized news reports of homicides, gang violence, and murders scare them away.
Two years ago I avoided giving into the image that had been painted of this place and came to El Salvador for a ten-day, ladies-only surf trip. Two years later, I’m still here, living in the small surf village of El Zonte. It’s a little lesser known on the backpacker trail than El Tunco but this small town has a flavor all its own.
“Why are you living here?” a local asked me the other day. “What is it about El Salvador that makes you stay?”
While the surf is a tempting answer, the truth is, it’s the people that kept me here. Salvadorans have to be some of the most hospitable people on the planet. They are passionate about their country and eager to share it with you (and everything else they have too). They’ll share their knowledge, their inside jokes, their joint, their family, their waves (as long as you’re respectful) their home, and half the food on their plates.
“Mas alma” I replied. More soul.
Vibrant and alive, no one gives this town its spice quite like the local boys and girls who live in this community, though. Energetic, loco, and cheeky as hell, you’ll hear them coming when you’re out in the surf, screaming and shouting and laughing at the top of their lungs as they drop in on each other and practice their 360s on their bodyboards and surfboards. Some have two flippers, some have none. They don’t care if its gear they found or gear that was gifted to them. They just use whatever they can.
Out of the water, they’ll give you the customary handshake of one closed-fist bump, one open-hand high five like they’ve grown up seeing the older kids do. They’ll shout the caliche (slang) greetings to each other that they’ve seen the older kids do too. “Que fue, Hijo” (Hows it going, my son). Usually, skateboards are tucked under their arms.
In a pack, they’re tough, and will shout out naughty words they know I haven’t yet learned in Spanish and dissolve into peals of laughter when I yell back “NO ENTIENDO!” But alone, they let themselves soften. They will ask you questions, practice their English with intelligence and vulnerability dancing in their eyes.
Once, a guy rode into town selling slices of pizzas from a hotbox on the back of his bicycle (it’s Central America, just go with it). My partner bought a piece for the littlest one. He smiled and ran off.
“Where’s he going?” I asked
“To share it with the rest of his friends,” he replied.
One slice shared between seven kids.
I briefly thought of my sister and how she used to hide her candy around the house so none of us could ever find it. I always used to get down to eye-level of my Coca-Cola to make sure I got the biggest glass and gave the smallest to my sister. I thought of how I still sometimes sneak spoonfuls of leftovers straight out of the fridge so I won’t have to offer it to anyone else. And then I think of this kid, and the fact his first knee-jerk reaction was to share, always, every time.
It was through meeting Alex Novoa, that I came to learn about his plan to build a skate park in El Zonte. Kind of like the unofficial mayor of the village, Alex is the owner of one of the most well-established hostels on the beach, Esencia Nativa, and surf mentor to anyone who asks for help — tourists and locals alike. The kids look up to him and backpackers and locals respect his opinion. His mission? Keep the local kids busy with surf and skate.
“Many kids are led into lives of gangs and violence because they see no option, are frustrated, have a lot of spare time, and want to be part of a family,” he says. “It is vital we create a skate gang to create another option for kids to turn to find love and acceptance and community.”
The skate crew has grown to more than 40 children. However, right now they don’t even have a real place to skate, which means they’re skating either up on the highway, where trucks come screaming around the corner, or on a small uneven road outside a pupuseria in the town (small Pupusa restaurant).
I have come to love this community deeply, which is why I wanted to jump on board to help with this project, giving something back to a town that has given me everything. A second home and extended family. A place to learn to surf. A deeper perspective.
“With the development of the skate park, we hope to give the kids a place to practice skate away from danger, and forge a strong community with each other,” Alex says.
Through the building of the park, we hope to achieve a few things:
-Expose kids to the international skate community outside El Salvador.
-Show them there is another way of life away from drinking and drugs.
-Keep the kids fit and driven and happy.
-Help them forge a community with each other away from criminal activity.
-Give them a goal to reach for and work toward through training and time and effort.
As El Salvador is a touristic place, we also hope the skatepark opens a pathway for kids to be “discovered” and have the opportunity to pursue professional skating as a legitimate future career.
“We could have the future Tony Hawk here in El Zonte,” Alex says. “But if we don’t give kids the proper resources to try we could never know.”
“The streets are dangerous,” says Kevin, one of the oldest kids in the skate group. “Instead of doing bad things, we prefer to skate and surf. But unfortunately, we do not have quality conditions to do it safely.”
Building the skate park would also promote gender equality and better future prospects for Salvadoran girls in Zonte. In the township, many young girls are expected to help their mothers with domestic duties. It is pretty much expected when they are old enough they will marry and start a family too. However, many girls here are now picking up a skateboard, which shows them that they too can be just as strong, brave, confident and athletic. Professional skating could be a future pathway for them too.
“In my life, surf and skate defined what kind of person I am,” Novoa says. “It’s important, man.”
Editor’s Note: If you feel called to make a donation, and to learn more about the project to build a skate park for the kids of El Zonte, you can learn more here.
$6,571 of the $20,000 have been raised. However, they’ve now plateaued in their fundraising efforts and are calling on the help of others to change lives in El Zonte.