When Aida Campos ’20 looks back on her August trip to El Salvador, a memory from the department — county — of Morazán stands out the clearest. Campos sat in on a ceremony and talk hosted by the Lenca tribe, an indigenous group native to El Salvador.
“It was really interesting and special, and intimate,” Campos said. “At one point, they were invoking all of the gods that they believe in and they were burning some type of wood in this sacred fire pit. It was an overcast day the entire day, but as the ceremony leader started invoking the goddess of storms and rain … it starts pouring.”
Campos describes the experience at the Lenca ceremony as mind blowing. She felt honored to be able to attend the Lenca ritual, especially since the tribe does not get much public recognition.
“Most of the time, people assume if you’re not Aztec, if you’re not Incan, you’re Mayan, but they don’t know that there’s a lot of smaller tribes that live throughout Latin America, and particularly Central America, like the Lenca people,” Campos said. “There’s not a lot of scholarship done on them, and not a lot of speakers left, so I’m very blessed to have gotten the chance to sit there for one of their ceremonies, given that they’re such a small population.”
Campos traveled to El Salvador as part of her creative honors thesis project, in collaboration with her advisor Jon Pineda. Campos’ thesis was initially inspired by her own family’s immigration story.
“I was getting ready to go on the Latin American studies department border studies trip, and on the itinerary it said that we were going to be going to the city where my mother crossed into America,” Campos said. “That was when it started. Then, as I kept asking myself questions, I realized that I needed to understand why my parents felt the need to immigrate for me to understand my immigration story.”
From her parents, Campos knew that her family immigrated to America from El Salvador due to a civil war within the country. However, she didn’t know much beyond the immigration event itself, and her curiosity towards her family’s origins grew with age.
“As I grew older, and as I started reading my own stuff on the war and … building my own ideas and feelings about the war, I wanted to know more about it,” Campos said. “With this honors project originally, I was trying to cope with my lack of knowledge about my parents and my family history, and what role the war played into that hole between my family’s history and how I understand my family.”
Initially, Campos worked with Pineda on the idea of a fictional memoir — a memoir composed of recollections that may not necessarily be true — with the goal of connecting the gaps in her family’s history using reimaginations of the past. Her vision of her project ended up shifting slightly after she traveled to El Salvador, visiting national archives sites, and speaking to members of her family community.
“After the trip, I came back and realized that while my questions are still relevant about the civil war and about how people remember the war, I’m really fascinated by how memory works,” Campos said. “I feel like the country’s government has one way of remembering the war, one side of the story, the U.S. media has one way they pictured the war, and the people who actually lived through the war, people like my parents’ age, have one way of remembering the war.”
When speaking to friends and family members that lived through the war, Campos found a common thread she wasn’t expecting: a link in memory between the Salvadoran civil war and the gang violence that is occurring in the country today.
“A lot of my conversations with people … would always end on the note that while people remember how violent and hard the times were during the war, they continuously kept comparing it to the violence that they’ve been facing for the past 10 to 15 years with gang violence,” Campos said. “For the most part they would always say, ‘yeah, the war was crazy and it was hard, but it doesn’t even compare to how violent the gangs are.’”
Campos began to consider the original subject of her project in the context of contemporary problems that El Salvador is facing, centering her narrative on the lived experiences of its people.
“I’m looking more at how the government and the oligarchy has not allowed El Salvador to be a stable country where the people … are able to feel protected by their state, by their nation, throughout time,” Campos said. “It’s never really had a chance to prosper … the people haven’t had a chance to feel stable enough to succeed in their movements and in their requests from the government, from their communities.”
Campos plans to consolidate her archival research and conversations in the form of a poetry book, interspersing different forms of poetry with prose to tell El Salvador’s story. She began to deeply appreciate poetry as a communication medium both during a community college class her freshman year and during a Spanish poetry class taught by Silvia Tandeciarz at the College.
“Poetry is such a strong medium because it’s so raw, it’s so authentic, there’s no padding, there’s no plot,” Campos said. “You just have words and you do what you can with words and lines of words. There’s no standard for what a poem has to be.”
In Tandeciarz’s Spanish poetry class, Campos wrote a poem about a close cousin who passed away because of gang violence. Expressing her emotions and revisiting that event in her life via verse was a transformative experience for Campos.
“She died when I was around 15, and I hadn’t really processed that until I wrote that poem sophomore year of college,” Campos said. “I think poetry allows you to have closure to grieve and that was a really powerful moment for me as a person, as a writer and as a student, to be so vulnerable in a class full of people that I didn’t necessarily know.”
On campus, Campos is a member of Inside Out Theater and Underground. She is also director of UndocuTribe, the campus organization centered on immigrant and migrant rights. Campos is passionate about supporting undocumented individuals both on and off campus.
“I’ve seen the misconceptions that people throw at undocumented people, and I feel like it’s our duty to make sure that information that is flying through our communities is accurate and it’s not misconstrued to villainize a group of people,” Campos said. “I think people tend to forget that undocumented people have been and continue to be the backbone of this country.”
This semester, UndocuTribe’s goals include planning a visit for citizens detained at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail in James City County and fostering a mentoring program for undocumented and English as a Second Language high school students in the Williamsburg area. They also plan to be active around October and November, when the federal government will officially release a statement as to whether or not the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy will be rescinded. Campos also hopes to facilitate a communicative relationship between the organization and the rest of the campus, so that undocumented students on campus have access to resources that support them.
“While we’re not necessarily the spokesperson for undocumented people on campus, we are a good resource for people who want to feel safe and who want a family on campus,” Campos said. “We also want to be there in any way to help facilitate, especially in the next coming months.”
Campos recommends that students who want to get involved attend UndocuTribe’s meetings, as well as the meetings of other activism-related organizations such as the American Indian Student Association and Amnesty International. She encourages students to attend events, learn about the clubs’ missions, and donate to organizations that assist detained people, such as United We Dream and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.
Campos has two siblings but is the only one of the three that was born in America. Growing up, she faced varying degrees of comfort with her Salvadoran and American heritage, often feeling uncomfortable bringing up her culture in school settings.
“Middle school was around the time that gang violence was really bad in El Salvador, and I specifically remember almost being embarrassed to say that my family was Salvadoran,” Campos said. “Halfway through high school and the first couple years of college, I was like, ‘God, that’s so sad.’ Particularly now, it’s so important to hold onto your culture.”
Campos often felt a lack of Salvadoran representation in the media in her childhood and found it hard to seek role models outside of her family.
“We see Mexican culture all over the media — people celebrate Cinco de Mayo, and there’s Coco, and other movies and TV shows where there’s Mexican characters or Mexican-American characters, but I feel like we never really see Salvadoran representation in the media,” Campos said. “I feel like just about anything that people know about El Salvador is that we have pupusas. Growing up, it was difficult for me to find role models, people that had my parents’ background or my background.”
Today, Campos feels a sense of pride for her background and for her culture. She reflects on her journey to get to this point and embrace her Salvadoran and American identities.
“I’ve wasted so much time being embarrassed about something that’s so rich in culture and traditions and history, and now I’m really proud,” Campos said. “I’ve grown into someone that’s proud of where they come from … and who is so intrigued and interested in finding out more information. And once you get to that point, it’s easier to navigate both sides of your culture.”