As Lupita Serrano walks the stalls of the central market in Cojutepeque, El Salvador, she samples fresh pupusas and greets vendors with familiar banter, like an old friend or neighbor. The people call her “Doña Lupita.”

It is easy to spot the charisma and compassion that carried Mayor Lupita Serrano to her fourth consecutive three-year term, which she won in 2015, and to understand why so many signs around the city declare: “I am still with Lupita!”

Cojutepeque—a city of rolling hills and 70,000 residents—is vibrant and colorful, but, like much of the country, it has been hit hard by gang violence and poverty. Lupita has made it her personal and professional mission to stimulate economic and social opportunity—especially for youth, women and the poor—and reverse a rising tide of violence.

“We need to work for everybody, regardless of political colors—take off the political ideology and then begin to serve everyone,” she says.

Opening doors for all citizens

After starting her career in teaching in the late 1970s, Lupita left the classroom to take a job in city government, first as a secretary in nearby Ilopango. In 1984, she earned a license to serve as the city clerk in Cojutepeque, a job she credits with building her knowledge base and confidence for her career as a political leader.

“That gives you the experience, the knowledge and sensitivity,” she says. “To be able to have these positions, we need to be sensitive, to listen to the needs of human beings and communities. And of course, it gave me a little confidence…because for the first time in the city’s history a female mayor has been re-elected for four terms!”

Lupita’s confidence and political success stem from her belief that a good leader delivers tangible results and opportunity to her constituents, especially people who are often voiceless, like the city’s youth and poor.

“From the first term we began to make a difference in Cojutepeque,” she says.  “We started calling on the communities, because being here does not mean just being seated. Being here means meeting people, and all the people come asking for something.”

Lupita answers these needs by expanding opportunities citywide for sustainable livelihoods.

In the most isolated and vulnerable areas, her “Building a Dream” project has expanded access to basic services such as those provided by schools and markets, and improved the structural integrity of hundreds of houses. When she first took office in 2006, 60 percent of households lacked running water. Today, 97 percent of households have running water.

The newly constructed Municipal Market Building provides a safe space for 500 local vendors to sell their products in the heart of the city, now accessible to rural farmers by paved road.

Her administration established the first vocational training center for women and has since opened four additional centers to bring job skills to thousands—even offering a day care center so single mothers can participate.

Through the new Municipal Computing Center, thousands of youth, including young mothers, learn valuable technology skills. Many will take part in the city’s new Microsoft Academy—a partnership with Microsoft to train and certify youth for careers in technology.

These are only some of the projects that have led to Lupita’s stellar reputation. What drives her, however, is not politics, but making a real difference and restoring pride to her city.

“When we build streets, when we build fields, when we build markets, buildings, parks and youth centers for children and teenagers—that’s when we see the need of a city with no political colors,” she says. “We focus on working, on giving it our best, the best human beings can give. …Together we can feel proud of living in this city.”

Photo by Erick Gibson
Photo by Erick Gibson

A dream of no violence

Although opportunity is expanding, the city is still not immune to the nationwide epidemic of gang violence. In 2015, the country’s murder rate rose to nearly 90 per 100,000 people, making it the highest in the world outside of a war zone.

“Our country is sick, and we can’t deny that,” Lupita says. “I can’t say that Cojutepeque is exempt, no, but we are creating many projects [to address it].”

Teaming up with the USAID and Creative Associates International, her administration has helped establish seven new youth Outreach Centers around the city as part of the Crime and Violence Prevention Project. These Outreach Centers, in rural, urban and semi-urban areas, provide a safe place off the streets for at-risk youth and hope for the future through job training, tutoring, the teaching of life skills and by providing volunteer opportunities to mentor other youth.

Recognizing that building peace takes a coalition, she helped launch a Municipal Violence Prevention Committee to empower residents to have a voice and take action to improve security.

“The prevention committee is restless; they’re always thinking of more strategies to carry out wider projects,” she says.

The city has even created its own symbol and slogan to campaign for peace and violence prevention. “CojuteQuiero”—a combination of the city’s name and the Spanish word for “to love”—is posted on signs at Outreach Centers, parks and buildings and on streets citywide. It is recognized by all.

Despite the gang violence plaguing her city and country, Mayor Lupita Serrano is hopeful that together she and her constituents can build a brighter future. Under her leadership, the city has launched job training programs, child care facilities and citywide violence prevention initiatives to keep youth off the streets. Photo by Erick Gibson.

Lupita always keeps one goal in mind.

“If I could build that dream of Cojutepeque not having violence, I would do it. But in this effort we need people to get involved, for them to feel that it is a necessity in Cojutepeque to not have violence,” she says.  “I’m telling you, no matter how we live, as long as we live in peace, that’s what we need.”

If perhaps more mayors had Lupita’s drive, that dream could be possible nationwide.

“My husband says: ‘If there were more mayors like you, Cojutepeque and El Salvador would be different…because nothing stops you,” she says.

By Jillian Slutzker