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?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rain and eagles

I woke this morning to two sounds that told me right away where I am: gentle rainfall and an eagle calling. Rainfall here in the Pacific Northwest is entirely different from the rapid downpours in El Salvador: raindrops shift into and out of mist, not enough for an umbrella, just enough to get you damp. And we've been blessed by the presence of bald eages here at St. Mary-on-the-Lake: they perch in our tall Douglas Firs and send their wild warbles into the morning light.

When I come back to the Northwest, it seems to take a few days before I wake up knowing where I am, though the quiet here should be a clue. In Suchitoto, dawn and the hours before dawn are announced by many roosters, birds, and the big buses rolling past our house on the way to the capital. Here the freeway noise is far enough away to be a background hum of white noise, and the morning's hymn to creation is led by the king of birds. Rain falls and will be falling here, on and off, for the next five months. In El Salvador, the rainy season is about to end, and everyone's favorite months, sunny and cool, begin in November.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Missing mothers

Yesterday in conversation I started telling some of the many stories I've heard about families in El Salvador where the mother is living in the United States and the children are living with relatives. A Salvadoran friend recently visited her mother, whom she'd not seen for eight years, in the central US. The mother of a young girl I know lives in Virginia with her new family; her Salvadoran daughter is being raised and loved by her grandmother, aunts and cousins. Another Salvadoran immigrant became a mother after she was raped on her journey through Mexico, something that happens almost routinely to undocumented migrant women: she sent her son home to his grandmother, who is raising him.

These are just a handful of what must be thousands and hundreds of thousands of similar stories, only the ones I've heard from the Salvadorans I know well. Imagine the toll it takes on children to know that their mother has chosen to live in another country, even for good economic reasons; imagine the toll on the family, that most central institution of Latino society, that so many mothers and fathers are connected to their families only by the telephone and wired money.

Imagine how these broken families may connect to a new report from the United Nations Development Program saying that Central America is the most violent region of the world, "drowning in violence."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Between here and there

I am back in my room at St. Mary's in Bellevue, here for our Autumn Assembly, our first gathering with the new Congregation Leadership Team, and here for meetings in PeaceHealth, for visits with family and friends. It's been such a joy to spend the day with community, getting hugs and exchanging news, and I realized again, as I do every time I'm immersed in this community, what a blessing it is to be part of this grand extended family.

In our conversations, I found myself talking about Salvador - of course - and about family in El Salvador, such a basic and unquestionable reality of life there. My North American/UK based community of sisters and associates, of friends, is something very different, and yet it gives me a connection to the life of la familia that I treasure. We worked hard today, looking together at this new time in our history and what it means, challenging ourselves to live up our commitments to care of creation and to nonviolence. And then we had great fun, and were joy for each other. In the light of that joy, all commitments are possible.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Meet Alejandrito

Yesterday I met my very tiny new godson, Alejandro Emanuel Alvarenga (at this point, the name is a bit longer than he is) for the first time. Here he is with his adoring dad, Alex. Alejandro was born a few weeks premature, but he's doing well, gaining a little weight, and seeming quite contented with the world he finds himself in.

Ani Paula, his mom, continues to feel weak and low in energy after her long stay in the hospital and Caesarian surgery. Please keep her in your prayers as she recuperates.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Images of Antigua

Pat and I are back in Suchitoto after four days of vacation in Antigua, and here are the photos (Pat's) to prove it. She photographed a woman washing clothes in the Tanque Grande (I think I remember the name correctly), a group of schoolgirls on their way home, and young musicians tuning up in the ruins of La Merced - good images of the people who live in this beautiful and historic city. And in the bottom photo Pat captured the feel of rainstorms here, the kind of storm that soaks you to the skin in one minute.

Yesterday I picked up Margaret Jane at the airport, back from New Jersey. And today the three of us celebrated my birthday with Argentinian grill at La Casa de Escultor, a home and sculpture studio on weekdays that Miguel and Margarita Martino convert into a restaurant on Sundays. The food was glorious - my inner carnivore is very happy.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Going to the dogs

Last night Pat took me to La Fonda, a famous restaurant just off the parque central here for a birthday supper. We´d eaten glorious cake earlier in the afternoon, so just shared a big appetizer, a plate of sausage and chicken bites, beans and guacamole and salsa. Grand! But there was more than we could eat. Pat decided to take the remaining sausage with her, just to be sure it wasn´t wasted: four sausage bites in a little plastic sack. When we got to the parque central, we passed two dogs and Pat dribbled out the sausage, which they inhaled.

Then we walked on, and a block later noticed that we had aquired two canine companions. They weren´t begging or whining or doing anything but following very politely but rather closely on our heels in the clear hopes that more sausage would fall out of Pat´s hands. For eight blocks we howled with laughter, imagining Doña Thelma´s house beseiged by our two friends, and for seven blocks they walked just a shadow behind us. Finally, to our relief, they must have decided that further sausage was unlikely, and they peeled off in the last block before Thelma´s house.

These two dogs are typical of the many dogs that live on the streets or in the campo here. They´re always respectful of people, and usually not very interested. They live their canine lives scrounging where they can. And when sausage falls from the heavens, they´re inclined to follow the source.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The streets of Antigua

Pat and I took the bus to Antigua, Guatemala, and have been walking up and down and up and over the cobblestone streets. We´re staying with Thelma, my hostess for June, when I studied Spanish here, and sharing her house with Sachiko, who is with a Japanese program like the Peace Corps and will be working as a nurse in a clinic here for the next two years.

Pat is taking photos and I hope she´ll let me post a couple when we get back to Suchitoto. Meanwhile, thanks to all who sent me birthday wishes - this is a splendid place to begin a new year of life! We return on Friday, on the great King Quality bus - food, videos, coffee and over-active air conditioning, a fine way to travel in Central America.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Fufurufo and other wonderful Salvadoran words

Fufurufo (or fufurufa if you're describing a woman) is a Salvadoran word that should be widely adopted, because it so perfectly fits. Think for a minute what fufurufo sounds like - that's right, fancy, wearing-four-inch-heels-and-a-cocktail-dress-to-the-supermarket fancy, a little too fluffy and a little too much and a little too delighted with yourself fancy.

This and other splendid Salvadoran words appear on a T-shirt I found in La Palma, and Pat and I have been working our way through it with Martha's help. Puchica I already knew as an all purpose exclamation, something in between "good heavens" and "I'll be damned." But chucho for a dog was new, as was patachucho, which is how you describe a guy who's out at the bars and hot spots when he should be home ("out catting around"?). Hediondo means stinky, and peche is the word for the last child in the family - the last one on the breast (breast is el pecho, and yes, it makes no sense that this word is masculine, but there it is).

Two of my favorite Salvadoran words don't appear on this shirt, probably because they're not at all uniquely Salvadoran, but they have a special flavor here. Cabal means "honest" or "exact" or "complete" according to my dictionary, but here it's used the way we use "right on" or "great!" in English. It's a beautiful word with a good full sound that makes a splendid exclamation point: ¡Cabal! And va, which means "it goes" is an all-purpose response here, meaning "OK," or "good" or "yes."

I'm a little hesitant to write about Salvadoran Spanish when I'm still so far from fluency - it's so easy to get it wrong and sound like a fake know-it-all, you know, fufurufa. If the word fits, use it!