What he does is challenging. But when the driving forces are passion and a genuine commitment to change the status quo, then it is all worth taking the risk.
“We can’t stay quiet, we must defend our opinion, nobody can censor us.”
This motto has long been the thread of Napoleón “Napo” García’s life. He looks like a normal 23-year-old student of International Affairs, blissfully experiencing his exchange semester at the University of Groningen. In fact, when he discloses some details about his life back in El Salvador, his country of origin, it is immediately clear that he is anything but ordinary.
Although the United Nations mentioned him as the youngest ambassador of El Salvador in 2013, he doesn’t want to be perceived as the “famous guy”.
He sits on the couch, wearing a steady vivid smile and, in spite of the low temperatures, a pair of colourful flip-flops. A snippet of the tropical Salvadoran climate in the drizzly Dutch autumn.
When he was 20 years old his life had a turnaround.
March 2012. The political elections for the local government took place in San Salvador, the capital city. The statistics showed an impressively low rate of voting attendance – less than 50% – especially among young people.
Ever since he was very young, Napo has always been involved in social activities, providing help as a volunteer to the rural communities, where people often live in extreme poverty. The moment he realised the general alarming disinterest towards politics, this sense of responsibility towards his country sharpened his concern. “Everybody needs to participate in order to make the system work”, he comments.
El Salvador is sadly known for being one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Plus, the recent 13-year civil war, ended in 1992, in addition to the decades-long political instability, have left the country in a social, political and financial brittle situation. Drug cartels and criminal gangs rule the country, homicides are the order of the day, rural communities are incredibly poor. Nevertheless, politicians do not take action – on the contrary, they are deeply corrupted.
Three months after the elections, during a casual conversation, Napo and his friend, Daniel Galeas, came up with an idea: starting their own project, aimed at facing the rampant negligence towards political matters in El Salvador. The goal would be to increase political participation and raise awareness towards national issues, mainly among young people.
They decided to involve another friend of them, Gabriel Zura, who enthusiastically supported the idea. That was when “Censura Cero” started becoming real.
On the wake of the worldwide ongoing revolutions, from the Arab Spring in northern Africa to the “Free Education Movement” in Chile, that instilled them with confidence and enthusiasm, the three finally started to put their intentions into practice.
“At first, we didn’t know neither what exactly we were going to do, nor how we were going to do it”, Napo recollects. To get started, they would use the simple means they had. They previously agreed on some main features the project should have: it had to be cheap, easy to replicate and mainly based on social networking.
After much brainstorming, they figured out a clear and feasible way to involve youth’s voice in the political debate: interviewing politicians themselves on national issues. They then recreated a TV channel on an online platform (namely, YouTube) and set pressing questions based on their own agenda. Zero censorship, the literal meaning of “Censura Cero”, was and still is the theme of the project.
“I’ve seen true poverty”, says Napo, his smile switched into a serious frown. Being a member of NGOs that work with very poor communities has totally changed his life and his perspective on the world. Helping out rural communities, in which basic goods like water and electricity are anything but granted, turned him into a different person. “I used to be very picky. But after seeing what real hunger is, I started to eat everything and I never say no. Now I always try new things, even when I’m scared of them.”
When he sees his country falling apart and his peers acting with indifference towards it, he just can’t stay with hands in his laps.
“I understand that, after years of civil war, people have lost credibility and interest in the institutions. But in my opinion, if the government is corrupted and we allow it, each one of us, at different levels, is corrupted too”, he says, squirming on the couch.
The vigorous drive to contrast indifference and corruption, led Napo, Daniel and Gabriel to officialise “Censura Cero”. After three years of arduous struggle with bureaucracy, it is now a proper NGO, constantly involved in several events around the world. Though, Napo, with tenderness, still calls it “the project” because “there are always new ideas on the table.”
One of the most recent ones is “Ideas Peligrosas”, a series of events consisting of a tour of almost all the universities of the country, aimed to involve students in debates on “dangerous ideas”, such as sexuality, homosexuality, abortion and drugs
According to the current law, abortion is illegal in El Salvador: women who practice it, and even those who have suffered a miscarriage but who are unfairly accused notwithstanding, are prosecutable and can be locked up in jail for years. Victims of the widespread stigma are also members of the LGBT community: even though same-sex unions are actually legal, several episodes of violence against them have been reported in the past few years. As stated by Human Rights defenders, criminals enjoy impunity after the murders and police hardly investigate.
“For you or for everyone else here in the Netherlands, talking about these topics might be normal. But for us, who come from a very conservative country, it’s not. We are trying to talk about topics that our society wants to avoid”, remarks Napo.
With this series of meetings, “Censura Cero” gives students the opportunity to discuss delicate topics by approaching to them academically, rather than dogmatically. When talking about abortion, for instance, the lecturers and the experts attending the panel discussion provide the audience with solid background information and ground their ideas basing upon real data. By doing so, when students engage with the speakers and ask questions about the topic, they receive concrete answers, that go beyond the one they are regularly used to hear: “because of God”.
Why nobody has ever had a similar idea before?
Napo sighs. “Actually, people have a lot of good ideas in my country but they are afraid to put them into practice. What we do is not easy, but we have to take the risk. I lost a lot of things. My old friends don’t understand what I do. My mother doesn’t approve because she thinks it is too dangerous. My ex-girlfriend left me because I would put too much time and too much love in what I was doing. And believe me, I really love what I do.”
Whether “Censura Cero” is really changing things in El Salvador is difficult to say, though. People participate, someone has even tried to replicate the idea, and this gave the board a very rewarding feeling. What is certain is that, moved by extreme passion, Napo and the rest of the board, which currently counts eight members, are doing everything in their power to achieve their primary goal.
“One of the main things that makes us strong as an association is the massive amount of contacts we have.” The biggest humanitarian organisations trust them and listen to them. “While the others sit in front of a computer and wait, when we need a contact we just go out of the office and try everything to get it.”
Now that Napo is in Groningen he is trying to enjoy the Dutch experience at its fullest. “I feel very bad because from here I can’t work properly on the project. But, on the other hand, here I can study and enjoy life at the same time. In my country there is a crazy competition among university students. Only the best will get a job at the end.”
Despite all the things that do not work properly in El Salvador, Napo has no doubts about coming back home.
He hesitates a few seconds when I ask him why.
“I’m not a patriotic person and I don’t believe in nationalism. I believe in the people of my country. … And I truly believe in this project. It’s my passion This is the reason why, one day, I want to make a living out of it. It is my next, big step.”