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Closing the Circle of Caring in El Salvador
By James Garbarino ’68

“Cecelia came up to me, sat down in my lap, and snuggled up against me.”

On May 17, 2010, I arrived in El Salvador as faculty advisor for a group of undergraduate students from Loyola University Chicago, to begin a nine-day immersion program focusing on social justice and spirituality. The terrible violence and trauma of life in El Salvador during the political oppression and civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, and the subsequent gang violence that has come to plague the country, were very much on our minds.  How could it not be as we visited sites where religious and political activists were assassinated, and where innocent civilians—mostly women and children—were massacred?

But when I arrived, El Salvador was already very much on my mind, and weighing heavily on my heart. One of my roles as a psychologist is to serve as a scientific expert witness in death penalty cases in the United States. I testify for the defense in an effort to help judges and juries understand how early experiences of abuse, neglect, trauma, family disruption and poverty can set a young person on the path to involvement in gangs and other violent criminal activities that lead to murder. The goal is not to excuse the defendant, but to show why the terrible toll of these early negative experiences should be considered as a mitigating factor in sentencing.

When we arrived in El Salvador I had just begun work on a case that had its roots in El Salvador. Alfredo Prieto stands convicted of murder both in California and Virginia, but he started his life in El Salvador. Born in 1965, his childhood was marked by domestic violence and savagely disrupted by the political violence of the 1970s and the poverty that sent his mother to seek work in the United States. His grandfather was assassinated when the boy was 15.  At this, his mother returned to bring him to the United States. A poor, fatherless immigrant in Los Angeles, he promptly joined one of the Hispanic gangs. Out of this terrible developmental cauldron of political violence and gang activity, he emerged as a killer. His life is forfeit.

Every American should feel a special responsibility for these developments because it was our tax money that funded the political oppression of the 1980s of anyone who dared to speak up for social justice on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised—like Archbishop Romero, who was assassinated in 1980. The students and I were all struggling to make sense of our role in all this. On the second-to-last day we visited the Lidia Coggiola School in the El Zaite area of Zaragoza, a community of great poverty and gang domination.

After introducing ourselves to the children, we sat down with them to undertake a craft project. When I had finished with my group I sat on the floor to watch the children and the students. While I sat there, a little girl – I learned her name is Cecilia-- came up to me, sat down in my lap, and snuggled up against me.  I sang her a lullaby, and we sat together until the activity was over and it was time for her to go back to class.

As a psychologist who has spent his professional life focusing on issues of abuse, violence and trauma, I knew that young children are rarely as ready as this child was to seek comfort in the arms of a stranger unless they were victims of abuse and neglect at home or in some other way have been traumatized. So, rather than seeing this little girl as just a particularly friendly child, I was alerted immediately to the likelihood that her behavior was a sign of loss rather than just cuddliness. The school’s director confirmed this: her father is a gang member who drinks, does drugs, and abuses the little girl and her mother when he is drunk.

I knew what I had to do: find a way to make amends somehow for my sense of American responsibility for what happened in El Salvador when my death penalty client was growing up. I learned that the school had a program to promote literacy among the children—and their parents, some 60% of whom are illiterate.

“Do you have a library?” I asked.

“No,” replied the director.

“I want to donate the money to create a library for the children in the school, a library that can support your literacy program,” I replied.  I could take a first step toward repairing the circle of caring that was ruptured decades ago by donating the money I would be earning as an expert witness in the Prieto case.

Although this small individual gesture may be insignificant in the big picture, I feel that “returning” this money to El Salvador is a beginning. 

It won’t stop there. My students and I are organizing students and faculty at Loyola University Chicago to “adopt” the school to help its children grow and prosper by restoring a program to feed the children lunch and improve teaching resources.

When I was a student at St. Lawrence in the 1960s we talked a great deal about “making a difference.” That’s what this is all about. I can’t change what happened to Alfredo Prieto as a boy four decades ago, but I can perhaps exert some small positive influence on the life of little Cecilia and the other children who struggle with life today in Zaite, El Salvador. I returned in October 2010, for what will be the first of many visits to the school, to bring donated puppets, present a workshop on “trauma and child development,” and connect with Cecilia’s family. I bought Cecilia her own bed so she does not have to sleep in the same bed with her father and brought her the only toy she has ever had. It’s a start.

James Garbarino '68 holds the Maude C. Clarke Chair in Humanistic Psychology at Loyola University Chicago. He is a developmental psychologist who has dealt with issues of violence and trauma for the past 35 years, since receiving his Ph.D. from Cornell University. The author of 23 books, he holds an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from St. Lawrence. To learn more about this program, go to or contact Professor Garbarino at
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