ROMERO COMMUNITY, El Salvador – When Gloria Mendoza’s home came crashing down during the earthquake that hit El Salvador in 2001, her first thought was relief that neither she nor her children had been hurt. Her second thought was the realization that they would now have to search for somewhere else to build a new life. “All the walls made of adobe fell to the ground,” she says. With her husband out of the picture and El Salvador’s patriarchal culture making it difficult for women to hold down a job, let alone take on the role of breadwinner, Mendoza struggled to find somewhere to settle down.
Then she came across others, mostly women, who had also lost their homes either in the civil war of the 1980s or during the 2001 earthquakes – in some cases both. Hungry and desperate, they had ended up in a place that welcomed families who would have faced prejudice and condemnation almost anywhere else. The Romero Community, situated in a mountainous area within the municipality of Tonacatepeque, consists of about 450 people. And 90 percent of them are women.
For Mendoza and many other women, the community is an oasis in a male-dominated country. The women of the community are able to thrive, as they are secure and supported by others who understand their experiences. And for over a decade, a dispute over land rights had threatened to destroy it all.
Named after revered archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed in 1980 for speaking out against military repression, the Romero Community was founded after residents learned that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was building homes for the victims of the earthquake. The catch was that beneficiaries of the housing project needed to possess land deeds. Many of the Romero women had come together years before, finding each other by chance or word of mouth. Some had been displaced from the capital San Salvador, others from seaside towns – and most didn’t have husbands, so found it almost impossible to support their families. By the time the USAID project was announced, the women were already united in their search for a new home. But with no legal rights to land, they decided in 2005 to illegally settle on a patch of government land.
The group, which originally consisted of 140 families, was thrown off the land and many were arrested. But they returned and started the legal process of having the land rights transferred to them. As they waited, they began to build their lives into what would become known as the Romero Community.
In 2008, the group got a visit from Leslie Schuld, executive director of the Center for Exchange and Solidarity (CIS), a nonprofit founded in 1993 after the signing of the Chapultepec Peace Accords in El Salvador. She had learned of the Romero Community’s struggle when she was giving a workshop in a nearby town on human rights.
“They were desperate and ready to throw in the towel,” Schuld says. “They told me their story and showed me all the documentation of the legal steps they had taken. I was convinced they could gain their rights to the land with support.”
Schuld brought in a human rights lawyer and a land rights attorney to help. Government leaders promised the residents the land within months – the process ended up taking 10 years. But in May 2015, each family in the community was finally granted rights to the land they are living on.
“The lawyers accompanied and oriented the community,” she says. “But it was the community themselves who made their case and eventually won.”
Soon after, the people of the community began taking down their homes made of tin, plastic and old bed springs, and replacing them with small but sturdy, colorful homes. “With this new home comes a new life,” Mendoza says. “Now when it rains, the roof won’t come crashing down and our bed and clothes won’t get drenched in water.”
Her neighbor Maria de Los Angeles Flores Hernandez joined the Romero Community nine years ago with her two children. Flores Hernandez describes her previous home as one made of sticks, green plastic and a piece of fabric.
“When strong winds came through, I entrusted myself to god,” she says, her voice still shaking at the memory. “What most worried me was my children who were so young then. I would stay up all night.”
Beyond shelter, the women say they have also found a strong support network and the freedom to dream of better things for their children.
“It was incredibly hard at first because I didn’t have the support of a partner,” Flores Hernandez says. “I may not have financial support [now], but I have plenty who have my back.”
Although the Romero Community started as a way for families to work together to survive, one of the group’s early goals was to change the mindset of its people from survival mode to one of empowerment. “From the beginning, our focus was on women and youth who are left out and marginalized,” says Schuld.
“These women have made huge changes not only in their own lives but a lot of women develop into leadership roles once they do find their voice.”
There are currently 16 women who have emerged as leaders in the community, teaching others to grow organic crops and earn an income for their families and the community. The original residents “were elder women, single women, single mothers,” says community president Carmen Acevedo. “There were very few men. You had to learn to self-sustain.”
The mindset of their children has also changed. Many of the Romero families are subsistence farmers and some sell products in the markets in Apopa or clean homes in San Salvador. But most are unemployed. Schooling was once thought of as luxury, but now the community’s children see college as a viable path to a better future.
According to Schuld, even just a few years ago many of the community’s residents could not read or write. Since then, several have learned. “One of our scholarship students trained as a government literacy worker and helped many of [the older women] graduate from sixth grade,” she says.
The women of the Romero Community all talk of feeling proud about how far they have come, especially in a country where women’s rights are often an afterthought. The Center for Gender & Refugee Studies says El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide in the world. According to Amnesty International, 475 women were murdered between January and October of 2015, up from 294 the year before.
Outside the Romero Community, being a woman is a liability. But inside, it is something to be celebrated.
“We’re our own bosses here,” Acevedo says. “We don’t suffer for being women and we can move forward.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.