My main reason for visiting my son Michael in El salvador at the Casa program was somewhat selfish. I wanted to put my arms around him, see that he was well, and safe, and to to tell him that I missed him.
I did all that, but soon realized that I had missed the "bigger picture" of why he was there. Mike had told me before I arrived that this was a life changing experience for him. I soon saw why.
Attending class with the students, I was able to see that the history, stories and struggles of an evolving culture of oppressed people, were teaching the students how to live through determination, faith and love.
Textbooks and journals play a definite role in the education of the students, but guest speakers provide historical experiences and perspectives of a very dramatic and brave history that is more like a "living book". It created an introspective look at life and social injustice that would leave you speechless.
And then there's Sister Peggy. With a lifetime of hands-on experience working with the Salvadoran people, she unravels theology and helps you to think about, and understand, the meaning of God, without a biased agenda. Enlightening, challenging and absolutely thought provoking. She is a brilliant scholar but also a regular person.
The students' accompaniment at the praxis sites gives authenticity to the program, by creating a bond between each student and the family they spend time with. I'm not qualified to describe the experiences that the students gain from their participation with the families, but I did observe a spirituality and love that has found a forever place in their hearts. I can say that my son Michael has learned to examine his own life and to better understand how to be more truthful to himself and compassionate to others.
The students in this program seem to gel so well together. I'm not sure if the Casa program helps make that happen, or that the caliber of students who choose to participate in this program are just special. I have to believe it's a combination of both.
We were fortunate to be able to participate in a vigil for Archbishop Oscar Romero, honoring the anniversary of his assassination. All of the students, the families visiting them, and their university leaders and instructors took part in a city-wide celebration of his impact on the people of San Salvador. A very moving experience for all.
Michael is already exploring other worthwhile programs like the Casa de la Solidaridad experience.
The center of San Salvador isn’t exactly the safest place to go walking after dark. Unless, of course, you’re surrounded by two thousand friends and walking in the spirit of El Salvador’s most celebrated martyr.
It’s always a profound experience being part of a mobile mass of people. There’s a kinetic, tangible energy that is often greatly lacking in today individualistic society. It was an especially moving experience once the sun went down. My own body disappeared into the dark of the night and the only evidence of my being was the lit candle I held. The entire highway was a sea of similar lights, bobbing up and down with each collective step like a fleet of ships on the horizon of the ocean. We were all marching towards our own horizon; marked by the largest, most bright orange moon I’ve ever seen.
The moon was like a beacon, like that impossible ideal we must always visualize but seems just out of reach. As it rose, the circle of the moon was the O of Oscar Romero. Here was the evidence. He has risen in his people. He has risen in the Salvadorans marching next to me, for whom his life was dedicated. He has also risen in myself and my fellow students, who have studied his life and have been moved by his example of theology in action.
It was fitting to think of the moon as protection over our peaceful march. Some of Romero’s most dangerous work was publicly broadcasting the names of the disappeared and keeping alive the memory of the martyrs. He died for shouting the truth, but he has not died in vain. Here we were, keeping alive his memory in a nonviolent way, which would have been met with bullets just a handful of years ago.
We need to light these same flames, these same humble candles, in cities and towns all across the world and continue Romero’s struggle everyday.
Don Chepe, Casa's beloved gardener, has been working with the Casa since its first years. On April 10, Don Chepe celebrated his 80th birthday together with his granddaughter who celebrated her 15th birthday. Don Chepe invited the Casa staff be there with him to celebrate his birthday at his home, expressing that the Casa is like family to him. All were thankful to celebrate Don Chepe and amazed that he is still happily working to keep our plants flourishing at the ripe age of 80!
In addition to Romero, his 31st anniversary also creates a space to remember other Salvadoran martyrs who died in solidarity with the poor. Silvia Arriola was one of these amazing people who left everything in order to answer the call of service. She died on January 17, 1981 in Cutumay Camones, Santa Ana, victim of a military operation that left very few survivors in a group of over 200 people. We want to share a video about Silvia with all of you.
I valued the campo experience because it allowed us to spend time with a Salvadoran family. While I love living in community with fellow students, living with a Salvadoran family reminded me how much I love my own family, and how excited I am to see them again. Our campo family was anchored by Rosa, a mother who touched me with her quiet warmth. Rosa’s daughters Susana and Magdalena, or Nenny, both in their early twenties, Rosa’s teenage nieces, Doris and Emely, and Nenny’s five-month-old baby, Maria Jose, also lived with us.
My praxis partner, Natalie, commented on how she liked living in a house of only women. Whether we were attempting to make tortillas with Rosa or watching Disney with Doris and Emely, I also appreciated the female companionship of Las Flores. Our lives gained more male influence when we met Rosa’s three-year-old nephew, Neto. After watching a soccer game on the village’s cancha, (soccer field) Neto and I started an impromptu game on Rosa’s porch. Once Neto tired of soccer, I offered to read with him. He handed me a school notebook, which he referred to as his own, and I opened to a series of poems.
“Tus ojos, tu pelo castaño…” (Your eyes, your dark hair) I began to read, then stopped.
“You wrote this?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s mine,” he responded, “do you like it?”
I reassured Neto that I appreciated his poetry, but inside, I was confused. How could a three-year-old write poetry? Did people starting composing poetry earlier in El Salvador? Was this yet another cultural difference for me to process?
After a brief chat with the family, I learned that Doris, not Neto, wrote the notebook of poetry. Now I could relate. Reading Doris’s poetry reminded me of middle school, when I would listen to the Beatles and sit on my bed composing epic odes. I was sure my braces concealed the soul of a troubadour.
I had another middle-school flashback that night when the Doris and Emely took us to a dance at the town’s Oscar Romero Cultural Center. There were only seven people there when we arrived, and I suspect I was the only attendee over twenty. To my disappointment, Neto did not put in an appearance. Other Casa students staying in Las Flores expressed some discomfort about dancing with fourteen-year-olds, but as I am far taller than most Salvadoran teenage boys, I didn’t have to worry about anyone asking me to dance. We went home at the responsible hour of 10 P.M., and I was happy to go to bed much earlier than I do at school. I had only been in the campo for a day, but I already preferred the schedule to the sleep-deprived haste of university in the US.
The family continued to be central to my experience in the campo, particularly the younger members. At one point, crouched around Maria Jose, Rosa and Nenny asked if babies were bigger in the US. I hemmed and hawed, then responded that I was unsure, but thought babies were about the same size in the US. Rosa and Nenny seemed surprised by my response. They explained that after seeing Maria Jose, an American woman who worked for Casa program if she was premature.
I felt guilty about my vague response. My knowledge of babies is limited, in both the US and El Salvador. Yet at the same time, babies probably receive better nutrition in affluent parts of the US than they do in the Salvadoran campo. Babies probably are bigger in privileged regions of the US than in rural El Salvador.
In the US, I have seen Baby Einstein and Kids R’Us catalogs bursting with goods for babies- walkers, Baby Mozart tapes, rompers, glowing pacifiers, socks, everything. Maria Jose was a fashionable baby, with rompers and t-shirts mailed to her by relatives in the US. She even had a Baby Einstein walker given to her by American friends of the family. At the same time, babies from privileged parts of the US would have more, much more.
I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I firmly believe no one, babies included, can ever be too loved. But at the same time, I don’t know if we should express love through possessions. When I looked at Maria Jose’s US-produced romper that said, “Mommy and Daddy’s Little Sweetest” was that a sign of US relatives’ love for her? Or was it a sign of US materialism encroaching onto Salvadoran culture? Which baby was in the better situation; Maria Jose in a hand-me-down walker, or a wealthy Manhattan baby in a brand-new baby yoga swing?
While I loved Maria Jose, I also have a soft spot for toddlers. Babies are adorable, but kids say the darnedest things, as shown by Neto’s claim to have written a notebook full of poetry. Later in the week Rosa took us to visit Neto’s family. His house was even lovelier than Rosa’s home, with a flushing toilet and unimpeded views of the Salvadoran mountains. Neto’s mother explained that his father does carpentry in Canada, spending some months in El Salvador and some months in Canada. I presumed that the father’s work allowed his family to live so comfortably, just as I assumed that Rosa’s family purchased their large TV with remittances from family members in the US.
I also wondered how having relatives abroad strained both families; Doris and Emely’s parents had been in the US for ten years. Their mom lived in New York City with their sister, while their father lived in Nebraska with their brother. When we asked how having family in the US affected them, Rosa admitted it had been a struggle.
After he lost patience for watching us eat mangos and coo over Maria Rosa, Neto led us on a tour of the neighborhood. I was touched by his neighbors’ calm reactions to a toddler leading two foreigners through their houses and backyards. Neto ended the tour by taking us through his neighbors’ kitchen, then introducing us to their new puppies. He roughly grabbed one of the puppies, causing my partner to reprimand him, “¡con cariño!” (with care)
“Pet it!” he yelled at us, still impervious to our request for gentleness with the puppies.
“No,” I responded, eager to avoid fleas. I wanted an authentic campo experience, but not that authentic.
Losing patience, Neto dropped the puppy. Our tour ended, and we returned to his house, then went home with Rosa.
Neto’s interaction with the puppy highlighted just one of many differences between Salvadoran campo family life and the family life I am accustomed to in the US. In my suburban community, guardians practice constant vigilance over their toddlers. Neto provided a contrast in free-wheeling independence, wandering on-field during a soccer game and leading us on a neighborhood tour that included what he referred to as “the red mountain.” As we climbed “the red mountain,” which I refer to as “a heap of construction detritus,” I noted glass shards and uneven bricks, all of which made me appreciate my tetanus shot.
Who was in the better situation? Three-year-old Neto, eating popsicles and romping through the town square, climbing up “the red mountain” and banging on neighbors’ doors? Or my younger self, eating candies from my piano teacher and carpooling, playing recess kickball and meeting neighbors through chaperoned school activities?
My time in the campo reminded me of the dangers of comparisons. I can’t, and shouldn’t, compare Maria Jose’s life to the life of a US baby, then attempt to decide whose life is “better.” I can’t, and won’t, wonder whether Neto or myself had a “better” childhood. Such self-centered comparisons and judgments are silly. Every situation has its own roses and thorns, and such variation doesn’t indicate what’s “better” or “worse.” Rather, it shows the diversity of human experience, and the beauty that makes all cultures distinct. I am grateful to my campo family for introducing me to the beauty of Salvadoran family life, hence reminding me of the beauty of my own family.
True to her word, Sonya, along with Luis and Marvin, rose at 3 am to make tamales, and made enough noise to wake me too.I have a blurry memory of their conversation and what sounded like furniture being dragged as I slipped in and out of sleep.
I woke again when the fireworks started to explode.They lasted until 5 am, tugging me through half-dreams that tried to incorporate explosions of color and sound.Then roosters began to crow, a cow mooed, and I dragged myself out of bed at 6:45, not quite sure where the night had gone.Sonya served me two chicken tamales for breakfast.
Leo, Marvin, Samuel, and a cousin were working with Alfonso to fix the engine on his largest truck.Alfonso barked out commands to Leo, pausing to spit or change his tool, but then quickly resuming to telling Leo what to do, and yelling at him from across the yard if he was taking to long to retrieve something.I watched for a few minutes and then walked back to the kitchen to be with Sonya.
As part of the weekend celebration, Carasque was to host an all-day soccer tournament that had a roster of over forty teams.Sonya would sell tamales and other foods on the side amidst many other food vendors.After the work with the truck, I saw Marvin and Leo preparing the ingredients for these foods.Cabbage was chopped to make vegetable pasteles—stuffed pieces of fried dough.Oranges, already peeled, were put into plastic bags that were tied shut.Sonya hoped she would sell everything.
The soccer field was right next to the community school; the Honduran mountains towered behind it.The cement spectator benches were completely filled with members of Carasque and neighboring communities.And as a form of what I could only guess was crowd control, members of the military stood by, casually holding M-4s and staring at the field without even a trace of a smile.The soccer games were ten minutes long—if no one scored, the teams did penalty kicks.If the score was still even after the kicks, the game was ludicrously determined by flipping a coin.The crowd was fairly indifferent as to who won any given game—they just wanted to see people play soccer.
I walked back to Sonya’s house at 1:45, hoping to say goodbye to Marvin before he left for San Salvador at 2pm.When I arrived, I saw Alfonso.He told me that Marvin had already left, and then sat down with me to eat two tamales for lunch.He told me that he had worked in the Denver, Colorado as a cook for the “Chili’s” chain restaurant for three-year intervals, coming back home for several years before leaving again.At home, he delivered supplies to construction sites and worked in the milpa.He bought the trucks with his own money and installed the toilet and shower in his home because he had grown so accustomed to them in the U.S.
“Was it hard to leave your family behind for so long?”I asked him.
“Very hard.Very hard,” he said, pulling a bone out of his tamale.“But I did it so that we could have enough money to live somewhat comfortably.It’s getting harder to find work here, especially with more roads being paved.There’s less dirt to deliver and less road to repair.”When the dog, Black, walked under the table, Alfonso straightened up and forcibly yelled “Chucho!Get out of here!”(Chucho is slang for “dog,” and while it usually refers to a stray, the people of Carasque used it to describe all dogs.)
It was moments like this that made me question his true character.Nice to me one instant, lashing out to Black in the next, and then smiling and talking to me again.I wondered who he really was.
He finished his last tamale and pulled the chicken’s head out of the last bite.He sucked it dry and threw it to Black, who devoured it immediately along with all the other chicken bones.With that, Alfonso excused himself and left for the soccer tournament.
Alone in the house, I stood at the edge of the family’s property, looking at the mountains.There existed a light blue haze on them that gently swabbed the furthest farmland and houses with a watercolor wash that didn’t quite obscure the range of greens and browns that lead down to the distant current of a full river.Aside from a few birds, it was completely silent.I have written in my journal that “in this moment, I am at peace.”
Later at night, we prepared for the 7 pm mass.I wore jeans and a white t-shirt and my normal shoes, which were among the few articles of clothing I’d packed for the week.As I waited in the patio area for the family, Luis came out of his room and looked at me curiously.
“Is that what you’re going to wear?”He asked.
“Don’t you have something nicer?”
“…This is what I have.”
I came to the campo with the intention of living “simply,” and for me, a part of this meant to wear basic clothing and intentionally leave articles such as my button-down shirt behind.But in this moment, I wished I had something nicer to wear.While I felt like I was “roughing it,” these people were accustomed to their reality of concrete houses and walking on dirt roads.They were not “roughing it”—they were simply living, and took great pride in presenting themselves in finer clothes and shined shoes for one of their biggest masses of the year.And here I was, dressed in a way that perhaps showed both ignorance and disrespect to the community.Did I really think this was a dirtier town, or one in which it was senseless to wear anything other than jeans and a shirt, or anything else that the dirt could settle on without too much worry on my part?In the end, no one said anything, and I highly doubt that anyone was offended.But it was Luis’s simple question which reminded me that people are allowed to—and do—take pride in themselves no matter where they live.
Inexplicably, we left our house at 7:30 for the 7 pm mass, slowly marching under the fireflies and the stars with what I perceived as a complete disregard to time.At this rate, we’ll just make it to communion, I thought.The outskirts of the church property were flooded with people, and I saw Alfonso (Sonya’s husband), standing with his friends very close to the walkway.Sonya walked right by without even glancing at him, and he continued to talk and laugh with the men he stood by, acting as if Sonya was a complete stranger.I tried to wave at him out of politeness, but the crowd was too overwhelming and Sonya was walking too quickly. The church was packed when we arrived, and the congregation was singing in their customary screaming voices, backed by the same miserable band that they and I had endured the night before.I sat down and realized that mass hadn’t started.The priest was still traveling from a different celebration.The congregation, with nothing to do, rehearsed all the music again and again until the mass finally started nearly one hour late. I looked around in my seat and saw other Casa students who had traveled from other towns to go to this mass, and knew they had been rehearsing for the entire time.Suddenly, my heart swelled with pride and in thanksgiving for Sonya and her firm grasp of “Salvadoran time.”
Sonya, Luis, and I had to sit in separate seats due to the crowds.I checked my watch after a few minutes of the rehearsal and turned around to an old man sitting behind me.
“¿A qué hora empieza la misa usualmente?” “What time does mass usually start?”I asked him.
He shook his head vigorously.“Yes.”
Maybe he didn’t hear me. I repeated my question slowly and with a louder voice.
“Um…what time…does the mass…start?”
“Ok, thank you.”I turned around.
Because of the congregation, the mass overflowed with energy.I had never seen a group of people so focused and invested in the celebration of the word—they weren’t going to mass out of obligation or to simply to make sure they pleased God—they were there because they truly believed in a God that listened to their cries, felt their pain, and walked with them.It was a faith I had heard of, but one I hadn’t witnessed or felt until that night.
I noticed Alfonso walking around the outer walls of the church with a video camera, documenting the mass.He never actually stepped inside, only poking his camera through the metal bars on the windows.Again, Sonya did not acknowledge him—she didn’t even turn to look at him.In this space, they were complete strangers.I didn’t know what was going on between them, but I knew that there was something very wrong in their relationship.
Outside the church, people shot off fireworks every time we sang a song (How courteous that they waited until then).During the communion song, two fireworks exploded so close to us that I felt like they were inside the church.My eardrums rang and my heart jumped.Immediately after the blast, I felt a small particle hit me in the back.“What was that?” I thought, looking behind me.Sure enough, the firework had landed on the roof and exploded, blowing a modest hole in the house of God and leaving the tile to shatter on the ground.The people right underneath the blast noticed.I noticed.The rest of the loud, crowded congregation—priest included—saw and heard nothing as they continued with the celebration as normal.After the mass, Drew and Alicia (two of the Casa students) said that they had turned around to look at me during one of the keyboard player’s “finer” moments, and that I had a look of shocked anger on my face.
“Alicia tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, ‘Look how mad Chris looks,’” Drew told me.And they had laughed together as I sat on my bench surrounded by Salvadorans, patiently waiting for the mass to carry on, oblivious to the fact that my face was painted with more terror than I had wanted to reveal.
Immediately after mass was a dance that the Carasquen people had awaited all year with great anticipation.Before we arrived, the Casa students visited one of the host homes to learn one or two dance moves that came from merengue.Before our practice, I was given my eighth and ninth tamales of the day
If the Salvadorans were eagerly anticipating this dance, they didn’t show it.
The DJ blared a bass heavy remix of a song from the United States while most of the people stood on the sides and watched about ten people awkwardly step around the dance floor.
Eventually, as the night drew on, more people came in, as did we.
No one really knew how to dance, so I fit right in.
At the end of the night, we said goodbye to the Casa students who were to go back to the neighboring towns and we went our separate ways.
I went to sleep several minutes before midnight.
* Published on Chris' blog 'Walkging in Faith: A Journey Through El Salvador'