Cindy Zavala: MISS SISTER CITY – COMMUNITY SERVICE AMONG SALVADORANS
WHEN: 6 April 2014
WHERE: American University, Washington, D.C.
INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski
Q: Tell us how old you are, where you were born, something about your family.
CZ: I am 21 years old and both my parents are from El Salvador, the state of San Miguel. They have been living in northern Virginia for over 20 years now. I was born and raised in Alexandria. I found out about the sister city association through a friend, also Salvadoran, who was working with the committee. Seeing the work she did got me interested.
Q: Give us an idea about your family.
CZ: My parents are both really hard workers. My dad is a carpenter. My mom is a house maid. I grew up seeing them work really hard. I was always focused on school, especially higher education. I have three younger brothers who are also really hard workers. I think that my passion for education came from my parents. Once I moved to DC, I learned more about the city. I consider myself a Washingtonian-Virginian now.
Q: You grew up in Alexandria and attended public schools there. What kind of experience was that?
CZ: I went to Cameron Elementary School, a unique place. We had to wear uniforms. It was like a private school, though it is public. It had a great principal, George Towery. He finally retired, wrote a book and everyone was so excited in reading the stories he had, since he had really changed the school.
Q: What was the complexion of that school? What kind of people attended? Did you feel like you fit in?
CZ: Sure. It was mainly Latino, but it was really diverse. Northern Virginia is very diverse. You have people from Kashmir, from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. There are people from all over. I grew up in a bi-lingual setting. My parents spoke Spanish at home and I did, too. I spoke English at school. Starting out, I remember going to classes to speak both languages fluently. Cameron Elementary allowed for that, too. There were many international nights; kids would share their foods, their cultures. Culture was always a big thing for me. I was motivated to learn more about my culture. Even today, that is something I do here at American University in organizations and it is reflected in the student body.
Q: What sort of cultural interactions did you experience growing up in Alexandria?
CZ: Mainly, it was music. My dad was a Cumbia promoter. Cumbia is a music of El Salvador. I would say that it is the music that people listen to the most. It starts every birthday party, every cultural event we have. Originally, it is from Columbia, but it is popular throughout Latin America. For Salvadorans in northern Virginia, Cumbia brings back memories of home. My dad would bring in artists from El Salvador to this area for concerts while fundraising for community projects in El Salvador. That is what the San Miguel committee of ASCA does, too, in its own way. Fund-raising is accomplished through a pageant in order to serve the community in El Salvador. So, I grew up watching my dad do this kind of work. When we had parades or festivals in DC we would come out to support them.
Q: With what group will you be doing that?
CZ: My dad founded an organization called ACOSAL. It is an association of Salvadorans in northern Virginia who want to stage cultural events or send medical equipment, school supplies, or other resources back to El Salvador.
Q: Is your dad unusual in being so connected with El Salvador so deeply?
CZ: Not unusual in that sense. Many Salvadorans here are connected to Cumbia and to the community back home, sending money back to their families. What makes my dad unique is his leadership style. He is a carpenter, but also an organizer and a promoter. These are skills he learned on his own. He did not go to college, did not pursue higher education. He was the eldest of four children and had to work since he was little to help his younger siblings go to school. But he valued education; whenever an opportunity came along to learn, he would seize it. Today, many ask him whether he would go back to his home town and suggest that he should run for mayor, because he has done so much for the community. In that sense, he is a really special person, the person I most admire. Throughout the day he builds houses; after this work he is constantly calling his friends, organizing events to support the community.
Q: How has his example affected you?
CZ: I am a Public Relations major here at AU. I have always liked public relations, networking, and people. It is the kind of think my dad does; I have grown up with it. All these things I am learning in my classes—sponsorship packages, press releases, and the like—these are things that my dad does naturally, having learned on his own. He doesn’t even know there is a major for that. So, he has been the person who has most inspired me and kept me connected to my community. I have always kind of shadowed him, followed him around.
Q: Both your dad and your mom are from San Miguel?
CZ: They are from Chirilagua. San Miguel is a city, but it is also a state. They are from the state of San Miguel, but from the city of Chirilagua. ASCA’s relationship is with the city of San Miguel. I just love San Miguel, for its beauty and because the carnival is so amazing.
Q: Do your mom and dad talk to you a lot about their time in San Miguel-Chirilagua?
CZ: Yes, they do. Not in the sense that they sit me down every day and start a conversation about the past. I have always been a curious person, even as a little kid. They said that I would always ask many questions. I gradually found out more about them in this way. It’s important to do that, because one day they are not going to be there and will no longer be able to share the stories. I have always dreamed of writing a book or something like that, at least for my family. They don’t hesitate in the least in responding to my questions, but they don’t naturally tell me things. For example, I didn’t even know that my grandfather was mayor of Chirilagua. He served for three terms during the Salvadoran civil war, which was the hardest imaginable time. I was at a restaurant fundraising for the Miss Sister City pageant and I introduced myself to another guest, who then asked what city I was from in El Salvador. When I said Chirilagua, they said “wait, you mean from the city hall? Who is your dad?” “Wilson,” I responded. “Right! Your grandfather was mayor.” When I then asked my dad, he confirmed it: “and you didn’t tell me this?” (laughter) “You never asked…” Well, that’s a good example of my dad’s personality.
Q: Your grandfather must have been well established.
CZ: Not really. Back home, he was a carpenter, too. We have never been rich. Maybe he was a bit better off when he was mayor. There was even a phase of poverty.
Q: Still, your grandfather had to convince a lot of people to vote for him.
CZ: That’s true.
Q: What did you learn about El Salvador from your parents?
CZ: I have learned about Chirilagua’s traditions and culture. The name means three stars, from the pre-Spanish, indigenous tongue. It is a mixed population, many with a Spanish background, but also many indigenous families from Central America. El Salvador has an interesting history. There is a connection between the civil war and Salvadorans in the United States. I have learned a lot about the history of the struggle of our people and why we are here.
Q: What led your parents to leave El Salvador?
CZ: I think for both of them it was work. There were no job opportunities there. There was also the war. My father went to California; my mom, too. That is where they met. Los Angeles. They were married in Los Angeles and then decided to move to Virginia, because they could find work. Gradually, they put down roots.
Q: When was that?
CZ: Let’s see—my dad came in 1987 or 1988. They were married in 1990.
Q: If you are 21, you must have been born in 1992 or 1993…
CZ: It was in 1992.
Q: What about your mom?
CZ: She has always been the more realistic one. My dad’s a dreamer. Mom thinks about paying the bills every month. Of course, she loves El Salvador and our culture, but my dad has a passion for organizing community events and programs. Mom supports him all the time. She is realistic, down to earth. He is always dreaming about different projects.
Q: And you have three siblings.
CZ: Three younger brothers—I’m the oldest.
Q: That’s a big deal—you’re the oldest and maybe the first of the family to go to college?
Q: They must look up to you.
CZ: The second brother, Wilson, is a Freshman at university now.
Q: His name is Wilson? Why Wilson?
CZ: My dad’s name is Wilson.
Q: That doesn’t sound too much like a Latino name…
CZ: In El Salvador, a lot of people don’t have Latino names. They have Russian or American names because of the Salvadoran war. People tried to guess who was going to win. If you thought the Russians would win, then they would name their children Vladimir or Lenin. You find a lot of people with those names.
Q: And Wilson comes from President Wilson?
CZ: I think so, but don’t quote me.
Q: Your secret is safe with me. (laughter)
CZ: My grandfather was reading a book and there was a character named Wilson. Someone else told me that it might have had a German origin, but I’m not sure. But his middle name is also interesting—it’s Obduman, of Arabic derivation. They are not Latino names. And my mom has a Russian one. Her name Aidanidia. I have a cousin with a Russian-derived name too.
Q: People were choosing sides in naming their children?
CZ: That’s what I was told.
Q: What about Cindy?
CZ: Cindy, came from a baby book.
Q: Is it just Cindy, not Cynthia?
CZ: Just Cindy. People always ask me, thinking it is short for something.
Q: I am beginning to get the picture. Your family is thoroughly ensconced in the Latino, especially the Salvadoran community here. You are connected to Cumbia music, you have grown up in a bilingual household. When your parents first emigrated from El Salvador, did they already know English?
CZ: No, they knew only Spanish then. They did have to learn English. Sometimes they still struggle with it. They know more than they think they do, but they are a little shy about expressing themselves, because they are so used to speaking in Spanish. This is very common among Spanish-speaking immigrants in the U.S., in large part because there are so many people to speak Spanish and understand Spanish and they feel less of a need to perfect their English. If you are coming from a country with a less universally spoken language, like Dutch, for example, you’re going to have to learn English.
Q: I guess that is a common story in the U.S. A century ago, my parents started their lives in a Polish immigrant enclave and my dad actually attended a Polish-language school for a few years before switching to the public school, where the language of instruction was English.
CZ: Right! I have seen that there are still parishes with Polish liturgy in the U.S.
Q: Of course, it’s a challenge for the immigrant generation to get the local language. Do your parents ever talk about the conflict in El Salvador, the war?
CZ: There is a huge Salvadoran population here, so it is definitely something they talk about. It is an important point of reference. Frequently, there are events in this area, whose aim is to commemorate or analyze it.
I have learned that many of the Latino national organizations and organizers have been Salvadoran. Until I learned otherwise, I simply assumed that the leaders had to be Mexicans, the largest Latino immigrant group in the U.S. The organization NDLON – the National Day Labor Organizing Network—is an example. They work to prevent deportations, the separation of families, often over legal technicalities, and resulting in great injustice. Laws must be enforced, but must be tempered with justice. I learned that one of the founders of NDLON is Salvadoran. For me, the lesson was the need constantly to learn more about the Salvadoran community here and of course Salvadorans in El Salvador.
Salvadorans born here share a certain sense of separation. When they visit El Salvador they are immediately confronted with it—they suddenly realize that, yes, they are U.S.-Americans. We discover that we have a little bit of an American accent when we speak Spanish. And when we speak English, we have a little bit of a Spanish accent. We just learn to be bi-cultural. I think that must be true for anyone who shares more than one culture.
Q: How did you navigate that when you were in grade school and high school?
CZ: It felt like it was just part of my life. I didn’t think about it. It was just natural. Nowadays, I just try to inhabit both cultures, speak both languages, encourage my brothers to speak Spanish. For them, it’s even harder. They speak mainly English. So it is interesting to see what the future generations will look like. I would want them to speak Spanish, but I don’t know if that will happen. I can see my brothers speaking English and not teaching Spanish to his kids.
Q: It happens…
CZ: Right, just like you were saying about you not learning Polish…
Q: But you do lose something, and I have always regretted not having had the other language.
CZ: I think that is something that, in general, all communities have to work on.
Q: What about high school? What was that like for you?
CZ: That is when I started working with the San Miguel Miss Sister City program. I was 16, so a sophomore. I became active during the third year of ASCA’s Miss Sister City program, in 2008. There had only been two queens before me. Around the same time, I was president of the People-to-People organization at school, a program that sends people to different countries. I never made the trips, but was always actively involved in organizing them. I was also president of the College Partnership Program, designed to help first generation immigrant kids access critical resources they might not otherwise know about. During those years, I was also president of the Hispanic Leadership Club. Our aim was to get Latino students involved in extra-curricular activities. I was also involved in a Spanish-speaking version of PTA. I guess I was an over-achiever in high school.
Q: I guess so! Did you have a chance to study when engaged in all those pursuits?
CZ: I participated in the IB—International Baccalaureate—program. Schools are either IB or AP [Advanced Placement]. Virginia schools are more likely to do the IB program. So, I got the IB diploma. I was an honor student. I was definitely more of an over-achiever in high school. In college, I have not been an over-achiever in the way that I was in high school. Then, I cared about getting the best grades. Since then, I discovered that it is more important to be reflective, concentrating more on the learning than on the grades. But I have also been intensely active while at AU as well. I just always loved being involved. That is my challenge: I become so involved that I need to work at finding time to squeeze in the homework.
Q: So, you have continued your engagement in the Latino community.
CZ: Just so. I am active in NCLR [National Council of La Raza], the largest Latino civil rights organization in the country. I also worked with a Mexican folkloric collective. They play Son Jarocho music that originates in Veracruz, Mexico. We practice every Tuesday.
Q: Do you play an instrument?
CZ: Yes, the Jarana—it is like a small guitar. When I graduate, which is coming really soon, I want to either be a promoter, kind of like my dad, for other musicians, or be a musician myself.
Q: How did you learn the Jarana?
CZ: I met an organizer named Salvador Sarmiento, who was working for the Robert F. Kennedy Center at the time. He gives lessons in the Mount Pleasant area of DC. He is from Santa Ana, California. He teaches the instrument and gives free workshops every Tuesdays. I went to every workshop until I learned how to play.
Q: What drove you in high school and at college to be so involved?
CZ: Maybe it was the example of my dad. He was so involved. That became my norm. Also, there have always been opportunities to do things, especially in DC. During my college years my passions have been set alight and I could define my prospects as never before. Everything has connected: my work with sister cities, work with my dad, defining my career. Looking ahead, I want to write books, make albums. My dad is a forward thinker, too.
Q: You mentioned your dad’s organization. What is it?
CZ: It’s called ACOSAL.
Q: Does he have a leadership position in that organization?
CZ: He basically started it. There are no positions, per se. Just a group of activists sharing a vision. They are having an event in May. In February, they brought in a band from Columbia to perform with a local band of Salvadorans. After that, they were able to send medical supplies to El Salvador. They sent wheel chairs and medical beds through many hospital donations. They were able to send them to rehabilitation centers in El Salvador. It was an enormous effort to gather the supplies in a warehouse, put it in a container, and then ship it to El Salvador. It was inspiring to witness. His efforts demonstrate the power of an individual. I saw it unfold, literally, in my back yard. He started collecting supplies in the house, a wheel-chair every week. Then he needed to rent a storage room. After that, they got the container and shipped it down. My first memory of my dad’s activism came in the aftermath of a huge hurricane—Mitch, I think —which devastated El Salvador. It destroyed communities. We got news of it as it was happening. His response: “I want to go and rebuild houses.” Ours: “okay, but the Red Cross is organizing that—you don’t need to do it.” Next thing I knew, returning from school one day I was amazed to see my house—it looked like a Home Depot exploded on the property: supplies were everywhere; wood everywhere; a bunch of carpenters were busy packing stuff. When I asked what was going on, he said “Oh, we are going to El Salvador next week. We are getting all this stuff ready and plan to rebuild houses.” He actually made it happen. The newspapers covered it. Walter Tejada went with him. Walter has always been a huge friend of my dad. They went down and rebuilt fifty houses. They basically fundraised for the carpenters to go down with their supplies.
Q: Let’s now talk about your role in the ASCA San Miguel relationship.
CZ: Carol Avila was the Miss Sister City queen before me. One day I saw that Carol was posting pictures online about ASCA and the San Miguel committee. “Whoa!” I said, “what is this?” So I looked into it and decided that it was for me: I decided that I wanted to be Miss Sister City that year. My mom hesitated at first, but my dad was supportive from the beginning. When she saw I was serious about it, my mom supported me, too. My whole family organized for it. My mom and my aunts would cook and organize food sales at our home.
The way it works is that the contestant who raises the most money gets to be queen. My campaign was intense. I went to various events – like soccer games, for example. There were visits to restaurants, nightclubs, festivals, everything. Finally, I ended up raising the most money. It was a breakthrough year. I was able to raise much more than previous years. That result gave a huge push to the Miss Sister City process. Ever since then, they have grown a lot.
Q: Let’s go into the process in some detail. First of all, tell us what it is.
CZ: Miss Sister City is at the heart of the Arlington-San Miguel sister city relationship. It is a contest, a pageant. Miss Sister City is run the way pageants in El Salvador run. When it comes to the Carnival, the fiesta in San Miguel, it is a city event. Everyone looks forward to it. That is also true for the pueblos, the smaller communities. They are all based on their patron saints. The carnival of San Miguel is dedicated to the Virgin of San Miguel, “Nuestra Señora De La Paz,” Our Lady of Peace. For the city my parents are from, it’s the Virgin de Guadalupe, celebrated every year in December, while San Miguel’s carnival is in November. In those pueblos, they would select girls from different neighborhoods to represent their neighborhoods. The contest is conducted by voting based on money contributions by supporters. Whoever raised the most money would win. This was a successful fundraising mechanism. Salvadoran immigrants here took their inspiration from that practice. There are the usual pageants based on beauty as well—Miss Universe and the like. But for some reason, there are also these local pageants. The ASCA San Miguel committee tries to recruit contestants whose families come from different parts of El Salvador to minimize competition for the same funding bases. In 2008, my year, I represented Chirilagua. My family and friends in Virginia and the region would naturally support me. There is a large Chirilagua community; there is a large Intipuca community, and communities from other Salvadoran cities. During the Miss Sister City pageant events, the master-of-ceremonies will always call out the various cities expecting, and always getting, cheering from relevant segments of the audience.
Through the program, the committee has been able to raise significant funds and then carry out community service projects back in El Salvador. Committee members have taken supplies to schools. Computers have been provided. Now they also send teachers to teach English during the summers, who volunteer a month or so of their time. Thanks to the pageant, the committee can fund the teacher’s transportation to and from El Salvador. The teacher is supported during her stay, as well. The San Miguel committee thus focuses on cultural and educational exchanges. ASCA’s other committees, say Reims or Ivano-Frankivsk, are more focused on student study abroad experiences.
Q: Take us through the pageant cycle. When and how does it start?
CZ: It starts in the summer, usually in July. Potential contestants go to the first meeting with your parents. My dad went with me.
Q: How old were you then?
CZ: I was 16. So, I went to the meeting. A presentation was given. The current Miss Sister City was there. ASCA San Miguel committee members are present. The presentation and talk covered the carnival, the agenda for the week’s visit, what the city and region looks like, what is happening during the visit. For example, you meet the mayor, there is a Thanksgiving dinner there. They also explain how the pageant fundraising works. The events for the coming year have already been scheduled and that information is shared. They also tell the group what the winner wins—a flight for you and one parent and accommodation in El Salvador.
Following the first presentation, contestants develop their own plans for campaigning. Three common events are planned for dates in September, October, and November. September is the first round, the primer escrutinio. Another round follows the next month. The third round is the crowning and it is at that moment that you hand over the money you have raised. The rounds are essentially big parties. In between, you are just fundraising, fundraising, fundraising. We attended various events.
Q: What do the rounds look like?
CZ: The first round was a huge party at a night club. All the girls are presented. Admission tickets are sold under the names of the contestants and the sums raised count toward the totals raised by each girl. There are elements of a gala—people dance and have a good time. At the end of the night, the score is announced.
Q: So in the second round, people already know what the standings are.
CZ: That’s right. And the second event is very much like the first. Sometimes the lead changes among the contestants. The committee plans the events to build towards higher levels of fun and excitement. A dance group may be invited to the second event. A mayor or some other notable from El Salvador may be part of the program. More people from other ASCA committees will be present.
Q: Who shows up to these events?
CZ: Walter Tejada! (laughter) He is always a popular one. They brought in the queen from San Miguel before too.
Q: And what sorts of people show up to participate in the events?
CZ: Mainly it is family and friends of the contestants. In my year, my teacher from school would go, my friends from high school, my aunts, my cousins and all of my parents friends would go to try to support me—everyone you knew was there.
Q: Roughly speaking, how many people show up to an event?
CZ: It could be as many as 300. It’s different from year to year. But the last event is always more packed, because people want to see who wins.
Q: When does that take place?
CZ: Usually the last week in October or the first week in November. The San Miguel carnival is the last week of November, so everything must be decided well in advance of that, since you have to fly there. Contestants must commit to being in El Salvador for the whole last week of November.
Q: How much did you raise in 2008?
CZ: I raised over $8,000.
Q: How many contestants were there that year and how much was raised all together?
CZ: I think we were four. Several thousands more than $8,000 were raised in 2008. This year, the figure was over $21,000. It has increased every year. The year after me it already went to $11,000 and it continued to rise. Prior to me, the most collected was about $1,000, so there was a huge jump. I guess I made it harder for everyone else…
Q: You showed them what could be done. Success breeds further success.
CZ: That’s probably right.
Q: What was it like being Miss Sister City? What did it feel like to be part of this?
CZ: I think I was naturally a really confident person. I may have scared the other girls. My Spanish was on-point. When I appeared on stage, I would welcome everyone, speak fluently. Sometimes people thought I was born in El Salvador. For many girls born here, it is really a challenge for them to get up on stage and speak Spanish. Every year, Jose Pineda coaches the contestants in public speaking. When Miss Sister City goes to El Salvador, there are media interviews: “You have come from the United States—tell us about your experience in the U.S., the experience of Salvadorans in the U.S.” They are asking you all these questions and you have to be able to have a conversation with them. I don’t know where it came from, but I was always really confident in situations like that. I trace it back to my dad, because I was always around him and conscious of stages and so had to be able to talk to the artists and help him out. I had been doing that for so long that I was known as “Wilson’s daughter.” Miss Sister City was the first thing I did for myself. Finally, I became Cindy Zavala. Nowadays, when I show up somewhere, people refer to me as Miss Sister City—“she was the one who won in 2008.”
Q: It sounds like that was a real coming of age for you…
CZ: Yeah. That was a big turning point. It showed people that I could be just like my dad. My dad recognized it as an affirmation of his legacy, that he had inspired me, too, and that I was doing things in my own way. Even now, he says “when are you going to help me out?” because I am always doing my own thing. As a 16 year old, I took it all so seriously. I was working hard, was confident, was also involved in other pursuits in high school. I had become something of a role model for some in the Latino community. Many parents wanted their kids to stay in school and succeed. In that situation, I couldn’t mess up. I tried to be the best person I could be when I participated in the program. It was also the first time that I cared about grooming—my hair, my make-up and the rest of the pageant stuff, because you did, after all, have to act the part of a queen. I had friends who were dancers and models. I had always been a geek in school. In 2008, people began to comment “Oh, Cindy’s not a geek. She is dressing up.” Of course, many young girl wants to be a queen. You want to be the one with the crown. Fairy-tale princess type stuff. But I took it very seriously. I didn’t see it just as a pageant; I saw it more as being a little ambassador, going to El Salvador and getting to represent our Arlington community. In fact, the reason I came to American University and started in the School of International Service had much to do with how inspired I was by the work I did with Miss Sister City. I felt that I wanted to be an ambassador of the United States to El Salvador some day. I thought I wanted to work internationally. I discovered it was not for me—I love the idea of it, but I realized I am more a people-to-people, party-planning type person. That is when I made the switch to the School of Communications. It worked out great: I got two years at SIS and two in Communications.
Q: How did you get the idea of the ambassadorship, this public persona?
CZ: I think it came to me as I began to research the sister city; I realized this is part of something bigger. I learned that it was part of Sister Cities International, which was launched in the 1950s when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. It was also driven home by the ASCA San Miguel committee, who helped prepare me for my role. “You are going to be representing us,” they said. “You will be speaking Spanish, and it must be your best Spanish.” I was always such a good kid, very obedient—I never thought of breaking the rules.
Q: Still, it was a huge challenge to step into a role like that. Were you ever nervous?
CZ: Not really. I overcame a sense of shyness quickly when I was a child. It’s something that my parents have always admired about me. Even my teachers said that I could be a great public speaker if I could control the ummms and ahhhs. I got a lot of encouragement. I took a speech class at AU, but I still need to practice more.
Q: Let’s return again to some of the details about the program. How did you plan for the trip scheduled for the week of carnival?
CZ: Fausto Fonseca, at that time secretary of the San Miguel committee, gave us a printed agenda of our activities in and around San Miguel. My mom decided she would accompany me along with my dad. There were so many visits, including many appearances and courtesy calls to establish a presence, along with the more substantive aspects. We attended dinners. One was a military dinner given by the queen associated with them. We were invited to events organized by the various committees supporting all the different queens.
Q: So, there are a whole series of different queens in the carnival…
CZ: Yes. Basically, San Miguel has a queen for everything—queen for the military, queen for the Red Cross, queen of the hospital, queen of a particular school, a queen of every group that wants representation. In all these cases, the queens are selected—a neighborhood will select someone for the honor who had done some act of service. Others are straight-up beauty competitions that also involve public speaker. And the third kind is the fund-raising sort. They are ways for young girls to get involved in the community.
Q: A whole sector of the carnival is organized by the selection of queens…
Q: Are there other organizational sectors for carnival, or are the queen selections the basic organizing device?
CZ: Music is a big part of it. On the last day of carnival there is a huge parade, where all the floats go by. And something like fifty bands are playing in different parts of the city in the street, no admission charge anywhere. People just walk around enjoying the scene. The streets are filled. City traffic is stopped just for the carnival. In the lead up to the big parade there are smaller ones during the day. There is a huge celebration at the church. Tradition is that Our Lady of Peace stopped the lava from the nearby volcano from destroying the city. You may have heard that the volcano has recently erupted again—El Salvador has five of them. Other events include a Thanksgiving feast, the Thanksgiving International Dinner that brings together the sister city queens from other U.S. cities, from example from Texas, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York. All these states have Salvadoran communities and have similar programs. At that event an international queen is crowned. So, we were a large group of queens with whom I interacted.
Q: I am guessing there are other activities planned for you, too.
CZ: Americans are part of our delegation, so there are things that appeal to them, like a tour of city hall and a meeting with the mayor. In my year we had the official signing of Arlington’s relationship with San Miguel, so I was present for that. Arlington’s mayor and San Miguel’s signed the documents. Beyond that, there were press conferences and interviews with the media. We also got to meet the President of El Salvador while attending the inauguration of the building of commerce. I still haven’t met a sitting American president, though I did get to meet Bill Clinton out of office. All those experiences motivated me even more to take myself seriously.
Q: What about your service missions to local schools? Did that happen then, too?
CZ: Yes, I think I ended up going to three schools. I visited one in Chirilagua, another in Chilanguera, and one in San Miguel. Actually, this was the best part of the trip, because this is what you worked for the whole time. I remember getting very emotional and I cried. I was feeling a bit weird—I didn’t want to wear my crown around the students. I wanted to blend in, be in jeans. But the little kids get very excited about meeting the queen. Even in this interview, talking about myself like that seems strange, because I have to transport myself back to the mindset I had in high school while doing sister city, but my mindset has changed a lot. At present, I am more about organizing with the community. Sister city was in a different place. I still very much appreciate sister city, but I have learned that the way we do things can really change. But on that day my emotions ran high, because I was able to see how much it meant to them to get the supplies we brought. I was overwhelmed by the love of all the little kids, kids you did not know personally, but who you could connect with in that way. The way the sister city committee organizes the welcome is highly developed; they are very good at it. They get the school involved, along with the principal and the students. They are ready with a band and activities are planned; the kids performed for us and we got to meet the teachers: the school site visits are amazing. It is all exceptionally well done and I have to say that is something they should continue to do.
All that said, the way we are taught community service when I was in high school—work at a soup kitchen, participate at a shelter, do a one-day service event—needs to be questioned. It is not long-lasting. It’s one-day service. And that is kind of what Miss Sister City is doing. We weren’t creating long-lasting relationships, which is essential. It is really hard to do. Short engagements are easier, immediately successful—it’s not like you can get the queen to volunteer for 40 hours during the week for a year. So, I understand why the system is the way it is. But, I was really in shock when I started college, because of how service is organized. At AU I work for the Center for Community Engagement Service and quickly realized how very different the models are. AU was one of the first in the country to develop a model organized according to the principle of community-based learning. It feels much more bottom-up, an approach that works well among Salvadorans. Some Salvadorans are beginning to see that if we continue in the traditional way, we are not empowering people. Reflecting on my experience, I might have felt good, but I don’t think I empowered the community. I gave them resources, so in that way I might have helped. It’s sort of the same with my dad. He engages the community with the best of intentions. It is really hard. Someone must open your eyes for you to be conscious of the problem.
There is a big difference in the ways U.S. Latinos organize on the west coast versus the east coast. I have learned a lot from the Mexican-American community and the Chicano movement. I still have so much more to learn. I have gravitated towards them, even though there is a large Salvadoran population, growing even larger. But we haven’t been here long enough. There are still not many Salvadorans to look up to in American society, thought that is beginning. There are people in local government like Walter Tejada, for example. I care about that and hope I can contribute in some way. Mexican-Americans have been here for generations. Some have always been here. After all, California was once part of Mexico. As a consequence, they have done a great job in being able to practice both cultures. Nowadays, they do more projects that involve organizing as collectives, without hierarchies. When we talk, I can relate my experience as a sister city queen. They learn from me and I from them. Many have moved to this area. In the musical group I am a part of, my colleagues’ way of organizing is different.
Q: Do they also have links back to Mexico?
CZ: Yes, there are. In July, I will probably travel to Veracruz, Mexico for my first time with them. I will be able to explore how they do things in Veracruz when I am there. The style is one that prizes sharing. We will take classes from the people who play music there. Part of the experience is purchasing new instruments from them. In this way, they are able to sustain a campesino. I still have so much to learn.
I haven’t stayed engaged with Miss Sister City. Maybe I could do more. But I am in school and working and have also evolved in my thinking about organizing.
Q: Do you think the sister city idea—founded as you said in the 1950s in the Eisenhower era—is still as valid today as it was then?
CZ: I definitely think it is because of the people-to-people engagement. That is what we need. One should distinguish governments from the people. Not everyone can do that. I have actually traveled to Cuba. In my office at AU we organize alternative breaks. I have always gravitated towards trip organizing. A central element of Miss Sister City is about trip organizing and exchanges. When I visited France with the ASCA Reims committee around the time of the Joan-of-Arc festival, it was similar. The AU alternative breaks program sends students to different parts of the world, also within the U.S., to do social justice work. The breaks are thematically organized. When I went to Kenya through this program I looked at the politics of ethnicity, learning about conflicts between tribes. We have organized trips to Chicago to look at poverty and homelessness and to San Francisco to examine LGBT issues. There was one to Guatemala to look at women’s rights. In addition to my trip to Kenya, I did two to Cuba. The Cubans we met had nothing against us; they could distinguish between us as individuals and the U.S. government. They knew we were not to blame for the embargo. And that is why people-to-people interaction is so important. That mode of contact creates long-lasting relationships. You might be going to school with the future leader of China. His view of your culture will depend on the personal relationship he has with you. Therefore, what the sister city organizations are doing is essential and important. They shouldn’t go away; they are needed. In fact, we need more of them.
Q: We have not yet touched on one interesting detail of the Miss Sister City cycle. After you return from San Miguel, what happens? Is that when the whole process starts again?
CZ: You point to a weakness, in the sense that, once back in Arlington, we congratulate ourselves on having accomplished our mission. In my case, I continued to participate in community functions. Since then, this has been increased. In recent years, the queen can return to San Miguel during the summer with the teachers program. Locally here, the queen is engaged in events like Fiesta DC and other festivals. The queen continues to represent the committee and at some point the work enters a new phase in which contestants for the coming year are recruited. The reigning queen must be present during the nominating and competitive rounds and present at the crowning of the new queen. It is too expensive to make many trips to El Salvador, but maybe we could be doing more locally. I have been talking to my dad about the fact that, while Salvadorans like to stay connected to El Salvador through service projects, we pay less attention to the Salvadoran community here in the States. People are still immigrating, new to this country. In the musical group I participate in, Son Cosita Seria, A Serious Little Thing, there is an effort to start a cultural center, a space to rent, where we could run workshops and classes to get the youth engaged in culture. We need to engage the youth here, if we want them to continue our legacy. Even the consulate of El Salvador has recognized the value of this idea. It could look like a Latin American cultural center, reflecting the diversity of backgrounds—Guatemalan, Bolivian, Salvadoran, Mexican—unlike California with its overwhelmingly Mexican population. This was the idea behind the Gala Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights, which is doing a great job with programs like Paso Nuevo (The New Step). Theater classes are offered in which the students create their own scripts, their own plays, and then perform them. A Salvadoran poet, Quique Aviles, is involved with an amazing story of his own.
Q: Does the sister city committee have any role to play in these sorts of things.
CZ: Not now they don’t.
Q: Should it?
CZ: I think they could. It would be great. Right now they have been focused on the carnival and the pageant. And the cultural exchange they do can only be applauded. It is very demanding and there are very few individuals who can devote the energy and time required to make it the success it is. Committee activists are volunteers, doing this as a hobby, and have families to support.
I was just talking to Fausto’s daughter, who is Miss Sister City this year. She is planning to go to El Salvador this summer, so she will get to interact with the teachers from Arlington who are giving classes.
Q: So, you continue to remain in touch with the group.
Q: What are your thoughts about the future of the San Miguel committee? Every group needs to be replenished.
CZ: The San Miguel committee has slowly, gradually started to change. Presidents have changed. Roles have been redefined. Some have left. Usually the family and the city that has the current queen is more involved, as there is an incentive to organize events during the November visit. In essence, they are doing a great job in managing their transition and making it a long-lasting thing. The future of it will be interesting, because of the generational shift. What will happen after my dad’s generation when my generation assumes leadership is a scary prospect. It will be different. My dad was born and raised in El Salvador and then came to the U.S. He is an immigrant. When my generation kicks in, those born here in the U.S., we will still have a connection to El Salvador, but mainly our life is in the U.S. Our connections to El Salvador will be limited by our status as Americans. Whatever I pass along will be something I have heard from my dad. If I have children, they will have an even greater distance to the culture. That is one of the reasons I am fascinated by the Mexican-American second generation. All of my Mexican-American friends are at the stage my children will be at. What will happen when people don’t practice the culture of their parents? Some vestiges are always available in, say, ethnic restaurants.
Q: Immigration waves come and go. The specific mix of immigrants differs from wave to wave.
CZ: I have pondered the future and that prompts me to be attentive to my parents. I have thought about writing a book to capture aspects of the experience that might otherwise be lost. Your oral history project is a welcome initiative. The Smithsonian has started something similar as well, where you can record your family history and it will be added to the Smithsonian’s collection.
Another aspect is marriage practices. In El Salvador, almost every marriage was between Salvadorans. But for Salvadorans in the U.S., and taking my own family as an example, every one of my cousins who is first generation American has married outside of the Salvadoran community. You can sense how the Salvadoran identity is changing in my family as a result of this and all the other cultural influences at work. The evolving identities are complex. Often the marriages are between first generation immigrants from different origins—from Jamaica, from Haiti, from Honduras, from Peru. Now, when we go to birthday parties, not everyone is Salvadoran. That was a big culture shock for my grandma. “You didn’t marry a Salvadoran?!” So, even though it is hard for me to admit it, I know it will be hard for me to keep the language and the culture. Seeing what has happened to every other immigrant community, it is bound to happen to us as well. But we can also recover and remix our culture with the help of an institution like a cultural center, so that people could at least know their history. And knowing your history is very important. There is a saying that the Mexican cultural group in Santa Ana, California, has “cuando la cultura muere, muere su gente”: when a culture dies, its people dies with it. That saying is so important to me, because I have learned about how indigenous groups have lost their language and suffered dissolution. Even in my own family, my grandma doesn’t know much about the family’s indigenous roots and the family took on a more Latino identity. My family has been Spanish and indigenous; there was a mix. How to keep cultures alive will continue to be a big challenge for people in the U.S. One also has to accept change. And maybe that is why Miss Sister City and the sister city relationship is so important: it serves as a point of reference in a world defined increasingly by global processes. Globalization is making the project launched by Eisenhower both more relevant and easier. People in the 1950s could not have foreseen how communication would improve to today’s standards. We can send a text message to someone back home, to be received immediately.
Q: What are your next plans?
CZ: I am seeking employment in this area. There are student loans to pay off. I would like to help my family. Beyond that, my dream is to perform music, especially Cumbia in its Salvadoran version. So, I want to create music and write a book. I also want to help other artists. I have already helped bring in an artist from Los Angeles—arranging gigs, shooting music videos and the like. I want to remain deeply involved with the community locally, maybe help start that cultural center now under discussion. Or just teach people about culture. Looking beyond the next few years, I told my parents that I really want to move to Los Angeles.
Q: Why LA?
CZ: I gravitate towards the Californians living here in DC. I have many friends living in California too. My parents met and were married there as well. Somehow, I feel more Californian than Virginian. I feel like a west coast person living on the east coast. However, I do have a lot to do in DC before I go. I want to stay here to support certain organizations and the community. Right after I graduate from American University in May, I have plans to visit LA and Santa Ana for two weeks and I am so excited! Members of our musical group, Son Cosita Seria, will be traveling together. We are going to be in LA, San Diego, and just across the border in Tijuana. It will be my first visit to Mexico. We will meet with people at the cultural center in Santa Ana, California. There is a group passionate about the idea of establishing a cultural center in DC, so we are going to visit the one set up in Santa Ana to learn how they manage to involve kids at a young age. Many problems—drugs, teen pregnancy—are related to kids not being engaged in the community. Sometimes they don’t feel a connection. That’s why my father is so keen on sports and cultural exchanges. He started a soccer academy in Chirilagua supported by the fundraising concerts he did here. That came from personal experience: he was a soccer player; he loved soccer. He says that his youth was all about soccer. His initiative helped deal with the drug problem in Chirilagua. Soccer is something you can get passionate about. He arranged cool uniforms for the academy as an incentive to entice participation. My grandmother would sell food at the soccer games. Part of Miss Sister City intersected with the soccer leagues here. So, there are a variety of mechanisms. Soccer is one; the pageant is another. They are ways to celebrate, to get people involved in positive things. ASCA itself has organized soccer exchanges. And there are other connections, too. I remember vividly when the Coyoacan committee was involved in bringing the Frida Kahlo pictures to the Artisphere.