Ataco, El Salvador, very much wants to be a sister city to Fountain Hills, and the feeling appears mutual.
Civic leaders from the northeast Valley town recently visited the Latin American nation, looking into whether this was a suitable place for educational and cultural exchanges.
Fountain Hills already has two sister cities — Kasserlee, Belgium, and Dierdorf, Germany — but it desired a third in a Spanish-speaking Latin American nation.
The Fountain Hills delegation, led by Mayor Wally Nichols, knew Ataco was a good fit almost as soon as its visit to the coffee-growing town started.
“They really want to be aligned with Fountain Hills,” Nichols said. “And they will be.”
Ataco is expected to be picked as Fountain Hills’ third sister city tonight, during a meeting of the Town Council.
Ataco is in the western part of El Salvador, high in the mountains. Its population, including outlying villages, is close to Fountain Hills’ head count of 23,000.
The two other Salvadoran towns in the running, Apaneca and Juayua, were nice, said members of the delegation. But only Ataco made certain the guests knew how appreciated their presence was. The residents threw a huge reception and wore T-shirts honoring the visiting Americans.
Accompanying Nichols were Marian Hermie, superintendent of the Fountain Hills Unified School District; Sharon Morgan, president of Fountain Hills Sister Cities and former town mayor; and Frank Ferrara, president and chief executive officer of the Fountain Hills Chamber of Commerce.
All of those who took the trip paid for their own plane tickets and, once there, the country’s tourism ministry paid for room and board.
Acting as tour guide was Rick Melendez, former vice mayor of Fountain Hills and, by benefit of his dual citizenship, an honorary consul for El Salvador. It was Melendez who lobbied to have his native land considered for sister city status; he has done the same with Prescott.
The delegation, in looking at the three Salvadoran towns, had certain criteria for selection. Safety was paramount, of course, as some Americans still envision El Salvador as the civil war-wracked nation where 80,000 died before the peace accords of 1992.
Also considered were cleanliness, the town’s embrace of the sister city program and whether the mayor spoke English.
Ataco Mayor Oscar Gomez impressed the Americans with his mastery of the language, learned as a schoolboy and refined during 12 years in the U.S. Air Force.
Already, plans have been made for some exchanges.
During the visit, the Americans met a teenage girl so dedicated to her education, she walks three hours one way to school. She’ll be among the first to visit Fountain Hills.
Also, an artist has been invited to sell her wares during the Fountain Festival of Arts & Crafts. The proceeds will go toward expanding the exchange program.