Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How the beans grow

Visiting Sonia and her family a few days ago, I noticed that the milpa next to their house had changed dramatically. Half the corn had been harvested, and the rest was doblado, turned over so that the remaining ears of corn can dry on the stalk (this happens in the midst of the rainy season, and I can't understand why the corn dries rather than mildews, but the Salvadorans and their forebears have been at this for hundreds of generations, and they know). In between the drying stalks, the recently planted bean vines were popping out of the earth. In a few more weeks it'll be time for the bean harvest, for the vines to be uprooted and dried and threshed so that the small, beautiful red silk beans can emerge. And those beans, in their growing, will have fixed nitrogen in the soil for next year's corn crop. It's a beautiful and valuable cycle.

Alejandrito at 2

My godson Alejandro Emanuel Alvarenga - aka Alejandrito or Junior - turned two last week, and like two-year-olds the world over he has joyfully discovered the word NO, and when Alex, Ani, Alejandrito and I went for a walk he was very determined to walk ahead of us, on his own if you please, until we got close to the busy streets and the parents took over.

Other than issuing the necessary NO from time to time, he seems to be an entirely happy boy. Here he is with his birthday truck, which makes lots of noises - quite satisfactory. What fun to watch this little guy grow up.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

La vida política

I drove back to Suchitoto in the late afternoon yesterday to find a couple of policemen directing me away from my usual route to the Centro Arte para la Paz where I park the car. I turned the corner and found a few more policemen at the next corner. Several corners and several policemen later I was finally able to get to the Centro Arte by making a wide swing around the center of town, noticing on the way several FMLN buses parked. Of course I had to find out what was going on, so I walked back via the Parque Central and noticed that the street that goes past the Alcaldia (City Hall) was set up with a stage, lots and lots of FMLN flags, and a covered area for dancing. A normal enough sight in this city that for the past 24 years has been voting FMLN (this is the party of the left, formed by an alliance of five smaller political parties in 1981, in the early years of the civil war). But the event wasn't normal, and that's why the police were out in force. The FMLN 's central committee has named Pedrina Rivera as the candidate for Mayor in the elections coming in March, 2012, and many in Suchitoto were upset that they had not been consulted and that the current and very popular FMLN Mayor, Javier Martinez, would not be up for re-election. The flags and banners and stage were set up for Pedrina Rivera's opening speech in the campaign, and supporters had been bused in to make the event look festive and popular.

I didn't stay around to witness the event - it seemed like one of those fights in the family where you'd just as soon the guest didn't witness it - but I learned from the paper today that there had been protests and a scuffle, plastic bottles and pop cans had been thrown, and there was enough shouting to drown out the official words. And then, perhaps to everyone's relief, the sky broke open with thunder and lightning and torrential rains and the rally was at an end.

This morning when I walked over to church, the banners and flags were torn and tattered. It had been a hard night in Suchitoto.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

On the road

Just for the fun of it, I made a list today of what I encountered on the road between Suchitoto and San Martin, the nearest town. In the 18 miles of this pretty good two-lane highway I encountered:

kids, families, men, men on horseback, women, women carrying large bundles on their heads, people gathered at bus stops, people sitting on the edge of the road (this last I find unnerving since there's no shoulder, but it makes a good seat when the ground slopes away from the road)

dogs, chickens, goats, horses, oxen, cattle (I sometimes see iguanas, but none today), all of them occasionally moved to cross the road without reference to my car coming down it

cars, bicycles, motorcycles, trucks, buses, micro-buses, trucks carrying people, road work machinery, moto-taxis (the 3-wheel vehicles called 'tuk-tuks' in Guatemala)

a man with a vending cart - he seemed to be selling cold drinks of some kind

many houses, many milpas (corn and bean fields), cattle fields, orchards, several pupuserias (roadside eatery selling pupusas, the Salvadoran comfort food), a collection of small brick-making businesses, Catholic and Evangelical churches

many tumulos (traffic-slowing bumps - whatever do we call them in English? - which in El Salvador are essentially a pipe half buried in the roadway, and you'd better slow waaaay down or your shocks will be shocked.)

many baches - aka potholes. They multiply with the rainy season and may get fixed when the dry weather comes.

It's crowded, it's lively, and driving it is always an adventure. I sometimes have to pull off the highway in the U.S. because I get drowsy. Not here.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dia de Independencia

September 15, last Thursday, Suchitoto and towns all over Central America celebrated the Dia de la Independencia - Independence Day, celebrating the day in 1821 when Central America declared its freedom from Spain. It was, of course, cause for a good fiesta! The party began Wednesday evening with the traditional procession of the students at InSu, the Instituto de Suchitoto, equivalent to high school, complete with floats and wild costumes. My favorite float, created at the Centro Arte para la Paz, was a version of the famous San Salvador statue of Jesus standing atop the globe, and it had to progress very slowly and carefully so that the wires could be lifted with a long pronged stick as it passed every house. There was an angel (photo above) followed by a corps of dancing angels, a 19th century cart and horse, followed by students in Victorian dress, and the Carreta de la Chillona - Martha tells me that a kind of rattle lets you know when la Chillona is hunting down the living, and her carreta was appropriately decorated with skulls.

The next morning all the school kids in town and many from the colonias marched through the town. We hung out the door and a window as they passed, almost every school with some students in costumes and a marching band. And then there was La Ciguanaba, the old witch who dangles her sausage breasts in vain attempts to catch a lover. And there were these little girls dancing up the street.

I've lived in cities most of my life where parades are very organized rituals with professional floats, and I can't tell you how much fun it is to be part of the crowd hanging out on the edges of these two happy parades. ¡Viva la Independencia!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I'm back in El Salvador, but my heart keeps turning to Albuquerque in the 1970s, when Helen Cooperstein and Patricia Clark Smith were among my best friends. Helen, a beautiful, intense artist, wove beautiful wall hangings and capes. Pat, a fellow Assistant Professor in the English Department at UNM, wrote her discovery of New Mexico's vast spaces and human histories into moving poetry.

I learned before my recent trip to New Mexico that Helen had died a year and a half after being diagnosed with cancer (this photo of her was taken last December). She and I had talked several times during those months - about her son and grandchildren, about our lives, about God. She came into a place of peace in those last months, and it was both joyful and sorrowful to visit with her son Noah, his wife Marta and their two young boys in Albuquerque.

It wasn't until my last day in New Mexico, visiting with my longtime friends Mary and Paul Davis, that I learned of Pat Smith's death in July, 2010. I have so many memories of times with Pat, parties and food and talks and exchanging poems, memories of visiting her when she was teaching on the Navajo reservation or in various Albuquerque homes. I'm sad that I fell out of touch with her.

I grieve the loss of these two friends, these two lights in my life. And I know that Helen and Pat live now not only in my memories and those of other friends, but in the wideness of God's mercy.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Labor Day in New York City was clear and beautiful, but then it began raining in New York and New Jersey. I looked forward to escaping to New Mexico, where afternoon rains sometimes happen in summer, but where gray days are practically unheard of.

It must be Seattleite karma, but it has been raining in Santa Fe ever since I arrived on Thursday evening. Now this is grand for New Mexicans - everything greens up, forest fires are no longer a major worry, the rivers are running full - but a little discouraging for visitors, especially since this is the Fiesta weekend in Santa Fe.

All the same, I had a wonderful day yesterday with my friends Pat D'Andrea and Mary Lou Carson, visiting Chimayo, up north from Santa Fe (there we are in the photo). One of my fondest memories is of visiting the Sanctuario de Chimayo with my parents on Holy Saturday, 1969 when I was new to New Mexico. It was a simple adobe chapel then, with the room off to one side where you could find the healing dirt that made Chimayo a pilgrimage site. A tiny old woman asked me to help her in the chapel while my mom and dad were still up in a shop on the main road. When they came in to the Santuario, they were horrified to see me up on a chair doing something to one of the statues, and I had to quickly explain that I was helping out by taking the veils off the statues in preparation for the Easter Vigil (though I wouldn't have known about the Easter Vigil at the time, then being mostly an agnostic).

Yesterday, 42 years and a few months later, it was hard to recognize the Santuario, now surrounded by plazas and car parks, gift shops, and some heavy and unattractive stone crosses within archways (in the background of the photo) that will probably become Stations of the Cross. When we got to the end of the long entry ramp, we found the old chapel of the Sanctuario looking simple and New Mexican, much the same as ever, but it was hard to see it surrounded by all the trappings of a tourist destination. Thankfully, we escaped to the Rancho de Chimayo, where the rain had forced everyone inside from the terraces. We almost didn't get a table, but then were invited to have lunch at the bar, where we feasted on tamales, carne adovada, flautas, posole, frijoles and sopapillas, the very best of New Mexico's wonderful food, and talked as only old friends can talk. The rain couldn't dampen that pleasure!

Later in the day, Pat and I walked down her block to pick up some tamales from her neighbor, Jenny Martinez, who also showed us her lovely collection of images of the Virgin - or the Lady, as Jenny called her. Jenny, who has been praying for me during my breathing crisis and return to health (along with the members of Pat's sangha), shared her memories of Chimayo and sadness at its tourist transformation. And she gave me a little cross to carry back to El Salvador with me. I'll remember Jenny when I hold it, and I'll remember my time in Santa Fe as filled with sunshine of the spirit.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A week in New....

I'm away from El Salvador for a long week - four days in New Jersey for an editor's meeting to plan the next issues of Living Peace, our Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace magazine, followed by four days in New Mexico to visit with my friend Pat D'Andrea and some other dear friends from my 20 years in that state.

Yesterday Corky Muzzy and I crossed under the Hudson on a long bus ride through New Jersey communities and spent Labor Day walking in Central Park - which was gloriously full of New Yorkers of all sizes, ages, and sorts enjoying a grand vacation day. So I'm visiting New Jersey, New York and New Mexico - if only I could get to New Hampshire, I'd have been in all the News. Have to leave that to presidential candidates, I suppose.

On the way to NYC, we passed a number of pupuserias and stores with names like "Sonsonateco." Alicia runs a bakery and pupuseria and a mile or so further on the bus line is the bakery and pupuseria of Las Hijas de Alicia. El Salvador is not so very far away, and Salvadorans are as enterprising - and as fond of pupusas - in New Jersey as at home. Perhaps one of those Salvadorans away from home was the woman who cleans restrooms in the Newark airport, the woman who was singing softly to herself "Pescador de los Hombres," my favorite hymn. It was so grand to hear her that I joined in - even though I have the voice of a crow with laryngitis - and we sang the refrain together happily, and I said "Gracias." And felt at home.