By Chris Wemp, current student
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'