This Is Not a Travelogue (With American Jewish World Service in Central America)

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The word that kept coming up was “accompaniment” (acompañamiento in Spanish). In the second floor offices of the poetically named sex workers’ rights organization Flor de Piedra (Flower from the Stone) in San Salvador – ten or fifteen off-white plastic chairs set in rows on a tile floor under a glass roof; coils of barbed wire on the wall between this building and the next – a reflection of the high rate of violence and fear pervasive in El Salvador – four or five staff in their thirties and forties, sex workers of the same age who were members of the organization.

Purple flower growing in sandstone.

Professor Aryeh Cohen traveled Central America with the American Jewish World Service to meet partner organizations like Flor de Piedra (Flower From the Stone) which advocate for sex workers


In the heavily secured (thick metal gate at the top of the steep staircase, barbed wire visible through the window) second story offices of COMCAVIS Trans – a necessity because of the violence faced by trans women on a daily basis – sitting in a cramped corner office with the slightest hint of a breeze on a typically hot San Salvador afternoon. Listening to Natalie, a member of the board of directors, speak about the dangers that the trans women who are members of COMCAVIS trans face on a daily basis. The mission of the organization is to represent, defend, and promote trans women’s human rights. However, when Diana, a native of San Salvador, who joined after a friend was assassinated, spoke of the importance of COMCAVIS, she spoke of accompaniment. Sullai spoke about the fact that COMCAVIS helped her get a restraining order against her brother who had threatened her. Other members recalled sitting in the hospital with a member who’d been attacked because her family refused to come see her.
Accompaniment is the term that was consistently used to describe the relationships of mutuality, care, and obligation in the voluntaristic families that were created by the sex workers’ rights and trans womens’ rights groups. When women were disowned by their families, threatened by siblings, harassed by police, denied permission to go to school, hospitalized – it was other women from these organizations who accompanied them to the police to lodge a complaint or to get a restraining order, to advocate for and with them at school, to sit with them day and night as they healed or, sometimes, passed on.
I was in El Salvador with a group of Rabbinic and Graduate students who are Global Justice Fellows with American Jewish World Service (AJWS). I was privileged to be the scholar-in-residence for the group. For nine days in early January we travelled to El Salvador and Nicaragua to meet with a few of AJWS’ partner organizations who worked as human rights defenders and advocates in the areas of trans* rights, sex workers’ rights, and gender based violence.
We were there to learn from the amazing women and men we met, and we learned a lot. We learned about the insidious National Identity law which makes it nigh impossible for a trans person to get an education. According to the law, a person’s appearance (long hair or short, earrings and makeup or not) has to match her picture, and her name has to be her birth name. This makes it impossible for a trans woman to graduate from high school since her appearance is inevitably different from her identity card. This is not coincidental. There are lists of (sometimes official, sometimes unofficial) acceptable gender specific names that are allowed to be given at birth – based on a newborn’s medically assigned gender.
Once educational opportunities are closed out, there are few work options, and often the only viable one is sex work. As a result of the fact that sex work is criminalized, and sex workers are marginalized and discriminated against, the women have reduced access to health care. Sex workers often have to lie in order to access health care and sometimes delay seeking care because they fear negative attitudes, discrimination or arrest. Sex workers also experience high levels of physical violence from clients as well as coercion, extortion, harassment, physical and sexual abuse, arbitrary detention and other due-process violations at the hands of police.
We learned about global solidarity. People from the global north historically came south to extract resources. In the process, indigenous peoples were killed, friendly dictators (friendly to the North Americans, that is) were propped up, repression was abetted. We were trying to learn a way to stand with the people we were partnering with which involved more listening than talking, more humility than arrogance.
In one of the sessions that I taught to our group, we studied a text by one of the 19th century luminaries of themussarmovement, Reb Simchah Zissel Ziv of Kelm. His path to piety demands radical empathy which he names “bearing another’s burden with him.” The specific practice by which one gets to this is by imagining oneself occupying the place of the one suffering, and then asking “what, in this situation, would I want others to do for me?” Doing those things is then bearing another’s burden with him.
Accompaniment takes this one step further, adding a layer of humility to the empathy. One might imagine the pain that the other is feeling, but one has to then say: “I cannot know what they want or need from me unless I ask and then listen.” Learning from the accompaniment that the trans women, and sex workers, and human rights advocates provided to each other – and felt obligated in by each other – we bring back an idea of global solidarity which is based in empathy and humility. Coupled, of course, with overwhelming awe at the courage of people who create beloved communities in places where despair would seem a more natural reflex.
Thanks to John Cape for some very helpful comments.
Reference: Sex Worker Rights: (Almost) Everything You Wanted to Know About but Were Afraid to Ask
For information about AJWS’ We Believe campaign against gender based violence and in support of LGBTQ rights, and sex workers’ rights go here.
This article was originally published on the author’s blog.

Aryeh Cohen, Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, is the author most recently of Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism (Academic Studies Press). He blogs at Justice-in-the-City.com.