I first met Karla Castillo in San Salvador when she was an undergraduate research assistant working on a study of Salvadoran youth migration in 2014. Since then, Karla has won a grant from the Fulbright Foreign Student program to study at Cornell University in the United States. I knew very little about Karla back when I met her in 2014, other than the fact that she had a highly informed perspective regarding the many Salvadoran youths who were being deported from Mexico back to El Salvador. I will begin this interview here, because it is also where Karla locates her academic interests.

Mike: Tell me more about what it was like for you to interview youths who had just been deported back to El Salvador?

Karla: In 2014 I was working as a research assistant for Elizabeth Kennedy, and I interviewed more than 300 Salvadoran children and adolescents, including their family members, who had just been deported from Mexico back to El Salvador. They had tried to emigrate from El Salvador or flee to the United States. Documenting those 300 stories was a loaded and overwhelming experience. I spent time listening to stories of people who abandoned their communities to flee poverty, violence, and social exclusion, but I didn’t have sufficient knowledge or even the resources to help them. I conducted the interviews at the Return Center, which is located in Soyapango, San Salvador. I managed to obtain some distance between my academic work and my emotions, but there were many days that I left the Return Center, got on public transport, and I started to cry. As a result, I decided to devote my life to developing solutions for those who are most vulnerable in El Salvador.

Sometimes there were situations that really affected me. For example, when I used to interview young mothers who were the same age as me (I was 22 years old back then) or who were younger than me, but who looked like they were 5 or 10 years older. I wondered how two people of the same age, gender and nationality, and in theory access to the same rights, could have such different life outcomes.

On the other hand, I also encountered a paradox: undocumented migration was one of the riskiest ways that anyone could travel, especially women, adolescents and children. At the same time, undocumented migration provided the majority of migrants with an opportunity to leave the poverty or violence that they had been living with for many years. In other words, migration isn’t perceived as a lamentable fact of life, but rather, as a survival strategy that people use daily given their social exclusion, poverty and exposure to violence.

Mike: Sociologists and anthropologists have increasingly been talking about the concept of structural violence as it applies to migrants. Structural violence refers to the longstanding political and economic organization of society that imposes emotional and physical distress at the individual level, being rooted in unequal and hierarchical relationships. Recent research shows that structural violence is operating when Salvadorans attempt to cross the Southwest border of the US, particularly the Sonoran Desert. You have some direct experience working in the Sonoran desert, don’t you?

Karla: In 2012, I received a grant from the U.S. State Department to study for five weeks in the United States. As part of that program, we traveled to Arizona and we visited the Sonoran Desert to conduct volunteer work with Humane Borders. We put barrels of water and packed food supplements along transitory routes for migrants and asylum seekers who were crossing the desert. After that, we visited the wall that separates Mexico and the United States.

That was the first time that I took note of the real risk involved in crossing the desert. The elevated levels of heat, the lack of water and food, the difficulty orienting oneself in the desert – they’re risks that migrants and asylum seekers face. Aside from those natural risks, factors such as the border wall, border surveillance and organized crime place a larger physical risk on people in transit. These combined factors enormously increase their vulnerability and risks of dying in the desert. According to data from the U.S. Border patrol, in the past 20 years at least 7,209 people have died while trying to cross the border without documents. The real number is likely higher, considering deaths that go undocumented at various locations throughout the desert.

People are leaving their countries due to conditions that foster systematic exclusion, which they have been dealing with for years. They are searching for work opportunities, access to education, access to rights and security and that local economic and social systems have denied them. The caravans of Central Americans that formed at the end of October 2018 are one such example. Poor people, those who have not had access to quality education and those who have been deprived of dignified life conditions are those who are traveling. After years of being excluded in their own countries they organized, they joined forces, and they departed. The rich are not traveling, nor is the middle class. The economically poor are the Central Americans who are leaving, because usually they are the most exposed to violence in the country.

I understand that your personal research experiences have inspired your current Fulbright work. Can you tell me more about your Fulbright grant and what you are studying at Cornell?

Right now, I’m completing a master’s degree in Public Administration, with a concentration in Human Rights, at Cornell University in the United States. If we want to prevent migration from within El Salvador, it’s necessary to have a public administration that is ethical, engaged, and inclusive. In El Salvador, we have prioritized extractive policies for years in order to generate economic growth. At Cornell I’m acquiring the skills to administer a public apparatus, but one which alternatively emphasizes social justice and respect for human rights.

When you return to El Salvador, I understand that you have big plans, both personally and for El Salvador. Can you tell me more about that?

The upcoming generations can’t just sit back and be spectators to bad leadership in our country. We have to raise our voices and be part of the solution. When I return to El Salvador I intend to get involved in politics. I know that getting involved in politics is an enormous responsibility, and for that reason I’ve been orienting my life plan toward this goal. I dream of becoming the first president of El Salvador. Saying it may seem like a distant possibility. However, I figure this: if someone who wants to be in a position of power just to make themselves rich doesn’t hesitate to do so, then why shouldn’t those of us who have a sincere will to serve our country be brave and take on these positions? Thus, my biggest and (and perhaps craziest) goal in life is to compete for the presidency of El Salvador.

What types of changes do you hope to see in El Salvador in the next 30 years? 

In the next 30 years, I’d like to see a generation of public servants who are sensitized to social problems and respect for human rights. I hope to see a reduction in gender gaps in the workplace and in politics. I would also like there to be a significant advancement in the protection and guarantee of LGBT rights. For all of these things to happen, I hope for a more critical and participatory civil society regarding issues that are in the public interest.