Friday, April 30, 2010

Waking up in Suchitoto

I'm back home in Suchitoto - came back with the remnants of a cold still clinging to me and spent almost all day yesterday in bed. This morning, though, with plenty of errands and a trip to the capital city pending, I climbed out of bed, washed my clothes, said good morning to Margaret Jane and was getting ready for breakfast when I heard the unmistakable sound of drums coming up our street. Opened the door, and there was today's parade, the entire student body of the Centro Escolar Ana Dolores Arias - Suchitoto's public girls' school - with banners, drums, flowers, and a few little girls in fancy dresses (most were wearing their school uniforms). I have no idea what the purpose of the parade was, but what a delight to come back to a town where the morning's disruption is a parade. And while the appalling toll of human tragedies in El Salvador continues to mount - I learned today that the mother of a Salvadoran doctor who has worked with us was recently killed, another victim of the senseless violence that racks this country - the parades and fiestas, the evidence of the love of life and community that is so strong here, gives me hope.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Home again

Four good days of meetings concluded - we managed a strategic overview of communications for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, and set out a plan for a new bi-annual journal that will begin this fall - it's time to get on the plane and head south. It feels, somehow, a bit stranger to be going home to Suchitoto from Englewood Cliffs than from my familiar room at St. Mary-on-the-Lake in Bellevue.

I've been sneezing, honking and dripping my way through a cold, probably caught on my way up, that I hope is past the transmissable stage. Sympathy to all those who will be sitting anywhere near me on the plane - though I'm going to take a strong antihistamine in hopes of reducing the drip.

I return with many envelopes for Margaret Jane, carrying the love of her sisters and a few donations to her teaching ministry. It's been great to see how valued our missions in El Salvador and Haiti are to our community here at home.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A day in the City

Yesterday Eleanor Gilmore and I took advantage being here before the meetings started to enjoy being tourist in New York in April sunshine. I'd never been to St. Patrick Cathedral, so we started there and had the bliss of wandering from altar to altar while a choir treated us to sacred music a capella - preceded and followed by the most glorious organ music from an organ big enough to fill and overflow that enormous space. We went on to ramble through Central Park and gawk at the Dakota, a grand apartment building that I've often read about - most notably in Jack Finney's wonderful Time and Again. We ate lunch in a Scottish pub and gelato in Central Park, and had a grand day. I'd love to spend years exploring New York City, but that time seems unlikely to come my way. Today, in breaks from our meeting, I contented myself with looking across the Hudson past the George Washington Bridge toward the towers of Manhattan, toward that great city that captures and humbles the imagination.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day at St. Michael's

Earth Day in St. Michael's, our convent overlooking the Hudson River in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. I'm here for meetings of a commun-ications group, but since these don't start until Saturday, I have a couple of days to enjoy the beauty of springtime - a season that doesn't happen in El Salvador - and to connect with the sisters here. That's the flag of earth, la tierra bendita, flying along with the U.S. flag, among the azaleas and lilacs and narcissus of this gentle season.

May the wholeness and holiness of our earth be blessed and protected this day and always.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A place overlooking the valley

I drove Leslie and Christy and Antonia from CIS up to Comasagua today so we could all be part of Mercedes' burial. We got to the town near the end of Mass, con cuerpo presente, with the body present and flowers upon flowers upon flowers. Then, in a group of about 300 people (I'm guessing) we walked slowly and a long way, perhaps a mile, to the community cemetery. There on the edge, in a beautiful spot overlooking the valley and the next ridge, the grave had been dug. No astroturf carpet here. People who loved Mercedes talked about the gift she had been to her family and friends and community, and people who loved her lowered her coffin into the ground, and people who loved her shoveled the dirt on top, and we all cried. Then women brought the flowers and stuck them into the earth on top of her grave, so many that they could hardly fit, but they did and made a glorious garden and the whole hillside was full of her friends, another kind of garden.

Mercedes and her husband Salvador have three children - Andrea, who looks just like her mother, and Ernesto, and the youngest, 10 years old, Ileana. I gave Salvador a copy of the photo of Mercedes from the Romero 30th anniversary celebration (it's in my last post) and he said - that's just what she's looking like in heaven.

It's impossible to escape the thought that in the United States Mercedes would probably not have died, would probably have gotten much quicker attention to her heart condition, would probably not have suffered a stroke. She tried to get seen in the local health clinic, but without success, and the hospital she went to, while the best in the country, doesn't have enough diagnostic equipment to test all patients quickly. She shouldn't have died at 46, but she did. People die every day here from ignored diseases or lack of medication or inadequate treatment. It's a justice issue Mercedes cared about.

I've gone in one short week from a baptism to a burial, from a joyful beginning to a sorrowful ending. But there is also joy, though it's harder to unwrap, in celebrating a life lived with courage, determination, joy and justice - the life and legacy of Mercedes Arias of Comasagua.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Adios, Mercedes

Mercedes Arias died today. I can't give you medical language on it, but apparently her heart attack led to a blood clot invading her brain, and then to bleeding into the brain. We will be saying a formal farewell tomorrow in Comasagua.

This is my favorite photo of Mercedes, taken at the 30th anniversary celebration of the death of Monseñor Romero, just a few weeks ago. Mercedes was only 15 when he died, but she has been one of the many Salvadorans who have lived his legacy. She was a quiet, determined and very effective woman, a great organizer, a strong voice for justice in her beloved community of Comasagua. She will be terribly missed by her husband, her children, her co-workers at the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS), her many friends, her town.

Go gently into God's hands, Mercedes. May your work of justice continue through all of us who loved you.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Please pray for Mercedes Arias, whose photo is here. Mercedes did a magnificent job of coordinating our clinics in her town of Comasagua in 2009 and has continued to be a good friend and great contact for me and for PazSalud. I learned today that she had a heart attack and tonight is in Hospital Rosales, the national hospital in the center of San Salvador. I'm told that she has begun to stabilize. I hope to visit her tomorrow and hope even more that soon I'll be able to visit her again in her beloved Comasagua.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Corn for the mill

I realized the other day that I didn't know exactly how Salvadoran women process their dry corn before they take it to the local mill (even small villages have a corn molina) for grinding. Martha was happy to fill me in: you put the dry corn kernels in a big pot with water and lime, and boil them for about an hour. The kernels open and soften during this time - it's the same process that's used to make hominy. Then you have to rinse them carefully, several times, to get rid of the lime. And then, if you're a Salvadoran woman, you put the corn in a huacal, a plastic tub, and you balance it on your head, and you take it to the mill. After it's ground, you take it home and make the family's tortillas, or perhaps make tortillas to sell. Here the tortillas are thick and they're always made from white corn, very unlike the Mexican corn tortilla. They are filling and healthy - the staff of life.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Alejandro Emanuel was duly baptized today - and as the madrina (godmother) I got to hold him and name him as the padre baptized him en nombre de Padre, y de Hijo, y de Espiritu Santo. As you can see from this photo, he was looking so angelic that it's no surprise to find a halo in the picture.

It was only on Friday that a friend told me it was my responsibility as godmother to come up with the white garment that those to be baptized must wear. Happily, I remembered the seamstresses at the Concertación de Mujeres workshop here in Suchitoto, and asked if someone would make me a white garment for a 6 month old boy. A day later, Irma handed over a beautiful little suit in white cotton, embroidered in yellow. A bit big for Alejandrito at present, but he will grow into it.

The baptism took place at the Cathedral, where babies are baptized every Sunday after the parents and godparents go through a two-hour charla, or lesson about the meaning of baptism and our responsibilities. I have always loved the part of the ritual where the priest says "You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven." What a perfect image of the deep integrity of being that lives within each of us, how ever rumpled and confused our lives may become! And it's good that I knew the words well, because between the traffic around the cathedral, the crying of some babies (not Alejandro) and hearing the rite in Spanish for the first time, I probably would have missed the point.

It's a wonderful honor to be a madrina, to be comadre with Ani, and to be now a part of the family. Ani's brother, Jose Antonio, is the padrino, and Alex' mother, Pancita, was there to witness the event. And we will all take seriously our responsibility to help this little boy grow in his Christian dignity.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

For Restorative Justice

For three days the International Tribunal for Restorative Justice in El Salvador has been meeting at the Centro Arte para la Paz and hearing from survivors and family members some of the terrible stories from El Salvador's Civil War years. The Tribunal, a project of the Institute for Human Rights of the UCA (IDHUCA of the University of Central America), has two judges from Spain, two from Brazil, and two from El Salvador.

This year they heard wrenching testimony about the Copapayo Massacre, told by one of the few survivors, Rogelio Miranda, who was 10 at the time of the massacre that took the lives of most of his family. They heard about the death of Christian Democrat and human rights activist Mario Zamora Rivas, from his wife, Aronette Diaz. Zamora was assassinated in the family home just a month before the killing of Monseñor Romero. They heard from daughters and sons of other victims, and at times the judges wept and begged pardon of those giving testimony.

This Tribunal for Restorative Justice is an annual event, now in its second year, begins a work that has long been needed in El Salvador: the work of hearing and recording some part of the tragic history of El Salvador's Civil War years. In part because an amnesty was granted to all participants in the war with the Peace Accords of 1993, there has never been a full examination or accounting of the many massacres and murders - the estimate is that more than 70,000 people died or were disappeared - between 1977 and 1993. The Tribunal begins that work.

One of the gifts of the Salvadoran people is knowing that even their tragedies require celebrations, so this heart-wrenching tribunal (if you read Spanish, you can read a fuller account here) ended in the Festival of Truth and Justice, celebrated this year on the Plaza Central, with a beautiful prayer service and an evening of music. The festival began with a lively group of girl drummers and dancers from the community of Guillermo Ungo and it's still going on.

Three photos from the tribunal and the celebration: the first is of Dra. Aronette Diaz testifying about the death of her husband, Mario Zamoa; the second shows a banner created by the Concertacion de Mujeres of Suchitoto with the names of women from Suchitoto who lost their lives during the war; and the festival photo is of the girl drummers.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Maestra Margarita

Margaret Jane started her third English class today at the Centro Arte para la Paz - with that addition, she's now teaching on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Each class has three students, young people who need English as teachers, as guides for tourists, and for future work in the University. These have to be the luckiest English students in Central America: with donations from family and friends, Margaret Jane purchased Rosetta Stone programs, workbooks, and games for English learners, and she is always on the lookout for good materials for the classes. Each class includes individual one-on-one conversation with the maestra, computer study, reading aloud, language games and group conversations.

In this photo, Margaret Jane with her two newest students, Sulma and Rosa, both from the Marianella Garcia colonia of Suchitoto. Margaret Jane worked with their parents at the Calle Real Refuge; now she's bringing new energy and hope en inglés to the lives of the daughters.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

El ahijado

I had a great visit today with el ahijado, my godson Alejandrito (and of course with his parents Alex and Ani as well). We'll be going in to the cathedral in San Salvador for his baptism (and a little coaching for the godparents) on Sunday. Meanwhile, here's a photo of the gorgeous guy, six months old, healthy as a boy can be, and happy as a boy should be who's so abundantly loved. Alex said today that he'd been told there was only a 20% chance of Alejandro's survival, given the grave difficulties Ani suffered during pregnancy. The grace and blessing of his well-being and his mother's regained health is visible in them all.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Hoping for rain

We've had some light rains this week, and are told to expect a little more, but the real rains, the daily downpours of the rainy season, should begin about the end of April.

Last year the rains started a little late, and there was a prolonged dry period in the middle of the rainy season when much of the corn crop was lost. The disastrous floods of November 8th destroyed most of the second planting of beans. Altogether, the climate variations, caused by an El Niño year, meant scarcity and high prices for these most basic food resources.

The prediction this year is for more normal weather, and a better crop. For the sake of the many in El Salvador and throughout Central America who get most of their nutrition from corn and beans, we pray that it may be so.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


Christ has risen! ¡Resucitó!

Holy Week in Suchitoto involves all the beautiful and profound liturgies of the triduum, but also celebrations that are deeply Latino. The processions fill the streets almost every day - so far there has been the Palm Sunday procession; on Holy Monday, there was a Procession of Souls; on Holy Thursday, the moving Procession in Silence, where the only sound is the noise of chains dragging over the cobblestone streets; on Good Friday, the Via Crucis and the later Procession to the Tomb; today (Holy Saturday), the Procession of Solitude, accompanying Our Lady in the silence between burial and resurrection; and very, very early tomorrow morning (2 AM) the Procession of the Resurrection. For each procession, images appropriate to the day (Jesus imprisoned/Jesus crucified/Jesus entombed/Mary/John) are carried through the streets, with two rows of men walking behind the image and two rows of women walking on the outside - though the neatness of this gets a bit messed up as the group moves along.

The Good Friday Procession to the Tomb, here and in most cities in Central America, makes its way over beautiful alfombras (carpets) that here are made out of sawdust and colored salt. Like the mandalas of Tibetan monks, their beauty exists only for the moment, until the procession passes over.

The photos here show one of the alfombras, titled Las Puertas - the gates - and the beautiful image of La Virgen de la Soledad held against the night sky. As Suchitoto waits quietly for the beginning of the Pascal Vigil, the light is coming into the world. ¡Resucitó!