Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An Unnatural Disaster

There's a superb post on Tim's El Salvador Blog about the human role in the disastrous rains and floods El Salvador has experienced this month. I don't think I've seen a better analysis of the complex ties between ecological damage and economic violence to the poor.

He quotes a fierce and superb statement by San Salvador Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez: the disaster caused by the rains demonstrated "the economic vulnerability, that is to say the poverty so many of our countrymen live immersed within, the social vulnerability, characterized by the structural injustice and the ecological vulnerability, for which the great fault lies in the wild ambition that rages against God's creation, this house of all of us which is deteriorating more each day."

I remember that in the 2008 Chapter of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, we struggled to articulate the connection between climate change and the needs of the poor. Well, here it is, in the suffering of thousands of poor people displaced by rain and floods, an unnatural disaster that hardly touches the lives of the middle and upper classes in El Salvador. As Tim says, there are no photos of flooded mansions, no videos of Land Rovers swirling in the overflowing rivers. The land is "the house of all of us," and only the rich can hide from its devastation.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A letter from Comasagua

I got an e-mail today from Alex Hernandez, a friend and a great volunteer in our 2009 medical mission in Comasagua. Alex writes (and I translate, loosely) -

I want to tell you about the week of rains and the chaos in Comasagua because of the tropical storm. Twelve shelters have been opened for people in our municipality [municipalities in El Salvador include all the smaller communities around a central town] and I have been in one of them, caring for 50 people day and night, watching over the women, children and old people sleeping and making sure they get their three meals in the day. This has been a beautiful experience for me because you know that one becomes fond of the people and I feel a love for them as if they were my family. I don't know if you understand me, Sister Susan, it's something that it's not possible to explain.

I'm also working in the church with our priest, helping to organize the assistance that arrives for the people in shelters, and then sharing it out with them. I can tell you it was good to be helping my neighbors because they needed the help, but at the same time sad to see so much suffering, to see the faces of each of them, far from their lands, their houses lost, their crops ruined, exhausted after days of suffering. I'm glad, though, for all the work we have been able to do for them. Comasagua begins a new life.

I do understand, Alex, and I know that the help you're giving your neighbors, your new family, returns as a blessing to you. I thank God that you and so many others are working all over El Salvador to help the people first to survive, and now to begin to return to their homes and start the long hard work of digging out and starting again.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Occupy Seattle

I've been back in the northwest U.S. for a busy week, mostly spent in Eugene, OR selling Salvadoran crafts in the PeaceHealth hospitals and talking to former and potential members of our mission teams. This weekend I'm back in the Seattle area, just in time to join CSJP Sisters and Associates at Occupy Seattle in the Westlake Park. I've read so much about Occupy Wall Street and the companion Occupy movements that it felt very good to be able to be part of one, though briefly.

We found a lively and cheerful group - people of all ages and several races - occupying Westlake Park. No tents in evidence - I think these may have moved to City Hall Park. A group of drummers made the time vibrant and some wildly assorted dancers kept the beat. We were enough of a distinctive group, with our Community Seeking Justice and Peace placards, to get noticed and photographed a fair bit - one man was quite surprised to hear that nuns still existed. And we do: seeking justice and peace.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Dean Brackley, October 16, 2011

I learned today via an e-mail from Gene Palumbo that Dean Brackley, S.J. - priest, writer, tireless worker for justice, and great friend of the people of El Salvador - died in Santa Tecla today.

Dean has been a great friend to our El Salvador Health Mission as he has been to every peace and justice-based program that connects people from the U.S. with the people of El Salvador. This photo is from Eleanor Gilmore's farewell party in 2009: Eleanor is on Dean's right and Guadalupe Montalvo Palumbo on his left.

I last saw Dean after our eye surgery mission in May of this year; Kathy Garcia and I talked with him while our group was touring the Romero Center at the UCA (University of Central America). He'd been talking to a delegation - one of the hundreds he met with - and came out to talk about getting some medications for the people he worked with in Jayaque. He was thin and worn looking, and told us that he'd had a colonoscopy that morning and was tired. Soon after that, we learned that he'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had metastasized.

Gene says:
As you know, Dean came to El Salvador to help replace the six Jesuits murdered in 1989. Today, his life as a Jesuit ended in the place where their lives as Jesuits began: the Santa Tecla residence, where they did their two-year novitiate.
and he quotes an e-mail from Dean's brother Jesuit, Rafael de Sivatte:
I write to give you the painful and joyful news that God, Father and Mother, has taken to his side our brother, friend, father, and companion in solidarity, Dean. I can tell you that he died so peacefully that those of us who were with him at that moment felt filled with peace ourselves. I send you a fraternal embrace, united with you in prayer and in the commitment to the Kingdom for which he worked and continues to work.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A long and terrible day of rain

Sixteen inches of rain - that's what's fallen in Sonsonate, in the west close to the border with Guatemala, in one long and terrible day. Three deaths have been reported, many homes have been damaged or destroyed, and 4,000 people have been evacuated. This disaster doesn't even get a name, unlike hurricanes: it's registered as Tropical Depression 12 E.

In addition to the communities in the west, all the coastal areas have endured huge downpours and are also endangered by flooding rivers. Here's a recent update from Voices from El Salvador on the current situation in the Baja Lempa area (where the Lempa, El Salvador's biggest river, rolls through flat coast lands on its way to the sea):

The Lempa River is currently flowing over the levee in the northern top of the Namcuchaname Forest and the levee in the community of El Marillo. The levee breech has sent a large current of water through the community and completely flooded the main road cutting off access to the communities downstream. As we reported earlier, the Lempa River has also breeched the levee in the Lotes and Babilonia communities. As of this afternoon, the focus of the evacuations is on the Lotes and Babilonia communities, which have been flooded since yesterday. However, the Civil Protection Agency and other government officials have called on ALL communities in the Lower Lempa, from San Marcos on down, to evacuate. Their plan is to move all residents to a shelter in San Marcos. When that is full they will take people to Tierra Blanca and then on to Jiquilisco. Civil Protection has set up a command post in Ciudad Romero where they are coordinating evacuation and relief efforts. According to our field staff, many government and international agencies are present, including the police, military, Red Cross, Comandos de Salvamento, the mayor’s office, and many, many others. The good news is that they are coordinating better than in past emergencies.

I'm worried about our friend Armando, a hard-working and ambitious farmer, whose farm lies in the area affected by these floods. I pray these floods will spare his house and family, his orchard and chickens and pigs. It's hard to be leaving for the United States tomorrow morning, before I can find out much about what's happened.

Here in Suchitoto, it's seemed like constant rain, but it's nothing in comparison - we had a little under three inches fall between October 11th and 12th. Still, all my friends have leaking roofs and sagging walls. In El Salvador, and in Central America, the people are so very vulnerable to disasters, and the disasters - storms, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions - happen all too often. If you'd like to help people caught in Tropical Depression 12 E, the Red Cross and Catholic Relief Services are excellent places to send a donation.

photo from La Prensa Grafica

Monday, October 10, 2011

Roof work

Recently I told our landlady, Higinia, that the walls in one of our bedrooms were damp and that I thought it might have something to do with the little lemon trees that were trying to grow up from the tile roof. Time for roof cleaning! On Sunday Augustin appeared at my door and spent most of the day cleaning and repairing the roof. It's a two-layer roof, with a layer of lamina (the tin or plastic ridged material used everywhere here for roof coverings or house sidings) on the bottom and a layer of clay tiles above. Augustin looked under the clay tiles and found lamina with holes in it, replaced that, and cleaned out all the tiles and gutters filled with dead leaves. He also cut back the lemon tree, so today there's more sun in the patio.

With all that work to do, I thought Augustin might need some good tools, and brought out our "manly" tool box - reformed from its previous status as a wussy toolbox with additions found by Mitch Costin - a regular on our eye surgery mission. But all he needed, it turned out, was a big spoon (a trowel, actually) and a broom. The tile roofs are labor intensive but technologically very simple - and in this climate, very efficient.

I was away in the afternoon and came back afraid I'd find a total mess. Instead, Augustin had carefully swept the dead leaves and soil into one heap and the pruned leaves into another. There was a third pile of many, many lemons - but the lemon tree is still full and seems to respond joyfully to pruning.

This morning I was cramming dead leaves and soil into our compost bucket for the Monday organic pickup, and realized I had far more than I could put out. And then I looked at the pile again and saw....compost. That combination of leaves and ashes and dust has been sitting in sun and rain every day, ideal conditions for composting. So right now Martha is putting this lovely compost into our garden and bundling up the pruned branches. I know that before she leaves the patio will once more shine with cleanliness.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


On Thursday I began the day by providing transportation for a small delegation from Guacotecti, CabaƱas, where the women who are hoping to start an egg farm have found the perfect piece of land. They need to raise more money to complete the land purchase and put together the hen house and buy the hens and their feed, and a second grant request is in process. This particular grant requires the approval and signature and seal of the bishop for their diocese, which is San Vicente. So I drove to San Rafael Cedros, picked up Iris Alas and Leslie Schuld of CIS and Elmira and Rosa from Guacotecti, and we drove off to San Vicente where we had an appointment with the Vicar (the Bishop was out of town).

It was a pleasant drive and we were soon in San Vicente where we found that the Vicar, too, was out of town, having been called out on an emergency, so we explained ourselves to his secretary and a helpful young man who had been engaged in plastering the walls of the historic church where the Vicar has his office. The only challenge was the seal: they showed us a seal of the rubber-stamp variety, but this grant required an embossed seal, and we all collaborated together to figure out what that was in Spanish: sello en relieve turned out to be the answer.

My day went on to include a lengthy rumble through the streets near the church everyone knows as Don Rua, though in fact its name is Maria Auxiliadora (photo above). A classic Salvadoran rebranding: it will do you no good to look for Don Rua on a map, but everyone knows where it is. I asked who Don Rua was and someone told me he was the Italian priest who'd built the church - but a bit of web research convinces me that he was the successor to Don Bosco, the founder of the Salesians. I was scouting around Don Rua's neighborhood to find a house I'd visited just a couple of days before that seemed to be in a perfectly obvious location. Unfortunately, it had relocated, or I had. I was trying to drive west in an area near the historic centro where the major streets ran north-south, where one-ways existed with no markings, and where you had to cross the major streets (with no traffic lights helping you) by gunning the motor at the first sign of opportunity. I almost became another traffic statistic, but my guardian angel, my brakes and my reflexes were working overtime, and I finally found the house only a block away.

And then I drove very meekly and properly to Anne and Rafael's new townhouse in Escalon. We walked to a sweet restaurant around the corner located in a vivero, a plant nursery, and had dinner while a video of ABBA (who knows why) played on the restaurant's two big screens. And then I drove home to Suchitoto to find that a huge storm had passed by while I was away, leaving a small lake in the living room and 42 lemons in the patio.

I can't think of a more satisfactory way to spend your 70th birthday. Mission, misdirection, friends and ABBA. Mamma Mia!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Sitting in Starbucks and remembering Steve Jobs

I'm sitting in Starbucks in Santa Elena, and I've got mixed feelings about this. Starbucks is such a familiar sight for a Seattleite, and everything here looks just right, the cups, the Starbucks mermaid, the comfy couches, the internet access and (sigh) the prices. So I'm pleased to find this comforting combination. (Here's a photo of Kathy Garcia in front of the Starbucks in the Galeria - another northwestern tickled to find this familiar place.) But - on the other hand - I do wonder if Starbucks is chasing out some of the local coffee places - Viva Espresso, the Coffee Cup, Ben's - where you can get great espresso and buy a variety of Salvadoran coffees, among the best in the world.

I remember what a great hangout Starbucks was for the women who lived in Rose of Lima House, transitional living in Seattle, when I worked there. They'd go around the block to 1st, buy a cup of the coffee of the day, and sit and talk for two hours. It was the closest thing they could afford to being in a nice restaurant, and I always loved Starbucks for being a place where you could just be, even if you were homeless. It doesn't feel at all like that here, of course - clearly the folk who go to any coffee house in El Salvador are doing pretty well. They tend to be the folk who dress up in suits, if just so everyone will know that they work in air-conditioned splendor.

So my feelings on Starbucks here are mixed. But it's a good place to remember and give thanks for Steve Jobs, who's put such liveliness and fun into people's hands. I bought the first Macintosh in the spring after it was introduced; it cost an outrageous amount, you had to swap disks to go from the operating system to the writing and drawing programs, and I loved it. I remember those great fonts - imagine, being able to have fonts on a computer - New York, Chicago and quirky San Francisco - it was such fun for someone who'd been using a very dull word processor. And that, of course, was only the begionning, and now I sit here typing on my iPad on a the wireless keyboard, still having lots and lots of fun (and getting a bit of work done too) thanks to Steve's singular genius and vision. Gracias.