Piropos

Cat calls happen in most places — in the US, in El Salvador, in Europe — and no matter what they cultural context, it’s just not ok.  Or at least, i’ll just never be ok with it.  And that’s because it’s about silencing a woman, about cornering her, about reminding her that men get to decide what (and who) is and isn’t valuable in this world.

After 10 months living in Guajoyo, I have gained the respect of most people in the community, and even the confidence of some.  And yet there is a handful of boys who continue to catcall me every time they get the chance.  “Hello, mamacita. When are you going to bring your dad again so I can meet my father in law?”  “Uuuy mami look at that skin, how did you get so beautiful?”  “Hola bonita, you’re looking at me because you can’t wait to be my lover.”

My first response was simply to ignore.  But it did not wane. Then, when I started getting to know (and teaching class to) these same boys, I would respond to them, telling them I found their words offensive and wanted them to leave me alone.  But my responses simply fed their flame.  They did what they wanted to, they had me cornered.

Because if I am silent, I’m asking for more.  And if I respond, it’s because I like it.

I didn’t grow up around catcalls, and I will not accept them.  But for most women, that’s just normal.  The women are the first to laugh at me when I respond with anger or frustration to these unsolicited remarks.  “Es que la Cati…” they say between laughs at the hilarity of a woman who thinks she has the right to tell a man that she does not appreciate his comments about her body or about her future.

I asked a friend, a young man and a member of the youth committee, what I could do about this problem.  He knows all these boys and they respect him.  I explained to him my dilemma, that my silence or my words condemn me.  And I think, perhaps, it was the first time he realized what a truly frustrating and degrading experience that is for a woman.

He shrugged his shoulders and said,

I don’t know.

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Niña Marta

There are certain routines that define the passing of time in different places.  When I am in Guajoyo, the passing of the tarp-covered pickup truck marks the passing of the hours.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays the young boys´soccer team practices.  At 4 in the afternoon every day everybody is in the street — some are waiting for the pickup truck, the students are getting out of class, and the women young and old are walking with bowls of corn balanced on their heads to the community mill, while men who recently finished working in the fields come out with renewed energy to play soccer on the muddy field.

Now I have a new routine that marks the passing of each of the last 5 weeks of my stay in Guajoyo: at 2 I walk next door to the house of Niña Marta, one of the historic leaders and a force to be reckoned with in Guajoyo.  She is organizing groups of women in 4 different communitites to get together and talk about how to create the El Salvador we — and they — want.  Last week was the first meeting, and a huge storm came in at 1:45 in the afternoon.  Nevertheless, women trickled in under the pouring rain with an eagerness to learn that was energizing to me.

In view of the presidential elections coming up in February of next year, we reflected on the achievements and shortcomings of the current government — the first left wing President in El Salvador.  The women piped up energetically about the huge  benefit that the “school packets” program has been, which gives uniforms, shoes, and school supplies to every student, so that no child has to miss out on education due to financial limitations.  They talked about the support to small agriculture, and the new institutions that serve and empower women.  They also chimed in about the work still to be done — that high schools should provide meals to their students, that envirnomental measures need to be taken and made into law, that the wealthy of this country should be held accountable to pay their taxes, and that legal action must be carried out against public figures who steal — or “divert” — money.  They were full of ideas, and by the time 4:00 rolled around and the meeting ended with a snack of bread and juice, the conversations were still rolling.  I was awed by the maternal power that filled that space on a dreary Wednesday afternoon, and it filled me with hope for this country that is working seriously hard to listen to that maternal voice and create spaces for maternal power where the patriarchy has historically reigned.

Then at 4:30 comes the hour of Niña Marta´s granddaughter, another example of a powerful woman in this community.

Wendy is 17 going on 18, a scholarship recipient in her second to last year of high school, and she is leading a litteracy group with older women in the community.  This is one of the requirements of scholarship recipients through CRIPDES, and Wendy has started up with gusto.  About half of the group of women who come to Niña Marta´s group stick around after bread and juice to make up for the opportunities they didn´t have in a childhood that demanded work and submission instead of offering opportunities to learn.  Some learned a bit through the radio-transmitted educational programs that the guerrilla radio stations would broadcast during the armed conflict.  These groups understood that this was not a war to be won with arms alone, but also by educating and empowering the population.

The current government has made literacy a priority, and dozens of municipalities have already been declared “illiteracy-free” thanks to the efforts of people like Wendy, and with the support of the government.  Wendy gives each woman a workbook, and they laugh their way through the hour-and-a-half of copying sentences, drawing pictures, and sounding out written words.  The themes of the lectures they study include reproductive rights, parenting, agriculture, and citizen-centered democracy.  These women have vast knowledge to share on the subjects, and the literacy groups are a horizontal exchange of knowledge.

I love this routine of Wednesdays, of learning with these women who are the arteries of this community, who are thirsty for knowledge and eager to share the profound knowledge and wisdom they have collected through their decades of living.  And I am proud to be a neighbor to Wendy and Niña Marta, who take an active role in the growth and improvement of their country.

Mercedita

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I lived on the other side of the river in Valle Nuevo when the war began.  We had always lived in those parts, but when the armed conflict started we had to guindar, flee to the mountains leaving everything behind.  There are people today who don’t believe me when I tell them that there were times when we would go 15 days without eating anything more than the few leaves we could find.  The father of my children died in the guinda; he got a terrible fever and because we were hiding without shelter in the mountain, he never got better.  We buried him in sandy earth, and now that the land has been redistributed I don’t even know where his remains are.

In those times before the war there was poverty just like there is now, but the main difference was that in those days our currency was the colon.  If you had 5 or 10 colones you had some money – 5 colones is equivalent to about 2 quarters today, and you can’t buy anything with that.  Anyhow, in those days people would walk to San Marcos to buy the things they needed; sometimes we would sell a chicken for 12 reales and we were able to buy everything we needed with that.  But we never really had money, just in that brief moment when it passed through our hands when we would sell some animal, but then we would buy salt, lime, oil, and things like that with the little bit of money we earned.

But still, the poverty then was horrible, and it was because of that very poverty that the war had to happen.  The owner of the hacienda where we lived was named Julio Grimalde, and he gave us a little piece of land to live on and to grow our crops, but we had to pay for that land with corn.  Nobody used fertilizer or anything back then, and if you didn’t grow corn you had to find some way to buy the corn to pay the patron; or if something happened to the crop the same, we had to scrape by to buy corn for the patron.  Only rich people ate corn; we poor people ate millet, food suit for the animals.

Some men from San Salvador started to come out to organize the people; they told us that all of this that was happening to us – the poverty, the mistreatment – didn’t have to be that way.  The guerrilla groups had already started to form throughout the country, so they were organizing people in the communities so that some would join the guerrilla – as my sons did – or to stay informed about news of what was happening.  But when the guinda came, we had to run with only the clothes on our backs and our children held tight by the hand.  The armed forces would arrive at any given moment, and for that reason we lived all those years in constant fear day and night.

Thankfully there were some good people that lived in the towns that weren’t so affected by the conflict, and sometimes the guerrillas would steal away to the town to bring back corn for us to eat when we were on the run or in hiding, and with those small bits we sustained ourselves.  There were also some places where they would send children to seek refuge, and people with small children could go with them.  I didn’t send my children there because my older children were fighting in the guerrilla and I had to be close so I would know if they lived or died.  They killed my son Manuel in 1984, and my other son, who was named Juan Antonio, was in the national police and they killed him too in 1991.

And so that’s what it was like when we were living in San Carlos Lempa when the people form CRIPDES came and told us we could come to stay in Guajoyo, that we wouldn’t have to keep fleeing.  Since we were fed up with all the mosquitoes there, we told them yes, and that’s how we decided to come here.  They looked for people who lived in the area before the conflict to come repopulate, and supposedly there wasn’t going to be any fighting with the people who came.  I think that all of us who came were full of fear, because this hill was full of the armed forces.  It was a miracle of God that they never attacked us.

We were 22 families that came on November 5, 1991, and we had to make the road as we went along, because this road that had existed since before couldn’t even be seen any more.  We arrived in trucks and they dropped us of right here where I have my house today.  Each family started to make their little hut, and those people who helped us would bring food because we didn’t have anything and there were no crops in the fields.  The first day we brought nothing, but a few days later they brought us some sheet metal to put roofs on our huts.  We were always afraid, because the armed forces passed close by, and sometimes search lights would pass overhead looking for people in the guerrilla, but the presence of organizations like CRIPDES and our sister cities gave me faith that we would be ok.

When they announced the Peace Accords in 1992, it was a huge celebration, because we didn’t have to live in fear anymore.  I was mostly happy because I knew we wouldn’t have to move anymore.  I remember feeling so much freedom because we didn’t have to live with that fear.  There were 7 of us who had arrived here for the resettlement: my husband and me, two daughters, two grandsons, and my son who was in the police, but he was killed shortly after we arrived.

This struggle that we suffered through had to happen, and for me I believe we were able to achieve what we wanted.  Now we have land, and it’s not that we didn’t pay for it, because we paid for it in the blood of our children and brothers and sisters.  The dream we had was simple: just to be able to work, have a house and a few animals, and live our lives in peace in one place.  And look at us now – I feel like a rich person, because we have a house, some animals, and we eat good food.  We don’t eat millet anymore, we grow and eat corn.  I feel like my generation that lives here and that has suffered to be here has achieved what we wanted, and we can spend our last days in peace.

But I feel sad for the youth who fight so much among themselves and for no reason.  We had a reason to fight, but they fight just because one belongs to a certain group and another belongs to a different group.  I hang onto the hope that someday they’ll stop fighting, and that this young generation can someday live well in their little piece of land with their house, caring for their animals and their crops, and living their lives with their families.

Milpa

The milpa is the umbilical cord that connects the hijos del maiz to their mamapacha; it is the stretch of land where families’ hope and faith are planted in the form of neon pink-painted kernels of corn, praying that the rain falls at the opportune moment and that the caterpillars don’t eat the plants before eeking out a single – or, if they’re lucky, double – ear of corn.  It is where they continue to cultivate corn even though the price of corn has fallen and the cost of planting and fertilizing has risen and so the harvest is almost wholly for their own consumption without possibility of selling.  It is also where boys become young men, working with little more than a machete and their own wiry arms that turn into solid trunks.

Marcelo, 10 years old, taking a break after working all morning clearing the milpa

Marcelo, 10 years old, taking a break after working all morning clearing the milpa

The rainy season began in full at the beginning of June, which means the ground is generally maintained damp by 3-6 rains per week.  After the first good rain storm the difference in Guajoyo was tangible; before the sun makes it over the mountains men in boots and sun-bleached work shirts fill the street and footpaths that lead to the surrounding areas where each man makes his milpa, armed with a machete and the occasional sprayer strapped to their backs.  A few hours later, once the kids have been sent off to school, the women – accompanied by a troupe of dogs – follow the same path to bring breakfast to the men.

Until the rains come is a time of rest between the harvest and the planting, when there’s plenty of time for things like soccer games and fishing for river shrimp.  But now everyone has their work to do, and the day not spent working their own field is a day to possibly be hired as a mozo to help in someone else’s field. Mozos are paid $5 to work approximately a 6 hour work day, so for my family to plant approximately an acre of corn, they paid $25 for the 5 mozos and $15 to the man who lent his oxen and plow to break the earth.  $40 is about as much as a man can hope to earn in a good week of hired work, which is hard to come by and hard to hold onto.

Father, son, and the hired mozos drop seed into the ground

Father, son, and the hired mozos drop seed into the ground

And because of this and because of the large amount of work that has to be done with no pay until the harvest some 6 months later, money is even harder to come by these days, and in my family we refer to this as “the time of the beans,” because most of the time there is only beans and tortillas to eat.  Even eggs are a commodity, because with the change of seasons comes a virus that attacks the chickens and the majority of people in Guajoyo lost most if not all of their chickens by the end of May.

A few weeks have passed since the planting, and plants ranging in size from 6 inches t 2 feet tall fill the milpas in curvy rows that are planted according to the dips and slant of the earth.  The time of the beans is passing, because as the plants get more established the workload is less heavy and the possibility of seeking paid work is slightly improved. Now is the time for fertilizing and mending fences and for going fishing in Rio Lempa, which is swollen and muddy with the rains. MILPA with ox

I have a new appreciation for the farmers’ faith, the incredible amount of faith it takes to leave a tiny seed buried in the ground and hope that the right combination of rain, sunshine, and control of insects work in your favor.  There was a 4 day stretch when it did not rain after the rains had supposedly started, and many who had planted were fearful that the seed would dry up in the ground or be eaten by insects before the rains came and the tiny kernel miraculously sprouted roots.  There is little certainty in farming, and there is a deep understanding that much of the outcome is far beyond man’s control.  It makes sense that many agricultural societies have a very mystical outlook on life; the mystery of the combination of a man’s faith in a small seed and the combined input of weather, wildlife, timing, and soil cannot be explained by logic or science alone.

About 2 weeks after planting, the corn is a sturdy 8 inches tall

About 2 weeks after planting, the corn is a sturdy 8 inches tall

When it was time for planting, I spent several mornings with Candida, the mom of the family I’m living with, hauling water from the river to fill the sprayers that her husband and son used to spread weed-killing poison on the milpa to make room for the corn to grow.  As we walked from the house to the field, then multiple trips to the river and back with large canteens of river water perched on our shoulders, we would talk about all sorts of things.   Candid has an extensive knowledge of native plants and their medicinal, nutritional, and spiritual properties.  Anywhere we go, she casually points out plants that to my untrained eye blend into one undistinguishable landscape, describing how it can be boiled or shredded or rubbed on one’s skin or smoked to heal illnesses of the body and of the heart.

One tree that overlooks the now happily sprouted corn in our milpa is, according to Candida, good for keeping secrets.  She explained that if when you have a newborn baby and they have stomach pains and cry a lot, you have to take the umbilical cord nub when it falls out, and without telling anyone where you’re going, go into the woods and find one of these trees.  Then you make a hole precisely the size and shape of the umbilical nub in the trunk of the tree, and deposit it in the hole.  With the umbilical cord tucked neatly inside, you whisper to the tree about what is ailing your baby, and ask it to heal him.  They did this for their third child, she tells me, and that is how he was rid of terrible stomach pains as a baby.MILPA jalar agua

The whole business of planting and growing and eating of what comes out of the earth makes me realize the vulnerability of these communities, but also the resiliency that familiarity of the earth and its plant and animal inhabitants gives them.  Here people have survived for hundreds of years not only on corn, but on knowing what plants are edible in times when the crops fail or war makes harvesting impossible.  Knowledge of their medicinal properties are how they survived illness before hospitals, and the milpa was school to generations of kids before the Ministry of Education built buildings and called them schools.  And I see what a profound loss it is that the momentum of the current time in history is taking us away from such knowledge; that sees crops as little more than yet another marketable good to be produced at the lowest possible expense.  And it makes me realize that the direction we’re going in makes us more and more vulnerable, even while it’s security we’re seeking.

Bienvenidos a Guajoyo!

I finally arrived in my new home-away-from-home, Guajoyo: nestled in the lower region of the Lempa River in the San Vicente region, where corn and sugarcane stalks outnumber people, and where October through April is a dustbowl and May through the end of September is a torrent of rain and heat.  The highway from the capital to Guajoyo is lined with makeshift coconut stands, where the whack of a machete invites the cool refreshment of a recently plucked coconut to cool your parched throat, and now that mango season is drawing near little mango stands are beginning to line the highway as well.  “Dame ryd!” (pronounced “dah-may rie”) is shouted from pedestrians hopeful for a pickup to slow down enough to hop in the back.  Turning down a dirt road you begin to pass through similar communities one by one — I would list them here but haven’t learned the names yet — until arriving at Guajoyo, hardly distinguishable from the other huddles of cinder block homes of other communities to the untrained eye.

We arrived perfectly on time, one hour after we had planned on arriving.  The community council, called the junta directiva, was ready to greet me and dive right into a community meeting.  From all the meetings I have been to, I am amazed at how long it can take to say something very simple.  To begin this meeting, the president of the directiva offered a 10 minute description of the items outlined in the agenda, then explained to us the first item: introductions.  After his introduction of what is an introduction, each person offered their name, their role in the directiva, and similar offers of themselves and their home to me as a friend and visitor in Guajoyo.

The group is made up of men, women, and youth, some of whom are elected members of the directiva, others who represent specific committees.  I am constantly impressed by the presence of women and youth in these decision-making groups in El Salvador.  It seems very true to say that this country is carried on the backs of the women, who since the war have outnumbered men, even in birth rates now, well after the war has ended.  There were also at least 5 representatives of the youth committee, recognizable as ‘youths’ only by the absence of age on their faces, because otherwise they carry themselves as dignified individuals charged with the maintenance and growth of their community — because that is what they are.   The thing that Salvadorans have figured out is the simple fact that if you want something to happen, the surest way for it to happen is for you to do it yourself.  This came out of years of the government failing miserably to do what it was supposed to do, of the rich people who ran the country making promises to fix roads, rebuild communities, provide healthcare to the poor, and ensure that workers benefited from their labor on the land and never fulfilling any such promises.  If you wanted fair distribution of the land, you got together with your neighbors and figured out a way to divide things fairly.  If you wanted an irrigation system, you worked with your neighbors to build one.  And that’s just that.

After the welcome, I was invited to give the first of what would be many speeches of gratitude, of explaining who I am and why I am here.  I emphasized that although I’m going to help in the school and with the youth scholarship program, I am here to learn from this community that has achieved so much.  We spent the rest of the meeting working out some details, and hearing some beautiful speeches from a few community members about the hardship they have been through to arrive where they are today, and how proud they are as a community to share that with someone from outside, to show off what they have created and to share those areas where the struggle continues.

The directiva welcomes me to Guajoyo

The directiva welcomes me to Guajoyo

We walked a few hundred feed down the dirt road that runs down the middle of the community to the house of Don Antonio and his wife Candida, where I will be living these 5 months here. Buildings in El Salvador are very much connected to the outdoors, with open windows and well-ventilated spaces replacing air conditioning, but even more so here in the countryside.  Doors are left open, and shady areas in front of the house are where most of life happens, and where neighbors will come and go constantly throughout the day.  A cluster of people from the community stayed with us in the shade in front of the house for a while, chatting about this and that, while I got settled in my little room.  The family all lives in one shared open space — a large room with sheets dividing it in half.  One half houses the row of cots and hammocks where the family sleeps, the other half is the living room of sorts, with the TV, another hammock, and a refrigerator.

Hammocks and cots

Hammocks and cots

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To insert a bit about myself personally, I am a busy body; my idea of resting is to cook a big dinner or go for a long walk.  The concept of sitting still has always been foreign to me — until now.  Although everyone wanted to invite me over for a refresco or to go walk around the community, they also all wanted to let me rest.  So this weekend my days generally looked like this: wake up, eat a slow breakfast. Sit in the kitchen and chat for a while.  Poke around in the garden or chase some chickens.  Sit in a circle following the shade as it moves across the ground.  Start cooking lunch. Eat lunch.  Lounge in the hammock until you realize you are asleep, and then stay there for an hour or two.  Take a bucket shower.  Maybe go for a walk, which mostly is made up of walking 15 yards or so from house to house where you stop to sit and visit, and maybe suck on some fresh oranges.  Start making dinner.  Eat dinner.  Stay at the dinner table for an hour or so digesting and chatting.  Go to bed at the ripe hour of 8pm.

I cannot emphasize enough that time is different here.  And how beautiful to be a woman in this culture!!! The women are the arteries of the community, connected to one another over fences and over Saturday mass and over the man who walks down the main road selling shrimps or shaved ice.  While the men leave during the day to work in the sugar can or corn fields, the women stay back and do everything else, and they get to do it in the most together way imaginable.  And to be able to stop during the hottest part of the day and enjoy a hammock and a cold bucket bath, there is nothing richer!  Of course it is all idealized in my foreign eyes, and this is a very hard life, but the truth is that people are so happy here.  They have not yet forgotten — like so much of the world has — that being is so much of a greater calling than doing, although both exist in the same moment.

In the kitchen with Candida and Jaqueline

In the kitchen with Candida and Jaqueline

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t lie, I was terrified my first night in Guajoyo.  Right as I turned off the light in my little room I saw a huge insect that looked like a mix between a spider, a crab, and satan, hoovering on the wall just above the head of my bed.  The thin planks that are nailed up around a patch of concrete floor that make up my room provided little buffer between the sounds of creatures poking around outside, nor did they let in whatever slight cool breeze might have relived the still heat.  “What have I gotten myself into?” I thought to myself over and over until I finally fell asleep.  5 months seemed like a very very long time.

But quickly I started getting used to this new home, and now, spending the day in Poligono Solidaraidad (a slightly larger community off the highway, just 20 minutes from Guajoyo) I actually miss the rhythm of life in Guajoyo, and the hammock under the mango tree.  Even Emily, the 4-year-old and youngest member of the family, was confused about my leaving this morning.  “Y la muchacha, mama?” she asked “And the lady?  When is she coming back?”  The rhythm of it is comforting, the simplicity and the satisfaction of filling a day doing things that are tangibly useful, like going to the community mill to grind the day’s corn from which to make tortillas and papusas.