Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

El Salvador: The Penultimate Post

While we were in the village I gave up taking notes. I understood very little of the Spanish COO people were speaking, and I had begun to question Margaret and Tom’s translations and comments. I still believe that unscripted conversations might have been possible for me, given more opportunity.

I didn’t take photos in the village, either. Others in our group were snapping away and I didn’t want to ask people to keep on posing in the heat.  I have only my foggy memory to lead me through the days we spent in the campo. What surfaces are mainly images, and a couple of unfiltered conversations.

 The van didn’t languish while we were in the village. Except during official “time with hosting families,” Margaret and Tom kept us moving.

Arturo accompanied us on these local trips. Arturo was his “war name”; I never learned his real one. He farmed in COO and had served on the directiva, but now he was working with a regional grass-roots group.  He is one of the images I brought home—a big, strong and smart man who was also mild-mannered and committed to the slow process of talking with his neighbors.

The van broke down during one of our day trips, and while we were waiting for Faustino to give us a prognosis, Arturo and Tom discussed the war and the peace in El Salvador.

“We never did a better thing than when we attacked the rich,” Arturo said in English.  Somewhere along the line he’d learned it, but not, I think, in school.  “They were fine with killing us in our villages, but they didn’t want a war on their doorsteps.” 

“I don’t believe in violence,” Margaret said. “I’m a pacifist.”

“There’s plenty of violence in the Bible,” said Tom. “All that smiting.”

With Arturo we visited a coffee cooperative, where I saw the deepest poverty of the trip. The 2001 earthquake had destroyed many homes there and made the school unusable. New shelters were slowly going up, and children were out wandering barefoot among the hammers and nails. Tom and Margaret told us that these growers were nonetheless better off than most on privately owned plantations. At least the people here were still working. With help from the IMF, other countries—Vietnam, in particular, I later learned—were growing coffee cheaper and in larger quantities than El Salvador could. 

We visited craft and cattle cooperatives, micro-lending operations conducted by women for women with funding from our group and others.  One of the union organizers who spoke to us in the capitol said that central San Salvador was “a cemetery of microenterprises.” The operations in the campo appeared to be doing well.  In the case of the cattle cooperative, a woman was loaned enough money to buy a calf and taught how to raise it.  When she sold it and repaid the loan, she made a small profit and reinvested.

“It’s important to give the money to the women,” Margaret said, “because the men might use it some other way.”

On one of these days we visited a village hit hard by the earthquake. Because it was governed by the right-wing ARENA party, Margaret and Tom prepared us to see it as backward and disunited.  And sure enough, when we visited the school, one of the teachers asked Margaret for funding—for earthquake reconstruction, I think. The teacher asked out of the blue, without asking first if she could ask, I guess.

“She shouldn’t have done that,” Tom said afterward.

“I figured that out all by myself, Tom.” I empathized with the woman. Maybe she was an introvert like me, given to blurting things out.  Maybe she hadn’t figured out the etiquette because no one had explained it to her.

This village—I think it was this one—was situated in a tiny valley not far from a garbage dump.  An enormous tree, a hundred feet high and nearly as wide stood in its center. We spotted the tree from the ridge above before we made out any village buildings. I’m picturing a sycamore, with wide leaves, but maybe that’s because there was a sycamore in the backyard of my childhood home.  The village tree still shows up in my dreams. Its shade protects. It’s a tree of life.

We were still driving back to COO one night when dark fell, on a dirt road past a row of houses.  One house was lit up like a store, door and window wide open.  I caught a glimpse of a casket and a party of people dressed up, some in lace. I remember the body as dressed in lace, too--black lace—although I couldn’t have seen it from the van.

Friday, March 25, 2011

El Salvador: Managing Partnership

We toured Comunidad Octavio Ortiz the day we arrived—about fifty houses, school and nursery, tiny clinic, community center, and communal fields planted mostly in corn. We walked along the river to see where irrigation had been tried. Sitting on benches outside the community center, we met with the directiva, the board that governed the village. 

Everyone had a hug for Margaret.  She was godmother to more than one child in the village, and the smaller kids who weren’t in school hid in the bushes hoping for a wave while we talked to their parents.

Then we entertained funding requests. 

I appreciated that this process was straightforward. People in the village knew Margaret well and were comfortable describing their needs. I didn’t hear any servility in their voices.

The farmers wanted a motor to pump water out of the river and tubing to deliver it.  The directiva could use an office.  The clinic would be more useful if it were bigger. Some of the houses needed shoring up after the 2001 earthquake.  Not all families had outhouses.  The teachers were taking a bus to San Salvador a couple of nights a week to earn credentials. Did they need stipends? What about the youth, a few of whom were bussed miles to the nearest high school?  Could we fund scholarships for the national university and rent a house for them in the capitol? 

Blanca didn’t come to meet with us, but she’d told Greta and me, in a moment when neither Margaret nor Blanca's family was around, that she’d been diagnosed with cervical cancer.  Where could she get treatment, Greta and I wondered.  We’d already learned that in El Salvador most cancer victims simply went home and waited to die. Tom suggested a hospital in Cuba.  Could we raise the money to send her there?

* * * * *

On one of Margaret’s many trips to El Salvador, she was accompanied by the director of homeless services in Palo Alto, an African-American woman who grew up in the South. The director remarked that she’d never seen such poverty as in our partner community nor such hospitality. 

I must have heard Margaret repeat this remark twenty times the week we were in COO. Nine years later, I wonder why she clung to it. When people say the same thing over and over, it’s usually because they don’t think others will believe them. America is a beacon of democracy, or men hate to ask for directions, or rinse and repeat--if these messages didn't provoke doubt, we wouldn’t need to be tutored in them. Once convinced, however, we tend to ignore contradictory evidence—the fact that the U.S. incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other country in the world, for example. Or we act in particular ways—we ask for directions so our husbands or boyfriends won’t have to, or buy twice as much shampoo as we need. I’m talking about propaganda here. Someone has a vested interest in our credulity.

COO’s poverty and hospitality seemed incontrovertible. Why did Margaret keep talking about them?  Had someone from a previous trip crossed a line, abusing hospitality or customs? That might explain her distrust of my overweight, forty-something, mother-of-three body.  Had Blanca or somebody else requested money and then used it improperly, rendering them not precisely poor? 

It was vital to Margaret that we saw the people of COO in just one way. That must be why she coached us before every meeting or conversation and then intervened in them anyway, why the words I suggest came out of her mouth all day long,

Tom, on the other hand, scowled most of the time. He sat through meetings, translating as needed, like he was auditioning for bad cop.  Something was wrong in his organization’s relationship with ours, or in his with the village, or simply between him and Margaret.

If Margaret and Tom had been more honest from the start, or if I had been more willing to pry and challenge, I might remember my visit to Comunidad Octavio Ortiz with a full heart instead of a stomach ache.  Despite my lousy Spanish, despite the heat and the sense that I was taking from poor people what they could not spare, if everything had been a little more transparent, I might have felt some sense of partnership with the people I met there, who were struggling as I was to make a connection.

* * * * *

Toward the end of that first afternoon, we met with the older woman who stood in for the priest at services and did pastoral care—the Delegate of the Word.  Her face radiated acceptance, of us, her life, everything. Margaret asked if any of us had questions for her, and I raised my hand.

“What’s your favorite Bible story to teach?” I asked in English.

Disgusted, Tom translated.

“The Good Samaritan,” the woman said.  “A stranger helps the man who has been beaten. Like you help us. No one forces you. You just come down here and help. You are our true neighbors.” 

In that moment my heart was full.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

El Salvador: Blanca's House

I thought about taking a day off from El Salvador.  I start teaching next week after a long break and I could be paging through The Curious Researcher, sixth edition, the words “Includes MLA Guidelines!” (exclamation point mine) on a gold star on the front cover.  I could be digging a new vegetable bed or calling our insurance company to find out why my sleep study bill is so enormous.  I just finished writing a short story, but I could be starting a new one.

It's better not to kid myself about why I’m hesitating. I don't know yet what I need to say about the village and how we conducted ourselves there, only that I feel a tremendous pressure to say it. 

Greta and I stayed with Blanca and Carlos. Both husband and wife had been war combatants, so they qualified for a two-room instead of a one-room house, built of cinder blocks and roofed with tin, as nearly every house in COO was. Like many other families, they’d built an open kitchen by attaching a fiberglass roof to one of the exterior walls. Behind the house was a water pump with a big basin, where household drinking water came from, the long-horned cow drank, dishes and clothes were washed, and everyone bathed, Greta and I with acute circumspection. There was an outhouse as well, which we didn’t use much.  We sweated through our clothes all day long. There was no liquid left in our bodies to pee out.

During the war, the FMLN trained Blanca to be a medic. Now she was COO’s health worker, dispensing whatever medicine was available from a closet in the community center, teaching hygiene, delivering babies, helping people die. Because she earned a small salary, she and Carlos didn’t depend entirely on farming or raising animals. They were a little better off than most. 

If I were a bigger person, a person who could hold onto the project of reconstituting herself, I wouldn’t say this: when I met Blanca, she was wearing shorts.

Beds on frames were rare in COO—most people slept on palettes on the floor or in hammocks--but Blanca had two twin beds with mosquito nets ready for Greta and me, in the room where the kids slept, farthest from the kitchen. We began by putting the kids out, and we went on that way.  Electricity is expensive, Blanca said in Spanish, translated by Greta, then brought in a fan when we went to bed.  I think I’ll kill a chicken, she said before dinner the last night, and I can’t tell you how guilty every bite of that chicken made me feel, or how delicious it was.

Greta had to translate just about everything for me except what the kids said. “Don’t pet the dog,” the smallest one told me. “He has fleas.” Loud and clear.  

I couldn’t figure out what the dogs were for.  Protection, maybe. All the families locked their houses up tight at night, doors and windows, closing in the wood smoke that drifted in all day from the kitchen.

Greta and I offered to do the dishes, and Blanca led us to the basin that surrounded the pump, where we dipped the plates in the water and scrubbed them with tiny pieces of steel wool.  I didn’t know whether to use the liquid soap sitting on a plastic table nearby. I’d have to rinse it off in the basin—I couldn’t see a dishpan or bucket—and then the cow, huge and oblivious, would drink the soapy water before it drained out.  Greta and I were trying to reason our way through this when Blanca came out to check on us. She took a plate from my hand, poured some soap on it, scrubbed it hard with the steel wool, rinsed it in the basin, and handed it back to me.

Blanca and Carlos’s teenage son, David, played in the village band and looked like a movie star. He slept in the other room with his parents while Greta and I were there. Like his father, he smiled constantly but said very little. We asked him about his plans.  “Music,” he said.

On the night we attended church, songbooks were passed out.  We sang hymns to the tunes of “The Sounds of Silence” and—I think I’m remembering this right—“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” No mass was offered because priests rarely made it to COO.  One of the older women had studied to be a “Delegate of the Word.” She had a short message for us, which I didn’t understand.  The band was finished by then, and David sat down next to me.  Several women turned around and glared. Did they think I was coming on to a sixteen-year-old?

“This is what lives in the Lempa,” Blanca told us one afternoon, holding up a dried fish on a line. The fish had two sets of eyes, one on each side of its head. “This is why we can’t drink the water.”  I concluded that a little soap didn’t matter much.

We told Margaret about the fish, how much it said about what the people of COO were up against.  “If Blanca is telling the truth,” Margaret said, mysteriously.

At least I was clear on the soap thing.

Definition of community, from the center in San Salvador where Octavio Ortiz was killed. "Todos" means all the people.

Friday, March 18, 2011

El Salvador: Presidentialism

Greta and I roomed together at the guesthouse and had a chance to chat every evening, but we were usually too tired to talk over what we’d seen and heard. Although I spent everyday with Will, Pete and Richard, apart from the plane trip down with Will I didn’t carry on a whole conversation with any of them over the ten days of the trip. Tom and Margaret were strong personalities. When we weren’t at the meetings they arranged for us, they talked and we listened.

Tom, young as he was, had a Salvadoran wife and two daughters. He wasn’t just passing through. He knew a lot about conditions, especially out in the country, and he believed he knew why these conditions prevailed.  He was angry.  Why had all those campesinos fought and died during the war? So Tom and people like him could cart around visitors from the U.S. and Europe, hoping they’d donate to a few local projects? Twelve thousand children still died every year of the gastrointestinal results of having no potable water. The Salvadoran government wasn’t going to help, and the U.S. would help only as long as Salvadorans went along with privatization, structural adjustments, free trade. These changes hurt, he and many others were convinced, more than they helped. The rich were committed to one thing only—getting richer. People like us made some difference, but not nearly enough.

Margaret’s true gifts didn’t surface until she was among her friends in COO. In the city she mainly gave instructions. She began most sentences with “I suggest”: I suggest we order pupusas and horchata for lunch.  I suggest you ask the man from the health workers’ union about the firing of elected leaders by factory owners. She deferred to Tom when it came to politics, maybe because he argued with her when he thought she was wrong.  Anyway, politics weren’t her thing.  Her favorite Bible verse was Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” 

“I’ve been bringing people down here for a long time,” Margaret said, “and as long as there are people who want to come, I’ll keep bringing them.”

Margaret was about faith. Tom was about politics. 

Here’s the big picture I was putting together as the trip progressed. The infamous “Fourteen Families,” who until the war had owned nearly all the land and planted it in cash crops like coffee, lost property in the land redistributions. Wealth had concentrated even further: now five or six families owned the banks, the insurance companies, importing, everything.  Farming wasn’t important anymore because the U.S. had plenty of food suppliers. What U.S. corporations wanted was cheap labor and large consumer markets. The FMLN had managed to elect members to some local positions, but national Salvadoran politics were “presidentialist.” And due to corrupt elections, presidents had for decades been exclusively right wing.  All those subsistence farmers in the campo would be better off, so went the free-trade argument, working at factories that foreign investors would build if conditions were right—that is, for example, if unions were kept out, one way or another.

That's all politics, isn't it?  Wasn't the Jesuit Miguel Ventura also all about politics? I was having trouble seeing where faith came into this.

On day number three we drove east and south, the temperature rising as steadily as the humidity, and stayed the night at a leadership center run by nuns. The next morning we drove further, on roads that were paved until we came within a few miles of COO.  Tom pointed out some things as we got closer—a fenced in soccer field, USAID stamps on houses and pumps—but Margaret was quiet.  When we finally reached the village, she said only, “There they are. The teachers and kids came out to meet us.  Everybody else is working."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

El Salvador: The Jesuit and My Shorts

Margaret was offended by my shorts. I sometimes wore them to evening church meetings in Palo Alto during the summer.  After feeding kids and doing the dishes, it was hard enough to make a 7:00 meeting without also having to change my clothes. They were decent shorts with long inseams, showing no more leg than a jeans skirt but way more comfortable.

She started warning me as soon as I signed up for the trip that I couldn’t wear shorts in the churches.

“I know that,” I said. “I’ve been to Italy.”

“And not in COO either.  The women wear dresses and skirts there, period.”

“No problem,” I said.

But I packed my shorts anyway, for San Salvador, for cooling off at the guesthouse.  I’d worn them the night before our visit to the ambassador, sitting in the courtyard with Tom while he downed beers and held forth. At the dinner table Margaret said, “You know you can’t wear shorts in the village, right?”

* * *

After talking at cross purposes with the ambassador, we spent lunchtime discussing whether USAID pacified the population at the same time as it helped, and which was its primary mission. I discussed it, that is.  Stuff was occurring to me, and I blurted it out.

Tom shrugged and ordered a beer.

Richard said, “Ask the people with roofs over their heads whether they care what the primary mission is.”

No one else said a thing.

I wished I could trade my skirt for my shorts.  That way I’d be comfortable, at least. Introverts can be mighty petty.

* * *

That same day we visited the offices of the Segundo Montes Foundation. During the war, its director, Spanish Jesuit priest Miguel Ventura, had served in Morazon, a northern region where there was heavy fighting. I was looking forward to hearing him speak because he was only once removed from the six Jesuits murdered at the Universidad Centroamericana in 1989, and they in turn were once removed from Archbishop Oscar Romero himself, whose 1980 martyrdom had turned a peasant rebellion into a civil war. I’d been reading excerpts from his homilies daily in the months before I made this trip: “A church that doesn't provoke any crises,
a gospel that doesn't unsettle, a word of God that doesn't get under anyone's skin,
what gospel is that?” 

Ventura was a small man, gray-skinned, with an academic’s English vocabulary.

“Failure to practice analysis of reality, to interpret it from a faith perspective, to identify a historic project, leads to launching projects that are ill conceived . . . Our foundation conducts schools for leaders, for young people . . . we teach processes that form the critical consciousness, so that projects rise up from the people themselves.”

El Salvador’s media, he said, amount to “ideological bombardment.”  It “washes away historical memory.”  The arrival of evangelical churches from the U.S. after the war was no accident, but intended to limit the influence of the progressive Catholic Church.  The “sectas evangelicas transfer a conformist attitude.” They teach people “not to involve themselves in change but to leave it to God. All that is required is accepting Jesus.”

Ventura’s foundation channeled money from NGOs and churches to poor communities, but he was quietly critical of this process.  Often Salvadoran groups sought international funds (as explicitly encouraged by the Peace Accords) and applied them according to standards that didn’t originate with the people. 

What should we do? Margaret asked.

“The historical process requires reconstituting our idea of ourselves. You need to ask yourselves what is the historic project of the citizens of the United States.”

I climbed back into the van with Ventura’s voice echoing in my head: “The Left all over Latin America lacks a unifying vision. It personalizes ideas and conflicts.”  When we got back to the guesthouse I packed my shorts away and didn’t get them out again.

Youth meeting in the community center where Octavio Ortiz was killed.

photo by me

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Living in the End Times

I’m not talking about shaking hands with the beast with seven heads or airmailing red calves to Jerusalem or sending Kirk Cameron on a mission to sniff out the Antichrist.  When I say we’re living in the end times, I’m referring to what everyone who can stand to watch CNN for more than a few seconds knows all too well. California and Russia burn, New Orleans and Pakistan and Australia flood, summer cruises through what used to be the polar ice caps will soon be bookable through your travel agent. There are too many people living on this planet, and some of us have been living too well.

Remember when Dick Cheney said that the American way of life was not negotiable? I’m pretty sure he meant for the Cheney family.  Here and abroad, the rich are bearing down on the poor, to make sure that what’s left stays in the right hands. And the poor are catching on.

When I think about this stuff, the muscles in my neck freeze up. And I’ve been thinking about it for years.  Maybe you read James Kunstler’s blog on Monday mornings, too, and every word that Bill McKibben uttereth. Maybe Clive Hamilton is your go-to guy, as he is mine, and Michael Ruppert seems crazy only some of the time.  Maybe, like me, you recently reread Albert Camus’ The Plague and sit down every day, as Carolyn Baker advises in Navigating the Coming Chaos, to let your grief wash over you.  Maybe, in spite of everything, you can’t accept that your kids’ lives will be hard, that all the inoculations, tuition payments, library books, cupcakes, and musical instruments you provided won’t keep them safe on a used-up planet.

Today I’m holding on to those who are still alive under the rubble in Sendai and environs, or on some half-navigable road trying to get out of the range—whatever that might be—of radioactive fallout. I hope they have some sense of not being alone, of being part of one suffering world. I hope my compassion and yours reaches them. I hope they and their children survive.

Friday, March 11, 2011

El Salvador: The Ambassador

Tom, who worked for the NGO that arranged our trip, was inclined to lecture. “Feeling guilty is a waste of time,” he said when one of us brought up how many of our tax dollars—more than a million a day at the height of the war—had gone to arming murderers. “Concentrate on learning what these people need now. Lots of Salvadorans say they’re worse off now than before the war.”

So far we hadn’t encountered many Salvadorans. But people Margaret knew well waited for us in the country, in Comunidad Octavio Ortiz. Meanwhile . . . to the embassy!

Apparently it’s possible, while touring a foreign country, to visit the U.S. ambassador and grill him or her about U.S. policy—as long as you make an appointment well in advance. The seven of us dressed up and climbed into the van—60-something Margaret and 20-something Tom, our leaders, Greta and Richard, our married couple, Will (from the plane) and Peter, both repeat visitors, and I.

Richard was already worried that we wouldn’t make it from the guesthouse to the embassy by 9:30.  Yet while the rest of us were staring out the windows of the van—I was fast becoming obsessed by the number of starving dogs running wild through the neighborhoods—Tom asked our new driver, Faustino, to take a quick detour through a part of town where the rich lived. 

San Salvador was a dense city of mostly shabby one- and two-story dwellings. On our detour Tom pointed to red-tile and stucco McMansions on acres of hilly ground enclosed by high walls, with armed guards pacing in front. “Quite a difference, right?” he said, looking back at us from the front passenger seat. 

Richard was lost in reviewing the list of questions we’d prepared for the ambassador. When the van slowed to gawking speed, he looked up and said, “Are we even on the way to the embassy?”  He checked his watch. “We’re going to be late!”

“Take it easy,” Tom said. “We’ll get there.”

We arrived at 9:32. Richard jumped out of the van and loped to the front gate. Turning toward Margaret and me, Tom mimicked Richard: “Are we even on the way to the embassy?  Like, fuck, Richard, shut up.”

Margaret stared at her feet.

After opening our bags and showing our passports, we met Ambassador Rose Likins in an empty room. She sat in a big, comfortable chair; Mark Silverman, country director of USAID (the Agency for International Development) and a former Peace Corps volunteer, sat next to her; and we petitioners occupied folding chairs laid out opposite them in a semicircle.

We worked our way down the list of questions Tom had helped us formulate, asking about factories built by foreign investors where trade unionists were threatened, the police force’s record of rape, the absence of potable water and basic health care in the campo.

Likins, about 40 then, a practiced smile on her face, told us what “an exceptionally challenging year” it had been.  Two earthquakes, affecting two-thirds of the department of Usulatan (where COO was), had left 25% of the population there homeless. The U.S. had provided a great deal of money for both temporary and permanent housing. (She nodded at Silverman.) Like the new governments in Honduras and Nicaragua, El Salvador was finding “constructive ways of looking at things rather than dwelling on the past.”

We pressed Likins about CAFTA, the pending extension of NAFTA to Central America.  The Peace Accords had promised to extend participation in decision-making to popular organizations, but this wasn’t happening. While CAFTA was being fast-tracked through the U.S. Congress, many Salvadorans opposed it.

“The Peace Accords were never meant to address economic issues, only to establish democratic processes,” Likins said. “Trade agreements are government to government.”

So it went. Our little group was talking about providing for a country we’d helped to level. (Those earthquakes had nothing on us.) Ambassador Likins and hard-working Silverman were talking about making the country fit for investment.

The educational value of spending a morning being humored by one's ambassador—that can’t be overestimated.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

El Salvador: The Van

The guest house in San Salvador was fine.  No hot water and only intermittent electricity didn’t affect us much because we were hardly ever there, being out and about in the VAN on our important business.  When we came home in the evening, we cooled off in the courtyard and ate dinner together at a long table in the main room, talking health care and labor unions and micro-lending, matters few of us knew anything about before the trip. We discussed the continuing political power of the moneyed few and whether the FMLN would ever win a national election.

The FMLN, or Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, was the umbrella group for the armed opposition during the war. After the peace accords in 1992 it was reconstituted as a political party. The people of our “partner” community—I’ll get around eventually to explaining why I put that word in quotation marks—were all FMLN members, now settled on land granted them by the government as former combatants, really terrible land on the Lempa River near the Pacific Coast, in the hottest part of the country, where the soil was salinized and polluted from cotton production. We, Margaret's little band, tended to see Salvadoran life through FMLN eyes.

The other thing you need to know about El Salvador, if you don't already, is that many Roman Catholic clergy died there before and during the war.  Priests and nuns who supported the poor, which was just about everybody in El Salvador, were gunned down by the armed forces, police or paramilitary groups with no compunction or accountability, in the same way that 60,000 or so peasants were murdered between the late seventies and early nineties. One of the clergy who died was Padre Octavio Ortiz, shot in 1979 while leading a retreat for youth. Our partner community, La Canoa, had renamed itself Comunidad Octavio Ortiz.

In this subtropical city, our VAN was black. Its seats, salvaged rather than original, were also black, and plastic. They sucked sweat from the backs of my thighs and kindly held it in pools, so I could sit in it.  Here’s a picture out one of the van's windows, of the U.S. embassy, a bunker of a place. It's smaller than our embassy in Iraq, whose footprint is said to equal Vatican City’s, but I imagine that both compounds broadcast the same you’d-better-have-an-appointment message.

Margaret and Tom, our in-country guide, had set up meetings for us, lots and lots of meetings.  In the next two days, courtesy of the van and van driver, we attended the church where Ortiz officiated, visited the community center where he died, toured a hospital, talked with hospital workers, and met with FMLN organizers, U.S. Ambassador Rose Likins, the director of USAID in El Salvador, textile union labor leaders, and a Jesuit who shared his analysis of the current situation. I hope this explains why I took so many notes.

Friday, March 4, 2011

El Salvador: The Red Guitar

Will and I flew together from San Francisco to Houston, then on to San Salvador, the others having gone south early to take in-country Spanish lessons or . . . something. I’ve forgotten now.
Margaret had been taking groups to El Salvador at least once a year since before the war ended in 1992.  She gave us each a binder that included some Salvadoran history, many facts about how the country was faring after the peace accords--a sort of left-wing CIA Fact Book--and her own words to the wise.
I still have the binder. The first two pages list things to bring along and general warnings. Mixed messages abound: “The sewage system [at the guest house in the capitol] is terrible. PUT ALL TOILET PAPER IN WASTE BASKET NEXT TO TOILET. If you forget and put paper in the toilet, fish it out and put in waste basket. . . . RELAX, be flexible and enjoy! It’s a great time to grow in patience and understanding and to be inspired by many Salvadorans.”
At the Continental counter in San Francisco, Will and I, despite our binders, failed the first test.
We each had a carry-on bag and, between us, three items to check for Margaret—a suitcase of books for the school in the village, another suitcase of over-the-counter medicines for the clinic, and a red electric guitar for the village band. Margaret was proud of having scored this guitar as a donation, and I knew she was looking forward to presenting it to the kids in the band.
Continental Airlines, however, would allow us to check only one item each.  Margaret had said in no uncertain terms that we were not to pay any shipping charges: “Not a good use of money."
Will and I stared at each other for a few seconds, then handed over the books and medicine.  I carried the red guitar to airport storage, where it would stay, incurring charges, until someone from my church picked it up.
In the Houston airport, while Will wandered off, I sat in the food court and watched a group of twenty or thirty people walk by, mixed ages, all white, wearing matching blue T-shirts with a Bible verse on the back—"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). On my way to the gate I saw two similar groups, one flying to Quito, the other to Guatemala City. It dawned on me that we weren't the only church people traveling south, and I never feel more uncomfortable than as part of a crowd I didn't mean to join. At least we weren’t out to convert anybody. We were going to El Salvador to be converted ourselves--changed, we called it.
It's a long way from Houston to San Salvador. Will and I had plenty of time to get to know each other. We were both from Sacramento, both in our mid-forties, and . . . that was about all, besides this trip, that we had in common. I was married, a Presbyterian, a part-time English instructor at a community college, a very part-time writer, and the mother of three teenagers. Will was single, a Catholic, a lawyer who'd quit his job at a big firm and now practiced immigration law, on behalf of immigrants. 
Uniformed men carrying automatic rifles stood with their backs to every pillar and corner in the San Salvador airport. After we got through customs and claimed Margaret's suitcases, we stepped outside to look for Alejandro--Will knew him--who was picking us up in a van.  
It was about 7:00, dusk fading to dark, and the place was hopping.  Pickups made multiple stops in the arrivals circle, more and more people climbing into the back.
"They load up their pickups here until people are practically falling out.  I don't like it. Somebody's going to get hurt."  He pointed at a black van. "There's Alejandro." As we loaded our bags behind the van's back seat, Will said, "That was the lawyer talking back there."
"What about all the machine guns?" I said.  "Are you okay with those?"
"I don't like those either, but we have those at home."
Six months after 9/11, armed, blank-faced men had adorned Houston and San Francisco airports, but not this many.  And these didn't look quite as blank as ours, although I could have imagined the hostility I saw on their faces.
The air was cloudy with exhaust, but it wasn't as hot as I'd expected.  Along the airport road, where so many bodies had been dumped during the war, abandoned vehicles blazed.  
Alejandro delivered us to the guest house Margaret always used, and she was there to meet us.  Hugs all around.  
"Excuse me, but where is the guitar? Is it still in the van? You didn't leave it at the airport!"
Will and I told our story. 
"I don't care if the rules have changed," Margaret said.  "If I'd been there, I would have made them check that guitar."

Nicaraguan poet Ernest Cardenal's version of Psalm 5, painted on a wall in San Salvador: 
photo by me

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ten Days in El Salvador, a Long Time Ago

I’ve been all over the place in my first month of blogging, but I think I’ll stay put for a few posts now, in the Central America of nine years ago. I want to tell you about a trip I took once to El Salvador.

I run into people occasionally who visited El Salvador during the civil war, or, as I did, in the years after the peace accords. They all get a glazed look in their eyes. One former priest said, “There’s a reason why it’s called El Salvador,” which means the Savior. “It saved my life.”  Others, maybe those of us who didn’t stay very long, say something along these lines: It was a hard trip, but when I got home, first I wanted to throw out everything I owned, and then I wanted to go straight back.

I’ve just finished reading Deb Olin Unferth’s new book, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, about traveling and working in Central America in the late eighties. She writes about the aftermath of her trip, too, how she kept going back to rediscover something she couldn’t name and in the end couldn’t locate. It’s a good book, fast and light. I’ll try to do it justice in my review next week on CheekTeeth, the blog of Trachodon magazine.

Let me say first that I was in El Salvador for ten days in March 2002—not exactly a Peace Corps stint, and 50 weeks short of Unferth’s year.  Furthermore, I’ve never been back, not in the flesh. While there I visited only three places--the capitol, San Salvador; Communidad Octavio Ortiz, the village the nonprofit I was traveling with “partnered”; and one spot in between, an educational facility run by nuns for local organizers and people like me—visitors trying hard not to feel like tourists.

I should tell you as well that until this trip I had never been to a developing nation, or a tropical one (except Hawaii), or any country that murdered its own people in huge numbers (not to be confused with countries like the U.S., who murder mainly foreigners). 

I traveled with a few nice people from the Palo Alto area who were interested in solidarity work for reasons of faith. I haven’t written more than a couple hundred thousand pages about it yet, but I used to be a Christian, of the left-wing variety. My trip to El Salvador trip both deepened my aspirations and planted the seeds of my defection. That sounds a little melodramatic, doesn’t it?  I’ll try to think fast and light.

We had a leader—I’ll call her Margaret. And an in-county liaison—I’ll call him Tom—from a nonprofit based in D.C.  that set up trips like ours. I knew Margaret from my church at home. Tom I’d met only briefly, also at home, during a trip-planning meeting.  The rest of us, we students, numbered five, but two of us, Will and Peter, were making return trips. That left three virgins—Greta and Richard, a married couple who both spoke fluent Spanish and had traveled widely, and me.  I did okay if I could stay in the present tense, and get some time alone every day--which turned out to be impossible.

Stay tuned for the first episode, The Red Guitar: Will and I flew together from San Francisco to Houston, then on to San Salvador, the others having gone south early to take in-country Spanish lessons or . . . well, I can’t remember what they were all doing. In any case, Will and I were on our own, and we failed our first test . . .

Un mapa de El Salvador

Addendum 3/3: This post was first titled "Two Weeks in El Salvador," but today I located the two yellows pads I filled with notes while I was there. (Not to worry. I'm going to use about .001% of those notes here.) I found that my trip lasted only ten days. I guess it felt a little like the last ten days of a pregnancy.