La Ceiba El Mico
LA CEIBA EL MICO
by Matthew J. Newman
The Peace Corps’ mission has three simple goals:
1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of the other peoples on the part of Americans.
For twenty-seven months, I served as a Community and Economic Development Specialist in Peace Corps El Salvador. I was a foreigner in a foreign land. To survive, I learned the local language, culture, and adapted myself to unfamiliar situations. It was a long process and I am now proud to say that I have overcome the emotional and physical difficulties that my Peace Corps experience presented, and emerged not only bi-cultural, but with perhaps two of the most meaningful and valuable years of my life.
I was asked a strange question upon returning to the United States: “What will you miss the most from El Salvador?” There is no correct answer to this question; however, one image that symbolizes everything does come to mind: La Ceiba El Mico.
Standing in the midst of fields filled with sugarcane, watermelon and rice, the ceiba tree is a natural skyscraper. The Mayans even believed in La Ceiba Sagrada, where the extensive, bulky root system is where heaven starts on Earth. Although no one knows the age of this particular tree, it is the oldest, tallest, and biggest of the municipality, unquestionably hundreds of years old, and older than the Republic of El Salvador itself. We may never know the real reason why the inhabitants of El Porvenir call it El Mico, the Spanish word for “Monkey,” but I was determined to find out. I asked some of my closest friends in the Pueblo, which opened the floodgates for an inquisitive research investigation of the tree, not only for the community, but to satisfy my curiosity.
I decided to take this task to the streets of El Porvenir and ask my most trusted colleagues. Don Jorge, a community elder and a close friend who maintained the municipal tree nursery, of which I helped to implement, told me the tree is called El Mico because the branches are in the shape of a monkey’s tail. Emi, the owner of the computer center where I spent hundreds of hours discussing computer maintenance and business administration, told me that there is a knot on the tree, which retained the appearance of a monkey’s face, until the tree grew and the outline disappeared. Some local farmers, whom worked in the sugar cane crops around the tree, told me a story of a land owner – nicknamed El Mico- who suffered a life-ending heart attack while leaning against the tree and giving orders to his workers one morning. Other community members told me stories of times before crop cultivation in El Porvenir, when there was a great forest surrounding the tree, and gang members would hide behind the tree to grab passers-by by the arms like wild monkeys and pull them into the forest to perform unspeakable crimes. The urban legends and myths continue (including one with a short woman, who had a potbelly, sombrero, and reversed feet – named La Cipitia); however I feel this gives sufficient evidence of the cultural importance of this sacred ceiba tree.
In relation to Peace Crops’ mission, La Ceiba El Mico symbolizes the first goal, representing all the work I accomplished. Although I facilitated projects in different development sectors, a significant amount of my work had an environmental theme. Due to obvious reasons, the tree is naturally a representation of the sustainable environmental conservation projects that I collaborated on in El Porvenir. Like the tree, the work is not mine. It is of itself and of the community. The tree has no owner, and like sustainable development work, is something that must be preserved and exist for everyone and everything. My administrative training and higher education in the US gave me facilitation and technical skills that many community members were able to benefit from. Some of the work I accomplished involved a tree nursery that is annually producing over 40,000 reforestation trees, which was also tied into a stove project that only used 1/3 of the amount of fuel (wood) for cooking. Capacity building was a main theme in all of my projects, as sustainability was the key focus in all of my endeavors. With a newly founded municipal environmental and disaster relief/preparedness committee that I helped to create, thousands of trees were planted along the river where La Ceiba El Mico resides. In addition to the reforestation campaigns, we implemented numerous other projects in order to conserve and better the area around this important landmark. With the support of the City Hall, non-profit organizations, local health clinics, and a cultural center, I used my event planning skills to help create an annual celebration for International Environmental Day. Hopefully as a result of my work, this important cultural symbol of El Porvenir – an embodiment of culture and history that has stood tall through colonization, slavery, civil war, and peacetime - will last many more years into the future.
Peace Corps’ second goal refers to a sharing of the American culture with the Salvadoran nationals. As my personal culture, I run for recreation and health benefits. At first my goal was to run from my house to the ceiba tree without stopping, a distance of about 2.5Km. By the end of my Peace Corps service, I was able to run to the tree and back without stopping, a total distance of 5Km. This was a learning experience for the community, as no one had previously ran for recreation, nor were aware of its benefits to health. At first, the locals watched me zoom by them as if I were crazy. Then, little by little, other community members began to run in the morning. In this sense, the tree represents setting personal goals for myself, as well as a way to share my culture with the locals. This not only related to fitness, but other personal and professional goals as well. I had an objective, made a realistic plan, followed through with it, and achieved my objective ahead of schedule, due to my strong work ethic. This mentality of positive thinking and responsibility was vital to gaining the confidence and trust of the community members. They knew I was true to my word, and that I was a man of action. This was an important factor to help motivate the community and show that great things were possible by maintaining a passionate and focused mentality.
The third goal of the Peace Corps is to promote a better understanding of the community served, to Americans. Because of my career path I am determined to make the knowledge, skills and abilities I have acquired while serving in Peace Corps, continue to benefit society. However, little by little, as my memories of these meaningful years begin to fade, I only need to think of La Cieba El Mico. Remembering its enormous shapes and contours, how it dances in the wind and its god-like presence, brings me back to El Porvenir. It brings me back to the feeling I had while not only working in an impoverished, under resourced, socially problematic society. But it will take me back to my friends, that unforgettable feeling of completing a project that makes lives a little more comfortable, and, most importantly, the acceptance that I received from the community.
For my final project I was asked to design the official emblem of the municipality of El Porvenir, El Salvador. I remember the day the Mayor requested a meeting with me as if it were yesterday. The Mayor recently saw some artwork I made for a sign I had designed as part of an infrastructure project that I solicited from USAID, as well as some other pieces I gave to friends in the community. As the municipality did not yet have an official flag or emblem, the Mayor requested that I design one. After a vote with all the community leaders on some prototypes I had drawn up, one of the designs was accepted. To symbolize the urban sector of the municipality and the culture of the people of El Porvenir, I used La Ceiba El Mico, as the centerpiece of the flag. Moreover, after over two years building trust and confidence with the community members, the symbol is representative of the community’s culture and the goodwill of its inhabitants. To me, it represents the meaningful work I accomplished, the culture shared, and the permanent legacy that I have left in the modernization process of a beautiful place in Central American history. If you were to look in the Diaro Oficial of the Republico de El Salvador, you will find the official emblem of El Porvenir, El Salvador, as well as a thank you letter for everything the community has shared with me. As the biggest honor of my life to be able to design an official municipal emblem, the symbol was the epitome and culmination of my Peace Corps service. For this, I included La Ceiba El Mico; the symbol of the most meaningful years of my life. This is something I can never forget.