Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bits of this and that

I'm almost off to the airport to pick up Kathy and Victor Garcia, here on a car-buying and mission planning trip, but first I want to introduce a new housemate, Korla Masters. Korla, who's just graduated from college, is here volunteering at the Centro Arte para la Paz until May, 2011, teaching English in El Sitio Cenizero and helping out at the Centro. She loves oranges, and was lamenting today, while squeezing oranges, that her attempts to eat locally in Minnesota will rule out oranges in her future diet. We agreed that this was a good reason to be here and now and revel in every Salvadoran orange that comes her way over the next nine months.

Korla told us about last night's concert at the Centro Arte, a combination of the Pop Ensemble of the El Salvador Youth Orchestra and the Coro de Manos, Choir of Hands, performing a combination of pop music and songs signed in Salvadoran Sign Language. Korla was especially delighted because her mother is the Pastor for a deaf community in Minnesota, and she grew up speaking ASL. SSL is different, she told us, but some of the sign interpreters also spoke ASL, so she was able to communicate, and was taped for a sign blog. It was an absolutely wonderful and uplifting evening, both because of the beauty of sign and because of the great stage presence and joyfulness of orchestra director Martin Jorge.

We also had the joy of greeting Pat Farrell, OSF, the newly elected vice-president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, here to visit her old stomping grounds in Suchitoto (Pat lived here for 15 or more years, working with Peggy O'Neill to start the Centro Arte) with a group of Franciscans and Franciscan Associates. Pat will be an inspirational leader for LCWR, and I'm sure her many years in El Salvador will come in handy, perhaps in surprising ways.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Remembering Judith

A friend of mine died last week. Judith used to come by our house in Suchitoto and ask how we were and ask for some spare change for food. When we gave her 50 cents, she'd come back with some bananas and an avocado from the market - extras, I hope, as I know she often helped out there with cleaning or unloading. Some days she'd show up with flowers, and I'd worry a little bit about whose flower patch they might have come from. She brought me a huge bunch of beautiful red leaves, happened to bring them on the first day of my retreat, and they sat on my prayer table all through that time of quiet, filtering the sun.

She looked eccentric in El Salvador terms, wearing a loose man's shirt and pants, while most women of my age - which she must have been - wear dresses or skirts and tops. She kept an eye on us, and probably on pretty much everyone in Suchitoto. I think it's likely that she had trouble with alcohol, and last week, after a brief time in the hospital, she died of liver failure.

I remember Judith as a woman who was "counter, original, spare, strange" - to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins - someone who didn't fit very well into her world, someone who suffered and was kind. I wish I had a photo of her, but this photo of red leaves, like the ones she brought me, will help me to remember. Gracias, Judith.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Corny day

Today was Suchitoto's Festival de Maiz, corn festival, which began with a procession featuring kings and queens of maiz coming in to the church decorated with cornstalks. We had just one Mass today, at 9 AM, so the church was crowded, everyone in the pews sitting haunch to haunch and people standing in the aisles on both sides. The readings of the day were a great fit:
And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.
Or, as the Salvadoran hymn puts it, Vamos todos al banquete, en la mesa de la creacion - let's all go to the banquet at the table of creation, where the last are first and the harvest is celebrated. Here in Suchitoto, at least on this day and this feast - dreamed up years ago by Srs. Peggy O'Neill and Pat Farrell - we were all the sons and daughters of the corn. And we all ate:
riguas (completely delicious fresh corn pancakes cooked in banana leaves), atole, tamales, tortas, and corn on the cob. Even with the rain falling unseasonably early, it was a feast.

Friday, August 20, 2010

La casa de la abuela

This week I went with my godson, Alejandro, and his parents, Ani and Alex, to visit Alex' mother who lives outside the community of Santa Isabel Ishuatán, high in the hill country of the Cordillera de Balsamo. We had a fine time at la casa de la abuela, grandmother's house, eating our way happily through a continual feast of the best country life has to offer. Doña Francesca started us off with atole de elote, a soup of fresh sweet corn flavored with cinnamon and accompanied by ears of fresh corn. A little later Alex cut down some coconuts, and we enjoyed coconut water and meat. Almuerzo, the main meal, came at about 3 PM and featured a chicken who'd recently been running around, rice, vegetables, tortillas, a salsa de chile, and fresh cheese that Doña Francesca made as we watched.

Then it was time to make tamales de elote, fresh corn tamales, which are delicious. Doña Francesca is an old hand at these, and she taught Ani to make them. I tried the art, too, and feel a little sorry for anyone who got one of my understuffed and messy tamales. Along with beans and rice, the tamales were the centerpiece of supper. I fell into bed feeling like a stuffed tamale myself.

Doña Francesca's house and farm were full of flowers which attracted an amazingly diverse group of butterflies, fruit trees (mango, coconut, orange and many more), and fields - a small milpa for corn and a rice field. Like all the Salvadoran homesteads I've visited, her farm is a celebration of diversity where livestock (chickens, geese and a rabbit), grain crops, fruit crops and vegetables grow in happy abundance. According to the measurements of the U.S.A., Doña Francesca would be poor, and her life has been hard in many ways. But she has been a nurturer of life, both in her farm and in her family: 19 years ago, in her 50s, she adopted a baby whose mother couldn't afford to bring him up, an addition to her family of eight, and Wilson is now finishing his high school degree, hoping to study law at the University. That generosity of life and spirit, which I meet again and again in El Salvador, is a richness beyond economic price.

Oh yes, and I also had a wonderful time playing with Alejandrito, who likes nothing better than to go walking with someone holding his hands. Balancing: what a challenge! But he'll soon be off on his own.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Sunday Scene

Sunday is the one day almost everyone has free in Suchitoto, and on Sunday morning people from town and people in from the country enjoy the central square, head for the Catholic church or one of the evangelical chapels, and shop for a bargain among the merchandise laid out on rugs or plastic sheets. It's a great scene and I finally remembered today to take my camera and capture a bit of Suchitoto Sunday morning. In addition to the buying and selling and trading and chatting, today there were clowns (clowns are beloved here), adding their zany vitality to the fun.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Un Círculo por la Justicia

Ten years ago I was working at the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center in Seattle, developing an empowerment program for women called Justice for Women in which groups of women meet in Women's Justice Circles for 8 weeks to learn about each other, to give voice to their dreams and realities, and to join together to take an action for justice . That program, the brainchild of IPJC Director Linda Haydock, SNJM, has had a long and lively life, and now - to my considerable surprise - it has followed me to El Salvador.

Giselle Cárcamo, who coordinates the program, got a Justice Circle started in Peru (or un círculo por la justicia - the program was translated into Spanish from the beginning, and there have been many Spanish speaking justice circles) and when I was last in Seattle, in March, she talked to me about the possibilities of starting a Justice Circle in El Salvador. I went back with the materials, but when I looked at them I was a little dismayed to remember that the stories that illustrate women working for justice came from the context of the Pacific Northwest. I assumed it wouldn't make much sense to use these materials in El Salvador without having Salvadoran stories, but I shared the program workbook with Leslie Schuld, Director of the CIS (Center for Interchange and Solidarity) and with Iris Alas, CIS community organizer for San Rafael Cedros. And I got absorbed in other work and, quite honestly, lost track of my intention to work on some local stories.

But Iris took the workbook home to read it, and she got excited. She's been working with a group of women who live in a community that has grown up around abandoned railroad tracks. They long to own their homes, and Iris decided that Justice for Women could help them organize to ask the government to deed them the land they have lived on for many years. She called a group together, and they start meeting this Sunday. Like so many great Salvadoran women I know, she just got going. May this Justice Circle be the start of great plans and strong action for these women!

And I will be working on those local stories! It seems quite likely that Iris and her circle are creating one of them.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A little night music

Recently the ex-theater behind our house has turned into a sports bar, with very loud music sometimes playing long into the night (though, happily, not most nights). We're contemplating purchasing some ear protectors to help us get through those nights. I thought at one point, "this is what comes of having no zoning." But then I had to admit that if Suchitoto was zoned, our house - across the street from the market, around the corner from the ex-theater - would be in the commercial zone.

It was all the more delightful last night to go to a concert of Latino music at the Centro Arte para la Paz, where five generous and talented performers, Fabiola, Osiris, Diana, Anna and Eduardo - from Peru, El Salvador, the U.S., Germany and El Salvador - held us enthralled with tender ballads and a beautiful blending of Osiris' guitar with Ana's cello improvisations. Part of the delight was walking the five blocks to the Centro by lamplight and walking home again in the tropical dark, humming. A little night music.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Last year the lemon tree in our patio gave us something like 35 lemons, spread out over quite a few weeks. It looked like a dying tree, with some kind of infestation curling its leaves. During the dry season I watered it a few times and gave it a bit of fertilizer.

And this year it has been producing about 35 lemons every day. What can you do with 35 lemons a day? I've been making and drinking lemonade in quantity; I've frozen lemon juice cubes; and I have a big bottle of lemon juice in the refrigerator. Each day we put that morning's lemon harvest in the black clay bowl on our table. When I pray in the morning, looking out into the patio, there's a scent of lemon everywhere. The lemons keep coming and when I look up at the tree, it still has lemons beyond counting.

So we've been doing what people in the Northwestern U.S. do when the zucchinis ripen: every day, we try to figure out who we can give lemons to. Margaret Jane takes them to the Centro Arte para la Paz, I take them on all my trips to the capital. What a glorious excess! And for years I imagined how wonderful it would be to have a lemon tree in my yard. It IS wonderful to be bombarded with this glorious excess.

Friday, August 6, 2010

El Salvador del Mundo

Today, the feast of the Transfiguration, is for the capital city of San Salvador - and for the country as a whole - the country's patronal feast of El Salvador del Mundo, the savior of the world. This photo is from the parade in downtown San Salvador a couple of years ago, borrowed from the internet as nothing would lure me to the capital on this day of crowded and jubilant fiesta.

Almost everyone had yesterday and today off: school is out and for many, the whole week has been free for enjoying "the August festivals." Here, as during Holy Week and Christmas Week, the religious and secular holidays bump shoulders, with processions and firecrackers and dances and parades and trips to the beach all blending together in a happy stew - ¡Fiesta! ¡Que disfruten! Have a great time, everyone!

But the more solemn reality of this feast was beautifully stated by Monseñor Romero on the 6th of August, 1977: "I tell you, beloved Catholics, that all of us, the Church, are the Transfiguration of Christ: a people illuminated by faith, encouraged by a great hope, held together by a great love. We are in truth the glory of the Lord, most when we are conscious that this glorious name of our country is a gift of favor of the Lord."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


It's hard for a North American to realize how coveted eyeglasses are here and how important the gift of glasses with the right prescription can be - it's something we can take for granted. Rosa Aguiar, our great eye clinic volunteer from Comasagua, asked me if we could help with glasses for a girl in first grade who couldn't see the blackboard or her schoolbooks. I can't think of a better use of our donations! Here's Natalia in her new glasses, to say "thank you."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Almuerzo in Aguas Escondidas

Angie Wolle, PeaceHealth's Director of Organization Development, has been visiting me this weekend, in preparation for the PeaceHealth leadership group which will be coming to El Salvador in November for a week of service and experience.

On Friday we visited San Juan Opico, where the service part of the November mission will take place, and were invited to lunch at the rancho of Doña Carmen Aviles in Aguas Escondidas, one of the villages of Opico. Carmen cooked for our February mission group, so I knew the food would be wonderful, but it was beyond wonderful. She presented us with plates of chicken in her own special sauce, rice and steamed vegetables; there was a huge platter of salad, a pot of beans, a plate of cheese, tortillas; and we had homemade horchata (a delicious drink of moro seeds, rice, cinnamon and vanilla). Along with Dina Duvon, Reyna Peña, and Gumersindo and Ana Hernandez - our key volunteers in the February and May missions - we feasted like queens until we could barely waddle, but we weren't done. The new corn, elote, is harvested in July and August, and there are a number of special dishes that are made with elote: for dessert Carmen served us atole, a hot, sweet new corn porridge flavored with cinnamon and other spices, and gave us each an ear of elote to eat. She also had made a quesadilla, which here in El Salvador is a flat cake made with cheese and milk, and had fruit ready, but we had gone beyond capacity, and ended up taking the quesadilla home for breakfast. Each dish was delicious, perfectly cooked, beautifully presented, and Carmen (and her daughters and friends) cooked it all with no electricity, as a tree had knocked out the power line, using her gas stove and her huge adobe horno, or oven.

For Angie (she's the blond in the photo), this was a great introduction to the joy and generosity of Salvadorans. Our November group will be going to Doña Carmen's house for lunch on their first day in El Salvador, to experience a little bit of life in the campo - and to eat some of the best cooking in El Salvador.