While working for the Peace Corps in a rural community in El Salvador, Liliana Richter (’06) developed and managed over 50 projects and programs. She designed and taught entrepreneurial and career preparatory courses. She founded and coached a female soccer team. She collaborated with other volunteers to raise funds for 75 high school and university scholarships.

And she appeared on the El Salvadoran television show Dancing for a Dream.

Yes, that’s right: She danced. During her third year of service, Richter, a Michigan native, heard about a reality show called Bailando por un Sueño, or Dancing for a Dream. Essentially it’s the Latin American equivalent to the U.S. show Dancing with the Stars—and also El Salvador’s top-rated TV program.  

The show’s premise is simple: Each contestant pairs up with one Latin American celebrity. The duo competes through various dance routines, such as salsa or cha-cha-cha. Each week, the public votes to determine which contestants will continue on to the next episode. The winner at the end of the season gets one “dream” funded. One participant wanted a new bus for a school’s choir, for example, and another danced in hopes of building a new house for a family with a sick child.  

So what was Richter’s dream?

She wanted a bridge. In Richter’s El Salvadoran community, children waded or swam across a river in order to get to school. Parents would often have their children hold on to ropes to prevent them from being carried down the river to a 50-foot drop. The conditions were especially bad after a storm. Concerned community members sought funding for a bridge for more than 10 years.

“At first I didn’t fully understand why the bridge was so critical, but then rainy season hit. Students were often not sent to school because it was so dangerous,” Richter says. “Parents shouldn’t have to choose between education and safety.”

So in 2010, halfway through her third year of the Peace Corps and without much prior experience dancing, Richter competed on the TV show’s third season for three months. She was one of 12 contestants on the show, and was paired with 16-year-old Javier Jiménez, the singer of the popular Salvadoran band La Colección.

“Some weeks we were sleeping four hours per night, dancing 10 hours each day, and traveling around the country making public appearances to try and get votes,” Richter says. “We were busy, and it could be very exhausting.”

Watch Richter and Jiménez dance the salsa. 

But she says her community’s support got her through the busy days and sleepless nights.

“Everyone was very encouraging. Even outside of my community people would come up and talk to me about the show like we were old friends. It made me fall in love with [El Salvador] even more,” she says.

During the ninth episode, Richter endured a major fall during a lift with her partner. It looked like a brutal blow and resulted in two fractured vertebrae. But she says that there have not been any long-term consequences. However, due to the injury, the Peace Corps would not allow her to continue dancing on the show.

Richter says that because of the fall, and the frequent replaying of the incident, increased attention was brought to the need for the bridge. It also made her a type of instant celebrity in El Salvador.

“People would come up and ask for autographs or pictures. I even had one paparazzi moment when a group of girls snapped a picture while I was washing my hands in a public bathroom,” she says.

As a result of the injury, a dancer had to compete in Richter's place. The pair was eliminated in the penultimate episode of the season. But the publicity that the show garnered paid off; the government committed to funding the bridge. Construction was completed earlier this year, and leftover materials were used to build a second bridge at another river crossing farther up the road. Local children are now able to make a safe, dry trip to school each day.   

The government ultimately funded the bridge construction in Richter's El Salvadoran community. It was completed in 2011.
Courtesy of Liliana Richter

Richter says that despite the bumps, bruises, and broken bones, she is grateful for the experience.

“The show brought me close to my community again,” she says. “It brought me back to why I chose to do the Peace Corps in the first place.”

Richter continues to assist students in El Salvador, specifically those seeking scholarship support. Please write to scholarshipsforelsalvador@gmail.com to receive information from her detailing how you can support students and help end the cycle of poverty.