Thursday, December 31, 2009

We desire a life free from violence

Peggy and Pat answered my wish to have the Suchitoto bird-and-flower motto stenciled by my door, and here it is. The motto says: En esta casa queremos una vida libre de violencia hacia las mujeres - In this house we want a life free from violence against women. You see this stencil all over Suchitoto, a town where women's organizations and women's organizing thrive. But I'd like to amend it slightly as my wish for the new year: In this house we want a life free from violence. In that wish, I join all my Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, working and praying to make non-violence the touchstone of our lives.

There has been news of terrible violence in this week's papers - two men ran into the waiting room of a pediatric clinic in Cojutepeque, the town that's the capital of our district, threw a grenade and ran out. Two children were killed, others badly hurt. There's been news of organized violence against the people who have been opposing mining interests in the neighboring district of Cabañas - two community activists have been killed, and the day after Christmas a woman environmentalist eight-months pregnant and carrying a two-year-old baby was shot and killed. Little seems to be done in any of these cases to bring the guilty to justice.

So, on behalf of the people of El Salvador who enter this new year full of hope and full of fear, in this country in 2010 we desire a life free from violence.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Rats, begone!

This morning Higinia - my landlord's sister and stand-in - arrived with Rene and Francisco and her son Jonathan in tow to tackle the back door. This has been a door in name only, at the back of the kitchen, locked on our side and up against a plywood wall on the other side. There was a little opening at the top, and we've seen rats escaping through it. I asked Higinia if the opening could be closed up, thinking of something simple like another plywood covering.

Instead they took down the door and the plywood wall on the other side - revealing the rat's nest, which looked just like a rat's nest should, messy. Three rats escaped, but Francisco got one. I hope they're moving to another neighborhood altogether, though that's perhaps just wishful thinking on my part. Meanwhile, I got to see what's on the other side - a long, narrowing corridor that's been usefully converted into two long, narrowing bathrooms. On the other side of the bathrooms is a little restaurant and a beauty salon, and a family lives there as well.

Rene and Francisco and Jonathan built a new wall of concrete block filled with concrete (mixed in the patio), closed up the wall, leveled the floor which used to have a 8-inch dropoff in front of the door, cleaned up and left, promising to return to give the new wall a finish coat and paint in January.

While all this was going on, two of Rene's daughters and an almost-a-year-old grandson came by and talked and checked out the work - like everything else here, building this wall was a family affair. It's one of the things I love about El Salvador.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A year and a day

Yesterday a year ago I got on a plane in Seattle and flew to El Salvador. I meant to blog on that one-year anniversary, but Lita came to dinner and we ended up watching a TV discussion between two Catholics and two Evangelicals about the difference in these churches' response to the violence, alcoholism and drug addiction that are tearing the fabric of Salvadoran society. The whole evening was in Spanish, our conversation, the TV program, and I understood so much more of than I would have a year ago.

This year-and-a-day finds me feeling at home here in Suchitoto, able to navigate the roads and figure out the processes we need to go through for our mission trips. I've mostly figured out how to protect my bedroom from the bats, rats, cockroaches and scorpion that seemed to feel at home there (and only in my bedroom: I think it must have been la habitación de una bruja, a witch's room, in some previous time). I'm obviously a foreigner - a little girl of five in El Sitio called me la gringita on Christmas Eve - but my Spanish is at least adequate to the daily needs of life. I've found friends. I've become a godmother (though the godson is not entirely happy about this, as the photo shows). I know a bit about the history and present realities of this tragic and beautiful country, but have so much more to learn.

With Kathy Garcia's leadership, I've organized the El Salvador end of one mission trip, and two others are getting organized. I can find a parking place near the Junta Directiva de la Profesión Médica, the group that OKs our doctors. I love the two sides of our mission, bringing people from PeaceHealth and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace here to introduce them to El Salvador, bringing them here to offer some much-needed medical assistance to people of El Salvador.

Thanks to you, my readers, who've accompanied me on this journey. It's been good to know that friends and family and some folk who don't know me at all have been following along. The journey continues!

Friday, December 25, 2009

¡Feliz Navidad!

Christmas Eve is the big feast day here, and I spent the day with Peggy and Pat Farrell in El Sitio Cenizero, a village of the Suchitoto municipality where both have long-time friends. The afternoon began with the traditional feast of panes con pollo - here's a photo. The trick is to eat it with your hands and NOT end up with the sauce decorating your clothes. I was partly successful. After that, a nap was necessary, and Mercedes, our hostess, loaned me a hammock where, I suspect, I snored blissfully. Later in the afternoon we sat and talked and listened to Mercedes' granddaughter, Aminta's daughter Lucita play the harp (she's one of ten children taking harp lessons at the Centro Arte para la Paz) while two other granddaughters and Pat joined in Christmas songs. And the conversation rambled happily along (what kind of dress should Paula have for her quinceañera? Not one of the those expensive, flashy ones you'd never wear again... They decided to buy satin and make a dress for her). For me it was a great pleasure that I could follow most of it. We got to watch Mercedes making a farmer's cheese which she served with glorious sausages and beans and tortillas for supper. And we sat and talked some more until it was time to go to church. The celebration began with the conclusion of Las Posadas, sung back and forth between the "innkeepers" inside the church and the singers accompanying the village's Mary and Joseph outside. Finally the doors were opened, and Mary and Joseph and all the rest of us went in. The communion service was led by an El Sitio man and included some Latino Christmas songs I'm getting to know, including one delightful one with this chorus:

Brincan y bailan los peces en el rio / brincan y bailan de ver a Dios nacido
The fish in the river skip and dance, skip and dance to see God born.

Then it was time for the firecrackers to continue (they'd been going on all day) and the dancing to start, and I'm told it went on all night long, but I was tired and headed for my bed for the night at 10:30 instead of joining in. Maybe next time!

Christmas day has been an anticlimax - we came back in the morning and great piles of firecracker paper covered the streets of Suchitoto, so I knew it had been just as noisy here, but the efficient streetsweepers were already tidying up. Church at 10 and then nothing much more going on. It's been a lonely day for me, because Christmas day is always the big day for both my family and the CSJP community, and I'm missing everyone. But it was an honor and a delight to be invited to share in a Salvadoran Christmas. One thing I really noticed: if there were presents, they weren't very big or very visible. This is a poor community in economic terms, but rich in all that matters. They know how to celebrate, how to have a feast.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Panes con Pollo

It's almost Christmas here. Some things look very familiar - trees (mostly artificial) with lots of lights, images of Santa Claus, stores full of last-minute shoppers, brightly wrapped gifts. Some things are very different, though. All week the parish has been celebrating Las Posadas, with pre-teen Mary and Joseph and Angel and Shepherds going from neighborhood to neighborhood each evening, accompanied by all of us carrying our candles and blowing on the clay hen-shaped whistles that are, somehow, a sacred part of this story. Firecrackers, metalicos, are set off a few times every day, unpredictably.

Today at the Centro Arte para la Paz I got my first taste of the special Christmas food of El Salvador, panes con pollo. It turns out to be a chunk of chicken, many vegetables and sauce all enveloped by a long roll of bread - a little like a subway sandwich, only fuller and messier. And delicious. Like pupusas, panes con pollo is to be eaten with the fingers. I didn't get the technique right on my first try, but hope to improve tomorrow when I go with Peggy and Pat Farrell (Sister Patti) to El Sitio Cenizero. I am supplying beer and pop. Mercedes, who knows how to do it, will be making the panes con pollo.

And so we will welcome Jesus, becoming flesh for us, coming to birth among us.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Joy and sorrow, sorrow and joy

It's late Advent, just a few days before Christmas. Sheila McShane, CSJP Associate, is visiting from Santo Tomas La Union in Guatemala, where she directs a health clinic that for many years has been a project of the Catholic Diocese of Helena, Montana. Today Sheila heard sad news: a little girl of ten from Santo Tomas has been in hospital receiving treatments for leukemia, but in the process her heart stopped, and today she died. Hard to receive the news of the death of a child at this time of waiting and hopefulness. Hard to receive that news at any time. Just before we learned of Manuela's death, we had shared a long time of silent prayer, holding her in the light, where now she dwells.

As I think of this loss, I also think of the joy this Christmas brings for my friends Alex and Ani, delighting in the first Christmas of their beautiful son and my godson Alejandro. Ani almost died bringing Alejandro into the world, but she is recovering well, as you can see in this family photo.

Joy and sorrow mark the great passages of our lives. May Alejandro grow and flourish. May Manuela rest in God's peace.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I promised more to come on the Fiestas Patronales in Suchitoto, and here it is.
With the Virgin of Guadalupe celebrated on Satuday, and Santa Lucia, Suchitoto's patron saint, honored on Sunday, it was non-stop fiesta. The photos show the float for Our Lady of Guadalupe, a little girl dressed up for Guadalupe day in the church, the plaza crammed full of people on Saturday night, pilgrims going up the steps behind the altar to visit Santa Lucia on Sunday morning, and the crowd in a side aisle of the church on Sunday.

For a North American used to the careful separation of church and state it was fascinating to see the complete blend of church and city in these celebrations. The processions - Saturday afternoon before Mass with the Virgin of Guadalupe and Saturday evening after Mass with Santa Lucia - blended seamlessly into the fireworks, food and partying in the central plaza. I imagine those who belong to the evangelical churches participate selectively, enjoying the fiesta but not joining the processions or Masses, but I don't really know how this big celebration looks to them.

To me, it looked wonderful! I can't imagine a town in my country having this much concentrated fun. On Saturday night, after Mass and the Santa Lucia procession, everyone gathered in the plaza, known here as the parque central, and had a party: food, music from small mariachi groups and music blasting from the djs, gambling games and rides and finally fireworks, a grand explosion that went on and on and on, and included toros, a bull costume with fireworks attached, and a grand municipal billboard/fireworks platform that said "Municipal development is the responsibility of everyone." In Spanish, of course.

The next day, everyone gathered for Santa Lucia's Mass and this turns out to be the day when you line up to visit the saint, who can be approached by way of very steep stairs behind the altar. Lucy is the saint for vision problems - she was a 3rd century martyr whose eyes were said to have been gouged out before she was martyred, and she is usually shown - as she is in our church - presenting her eyes on a plate. Her name, of course, means "light," another reason why she's the patron of vision.

The Mass was celebrated by the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Luigi Pezzuto, with four priests and a deacon assisting, and the big church was so tightly packed that it didn't seem possible that everyone could keep breathing. Practical Peggy saved me a seat up by the sacristy door, so if an earthquake came we'd have an escape route. Happily, there was no earthquake, just a glorious end to a most festive week.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

In San Juan Opico

This last week I've been getting to know San Juan Opico, the site of our February medical mission, better. I've been there three times with Gabina Duvon de Garcia, better known as Dina. Dina is a social worker who has worked with the Pastoral Social and Pastoral de Salud in the Archdiocese of San Salvador for many years - going back to the days of the Civil War when she worked closely with Sisters Andrea Nenzel and Margaret Jane Kling in the Calle Real refugee camp. Dina is coordinating our work with San Juan Opico, and we are greatly blessed to be working with her. I can't imagine a situation she couldn't organize beautifully!

San Juan Opico is a bustling small city, the center of an agricultural area. It has an industrial strip that has created some devasting environmental pollution, a prized World Heritage Mayan site, Joya de Ceren, and an autodrome. As is always the case with Salvadoran municipalities, much of the population of Opico lives in small communities, colonias and caserios, outside the city center.

We met with some of the promotores de salud (health promoters) who will be our main volunteers for the week of clinics. They quickly decided which communities should come on which days, who was going to clean the pastoral center, and who would be volunteering on which days - it was easy to see that they've been working together well for a long time. I'm looking forward to February!

Early to rise

This fiesta week is not for weaklings! This morning I set my alarm for 4 AM, but needn't have bothered - at about 4:10 a large string of firecrackers, metalicas, were set off on the street outside. Time to get up and join the procession! Today was the day for my neighborhood, Barrio Calvario, and we gathered outside the house next door, sitting on the high curbs with our candles ready to be lit, drinking coffee and eating pastries. A band played Las Mañanitas. The smart people turned their styrofoam coffee cups into candle holders. I demolished one coffee cup and had to go back and try again. After a while, after some invisible signal, someone lit one candle, and the light passed from hand to hand. Four women began carrying the small statue of the Virgin, the band walked behind them, playing, and we all walked behind them in the darkness, walked the length of our neighborhood and back again, and then to the church, where the candles were carefully placed on a huge tray in front of the Santisimo in the Sanctuary. And then, at 6 AM, Mass began.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Fiestas Patronales

Today as we celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception Suchitoto is in the happy middle of its week of Fiestas Patronales. It's not enough here to celebrate one day, the day of our city's patron saint, Santa Lucia, on December 12th: we're having an entire week of parades, dances, fireworks, rockets and special masses. About a week ago, the special program for the week, 39 full-color pages, arrived at our doors. Each of the city's neighborhoods has its special day for celebration - Barrio Calvario, where I live, will celebrate on Thursday. Today, of course, belongs to Barrio Concepción. Here's today's schedule:

  • 4:30 AM - Wake with fireworks (the loud bang sort)
  • 5:00 AM - process to church with the neighbors as an offering to Santa Lucia
  • 9:00 AM - parade of the masked ones (mostly children wearing masks of old folk)
  • 9:00 AM - 70,000 fish are released into Lago Suchitlan (this neighborhood goes down to the tourist center at the lake)
  • 3:00 PM - children's fiesta
  • 5:00 PM - Open-air Mass in honor of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception
  • 6:00 PM - Procession of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception
  • 7:00 PM - Parade of the community's float, accompanied by a children's parade
  • 8:00 PM - Fireworks in the neighborhood
  • 8:30 PM - Dance fiesta
I should probably add that each neighborhood has a symbol, a color, and a candidate for queen of the fiesta. And everyone is having a grand time, all week long. Saturday, the actual feast day, promises to be one long, loud, happy party. Photos to follow!

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Yesterday I took Margaret Jane, Alexine and Mary Canavan to the airport for the Saturday direct flight to Newark. Mary, a Sister of Charity, has been visiting Peggy O'Neill this week, Alexine has been visiting us for the past two weeks, and all three of them arrived fresh from the tropics to find snow on the ground. A rude awakening, no doubt.

Christmas and this glorious tropical summer don't fit together in my head very well. I saw a photo in the paper the other day of a Santa Claus decked out in all the traditional northern winter gear & felt terribly sorry for the poor souls who play Santa here. Why not short sleeves and lightweight clothing? Why not an image that comes from here and fits here rather than copycat Santa?

Friday, December 4, 2009

A rose, by any other name

You discover what's in a name and how complicated names can be when you're looking for a somewhat obscure thing in a language not your own. The other day I was searching for steel wool, something I've used for this and that so many times. I knew better than to translate "steel" and add "wool" - instead I looked it up in two of my English/Spanish dictionaries, and discovered that it's called estropajo de acero which sounded fine. Except that no one in Freund or Vidri, the two largest hardware stores had heard of estropajo de acero. Then I tried to describe it, and talked about a metal sponge, una esponja metálica, and that didn't help either. It also didn't help that my planned use - to discourage rats from colonizing a particular dark corner of the house - got the salesmen talking poisons and traps. I roamed up and down the aisles, trying to spot a little bag of the familiar stuff, and couldn't. Maybe it's never been imported to El Salvador? But that hardly seems likely. Next time I go in, I'm going to take this picture, because a picture is definitely worth 1,000 words. And if I discover what it's called in El Salvador, I'll let you know.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

In memory

Yesterday Alexine and I went to a noonday Mass at the UCA (University of Central America) honoring the four North American missionaries, Sisters Maura Clarke, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel and lay missioner Jean Donovan, who were killed on December 2nd, 29 years ago. To hear something of the spirit these women brought to their work in El Salvador, read Susan Francois' blog post quoting a letter from Ita Ford.

The day before yesterday we had another encounter with historic memory, the memory of tragedy and commitment and strength and loss that is so powerful here in so many stories, so many martyrs. With Margaret Jane, we visited a village near Suchitoto called Marianella Garcia, named in honor and memory of Marianella Garcia Villas, a human rights advocate who was murdered in 1983.

In honor of Dorothy, Ita, Jean, Maura, Marianella and the many, many more whose blood was spilled into the earth of El Salvador, I'm posting these photographs of a few of the people who live in Marianella Garcia today - village people, leading peaceful lives. People worth dying for.

Monday, November 30, 2009


Alexine and I visited the crypt of the cathedral in San Salvador for the 10 AM Mass on the first Sunday in Advent. This is a special place, the burial place of Monseñor Romero, and the community that gathers here on Sunday is also special - full of people who revere Monseñor and try to walk in his path, women from the market, old men, students, delegations from the United States and Europe. Most of the music this Sunday was from the Misa Salvadoreña by Guillermo Cuellar, lively tunes mated with powerful lyrics. In the offerings, the Advent wreath was brought forward, martyrs were remembered, and a basket of food for the hungry was placed at the altar. Afterwards Alexine bought some medals of Monseñor, and the photo shows her bringing them to his tomb for a blessing.

We found another amazing blessing Sunday night when we went to the Centro Arte para la Paz for a concert. The first act gave the ten young students who are learning to play the harp a chance to show off their new skills - with "Twinkle, twinkle little star"! Who could imagine a harp concert in Suchitoto? The harps are the gift of a Canadian woman who has also taught a local guitarist, and he in turn has taught the children the first steps of harping. The harpists were followed by a group of young guitarists, a chamber music group, and a popular music group - all wonderful, but the harpists won our hearts.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A visit to El Bario

Yesterday Alexine, Margaret Jane and I visited El Bario, a village that is part of the Suchitoto municipality. Many people from El Bario lived in the Calle Real refugee camp in the mid-1980s when Margaret Jane and Andrea Nenzel worked there - walking in with Margaret Jane is a bit like being an escort for a star! Lita, who once travelled to a Geneva conference on refugees with Margaret Jane, showed us around her beautiful and well-organized village. In the top photo, Lita (in pink) stands with her mother, Margaret Jane and Alexine. Other photos show the village chapel, Alexine with two very delightful young girls, an older girl with a hen on the way to market, and a mother watching over her daughters who are embroidering panels for baby dresses. The panels end up on clothes in the United States; the girls get two dollars for each panel, which is pretty good pay in El Salvador, especially for work that can be done in a friendly group of girls.

El Bario was organized as a cooperative in the 1970s. They were forced off their land during the Civil War, but were one of the first communities to return in the late 1980s - in part because they feared that if they did not return they would lose their land. This is a very well organized farming community, with a school, a community center, a corn mill, a small store and the chapel; it feels to someone from the United States like an extended family, and so it is. Lita sent us home with embroidered handkerchiefs and a recently published study of El Bario's history and present life - great memories of a very special day.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

Five gathered around our table for a Thanksgiving feast today - Margaret Jane, Alexine, Peggy, and Shrade, a new friend from Seattle who has been giving singing classes at the Centro Arte. I got to make the feast, which was great fun, if sometimes challenging (it appears that sage, an essential ingredient in the way Thanksgiving should taste, can't be found here). I did find fresh cranberries, of all wonderful things, in PriceSmart, the local version of Costco, and a Butterball turkey, which spent the morning soaking in brine. A San Salvador bakery made the pumpkin pie, and I created stuffing with Italian seasoning instead of sage. It was all good, but the stories were better. Between Peggy's stories of her father and mother dancing around the kitchen and Alexine's story about blessing an engagement ring for a stranger she met on the George Washington bridge we were enthralled. And we ate lots and lots of turkey and gave thanks for the joy of our lives.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A day for Estela

Today Blanca Estela Garcia made her covenant as an Associate of the Oblates of the Heart of Jesus - I hope I have that wording correct! - and I was there on behalf of the many Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace whose lives Estela has touched.

Estela's history with us goes back to the days, in the late 1980s, when Sister Eleanor Gilmore was working with Jesuit Refugee Services at El Despertar in the San Antonio Abad neighborhood of San Salvador. Eleanor was overwhelmed with the amount of work needed to keep the house running as well as to get people coming in from the country to medical appointments, which was their main mission. She put up a notice at the San Antonio Abad parish asking if anyone would want to come to work with them, and clearly her guardian angel was working overtime that day, because Estela applied, was hired, and soon had the place humming, the patients organized, and the meals prepared. She and Eleanor became fast friends, as did Sister Margaret Byrne, who came to work at El Despertar for a couple of years, and later Sister Grace Didomenicantonio and I. Estela has taught each of us a great deal about faith and the love of God; her life has had many hard times, including losing her husband during the civil war and raising her daughter Susy on her own, but I've never seen her be other than joyful and grateful to God.

For many years since those days at El Despertar, Estela has worked with the Oblatas del Corazón de Jesus at Colegio Sagrado Corazon, an excellent girl's school, where she's been named head of the maintenance department. And for the last two years, she has been preparing with great intensity and devotion to make her oblation, to become an Associate Oblate. It was a beautiful Mass and ceremony, with a speech from each of the four making their covenant - Estela, characteristically, talked about her love for and commitment to her people, especially the poor. In the photo above, Estela is in the middle with a white blouse, and her daughter Susy is at bottom left. Congratulations, Estela - you will be a light for the Hermanas Oblatas as you have been and are for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.

Welcome, Alexine!

Yesterday Margaret Jane and I happily drove to the airport to pick up Sister Alexine Anderson. Alexine is part of our UK community - born in Scotland, lives in London - but for the last year she has been part of the novitiate community in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. That put her close enough to El Salvador to make a trip down, and here she is for the next two weeks. With Margaret Jane from New Jersey and me from the West Coast, we're a pretty complete geographic representation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.

Alexine spent many years teaching in the Cameroon, so being in the tropics is familiar. And she's eager to learn about El Salvador and about the various projects that Margaret Jane and Peggy O'Neill and I are involved in. Today she joined a delegation from California to get an introduction to the Centro Arte para la Paz, and we got one of the delegates to take our photo (that's Alexine in the middle). Many other plans and possibilities are being discussed - trips to the city, to the campo, to San Juan Opico where our February Medical Mission will be held - and meanwhile we've had some good time to talk and catch up with each other.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


A family in our block has been making some revisions to their house, and it seems that in the process they've stirred up the status quo: recently we've been seeing rats, and last night I heard and then saw two or three running along a ledge at the top of my bedroom wall. Alas! I changed bedrooms for the next few days as we try to figure out rat-discouraging strategies. Currently we have rat-annoying noise machines working in three rooms of the house. We're putting away all food with great care, and are going to try to purchase some steel wool to put on top of the ledge. We are delighted when the little wild yellow cat comes around.

Our neighbors have recommended poison and traps, but we are resisting. Rats, too, are part of creation and they've lived with humans for a very long time. We want to discourage them from making their home with us, as we've discouraged the bats who were here when we first moved in. We want that, in fact, very much!

But creatures, both the delightful and the disagreeable, are a part of life here. I am currently studying Spanish for a few hours each week at the Pajaro Flor school here, and today I visited my teacher Marta's home in the campo, where her father keeps his small herd of cattle. As well as 12 cattle, including the magnificent and very pregnant Brahma cow in the photo, Marta introduced me to their dog, her two puppies, a large group of chickens, and two shy cats. The farm includes a milpa, now growing maisillo (sorghum) and zacate (a tall grass) for winter feed, an orchard of banana and marañon (cashew) and mango trees. Green parrots fly among the trees. Roses bloom in November - Marta's holding some white roses in the photo above.

All this glory of life doesn't come without the odd rat. And we are creatures, too, Marta and Margaret Jane and I, part of the whole along with the little orange cat who is dancing on our roof right now - in pursuit, I hope, of the rats.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Safe travels, Paty

Today I put Pat D'Andrea - known here as Paty, because Pat just doesn't sound right in Spanish, on the plane, bound for Albuquerque and eventually Santa Fe, where she'll get to curl up under a down comforter for the first time in two months.

Paty and Margaret Jane and I had a great time during Pat's visit. We saw a lot of El Salvador and laughed a lot and watched many episodes of "House" and played many games of cribbage. Here's Paty with Antonio, a young University student who wanted a photo with her.

Travel safely, Paty, and enjoy telling all the stories of Suchitoto and El Salvador!

Honoring the Jesuits of the UCA

Yesterday Pat and I drove in to San Salvador for a memorial Mass in the crypt of the Cathedral, honoring the six Jesuits and their companions, assassinated twenty years ago on November 16th. It was a beautiful Mass, and the huge crypt - chosen because it is the burial place of Monseñor Romero and a sacred place for Salvadorans - was packed with people. The Jesuit Provincial, Father Jesús Salguero, said the Mass, with the current rector of the UCA, Fr. José María Tojeira, and several priests assisting. Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien of St. Andrews and Edinburgh talked at the end of the Mass, calling for the rapid canonization of Monseñor Romero, which drew a huge round of applause.

Today the murdered Jesuits were honored by Mauricio Funes, President of El Salvador, who presented them posthumously with the "José Matías Delgado" order of the golden cross - El Salvador's highest honor - which was accepted by their families and their Jesuit colleagues. This honor was an important symbol of the changing times in El Salvador, and perhaps a beginning of a process of truth-telling and reconciliation that has never yet happened publicly.

Photo by Jane Halsey from the rose garden at the UCA marking the place where the Jesuits were assassinated.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A time of terrible memories

Today the Jesuit community of the UCA (University of Central America) is remembering the Jesuits assassinated 20 years ago on their campus. Last night the community of El Sitio Cenizero, a village settled by survivors of the 1983 massacre of the people of Copapayo, remembered those who died during the three terrible days of killing. Margaret Jane and I heard the story of the Copapayo massacre two years ago, when the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace sponsored a week of study and reflection in El Salvador. I turned the story into a poem, and in memory of all those lives squandered so terribly during the Civil War, here it is:


He stands staring into his hands
moving them back and forth
talking to the ghosts that live there.

He cannot lift his eyes to look at us
because we are the ones who were not there
and so are still living.

He is compelled to tell the story
again and again, talking into his hands
to the ones who are not here,

Mamá. Papá. Tia. Hermana. Sobrino.
How they came down into the canyon to the lake
looking to go home again, was it safe? Was the Army
somewhere else? Looking to go home to plant the fields
with corn and beans, to harvest oranges. Peasants, paisanos,
thought to be ripe for communism, wanting rights
they shouldn’t have. He was just ten,
old enough to help. They sent out scouts,
the army came back after them, there was no time
to run, no where to hide, they started shooting,
bodies fell, beloved ones fell, blood fell into the lake.
After a while the army rounded up the survivors
and marched them away. The officer told some of the men
they could take the young girls, do as they liked with them.
He heard the girls screaming as they marched the others up
the hill away, he hears them still.

They were thirsty, hungry, so afraid. The soldiers said
they’d take them to a camp. After a while. First they were marched
to another village, not their own, He found his aunt and sister on the march,
still living, walking, and they walked together, kept together,
They were divided into three groups, sent to different corners
of the village, his group in tall grass when he heard the shots begin
and dived back, a small, thin boy, into the tall grass, trying to tell
his aunt, his sister to come hide with him, but then he was alone
alive holding silence while the world erupted into gunfire
and the soldiers joked and reloaded and shot some more
and tossed some branches over the dead and went away
and only he and Pedro were left, and Pedro, older boy, was
wounded so he couldn’t walk and he tended him for a night
and a day, fetched water for him, but he couldn’t carry Pedro
and he had to leave and the weight of what still feels like betrayal still
hides in the lines of his hands.

But he left and walked back to the canyon, past the bodies of the girls
now torn and dismembered by dogs, past the bodies of the ones
who had died in the canyon, no one left, no one alive to break
the silence, and he walked back to the village where the corn fields
were still unplanted and the orange tree hung heavy with fruit
and he hid in a hole in the earth like a dead boy until he heard
voices and it was the guerrillas gathering oranges and he came out,
and there was his uncle, the only one left, who put down the oranges
and gathered him up, cipote, precioso, and then the story
is over.

He stands staring into his hands
moving them back and forth
talking to the ghosts that live there.

He cannot lift his eyes to look at us
because we are the ones who were not there
and so are still living.

He is compelled to tell the story
again and again, talking into his hands
to the ones who are not here.


The terrible rains and flooding of this past weekend have left so many families grieving and homeless, so many communities isolated, so many crops lost. I remember Eleanor Gilmore saying that the last rains of winter, the rainy season, were often the worst, and this was the worst of the worst.

Winter has now given way to summer, the dry season. Skies are blue all day, and it's the coolest time of the year, relatively speaking - nighttime temperatures go down to about 70, and it's about 82 at midafternoon, very pleasant. Families gather on the plaza in the afternoon, and everyone enjoys the evenings. It's usually a time of celebrations and fiestas, but the floods have cast a long shadow over our pleasures.

Pat and I went down the steep street to the lake yesterday and watched the lanchas maneuvering through the thick growth of water hyacinth at the Puerto San Juan, with the boatmen using machetes to cut a way for the boats. At least we think it's water hyacinth, after consulting on-line resources. Here it's known as lechuga, lettuce, or nimfa. This lake, created by a dam on the Rio Lempa in the 1950s, is heavily polluted. We're told not to even think about swimming or eating any fish caught in the lake. So perhaps the water hyacinth, although it's an invasive introduced species, does bring some benefits: it's efficient at taking up heavy metals and other pollutants. No wonder it's doing so well on Lago Suchitlan.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Delivering the beans and rice

I've never had quite so much fun in PriceSmart (the El Salvador equivalent of Costco) - Pat and I went up and down the aisles, loading up three huge shopping carts with purified water, diapers and the basics - beans, rice, cornmeal, oil. Margaret Jane was cheering us on from her Spanish class in Suchitoto. All the purchases just barely fit into our old Toyota 4-runner. Then we delivered them to the Archdiocese, and these great guys unloaded the goods and took them to the storeroom where Dina, Margarita and Clelia from the Caritas-Pastoral Social office were sorting donations. They'll know where to put all those beans to best use.

Thanks to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and PeaceHealth for making this donation possible. I just wish it wasn't necessary: there are too many people homeless and grieving tonight in El Salvador. International aid has begun to arrive and the government is trying to respond to the needs that extend all the way from beans and rice and diapers for tonight to bridges and houses to rebuild over the next many months. To add to all these troubles, the enormous rainfall and flooding destroyed many crops, particularly the beans that were just being harvested and the second harvest of corn, so the prices of those staples are going to climb in the next few months. It's more than people here, already fragile, already stressed, can bear.

In time of need

Yesterday we asked Dina Duvon de Garcia, long-time friend of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and one of the Caritas staff at the Archdiocese, how we could help in this time of emergency (there are 14,000+ people in emergency shelters all over central El Salvador at the moment). Today we got an answer: buy basic foods and clean water and diapers and deliver them to the Archdiocese. So we are off on this mission of mercy: we'll use funds from the Sisters and from PeaceHealth to fill the car. It feels wonderful to be delivering some concrete assistance!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Storm and flooding damage many

A tremendous rainstorm and damaging floods caused great damage in central El Salvador Sunday morning. There was a huge rainstorm, caused by a low-pressure system linked indirectly to Hurricane Ida, that stalled over El Salvador and let loose an unbelievable amount of water - President Funes said that San Vicente, the community worst hit, had as much rain in four hours as had fallen in four days during Hurricane Mitch. There were terrible floods and landslides, many people were killed (at present more than 130 are reported killed, with 90 people listed as missing) and others are now homeless. The photo above is from La Prensa Grafica
We are all fine in Suchitoto and there was no damage to our house or to the Centro Arte para la Paz, but the nearby city of San Martin was hard hit. I was in Morazan for the weekend with my friend Pat & we waited over until today (Monday) because so many roads were closed. As we came home today, we saw lots of damage - collapsed houses, giant flood plains, trees toppled, rocks and earth spilling out onto the highway. When we got back to Suchitoto, Margaret Jane and Pat and I put together a couple of big piles of towels and sheets and clothing and took them down to the Mayor's office here to help those who are left homeless.

If any of you would like to help, a cash donation will help relief organizations provide the supplies and food and medicine so badly needed. Organizations doing good relief work include:
For links to other reports, photos, and maps, go to Tim's El Salvador Blog, always an excellent source of up-to-date information here.
It has been very sad to see on television the faces of those who've lost family memebers or houses and all their possessions. As you can imagine, and as is always the case here, it has hit the poor communities hardest.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Visiting with Nubia

I recently went to Comasagua for a visit with Nubia and her mom, and to bring them the assistance that, thanks to my friends, has made life a bit less precarious for this family. Here's Nubia in her school uniform entering my number in her family's cell phone - like any kid, she can do it twice as fast and accurately as the adults around her.

Nubia has grown a little, but is still very small for her 11 years. She is finishing 2nd grade, three years behind where she's be if she had started school at the usual age, so it's probably helpful to her that she is not much larger than the younger children she sits in class with. It's good to know that she can safely plan on beginning 3rd grade in January. Thanks to all whose donations have helped give Nubia a better present and more hopeful future!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

St. Christopher's busdrivers

Today is St. Christopher's Day, at least in El Salvador (Wikipedia lists May 9th in the East and July 25th in the West as his feast days, so I'm not clear why the November 5th celebration). Christopher, the saint who's imaged carrying the Christ Child across a river has long been the patron saint of travellers, though his name is no longer in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints (since he seems to have been a somewhat legendary figure). In El Salvador he's the patron saint of bus drivers, and tonight the bus drivers in Suchitoto had a long and wonderful procession, with their buses dressed up with balloons and filled with kids throwing candy. We didn't have the equipment to capture this grand nighttime parade of buses in clear photos, but at least this impressionistic image may give you some idea of its cheerfulness. We stood out on our front stoop and applauded every bus as it passed. It's another Suchitoto festival - I never imagined a town could find so many reasons to throw a party.

There was a serious purpose to this parade and to a gathering of bus drivers in San Salvador, calling attention to the dangers bus drivers and passengers face during this crime wave. There have been too many murders of bus drivers, apparently because the owners of the bus lines refused to pay extortion money, or didn't pay as much as was demanded. Families of bus drivers worry every time they go to work. May St. Christopher protect them.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Día de los Difuntos

Here's Pat D'Andrea's wonderful image of the Suchitoto cemetery on All Soul's Day, el día de los difuntos. Everyone in the town carried flowers, both real and artificial, to the cemetery, where they spruced up the gravesites and painted the tombs and attended Mass. Blue, pink and green are among the favorite colors for tombs, and the flowers are all the colors possible plus a few that aren't. With the cemetery full of Suchitotans visiting, praying, working and full of the colors and life they brought with them, this was a wonderfully cheerful sight. Outside the cemetery gates flowers and food were for sale, and the party continues tonight on the plaza.

I thought about my family, whose graves can be found in three Western states and many different cities. We could never have this kind of gathering of the living and the dead. It's something we lost when we moved away from the small towns my parents were born in.

I said something in my last blog post about the beginning of summer - today I learned from Marta, my new Spanish teacher in the Pajaro Flor Escuela de Lenguajes (and a different person from Martha, who's been mentioned in this blog), that it always rains on November 1st and November 2nd, and that's the end of the rainy season. Indeed it did rain yesterday, and looks like raining tonight. We'll see what tomorrow brings.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

El Día de los Muertos

A very special weekend in El Salvador and Latin America: while Halloween is still a custom from the norte (you see some costumes, but I'm told trick and treating has not percolated south), the day of all saints, el día de todos los santos, and the day of the dead or All Souls, el día de los muertos, are very important feasts here. On Monday, Mass will be celebrated in the cemetery and families will decorate the graves of their dead.

Meanwhile, we are also celebrating the first days of summer, and booths are up all around the plaza, selling flowers and sweets for Monday, selling crafts and clothes and books and icons. There's a pizzeria set up at the side of the church, and a loudspeaker amplifying the music. A dance is promised for this evening. I can feel the difference it makes when you don't have to worry about the rain! November and December are the prime months for fiestas here, everyone's favorite time to go to a party or go to the beach or sit out talking late into the night. Welcoming summer in November is a new pleasure for me - especially as I think of all my friends in the northwest U.S. getting ready for winter and the cold, wet, dark months of the year.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Approaching summer

I'm back in Suchitoto at the beginning of summer, having left behind the winter rains of Seattle. It did rain night before last, quite energetically, but that was the first rain in a week. So summer, the dry season, is on the way. It's noticeably cooler, too, but "cooler" is a relative term - the high here yesterday was about 84 F, with a low around 76. Very pleasant!

This little guy was one of the dancers who performed at the parque central for a little fiesta honoring El Salvador's traditional customs. It was great to see the park full of people, especially because fears of crime have greatly increased here. One of our friends has an artesania store a block from the plaza. She worries that visitors are less and less willing to leave the visibility and safety of the plaza, and she has begun to leave her door locked during the day. A woman was killed recently in one of Suchi's outlying communities. Some neighbors have been extorted for la renta - not rent, but protection money. People are afraid to report extortion attempts to the police because they suspect many police are complicit with the gangs. When sensible people in Suchitoto, which has been a fairly safe community, are this worried it's a clear sign that the epidemic of crime in El Salvador and in Central America is growing much too fast.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Leaving home and going home

Time to go home! I leave on the red-eye special tonight, get in to the Comalapa airport tomorrow morning, where Roberto will pick me up (he'll be holding a sign saying "Hermana Susana, Suchitoto"). Peggy, who usually gives me a ride home, is flying to the U.S. today for three weeks of talks and fundraising for the Centro Arte para la Paz. I'm looking forward to seeing Margaret Jane and Pat and Martha and Berty and Yanira, to the heat and the end of the rainy season, to the time when the toads go underground until next May when the rains begin again.

Time to leave home. It's raining furiously right now and the days are getting shorter and shorter. I won't miss the winter rains, but I'll miss my Sisters and my sister, my friends and family here. And Thai food, kale, red leaves, neighborhood coffee shops. And being able to open my mouth and talk without having to think about how to say what I want to say.

Time to go home and continue the Spanish studies!

Friday, October 23, 2009


This has been an extra-beautiful fall in western Washington: something (a sharp cold spell? hot days in the summer? wind from the south?) has made the autumn colors more vivid than usual. I've walked around St. Mary's, happily taking photos.

I've been thinking today, while I took those photos and talked to friends - including Patti Moore, who visited me in El Salvador this summer - how undeservedly privileged I am, able to come up here a few times each year and return to El Salvador with no difficulties. I'm particularly aware of this because a good friend has been having a hard time getting her visa back to the United States from Kenya approved, though she thought all the paperwork was in order, and she has lived lawfully in the U.S. for the past many years. She's about to make her third visit to the embassy there.

Just before I left El Salvador, a new friend, Blanca, told me about the four trips she had made to the U.S. Embassy there to get a visa so she could attend a family wedding. Each time she had to pay a large sum of money, in Salvadoran terms, for her interview - I think about $190 - and each time she was told to bring additional information and come back again. After the fourth trip she was denied a visa, but none of her money was refunded.

By contrast, my paperwork to get a resident visa for El Salvador was reasonable and fairly minimal.

Why do we, as a country, believe that we have the right to treat people from other countries, particularly developing nations, so badly?