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.