It’s been another exciting day with the Heartland delegation. I didn’t go to bed until 12:30am last night (technically this morning) so I surprised when my body woke me up at 6am. I tried to go back to sleep but wasn’t able to so I decided to start the day a little earlier than usual. We had a leisurely breakfast and went to visit two marginalized schools in Berlín. Before visiting the schools we sorted through a bunch of school supplies that the Heartland delegation brought down. They brought markers, crayons, chalk, dry erase markers, and pencil sharpeners. Very cool! We made several different bags to take to each teacher at both schools.
We arrived at the first school at 8:45am. The name of the school on the sign is Centro Escolar Caserio Villa Boob Graham. Yes, that's a misspelling. The name of the school is actually Bob Graham. So, moving on. There are three classrooms at the school. The first one we visited was 1st through 3rd grade. It’s is always so much fun to see the kids, give them hugs, and encourage them to continue in their studies. They always love having their pictures taken so I took a ton of photos. We introduced ourselves to the class, taught them some English, sang a few songs, and listened as they sang to us. Then we gave the teacher the bag of gifts that Heartland brought down.
After a half hour we moved onto the second classroom which was 4th grade. We did the same things in the second classroom and presented the teacher with a gift. The teacher in the second classroom also had a group of kids from kindergarten because the kindergarten teacher hadn’t shown up yet. One of the little kindergarten boys named Eduardo had the most beautiful eyes!! They were very blue. The teacher came over and said he was like my kid because our eyes were the same color. Some of the kids also commented that our eyes were similar. He was so cute and I really wanted to take him home but figured someone would probably miss him. Eventually, the kindergarten teacher showed up so we were able to see her classroom as well. She was late because she had to pick up supplies provided by the government for her own children. We talked a little to the kids and then two of the girls in the class sang us a couple songs.
Soon it was time to say goodbye so we hugged the kids and wished them luck in school. We rode back to the Pastoral House and took a quick 10 minute break. The next school was relatively close so we were able to walk. The school is called Brisas del Sol. The community of Brisas del Sol was in a different location several years ago. It was destroyed by a landslide in 2007. All of the houses were obliterated so the government worked with an NGO to rebuild the community. They moved the school from the old location to the new location but have yet to completely build a totally new school.
We weren’t able to spend a lot of time at the school because there are only two classrooms and in one the kids were getting shots. So we moved onto the second classroom which had grades 1st, 2nd, and 4th. Like the other school, we introduced ourselves, taught them some English, and sang to them. After presenting them with the gifts we said goodbye and went to visit someone’s home in the community. Margarita has two children who attend Brisas del Sol and she helps out at the Pastoral House when they need an extra hand. She gave us several guisquil from her garden and showed us around. It’s a small house but fairly sturdy and new. We told her goodbye and walked back to the Pastoral House for lunch.
Lunch today was melon, chicken, green beans, broccoli, and pasta salad. It was all delicious. What happened after lunch was also interesting. There was some kind of food in a bag sitting on the table. It looked like some sort of strange fruit. Being the inquisitive person I am, I asked William what it was. “Nispero,” he told me. I asked if it was good, to which he responded, “Yes, it’s very sweet.” I decided to give it a try and I asked Dennis and Brenda to join me. I opened the bag and it didn’t smell very good. But, similar to the durian fruit of Asia, I figured it tasted better than it smelled. While I went to wash off a piece of fruit for us to try William ate one of the other fruits. So I took a bite of the fruit. It did not taste good. In fact, it was awful. Kind of like old garbage. I gave the fruit to Dennis and Brenda who tried it and had similar reactions. Dennis said it tasted sort of rotten. William reassured us that it wasn’t rotten. But when Brenda handed him the piece we’d been eating off of he took a bite and his face told us something wasn’t right. What’s that, William? The fruit is rotten?! You just convinced us to eat rotten fruit?! Oh, that’s why it tasted so bad. Moral of the story: Do not accept fruit from William.
Holding Otilia's grandson
Supplies for the schools
Paige making bags for the teachers
The first school
I told you that was the real name
The little blue-eyed boy
A great group of kids
She loves giving hugs
In the first clasroom
He led the class in song
The girls love Mark
And Brenda too!
With my "son"
If you're happy and you know it wiggle your nose
Dennis entertaining a little boy
In the kindergarten classroom
The little girls who sang for us
He wanted to sit on my lap
Visiting with kids at the second school
Margarita's son, Misael
Behind Margarita's house
Do not accept fruit from this man!
Around 1:30pm we began our walk to Alejandría to visit the families of Jesús, Cecilia, Idalia, and Blanca. How would I describe the walk? Well, it’s more of a fast pace. The walk is about 35 minutes downhill. It is a skinny little trail surrounded most of the time by coffee plants and other trees. You had to find a good speed because if you walked to slow you’d slip and fall and if you walked too fast you’d slip and fall. It was a balancing act just to put one foot in front of the other. I could definitely feel it in my quads and calf muscles on the way down. And Cecilia had even slowed down her usual pace for us gringos. But we all made it down in one piece.
We walked past Blanca and Cecilia’s houses to start with Jesús’ house. His mom’s name is Dolores but everyone calls her Lola. She born was in Alejandría and has lived there whole life. The house she was born in is a little ways up the road. She had five children but only two are still alive. One is Jesús, who works and stays at the church six days a week. He is also a member of the Pastoral Team. Her other son, Carlos, lives in San Salvador with his family. He isn’t able to get to Berlín often because he’s looking out for his wife and children. She has mango, orange, and banana trees on her property. She doesn’t have a farm (milpa) so she buys her corn in Berlín, which is also where she gets it ground.
We asked her what a typical day was like for her. She responded that she spends most of the time washing dishes, cleaning the house and clothes, and preparing food. During the rainy season it’s often impossible to get across that small river that divides the community. So she must take the back route to Berlín. This is the one we walked on to get to her house. Going uphill is incredibly steep and difficult. I can’t imagine what it must be like in the rainy season. When the Brisas del Sol community was destroyed four people died and one of the bodies was found down by where she lives, which is a long ways from where the community was located.
She described Alejandría as a tranquil place, especially the side of the river that she is on. On the other side of the river is more discord. Lola has three new puppies; her old dog, Foca, died last year. Her new pups are named Cumbia, Laica, and Bronco. They are absolutely adorable and I couldn’t resist holding one in my lap for a while. Toward the end of our visit she thanked us for coming to her visit. We responded with gratitude for her hospitality and admiration for the way she raised her family all by herself.
Our next stop was Cecilia’s house. We settled into chairs and hammocks to listen to her mother, Rosa, tell us about herself. She used to live on the other side of the river in Alejandría but has been living in her current home for a while. She and her husband were married for 38 years before they decided to separate 12 years ago. She lives with eight other people: Cecilia, who is her oldest daughter; Idalia, who is her second oldest, Paty, her youngest daughter; Alejandro, her oldest son; Mauricio, her youngest son; Elmer, Cecilia’s oldest son; and Marvin, Cecilia’s youngest son. Most of the time her daughter Paty lives in San Salvador because she works as nanny. She is able to come home on the weekends. Cecilia lives at the Pastoral House for 6 days a week. Idalia also spends a lot of time at the Pastoral House. Alejandro lives at the Pastoral House during the week because he goes to school in Usulután which is about an hour away by bus. Mauricio, Elmer, and Marvin all stay at their house in Alejandría and walk to Berlín 5 days a week for school. Rosa also has another son, Javier, who does not live them.
They have their own milpa which is mainly kept up by Alejandro since he is the oldest son. Their milpa is about ½ a manzana (4/5 an acre). There they grow corn and beans. They have their own grinder at home which is used to grind corn for the tortillas and sometimes beans as well. It takes about 15 minutes to grind 1 guacal of corn. 1 guacal is about the size of a frying pan but a little deeper. From that 1 guacal they get about 25 tortillas. We asked her how many tortillas Marvin typically eats at a meal. She told us he eats about 5. So not only is their situation difficult because they must grow, fertilize, harvest, and grind all their own corn, but this past year was particularly bad for crops. Most people were only able to harvest about 10-20% of what they typically harvest. This leaves many families in the cantons wondering where their next meal will be coming from.
Cecilia handed us all some Coca-Cola as Rosa spent some time talking about how Cecilia became involved with the Pastoral Team. Cecilia was hired in 2001 to work for the Pastoral Team because they needed help in the kitchen. But her talents were soon realized and in 2002 she became a member of the Pastoral Team. Cecilia told us that she became a member because she wanted to help people. She was a fast learner and understands much about the situation of families in Berlín and in the cantons.
We waved goodbye to them and moved onto Blanca’s house. Blanca and her husband, Balmore, live with Blanca’s parents in their house. Her mother, Ángela, is 82 and her father, José, just turned 87. Her father hasn’t been especially healthy lately so we were very pleased that he was able to spend time talking with us. And boy did he talk!! This man can tell stories like no one I’ve ever heard. I completely lost track of time because I was so captivated by what he was saying. He is absolutely adorable and when I told Blanca later on how much I enjoyed listening to him she told me he could be my father too.
I will try to describe some of what he told us today. He began by telling us about what it was like for him growing up. He didn’t grow up with his mom but with some other women in Alejandría. There are many more earthquakes now than there used to be. When he was growing up he remembers the first time he felt one. He was very scared because he’d never felt anything like it before. In the 1950s earthquakes began to happen more frequently. Several houses fell down and some parts of his house were also damaged beyond repair. He pointed out the crack to us and where another room used to stand. Now, he told us, earthquakes are much more common and everyone is used to them.
We asked him about how he’d met his wife, Ángela. He said that she lived on the hill nearby and pointed to where it was. They would meet on the way to the river to get water. Eventually they became friends and then fell in love. They have been married for 55 years. They have six children, four girls and two boys. I’ve never met any of Blanca’s siblings, but I believe one of the helps to buy medicine for José.
Then José went on to talk about the small coffee plantation he currently owns and how he got started. He was 20 years old when he started growing coffee on a big plantation. It was a beautiful area. He also had several orange, mango, and lime trees. The entire community used to be much more beautiful than it is today. The land and the trees seemed to flourish. But several things have changed. One big problem is the toxic waste that’s released into the atmosphere and water by the nearby geothermal plant. The land isn’t as good and everything must have fertilizer to grow, which wasn’t the case in the past. The corn used to produce so much that they were able to harvest enough for two years. But now the times are fast and poor. He told us that the land used to be good but they had little water. Now they have water but the land isn’t so good.
Next he told us about what it was like for him during the Civil War (1980-1992). He said that the guerrillas were the first ones to the community and that his family was “held up.” But after a while he began to talk to the guerrillas and everything seemed to be okay. The problem was if other people found out they’d talked to the guerrillas. If the army heard about it then his family could be killed. Sometimes they’d hear bullets whizzing above them or bombs being dropped nearby. He said they’d lie on the ground and hope nothing happened.
The military also came to the community several times. Once they came by and told him that their area was going to be bombed. He and his family and neighbors left their houses. At one point they could hear a plane flying overhead. They wanted to signal to the army that they wanted peace and would surrender if necessary. They didn’t have a white flag so they used some ladies underwear to signal the plane. I can only imagine what that pilot must of thought when he saw some woman’s panties being waved in the air on a stick. I’m surprised he didn’t crash the plane because he was laughing so hard. But it must have worked because they were never bombed and nothing ever happened to their houses.
He told us about how a group of men came to stay at his house one night. They left peacefully in the morning. He thought they were a group of guerrillas. But later that day a different group went to his house. They were guerrillas and it was then he realized the people who’d stayed the night before were people from the army. At one point the group of guerrillas and the army group were walking up the same side of the mountain. But no one was killed so he figured they must have resolved not to kill each other.
The last story he told us was about a couple thieves that came to his house. There were three of them and they took everything from the house, including his machete. But the thieves did not hurt him and went on their way after they’d taken what they wanted. However, they did not get his gun which he had hidden away. Later he realized that he didn’t need his gun so he got rid of it and never bought another one. José must be one very smooth talker to have avoided violence at the hands of the army, guerrillas, and thieves that were at his house during the war!!
We could have stayed there for hours but eventually had to say goodbye. We gave them both hugs and hoped back into the truck to head for the Pastoral House. We had a little time before dinner so Brenda and I went to get ice cream. We sat for a while in the town square eating ice cream and chatting. Around 5:15 we made our way back to the house. It’s been such a long day I can’t even remember what I ate for dinner.
After dinner Jesús made a surprise visit to the Pastoral House since he wasn’t able to join us at his mother’s house that afternoon. Scott asked if I minded doing a little translating. I was a little nervous but decided to try any way. After all, I had told them all the night before that sometimes I need to be forced into situations where I have to use my Spanish. The first couple questions weren’t too bad but after that they started to get more difficult to translate. There are a lot of church words, especially words used in the Catholic Church, that I don’t even use in English. So I was struggling to communicate what was being said.
At one point Kathy came to rescue me. Together (well, mostly Kathy) we managed to translate what Jesús said and asked him questions that group wanted to know. I did contribute a few words. But this group, especially Scott and Mark, use very colorful language that is hard for us to translate. At one point Mark asked a question involving “Neoliberal economics.” Seriously. Kathy thought he was joking at first then had an exasperated expression on her face as we all burst into laughter. I opened my computer to look up the phrase in Spanish on the internet. Puchica!!
But it all turned out well because we had a great conversation about how the Pastoral Team came to be and Jesús’ part in making their dream a reality. That story will also have to wait for another blog. Tomorrow is going to be a very long day and I won’t be able to write until Saturday because we’re spending tomorrow night in the canton of El Tablón. Woo hoo!!
Dennis en route to Alejandria
It's very steep!
Ceci led the way
Following mama duck Cecilia
Walking by the new water tank that gets running water
to all the houses in Alejandria
Pipes carry the water to the houses
They're alongside the trail
We're getting there
Puppy at Lola's house
Tight squeeze for Kathy
Relaxing in the hammock
It's 500 pounds!
Rosa and Cecilia
A shower too!
Listening to Jose
Blanca's horse: the infamous Filemon!!