Dear, dedicated readers,
I have disappeared for a brief while in the flurry of final days living in Guajoyo and first days being back in Texas. My time as a Sister Cities volunteer came to an end on November 7th when I flew back to the United States. The good news? I have officially accepted a position as the new El Salvador Coordinator for US El Salvador Sister Cities, starting at the beginning of January. So as I loaded my giant lime green suitcase into the truck that took me to the airport, the sweet sorrow of parting was sweetened by knowing that I would be back — very soon.
I could not have asked for a better last couple of weeks as a volunteer. November 2-5 was the festival in Guajoyo celebrating the anniversary of when the community was started by those 21 brave, displaced families. There seems to be a direct correlation between hard working and partying hard, and this community that astounds me with their work ethic continued to impress with this festival, which began at 4am each day for 4 days, and cost hours of lost sleep, sliced fingers, and unthanked errand-running for the community leaders who pulled it all together.
We started on Saturday, November 2nd with a 4am serenade and fireworks, in which musicians made their way up the main road of the community, stopping in front of houses to sing romantic songs and shoot off fireworks to wake everybody up. By 6am, the musicians had made their grand traverse and ended up at the school, where sleepy-eyed children and young men stand in line waiting for the hot coffee and sweet bread that is given to everyone who wants some. The women who prepare this early morning refreshment had been there since 4, when the singing and fireworks told them it was time to start the day. This was how each day began.
Saturday was also the day of the men’s soccer tournament, which lasted the entire day and included a dozen or so teams from all over the area. I was the “madrina” for one of Guajoyo’s teams, which is something between a mascot and a sponsor. I was given a glitter-encrusted banner to wear, and was escorted out on the field before their first game to present a new soccer ball to the players. It felt very old-world, like I was the young maiden for whom the strong, valiant players would fight and win. But despite their undying devotion to me, our team came in 4th place. The winning team took home a cash prize, but my team will keep the soccer ball I gave them, and it will be one of the few they have to use in practice every week.
Sunday the 3rd was another day of tournaments, this time the kids and women. The boys’ teams went first, some of them playing barefoot in mix-matched shorts and t-shirts, and others with well-kept cleats and matching uniforms. The teams were mixed with boys from 9 to 13 years old, and the difference in size is amazing just in that 4 year range. But the little boys and the young men played together with their all, and the winning team took home their cash prize. The women’s tournament was the same way, and only some teams sported coordinating uniforms. There were significantly fewer teams than for the men, but these young women made up for their numbers in hutzba; the soccer field was their battlefield and they were all in.
After the tournaments wrapped up came the greased pig competition, which isn’t unfamiliar to any of you who grew up in a rural area. The idea is to cover a young pig in lard and set it loose in the middle of a ring of young men who throw themselves without abandon on the slippery swine, and whoever manages to grab hold of it gets to take the pig home as their prize. This year, either the pig wasn’t sufficiently greased, or the number of chasers was too great, but once the pig was released the whole spectacle didn’t last more than 10 seconds. The true entertainment, however, was watching the pig being carried away by the 5 beaming men who managed to wrap hands around it first, and before an hour had passed, the animal was slaughtered, sliced, and distributed into 5 more-or-less even portions.
Monday was a frenzy of work and play, as the men and women responsible for the next day’s lunch slaughtered, cleaned, and cut up the two cows that would soon be turned into soup. Amid that excitement was the presentation of the 2 candidates for Queen of the Fiestas. Dressed in evening gowns and standing in the back of a rusty pick-up truck decorated with balloons and streamers, they paraded up through the community accompanied by a crowd of children begging them to throw a piece of candy their way. The school band and twirlers led the parade up the dirt road to the end of the community, and the two young candidates got to feel like princess for the day. Later that evening, the community’s young performers — the clowns, theater group, and break dancers — put on a show lit by the moon and a single dangling light bulb for the 200-or-so community members who showed up. At the end of the night, the winner of the pageant was announced and presented to the audience with gracious curtsies and waves.
Tuesday, November 5th was the big day, the actual anniversary of Guajoyo’s birth. The women are the true heroes of this day of festivities, as in many ways they are the true heroes of this community, where they not only nourish and care, they are the stable foundation and intertwined roots of the families that inhabit Guajoyo. The day started, as usual, with the 4am wake up call and handing out coffee and bread, after which the same women stuck around to start preparing the soup that would feed the 800 attendees of the afternoon’s event. We sliced vegetables, cut meat, and stirred the 9 giant pots that sat steaming over small fires scattered across the schoolyard. Meanwhile, the men began setting up chairs for the ceremony that took place at 11.
The ceremony represented the reason for the whole celebration: it honored the past and recognized the heroes of the past and present who are part of creating a society of justice and wellbeing for Guajoyans and for Salvadorans. Julio recalled the events surrounding that historic day on November 5th 1991, and invited the veterans to stand and be applauded. Speakers from the Table of Honor stood up and made a call to the young people of Guajoyo to chose to be a part of that legacy by making good changes for the community. For me, it was a very special moment to witness this part of historic memory — the intentional practice of remembering and recognizing that where we came from is part of where we are going. Although Guajoyo is not alone as a community that faced hardship and regeneration during the armed conflict, there are few that continue to celebrate their anniversaries as Guajoyo does, and that important history becomes farther away and slowly forgotten. For Guajoyo, however, the dream that those 21 families had back in 1991 is very much still alive today, and is the driving force behind the incredible work that they continue to do today.
After the ceremony, everybody in attendance was invited to a lunch of beef soup, which was the climax of the organizational frenzy of the whole week. Making sure everyone only got their fair share, that the elderly were served first, that each bowl had a piece of meat in it, that everyone got the flavor of soda they wanted, that kids didn’t sneak back into line for seconds — was an impressive and exhausting feat. When all the soup was served and the schoolyard was abandoned by the 800 guests, all who remained were the same women who had been getting up at 4am every day, and who had been working in the outdoor kitchen for 10 hours with hardly any rest. We cleaned up and went home for a brief rest.
For the young people in the community, the highlight of the fiesta is the night of the 5th, when a huge truck backs onto the soccer field and unloads the speaker stacks, lights, and tarps for the dance. Under a star-filled sky, a couple hundred people of all ages crowded around the DJ and danced cumbia, salsa, electronic, reggaeton, and rock. This was my going away party, and I felt the love of this community pulsing through my body just as the vibrations of the music were pulsing through my limbs. The boys who caused me hell in English class or who irritated me with their cat calls when I walked by the tienda danced with me respectfully, and we lost ourselves in the goofiness of jumping up and down in a crowd up sweaty people. I’m a dancer, so this is how I connect with people and the world, and the experience of sharing a dancing space and losing all sense of pride and insecurity with the movement of the pulsing beat was perfect. I will hold on to that memory for the rest of my life.
The next day we were all sort of in recovery, and I was trying to get the spiders out of my suitcase to make room for all my things. In the afternoon, the youth committee called a “meeting”, and when I showed up they had planned a full-out going away party, complete with a cake, pinata, and each person standing up and saying words of appreciation. As I looked around the cyber cafe at the faces of my friends, I realized how much this place had become home for me. It was a sort of bitter-sweet realization, because I know that I have set myself up for a lifetime of broken heartedness, with one foot always in one place and the other foot in another. It is similar to the plight of immigrants, who do not belong fully to the place they came from nor to the place they have gone to. I am not Salvadoran, and will never really understand the daily realities of the people in Guajoyo, but I am also changed from the east texan girl who I used to be, and a piece of my heart will always be in this community.
I write this post from my old house in Austin, where most things are the same as before I left, as if it were all a stack of Jenga blocks that I pulled myself out of, only to slide back in a few months later. I’m visiting the people and places that are my other home, here in the United States, before starting my new position as a Sister Cities employee. And already I can feel the change, that impossibility of wholeness because I straddle two different worlds. But for people like me, we find wholeness in the decision to pursue that thing that split us in two — for some it is the dream of being able to work and support their families back home, for me it is the dream of fighting injustices anywhere to create justice everywhere.
Watch a video of Guajoyo’s anniversary festivities here