Larissa Hotra

Larissa Hotra (Survivor Corps in El Salvador): Larissa graduated from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources in 2004. She worked at the nonprofit SafeHouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan as a legal advocate and as an environmental science educator to high school students. She then served as the Midwest campaign coordinator for Global Impact, a nonprofit that raises money for international humanitarian organizations. By night, she worked as the Political Affairs Editor for a Ukrainian Internet Newsletter, e-POSHTA. Throughout her time in Chicago she dabbled in everything that the city had to offer: producing a story for Chicago Public Radio on the Ukrainian diaspora; organizing and working with the Ukrainian diaspora through PLAST – a Ukrainian youth scouting; attending free cultural and musical events; practicing her Spanish language skills in Latino immigrant neighborhoods; and trying to play soccer on every piece of green space in the city. At the time of her fellowship, Larissa was in the first year of a Master’s program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Three robberies and a piece of apple pie

23 Jun

It took a lost (or stolen) credit card, three robberies, an unrequited love fixation-thing, 33 mosquito and otherworldly insect bites, a fake radio stint, super Spanish-English scrabbling, the majority of the Euro Cup, a homemade TLC waterfalls video, a healthy midnight karaoke shift, a humbling piece of unsweetened apple pie, and three weeks for me to be able to write freely, willingly, and contentedly.

Lord knows what experiences it would take for me a write a novel (fiction or non).

Hmm…maybe I should start experiencin’ tomorrow then.

But today, I’m ready. I’m here, now, and in the moment. More than ever, El Salvador, El Sal, Salvador, The Saviour is starting to sink in. Subtle Sal. I’m not sure what it is about this place, but it’s got some sort of magic to it. Well, rather, I do know what it is. It’s the distracting dichotomy of this country. Simultaneously stressful but subtle.
Both beautiful
terribly ugly.

Impressionable, yet easily forgotten.


Stormy violence and heavy rains, although the weathered people call for sunshine.

Minimum wage in the service sector of $.80/hour; gas prices increasing upwards of $4.55/gallon; bus fare hike $.20/one way.

Cost of a bean and cheese pupusa in 2005: 35 cents; cost of the same pupusa in 2008: 35-65 cents; Cost of a pupusa in 2011…

Murderous. Malicious. Malignant. and

oft Mistaken.

Such is the ying and yang of El Salvador. For a country of numerous volcanoes, ~6 million people and only ~21,000 square kilometers, it is strikingly subterranean. I started my time here residing in the “Happy Hotel”, savoring the surprisingly cool climate and my daily breakfast ‘tipico’ of refried beans, tortillas, platanos and queso molado. I have also happily returned to my monkey roots, eating a minimum of two bananas/day-just like in high school.

My office is a mature mango’s throw from my new apartment, which is a green mango’s throw from an enormous shopping center, which is a red mango’s throw from a park full of life-sized 1920’s cartoon characters.

(For the record, I am allergic to mangoes. I tested it again last week, to my own detriment).

Perhaps you are wondering about the robberies, the love-fixation thing, and the pie mentioned so slyly above. I will get to those three—bear with me. As I have been (re) learning, patience pays off. But if you are waiting to hear about the TLC “Don’t Go Chasin Waterfalls” video, you will be waiting for a long time.

Life here is not, as the Guanacos say, tranquilo, tranquilo. Calm, calm. That is, life in El Salvador as a blond hair, blue-eyed American gringa is not exactly calm, calm. Nor is, as far as I can tell, life as a dark-skinned, hardworking National. Semantics here, on the surface, go a long way in disguising what is not being said. What they say about the people here—that they are incredibly warm, generous, and helpful—is absolutely true. . Every day I am greeted with a “Buenos, Buenos dias” (Good morning/day/afternoon). What is not being said, though it is written in indelible black ink on the national facade—the amputated arms and legs, the loss of half of one’s family in the war, and the daily violence and struggle for survival for many people—is also absolutely true.

Since being here, I’ve been feeling the subtle stress of the city and a conflicting double dose of both love and fear. When I first arrived, I was told not to leave the house after dark and I was not to go anywhere alone, for my own safety’s sake; I was barraged by news in the paper about gang violence and murder; I was forewarned never to carry more than $20, dispersed in all of my pockets. My roommate was robbed within two days of being here and my office was broken into over this weekend. The Pacific Ocean stole my sunglasses. I have now grown eyes in the back of and on top of my head.

And then today, the service-woman, Maria, in my office gave me a piece of pie.

While we waited outside the office for the police to finish their investigation of the robbery, I found out that Maria makes about $6.40/day. She told me matter-of-factly. Because it’s reality, and because we’re friends. I slip her milk chocolates and perform silly antics in the office, and she walks me every day to the Argentina café to buy my usual $1.50 lunch of rice, steamed veggies, and the special of the day. Maria, by the way, never buys anything.

And today, I came into the office—after the repairmen attempted to fix the mangled barbed wire fence and broken barred window—and Maria cornered me in the kitchen, shoving a white paper bag into my hand. “What is this?” I ask, confused. “It’s bread,” she answers. I peek inside and realize it’s a substantial piece of apple pie. “Wow,” I say, “what is this? Is this for me?”

“Yes, it’s for you, “ she answers, with a gleam in her eye.

“Maria, that’s so nice! But, why? You shouldn’t have. Really. You are spoiling me!” I scold her.

“Love. Because I love,” she responds, a smile playing on her lips.

That piece of unsweetened apple pie probably cost Maria $1.00— more than what she makes an hour. It is surely, unequivocably the sweetest piece of pie I’ve ever eaten.

Earlier today, I was retelling one of my co-workers about this past weekend I spent in Juayua chasing waterfalls and searching for hot springs on someone’s farm. He offered to take me to his nephew’s farm sometime, if I liked, to find more hot springs and relax in the fresh mountain air. I heartily agreed, and asked about the rest of his family. That is, the family that is left. Of his immediate family, only 6/12 of his siblings and his mother survived the war. As he noted, he was “lucky enough” to only lose half of his arm, “thanks be to god.”

Last week, at a small business and leadership training for survivors, I fell into conversation with one of the attendees, a man with one leg and a heart of (non-prosthetic) gold. He was telling me how life was difficult in the country-side, even for a hard-working man like himself. The bus prices were increasing, people were killing each other still, and staying mentally and physically healthy in a tumultuous world is not easy. And yet, he felt peace, “because there is no peace like that peace which is in your own heart.”

I rest my case. Love, apple pie, and faith in humanity are really beautiful things.

And now I sit here on my bed, staring out my window through the storm at the volcano to the south, the mountain to the north, and everything in between (especially the huge spider that’s crawling up the lemon tree outside my window). North, South, East, West—I suppose it doesn’t matter where you go, but how you go, why you go, and what you learn. Love is everywhere and evil lurks in dark corners. But even in the darkest if times, I believe one can find a glimmer of hope, a mountain of faith, and a piece of pie.

So far, I think I’m going in the right direction.

Posted By Larissa Hotra

Posted Jun 23rd, 2008


  • Ash

    June 24, 2008


    What an incredible blog. Your descriptions are so full and vivid. It’s just the inspiration I needed in the midst of my frustrating days here in Lima. Keep writing !

  • Hillary

    June 30, 2008


    What a story Lari! Wonderful writing and I’ve been thinking about you a lot. Chicago is beautful and she misses you.

  • Kelly

    July 4, 2008


    This is my favorite entry so far….so poetic and really describes the essence of el salvador to a far off chicagoan. It’s really sad, but heart-warming in other ways at the same time. I do think the true nature of people are shown in the worst times-good hearted people shine and the nasty ones wither away. IT makes you think, how would US people behave if we were put in really hard times? (not just expensive gas prices and a recession). Would we give away our only piece of pie that costs a sixth of our daily salary? We are in community that’s indiviudalist, self-focused and it’s sad to say, I’m not sure if we Americans have it in us to give the shirts of our backs so to speak. I think in times in trouble, the average American is taught to save themself first.

    I even get this from my mother, who is a kind woman. Whenever I am about to sacrifice something for another, it is always “preserve yourself! preserve yourself!” Perhaps this is mother’s instict, but I can’t help thinking it’s America’s train of thought. My sister pushes me into the corporate educational sector because she wants me to have a better life, but I think, who will take care of the under-served kids in the education system if I go there? Maybe it’s our generation, slowly changing the common self-perservationist thought pattern of the U.S….or so I’d like to think!

  • Jeannette

    August 13, 2008


    honey, i love you. que magifica!

    i love the dexterous use of mangoes as measuring devices. you’re right – the monkey in you is definitely reemerging. keep eating those bananas, baby. of course, el sabor of the regular ones can’t compare to the special finca lago de atitlán ones, but, clearly, they are necessary for you to enter alternate states of being and writing.

    i love your stories. you are my story.

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