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
photo by me