Sick in Nicaragua
France Griggs Sloat
Chris Ortman had been to Central America before, so this trip in the summer before his senior year should have been uneventful. He couldn’t have been more wrong. While interning in El Salvador for CRISPAS, a non-profit faith-based service organization, he became very sick. He had come across contaminated water or food, he doesn’t know which, and came down with an intestinal disease, E. coli Giardia, and strep throat. What was worse that summer of 2002, he was working and living in a rural community and was the only American around.
“It was really hard,” he says. “I found myself in substandard living conditions, and I lost about 25 pounds. But I got to see a different side of El Salvador living in a rural area rather than a city, and I experienced dealing with medical care there.”
Once he recovered after several weeks of illness, he focused on his work with a micro-credit lending project that made cinder blocks to rebuild homes. He helped the people set up the business. He also worked with a youth group and an adult literacy class.
By the time he got back to Xavier, he was totally transformed. The experience in El Salvador, coupled with the service-learning semester he had completed in the spring of 2001 in Nicaragua, had changed him. What was different was his view of America’s role in the world.
“It made me angry to hear personal stories from people about our country’s being involved in their wars,” Ortman says. “I was changed. I had an interest in pursuing a line of work that would address the issues of poverty and economic justice, and I was interested in international trade policy and how it affects countries like Nicaragua.”
In 2003, Ortman graduated with a degree in international affairs with minors in Spanish, Latin American studies and peace studies. Following his heart, he returned to Nicaragua as an assistant on a Xavier service-learning semester trip. He also worked that summer for Saint Louis University in Nicaragua, and returned twice more to El Salvador for CRISPAS as a staff member. All told, he’s made about 10 trips to Central America. In between, he worked on Dennis Kucinich’s presidential campaign mainly because of his opposition to the war in Iraq.
Today, Ortman is working for a non-profit labor coalition, Change To Win, based in Washington, D.C., that represents the interests of six million workers in seven unions. As a communications associate, Ortman helps the organization’s mission of rebuilding and refocusing the labor movement on organizing workers for the new American economy as it is impacted by globalization.
“I could be out making more money somewhere else, but the Jesuit education gave me a prism to see the world, and once you learn to look at the world through that prism, you can’t stop doing it,” he says. “I think the income inequality in this country is out of control and in the work I do, we’re addressing those kinds of issues of economic justice. I think I wouldn’t be happy just working for the highest salary. It’s never appealed to me.”