Celebration at the Gym: A story of dreams and determination

Sometimes, dreams come true. 

This is the story of a gym. A gym made of dreams and determination.

The gym is getting ready for a party!

In a way, the gym story begins in Milwaukee. We have a friend, a professor at Marquette University, who was and is doing investigative work in preparation for authoring an academic paper with a focus on violence. In the course of things, she grew in understanding the impact of violence-based trauma in her own life and in the life of a small Salvadoran community. She began looking at her research topic through a different lens. Seeds were planted. Relationships grew. And so did an idea: to plant a free community gym in the center of Comunidad Romero in Tonacatepeque, El Salvador. Leaders decided to locate the gym right next to the Casa Comunal (community house) as a sign that this gym is not a gym only for gym bros, not a gym to push diet plans or supplements, not a gym selling sexiness, but a free community gym where all people are welcome, all bodies are respected, all are safe, and all can have an opportunity to heal from holistic trauma carried in the body.

I should mention, our friend, known to many as La Hormiga (The Ant), is a power-lifter. 

La Hormiga (Noelle)

On celebration day, the gym equipment was pushed aside to make space for rows of plastic chairs. Volunteers gathered early in the morning to decorate with balloons, assemble raffle prizes and gifts, make tamales and set up the power point. We arrived early (well, on time, which in El Salvador means early), which gave us a little time to chat.

"We have to have dreams, you know," said a young man who walked around making folks feel welcome.  He told us he was in his last year of high school. His English was pretty great, and he was confident as he spoke. "In a place like this [community], you don't know how to make dreams or how to achieve them, cuz, well, there is some bad stuff that happens here." 

Comunidad Romero sits along side the neighborhoods of Distrito Italia. It is not a secret that the neighborhoods of Distrito are controlled by the gang. This is a community with a reputation, not altogether undeserved. The families, and particularly the youth who live here, carry the heavy emotional weight of violence - rumored, witnessed, experienced. Living in these neighborhoods means always having your radar up, paying attention to the situation of the day, worrying about police raids, and worse.  The stigma of having an address in this part of the municipality of Tonacatepeque is hard to overcome as young adults seek employment. At this point, the trauma is generational.

Getting ready for the celebration

"But here at the gym," the young man continued, "we learn that we have to go for it, you know? We have dreams and we have to chase them. I am not sure what I want to do yet, but I want to go to the university. Maybe industrial engineering. Maybe the law." As the afternoon moved on, we could see this guy is dedicated and attentive to detail. He's beloved.  He is trusted. He's got a future and he knows it.

Some of the young leaders at the gym

We ended up at the gym's inauguration celebration because La Hormiga invited us.  In fact, we have been trying to get to the gym for several months, but it is a little tricky to get there at night from outside the community (for reasons previously stated.) The gym comes alive at night.  It makes sense - people work during the day.  

We asked if we could bring Pastor Santiago along to the party. Usually he is the one inviting us to stuff, often with a strategic subplot in mind.  This time, we were the ones to invite him with a strategic subplot in mind.

Celebrating leaders at the gym

Distrito Italia is just up the road from Los Héroes.  (Yes, the Los Héroes, which I write about a lot.) All these little communities along the road to Tonacatepeque are as familiar to Pastor Santiago as the back of his hand. He has walked and worked and carried out the ministries of the Lutheran Church, with his sister church beside him, here - in the reality of gang rules, turf wars, recruitment, extortion, murder, revenge hits, detente, police raids, false arrests, appropriate arrests, military intimidation, families fleeing, and families returning. Of course, there is goodness and joy in the midst of the trauma. We've had some whopping great times in Distrito. We 've done workshops at the schools, hung out with staff at the clinic, walked from home to home visiting families, started up a Sunday School (more than once), met with local government officials, watched soccer games and even done community service projects. But Santiago has been here for the toughest stuff. The healing gym seems like a really important place for us, and especially for him.

As we finished talking with the young man, a familiar figure appeared in the doorway. Carrying his trusty walking stick, an old friend from Los Héroes flashed a toothy grin my way. Even with my mask on he recognized me. What a surprise! He and his family had fled Los Héroes after his daughter and grandkids survived an horrific attack which took place in their home. We had no idea they were currently living in a nearby community. He and Pastor Santiago sat down to catch up.  A little later, the friend's youngest son and his girlfriend showed up.  Oh my!  We had not seen that little guy since he was in elementary school!  Now, not so little. He clearly makes good use of the gym. I have a feeling that if we were to hang out at the gym, we might encounter other familiar kids who have grown into young adults with their own little ones. And it's cool that the whole family can come to the gym together.

Pastor Santiago and a longtime friend.

The celebration began with giving thanks to God for 
bringing together all the pieces to make this dream a reality.

There was no plan for Pastor Santiago to participate, but a community
member asked him to give a second blessing. 

From the get-go, the gym was a community-based project. From making concrete weights, to doing walking stretches in the dirt, to flipping tires, women and men, young and old worked their bodies and worked together. Breaking down gender stereotypes and gender roles is a big focus of this project. Every person who comes to the gym must agree to abide by the gym rules and promote the gym values.

Aracely and Noelle read the rules.

Inclusivity:  It's a space of inclusivity open to everyone, no matter the age, level of fitness, disability, gender, sexual orientation, class, nationality, ethnicity nor from what neighborhood you come. We don't tolerate any machismo, racism, misogyny, fat phobia, or discrimination. Here we celebrate the abilities of all bodies without exception.
Health: Here we care for ourselves first.  It is not permitted to smoke or drink inside the gym or outside.  Everyone also has to support the hygiene measures, including cleaning the machines after use and cleaning the floor when you finish with a training group.  Do not come to the gym if you are sick.
Solidarity:  This is a space to strengthen the community, not only muscles.  Don't criticize anyone. Treat all the members of this community with respect.  Don't touch anyone without permission.  Everyone has the right to train in the clothes they want without listening to any comment.  Here we are all athletes.
Body Positivity:  In this space we celebrate the body and its abilities.  You are already strong and able.  we practice self-love.

The gym in Comunidad Romero is not just a gym, it's a movement. Our friend worked to establish a US-based non-profit, Pesas y Poder and networks with organizations in El Salvador and in Wisconsin. The dream of building this gym would not have come true without the partnership of el Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS El Salvador) which has a long-standing program supporting youth and women with scholarships and projects in this community. The team has some new creative ideas for generating financial support and growing relationships such as gym to gym sponsorships and volunteer course leaders. It's pretty impressive to see the variety of direct teaching seminars that already happen at the gym such as nutrition charlas, workouts which focus on specific health issues, and even a little library for kids to practice reading books in languages other than Spanish. Throughout the afternoon celebration, local leaders and volunteers shared in the presentations and were given honor for their contributions in dreaming, visioning, strategizing, raising funds, constructing, teaching, and monitoring.  

The story of how the gym got its name

The gym is named after two women, Elba and Celina.  The older generation of Salvadoran women would likely recognize these names without explanation. One of the young leaders at the gym reminded us of the action which Elba took with her own body to protect her daughter, Celina, as the military fired shots at them. Both women were killed and are honored in El Salvador as martyrs alongside the Jesuit priests who where murdered by the military that same night. "This story reminds us, as women, that our bodies are strong and that we can take brave actions with them."

Photo entitled: Empowered Women
Photo credit: Gimnasio Elba y Celina

Women receiving gifts in honor of their support
and participation

To learn more about the gym, the dreams team members hope to realize, and the broader work which Pesas y Poder is doing in El Salvador, do a little research! Follow the links in this story, and check out a few other stories such as this one which highlights the work with women entrepreneurs and this one from El Salvador Perspectives.


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