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?
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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.
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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.