Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Para no tener otros Copapayos

We visited the colonial town of Suchitoto this weekend. Situated as the town in the middle of more than seventy cantones (sort of like hamlets), it is the place from which Sister Peggy does her work of building the programs of the Peace Center. And what programs! It is amazing what the Centro Arte por la Paz has going in that area.

The area that Suchitoto encompasses was the locale of seven massacres during the civil war, including one in the town of Copapayo. We went to the actual site of the massacre, in which 150 people were killed by the military troops of General Monterosa (trained at the School of the Americas). We heard the testimony of the only survivor of the actual massacre. [To expain, many people fled by getting into boats and leaving on the lake/reservoir, but only one man, who was 9 years old at the time, survived of the people who were on the hillside when the military discovered the community.]

At the site, Peggy expained a bit of what happened and events that led up (the military harassment and small-scale attacks that led the community to vacate their homes). She said that the tradition, when visiting the site, is to take a few moments of silence to re-dedicate ourselves to peace, so that there will be no more Copapayos, no more massacres, and that those places that exist in violence today might know peace. So let us all take a moment to re-dedicate ourselves to this struggle and this vision.

As part of our course, we spent the last week working in small groups with books that look at more specific aspects of liberation. Rebekah and I took a book called Soul Sisters, which put poetry to a set of icons drawn of women of the New Testiment. We then used our experiences and interactions with Central American women, as well as women of the bible, to write our own poems. I'm not, by any means, a poet. But here is my product.

In her day, as in ours, “adultery”

only meant anything if a

woman had strayed.

Vilma knows this

all too well. Her mother

had no men on the side;

her father had plenty of women.

No wrong was seen.

So a childhood of poverty,

after father’s flight,

ensued. Mother,

always loving, had to be

convinced that her child was not

hungry, despite days without


The girl grew up, swearing

to break cycles and avoid repeating

history. Yet cycles are strong

and patterns easy to repeat. And

so three generations of faithful women –

representing entire communities of their sisters –

are left or infected by non-“adulterous” men.

In her day, as in ours, children

were all too often placed at the

bottom of the priority list –

daughters with particular ease.

Chata knows this, abandoned

by father and struck by mother’s

death. Yet she has the same

fortune as the daughter of Jairus –

a community enamoured of its

children, its future.

Just as the healer said “fear is

useless,” you, Chata, are fearless.

Only girl on the futbol team,




force of spirit.

Pride of her community.

Daniel also knows this love. Not

a daughter, but a young, deaf

son in a place where this affords

few options.

Easily relegated to the least

position, but child of parents who

refuse to do so.

The pride in father’s eyes as

you heal yourself through

weaving and learning is

more than enough to put an end to


In her day,

as during the war,

as in ours, mothers bore

children; mothers raised

children. Mothers, with too much

frequency, outlive their


Mothers across Central America

know this to be wrenchingly,


terribly true.

They share in the benchmark –

and the day-to-day – experiences of

la Madre de Dios.

Life under repressive occupation;

labor in surroundings that

emphasize the depths of

poverty possible in this creation. Sacrifice.

They raise children who learn to

question the need for this


They raise children who

raise people to from their knees

to their feet in pride, and sometimes,

back to their knees

in awe.

And as a result,

(because we know how the

story ends, because cycles are

strong and hard to break)

they raise children called ‘subversive,’

children who must live as refugees, and

children killed for the

danger they pose to systems and cycles which

deny and attack the existence of life.

In their day, as in ours,

women encounter their God on the

road – to Jerusalem, to las Flores,

to and from the tomb. Yet

despite their travails – and their

victories – these sisters hear and draw power

from the words “do not seek among the dead for those who


Sunday, October 12, 2008

None of this is possible without our organization

Everyone in the community of Nueva Esperanza knew exactly what type of plant gave me the second degree burn on my leg. Apparently, it's called "pan caliente" (hot bread).

Nueva Esperanza is a community of 100+ families (in around 500 people total) in the Bajo Lempa region of El Salvador. The vast majority of the residents (and all of the founders) are survivors of the Rio Sumpul massacre in Chalatenango in 1980. After the massacre, they found a place to take refuge -- the basement of a church in San Salvador (about a two-hour drive on good highways),
an approximately 30' x 30' space with one sink and one toilet -- for 400 people. They gradually added a stove on the roof of the church building and lived there, with the church constantly surrounded by death squads to prevent their leaving, for three years. With the help of two English students, they eventually received permission to leave the country and go to Nicaragua, where they established cooperatives in common with Nicaraguans and lived for another 9 years.
In 1991, they received the right (after a year-long process) to return to Salvador. While their intention to live and own land cooperatively was opposed by the government, they managed to do it. They built houses, ten at a time; they held classes under trees until a school could be built. In the years since, they have built a community infrastructure that includes a clinic, a health emergency fund, a food cooperative (400 hectares of land held in common) and processing plant. Leadership of women and youth is especially encouraged; the president of the community is a woman. (And one hell of a strong one at that.)

[It deserves to be noted that the one-year process to return included a brief time occupying the Salvadoran embassy in Managua -- holding mass, putting on plays, and receiving food from Nicaraguan supporters. Finally the people from neighboring embassies called and put pressure on the Salvadoran government to "let those sons of bitches out -- they make too much noise and we can concentrate."]

Based on the words of the people we met with, as well as the clear message sent by the everyday lives we witnessed, education is clearly the most important element of community life. Probably the biggest point of pride is that they provide transportation so that children from throughout the entire zone (the lower Lempa area) can come to school in their infancy-through-high school education system. (I'll say again, this is a community of more or less 500 people, plus those from surrounding communities.)

That actually leads to the second major emphasis: solidarity/organization. The level of commitment between the small communities in the area is astounding. There are organizations that deal with environmental degradation and the flooding inherent in living in a river valley, youth groups that receive two of the eleven spaces on the community directiva. I can't count how many times I heard this weekend some version of "none of this would be possible without our organization as a community." It was quite inspiring. It also shows through their commitment to using their resources with integrity. They receive a great deal of support from communities in Belgium, Spain, Germany, and Canada and they are intent on using that money well and without any corruption.

The major, unifying theme of the community is the reality of its being a Base Christian Community. The people meet in smaller groups, share the eucharist, and allow their faith to truly guide their decisions and community life. At mass last night, the theme was the banquet of creation. Hearing those stories in the context of a community that truly strives to share the abundance it does have and works hard for it gives them an entirely different meaning. I probably got about 80% of the Spanish, but every once in a while, my mind would wander, touched off by whatever the priest (a Spanish man who has been with the community since about 1995 in Nicaragua) had just said. For some reason, I had never approached the story from the avenue of what keeps people not from being invited but from accepting the invitation. The other priorities that make us think they are more important than attending the banquet.

During communion, Peggy's (our professor) lesson from class last week about the meaning of 'eucharist' as a giving of thanks came to mind combined with others of her words (from a different context): A gift given out of someone's subsistence, rather than their excess, is an entirely different type of gift.

And finally, from class this morning, a pretty amazing poem that gave me chills:

Did the woman say,
When she held him for the first time in the dark of a stable,
After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,
"This is my body, this is my blood"?

Did the woman say,
When she held him for the last time in the dark rain on a hilltop
After the pain and the bleeding and the dying,
"This is my body, this is my blood"?

Well that she said it to him then,
For dry old men,
brocaded robes belying barrenness,
Ordain that she not say it for him now.

--Frances Croake Frank

(This reminds me why I'm so proud of my mom.)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


I've temporarily given up on photobucket, given how many problems I've been having with it. I'm focusing more on my facebook photo albums, which are easier to organize.

Trip to the Jesuit Center on the campus of the Universidad Centroamericana: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2083299&l=50fc3&id=40106718

and from the weekend accompaniments:


Base Christian Communities

This past weekend we split into groups of two to four and traveled to Base Christian Communities throughout the country.  My group, Annika, Nathan, Sam, and I, went to San Jose las Flores, a town of about 2000 on the border between El Salvador and Honduras.  In 1981, the community as it was then was the site of a horrible massacre in which 800 people were killed by the Salvadoran army, with the help of the Honduran army amassed right across the Rio Sumpul (this is known as the Rio Sumpul massacre, if that name sounds familiar).  

We had the chance to meet with leaders of the town directive, women involved in the various community business projects for women, men involved in the fruit and vegetable cooperative, and former combatants in the armed conflict.  

San Jose las Flores, as it is now, was established in 1986, mostly by families who had not lived there prior to the massacre (though there are certainly exceptions to this).  It is easy to understand why, as one of our friends told us, "we receive absolutely no support from the government."  It is a town with a community-run restaurant, bank, pharmacy, cooperative, ecotourism business (just getting off the ground), bakery, and clothing workshop.  Children in the community are not allowed to work in community projects while they are of school age, as the investment in their education is seen by the community as well worth the wait.  In a country like El Salvador, where the president signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement literally sight unseen out of a desire to appear open to all new and exciting waves of capitalism, it is pretty clear why this community gets no support.  (The more I learn about the historical and current relationship between the US and El Salvador, the more I understand my own input into situations like this.  It is not uplifting.  But at the same time, there is so much going on here that is uplifting, just on smaller scales, that I believe Sister Peggy and all the others when they say that that people here live in hope.)

Our guides (sort of) for the weekend were two students of 17 and 18 years.  They showed us around town, took us through the the fields of the cooperative and to a community soccer game, and led us on a hike before we left on Sunday morning.  However, on that hike (or rather, from my time on the hike), I learned that there are plants that burn people with sensitive skin.  As a result, Ani and I have lovely boils on our skin, she on her arms (both) and I on my left leg.  Mine is small potatoes compared to hers, but it still stings and makes me not love whatever plant inflicted it.  (From what I've found, I think it was rue, but I am not sure if rue actually grows in Central America.)  All of that said, the trip up the mini-mountain to see the cross dedicated to the victims of a different massacre and the view of las Flores that it provides was well worth the burn.  

Major things that stuck out for me from the weekend: 

-No one who lived in las Flores, who we talked to, could imagine themselves living anywhere else.  Often they would ask how we like it and, when we said very much and returned the question, they could speak volumes of how much they love the town and and offered that they would never leave of their own volition.  

-Our initial assignment in going was to meet with one of the Spanish nuns who lives in the town and the priest to learn about this being a BCC.  As it turned out, however, we never got a chance to meet with anyone directly employed by the church.  In reality, though, it was just as well that we didn't.  While I'm sure they would have had plenty of wonderful things to add and enriched our experience, without them, we were able to see the ways that people truly integrate their faith into their everyday lives in ways that compel them to think of the community in the same "breath" as thinking of God.  I think it was a better introduction to the reality of life in a BCC because we saw the lives of the people who didn't have to be involved in church or religious activities, but still acted in whatever ways best contributed to the common good as this flowed out of their faith.  It was impressive and inspiring.  

-The words from a man whose guerilla name was Julio (again, this is for safety, as people here still get assassinated): "The most important thing is God.  Second, solidarity among the people.  And third, our organization; our struggle.  But first God."