County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman signed a declaration of friendship last week with the mayor of San Miguel, El Salvador, a major stride toward forging an official sister city relationship between the two communities.
The agreement cements a burgeoning bond between the localities, and pledges government officials and business leaders on both sides to continue working together to promote cultural, educational and entrepreneurial exchanges.
"This is just the beginning of a relationship we know for a long time in the future will enable our two communities to grow," Zimmerman said during a June 9th ceremony with San Miguel Mayor Jose Wilfredo Salgado in the County Board room.
THE EVENT capped off Salgado’s four-day tour of Arlington schools, business organizations, cultural facilities and historical sites. Earlier in the week Salgado and a five-person delegation from San Miguel — the second biggest city in El Salvador — met with Washington-Lee High School students, partook in a panel discussion about the Central American Free Trade Agreement and caught a performance at Teatro de la Luna.
San Miguel would become the county’s fourth official sister city, joining Aachen, Germany; Coyoacan, Mexico; and Reims, France. Arlington also formed a partnership this past fall with Biloxi, Miss., to help that city rebuild from the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina.
More than 8,000 Arlington residents were either born in or lived near San Miguel, said Oscar Amaya, president of the Sister City San Miguel-Arlington Committee.
Officials from the two communities first met in 2000, when Salgado visited Arlington. The following year the friendship began to blossom when Zimmerman and his wife returned the favor and took a vacation to San Miguel.
The visit spurred the chairman to seek more formal contacts between residents of the two places. "We wanted people to have the same opportunity we had to get to know San Miguel," Zimmerman said.
The Arlington committee is consulting with their El Salvadorian counterparts to see what collaborations would be most beneficial for both communities, said Sandra MacDonald, chairman of the Arlington Sister City Association.
The first step will most likely be a student exchange, where pupils from Arlington would spend several weeks living with host families in San Miguel. MacDonald also plans on bringing San Miguel youth sports teams and musical troupes to Arlington to compete and perform.
"It’s always an eye-opener for young people to see how children live in other countries," said Chris Williams, the county’s cultural heritage programs manager, who traveled to San Miguel last year. "This will broaden their world-view, and for 10th-graders that is something they will carry with them for a long time."
OVER THE course of the next year, teams of El Salvadorian doctors will travel to Arlington to learn from American medical professionals, possibly returning to their home country with advanced equipment to improve the quality of patient care.
There is also much that Arlingtonians can take away from organizations in San Miguel. The mayor’s wife runs a female-empowerment center in the city, and Arlington officials are eager to use her knowledge to help working, single-women in the county, said Board member Walter Tejada, who was born in El Salvador.
The El Salvadorian Chamber of Commerce, which Amaya heads, is planning on sending 40 computers down to San Miguel and hopes that businesses in the county not owned by Latinos will also donate technology and other goods.
With the passage of CAFTA, there are many opportunities for entrepreneurs in Arlington and San Miguel to trade extensively, Amaya said. Each November the city holds one of the largest carnival celebrations in Central America, and Amaya would like Arlington businesses to participate in the events.
Beyond the long-term business and cultural relationships that county officials hope will flourish, the partnership should increase Arlingtonians’ understanding of Latin America. In the era of globalization, when the antiquated notions of borders are crumbling each day, it is imperative that Americans have a better appreciation for our southern neighbors, Zimmerman said.
"We need to understand their language and their culture," he added. "This partnership is a doorway for us to broaden the views of residents, especially for the next generation."
With thousands of El Salvadorians living and working in Arlington, a sister city collaboration will give others in the county a better awareness of that country’s history and culture, Zimmerman said.
"This is also a great opportunity for people to learn more about other folks in their own community," Zimmerman said.