Though these photographs are from a morning spent at Cofradia Bilingual School, the teachers are mostly what this story is about. They’re from Germany, the U.S., Ireland, and Scotland; traveling to Honduras to live together in a house outside of San Pedro Sula. Throughout our stay I hear San Pedro Sula referred to variously as the most dangerous city in the world, the murder capital of the world, and the city with the highest murder rate per capita in the world.
Despite this, the group of seven college-aged teachers is very offhand about the danger of the city, only 20 minutes away. A few of them have come back to the small city of Cofradia more than once, some having stayed for as long as two years. The youngest teacher, Eliza, is 17. Their schedules aren’t much different from teachers in the States: get to school early, classes, stay after to make sure students get home safely, go home, lesson plan, etc.
But when they grade the composition notebooks filled with students’ writing they’ve brought home, it’s behind a thick sheet of metal: a 10-foot fence topped with razor wire. The running water in the house is unreliable, sometimes staying off for a few hours, once for four days. “Who controls the water? Why does it do that?” I ask.
“The Honduran government,” Eliza says, with no other explanation.
“And we don’t lift up the drain on the shower,” Liz, a teacher from D.C. who went to volunteer in Cofradia instead of going to law school, chimes in. “There’s a rat down there.”
A few years back a Honduran politician won the presidential campaign on the platform of promising a washing machine to every family in Honduras. The plan was never seen through. Walking around the town we see a bizarre paved plaza in the shape of a cross beside a rudimentary futbol pitch (one of the town’s many) on an undeveloped road.
“Some guy was running for office,” our friend Sadie, who invited us to the Cofradia school, says. “He built this to try and get elected, and then once he did, he just never finished it.”
A large threat to the safety of the town is gangs. Besides violence between rival gangs, the strong vigilante culture in Honduras intimidates many of those known as gang members.
“The townspeople, they just don’t want to deal with it,” explains Sebastian, who’s been in Cofradia the longest.
The gangs stay out of the central town and keep to neighborhoods on the outskirts because of this threat of violence from non-gang members, who are unwilling to permit them to run wild. I think back to the civilian guards I saw near the Honduran-Guatemalan border, walking around with shotguns three quarters of their height, guarding gas stations or the perimeter of the banana farms.
“Most of the gangs are from the U.S. They’ve made their way down here from L.A,” Sebastian replies when I ask why the gangs are fighting. We visit one of these neighborhoods on the edge of town for a dinner of baleadas at a student’s house, and Sadie is eager to leave before dark.
In Cofradia, the Evangelical and Catholic churches are very influential, and drinking and smoking are not approved. “Some of my students won’t even dance.” Liz tells me. “They’ll say, “Miss, I don’t dance, I am Christian.””
On a walk home from a visit to the river beside the town, a man speaking in a fever pitch is audible for blocks before we pass by the church. The plain building is packed with people sitting on folding chairs on a Saturday night, and I recognize what we’re seeing from back in the days when I was about 10 and my family was dabbling in Evangelism. The man shouts something into a microphone in garbled Spanish, louder and louder, until the congregation can’t contain it, unleashes, and shouts unintelligibly back in a wave of responses. “El presencio de Dios!” I hear. “The presence of God!”
It’s difficult for me to give insights on the kids’ lives, whom we showed the van to and photographed for half a day. I don’t want to belittle their experiences by pretending I understand the poverty or violence they deal with. When we interacted, they were normal kids: loud, sweet, shy, rowdy, curious, and stubborn.
It’s hard to accept that our time there is over after such a large window was thrust open for us to see how people truly live in Honduras. So thank you to the teachers (Sadie, Chris, James, Sebastian, Liz, Eliza, Amanda, and everyone in the small house) for telling us where to buy liters of beer for $1.50, how to get a full meal with $1, letting us park our van in your driveway; for showing us the reason you came to Honduras, and the reason why you stay.