Nina Teresa’s granddaughter turned 2, and in a show of the family’s economic well being (at, at least, the ability to put on the appearance of such) celebrated her grand two-ness, invited most of the town to enjoy food and festivities in her honor. Two year old birthdays are always sort of weird, more for the parents than for the kid, who would be just as happy tearing a piece of cardboard and wearing nothing but a diaper. But we do it because sometimes our love is so giant inside of us that we feel compelled to do weird outward things to try to express it, like dressing toddlers in gowns and lighting candles just for the purpose of their being blown out.
I arrived at the party on time, which is early by Salvadoran standards, so I put myself to work. Before I knew it I had been recruited to lead up the party entertainment, mainly telling jokes and leading kids in games like musical chairs, a cross-cultural favorite. As guests arrived, each was handed a tidily wrapped sandwich of white bread with a filling of chicken, cabbage, and mayonnaise, as well as a bottle of soda. Once everyone arrived, the games began and prizes were handed out. Following the games came the pinatas: one for the girls, and one for the boys. After the pinata everyone took their seat again to await their serving of ice cream, and after the ice cream the cumpleanera was perched on the gift table with a giant cake glowing in front of her and everyone sang Happy Birthday, and everyone ate cake.
To be throw a party and serve sandwiches, soda, candy, ice cream, AND cake is a major economic feat for families living in Guajoyo, and one of the less subtle ways of maintaining the all-important impression that we’re doing ok. Generosity abounds at these kinds of celebrations, where clusters of adolescent (and several grown) boys gather on the periphery waiting for the generous hostess to insist that they enter and partake of the party bounty. But this show of wealth isn’t so simple as a self-serving image booster; inside each of us is this desire to be generous, to have the ability to give unthinkingly to all around us. It is an enormous pleasure (although it might hurt later in the month when the money is all spent) to be able to invite friends and neighbors to enjoy and to celebrate together, even if it is over a two year old who would rather be playing with cardboard wearing just her diaper.
When people want to fundraise in Guajoyo, the first options are always either a raffle or a carrera de cinta. This Saturday, the 9th grade class hosted a carrerra de cinta to raise money for their graduation coming up at the end of this year. It is a dance of masculinity and femininity, and I felt like I had stepped into a page of a Marquez novel. The corredores saunter into the soccer field an hour or two after the call time, indifferent to punctuality in the grandeur of their manliness. Meanwhile, the madrinas, their hair woven into intricate braids and their lips artificially pink or red, sit in the shade fanning themselves, clutching the gifts they have brought to hand to the winners.
Finally the announcer, who has spent the past two hours pleading over the microphone for the corredores to come register, manages to get things going, and one by one the riders’ names are called and they dash across the start line. In order, and always one at a time, they kick their horses into motion and rush toward a rope hung over the road which has dozens of small hooks hanging from it. Channeling all the concentration, seriousness, strength, and courage that fill the bones of a man, they stand up in the stirrups holding a pen in one hand, with the intention of hooking one of the dangling straps as they whiz by. Each strap has a number written on it, and each number corresponds to a madrina.
Traditionally, when a corredor won a prize, the madrina would present him with his prize and plant a kiss on his rough cheek, but the young ladies of Guajoyo, perhaps turned away by the advanced age and lack of handsomness they had hoped for, prefer to hand over the prize at the greatest possible distance and scurry away as soon as possible. I was recruited to be a madrina and reluctantly handed my prize over to the older gentleman who had already won the majority of the prizes and who reeked of superiority and pride from the top of his heaving steed.
The majority of the ten or so riders come away having won at least one prize, and the most skilled riders trot gallantly home with several dangling from the horn of their saddle. And the 9th graders go home feeling like winners as well, after the grand profits they made from the pupusas, soda, and beer they sold to the midday crowd.
To follow up the grand carrera de cinta of Saturday, the youth committee hosted a community-wide trash pick-up on Sunday morning. 9 young people showed up, machetes in hand, to tackle the common areas we had identified in a previous meeting: the soccer field, the mill, the street by the school, and the church. We loaded trash into bags donated by the local health clinic, and were amazed at how quickly our small team whizzed through each area.
This activity was important for several reasons: for one, it gives a good image to the youth committee and to youth in general. Lots of people in Guajoyo share the attitude that youth are innate screw-ups, and that if they’re doing anything they’re likeley doing something bad. The fact that people walking by saw 9 young people un-complainingly and un-forced doing community service is hugely important in changing the community’s attitude and in changing the very youth’s attitudes towards themselves.
Secondly, it was important to have a tangible activity to do with the youth that has a start and an end. As with most things, the youth committee works on lots of ideas that work themselves over the span of a lot of time, and it’s easy to become disheartened if there’s nothing tangible to show for it. Sunday we got our hands dirty, and what had in the morning been covered in trash was by lunch time cleaned up, even if only for a day.
And it was important because it was fun. Our last site was the church, and as the last pieces of trash were swiped up, everyone continued scraping at the ground and generally finding an excuse to stick around. The conversation was good and light-hearted, and it felt good to be doing something productive with other young people. In the end the spaces we cleaned were filled with trash again the next day, since there is no system of trash collection and regular disposal of garbage into bags or recipients wouldn’t make sense since there’s nowhere to take it. But sometimes it’s the process that matters more than the result.