May 2014

Resilience, Violence, and Juxtapositions

I am unsettled tonight. And I am rarely unsettled here. I just took one of the Xanax that I was given after the accident for nightmares in the hopes of calming my nerves enough to sleep.

The day was tranquil; I spent it with my goddaughter sitting for hours working at our makeshift office on a picnic table tucked beneath a low canopy of trees behind the house. Then we killed my phone battery gleefully going through pictures of the 8 years I have been coming here to their house. When day finally gave way to evening, I headed inside, content, to get ready to go out for dinner with my soldier friend. Instead I found a message from him that said, “Um, I recommend we don’t go anywhere today. There’s a country-wide curfew in effect. Just for today. Two buses were already shot up [with machine guns].” My soldier friend isn’t afraid of anything, so this was serious. A few minutes later, my local cell phone rang. Another admonishment from a friend: “Anna Maria, don’t leave the house tonight. The buses have all stopped running. People are scared. They’re calling it Black Friday.” It was 6:30 in the evening. It had just gotten dark.

Earlier in the day, I was getting ready to walk to a dear friend’s house for a visit, only to remember that he and his mother and sister were evacuated from the country earlier this week due to threats of extortion and violence from the gangs. These stories have become so commonplace that I am immune to their shock. But tonight is different.

What is happening tonight is called the Sombra Negra, or Black Shadow. The name is a throwback to paramilitary death squads composed primarily of off-duty police and soldiers that emerged at the end of the war in 1989. These vigilantes famously target criminals and gang members, citing the government’s impotence and unwillingness to enforce laws and combat illicit activity. Their modus operandi is to move by the cover of night, hooded and masked. They go to known gang members’ homes (remember, these are officers with access to intelligence), and, claiming to be police or the army, force their way in, then execute the gang members. Last Friday, the 18th Street gang imposed a curfew in a community and christened it Viernes Negro (Black Friday) and tonight’s Black Friday is in response to that. (This is an article that came out yesterday about fliers appearing on car windshields that said “Gang bangers and collaborators, your time has come. You’re going to hell, scoundrels. –La sombra negra” And this is one of the few times that I’ll ever condone the use of Google Translate because I don’t have the energy to translate it.)


Courtesy of

The police have rejected the Sombra Negra threats, claiming that they are not real. They won’t go so far as to say that these vigilantes do not exist, though. I have personal knowledge of the Sombra Negra’s presence in this area and have even had conversations at length with members of these paramilitary forces. I choose to withhold judgment of the rightness or wrongness of what they are doing, but the positive that I take from what is happening is that people are getting fed up. Once complacency is broken, tolerance will cease and people will demand a solution. Don’t mistake my optimism for foolishness, of course, because I know the road will be long and likely bloodier. But there must be something that impulses change, and it is an awakening on the part of the people who are suffering under the thumbs of the gangs.

Following the cautions of my friends, Steffany, her boyfriend, Oliver, and I quickly grabbed a few quarters and walked him home, where I would buy a few little bags of water to get me through the night. As we walked, we saw a few busses pass by caravan-style, presumably seeking strength in numbers. They were all replete with passengers. This was the last run of the night, hours before the buses usually make their final passes. I could see the people’s expressions through the windows—faces drawn, brows furrowed. No one seemed to be talking or looking at each other. We reached Oliver’s house, bought the water, and headed back towards my house. The same buses that had just passed were now coming back the opposite direction. Empty. They had not continued along their routes, but rather had let their fares off at the edge of safety (on the road a ways below my home) and were returning a different way.

The silence now is eerie, except that it is not silent. What is missing is the roar of the trucks and buses that pass in front of our house all night long, the distant music that plays at all hours in neighboring houses, and the shouts of people in the streets. But in that void of sound, the pops and explosions in the distance seem to be more prominent and numerous than normal. Every unnerving rat-tat-tat-tat that perforates the stillness, every reverberating boom, every staccatoed flurry, sends my mind racing through a litany of violent scenarios. Of course, as I have been taught here, it always comes to rest on the conclusion that somewhere somebody is celebrating something, and the terror that is playing through my mind is, in fact, just the jubilance of fireworks.

Dinner tonight was one of the strangest juxtapositions of feelings I have ever experienced. The heightened sense of alarm we all had seemed to dissipate, or at least subside, the second we sat down around the table. Mamá even joined us tonight. Papá’s first comment when his plate was placed before him was that it was too much food. Then he looked up at me, smiled wryly, and said, “I’m trying to lose some weight.” (He’s nothing but skin and bones at this point.) After they prayed, we began eating and before long, heard an especially long and measured series of pops, the space between each shot too calculated to be fireworks. I looked at Vanessa and asked her if they were shots or fireworks. She shrugged and responded simply, “You never know,” though I think we all knew. [Steffany told me earlier about a bus driver and cobrador who had been killed a few weeks ago down the hill past our house on the same route the buses refused to traverse tonight. She awoke to the sounds of what she chalked up to fireworks, only to discover the next morning that it was the machine gun fire that had taken the men’s lives.] At that, dad took a sip of his atol and the thick film that had cooled on the top slopped out of his cup down his chin. He spit it to the ground and I looked at him with feigned disapproval. “One of my intestines came out,” he replied apologetically. The whole table erupted in laughter. A few minutes later, as I cleared the empty serving dishes to lure the flies away from the table, he motioned for my attention. He began waving his hands theatrically at the chair opposite him and with a flourish, threw both hands forward. Instantaneously, the chair jumped. Again, we burst into laughter at his childish trick. Mamá began telling stories of papá’s travesuras, or mischievousness, to the delight of the girls and me. By the time dinner was over, the Black Sombra was nothing more real to us than the boogey man or el mico.

This is the resilience that is so characteristic of the Salvadoran people. Uncertainty is a way of life. Danger is as much a part of the daily routine as getting tortillas for dinner. Yet inside the walls of this house, those things do not enter. Life simply goes on. In a country that was ravaged by a war that pitted neighbor against neighbor, in communities in which tattooed young men and women reign with fear and obedience, in a place where—when war and gangs mercifully avert their attention from you—Mother Nature is always poised to destroy your home and habitat with rains, floods, and earthquakes, in this place, people are kind, generous, and loving. Despite the triple-edged sword that hangs over their heads every day, the Salvadoran people are faithful, spiritual, and giving. There are no other people more determined, more admirable, or more humbling to me than the Salvadoran people.

As I sit here writing this, broken snippets of the night’s newsreel float into my bedroom from the ancient rabbit-ear-antenna television in the living room. Mention of bus strikes, the Sombra Negra, body counts, police responses, and admonitions to stay inside swirl around me, interspersed with the melodramatic sounds of telenovelas as my family flips through the channels. I am unnerved. But it is not for me for whom I fear. My heart breaks for this country, for my families, and even for the people who are causing this violence. My heart breaks because I know that my passport and US dollars will soon carry me far from this place and into safety while the people I love so dearly, so desperately, must carry on here with the daily uncertainty and anguish of this mindless violence. I feel no urge to flee, but I know I must return to my other home to continue working for this community and transmitting their hope and resilience to my home community. It’s so bittersweet to know I have to leave. But nothing will keep me from coming back.

Tomorrow is my godson’s 2nd birthday. I’m going back to the very place where I was robbed almost exactly a year ago, a place that is notorious for violence (and which I’m told is worsening). Rumor has it the buses will be on strike in this whole part of the country. What a contrast—the celebration of a tiny life against the backdrop of brutality.

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Morning musings, love advice, and a new student

Last night was a struggle to sleep. I’m not sure whether to blame the 5 cups of coffee I was served throughout the day, the mucky heat that made my thin sheet feel like a thick comforter, or the unrelenting din of dogs, roosters, and heavy trucks outside my window. My family has been up for hours, which I have been aware of since I started stirring around 5am. I got up just now to use the restroom and check and see if “water fell” last night (an interesting expression that refers to whether or not the excess water leftover from irrigation turned on to fill the pilas, or cement tanks, overnight, an unpredictable occurrence that seems to happen every other day or so). The tanks still have only a few inches of water, but somebody has already transferred a shower’s worth of water into a large bucket from the reserve barrels outside the bathroom for me to bathe. My papá, now eighty-years-and-one-day old, is out removing all the leaves and rubbish that fell throughout the night with his ancient rake. My mamá is in preparing breakfast while my little sisters/goddaughters Steffany and Vanessa sit at the table working on Steffany’s homework. The only thing that is striking about this scene is the homework; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the girls working so diligently. I fell asleep around midnight last night while Steffa still sat at the table putting together this big project. She is scheduled to graduate in November and, for the first time I’ve ever seen, is really taking school seriously.

Breakfast this morning was moved to the living room where there were fewer flies than the kitchen. Dad was there waiting for me, flyswatter in hand. Pobrecita the fly that lands near my dad—he goes through more flyswatters than anyone I’ve ever met. Yesterday he caused a “fly massacre” after the birthday cake was served. Mamá joined us for breakfast today—a rarity here. I almost melted when, after she sat down, my dad reached into his pocket, pulled out three small jocotes, and wordlessly set them on the table next to her. She just glanced over and smiled shyly at him. We ate quietly, all with one hand waving dispassionately back and forth over our plates to keep the flies away, while the candle lit to stave them off burned down to a nub. Dad asked when my real mom is coming back down to visit and we spoke briefly about my now defunct previous relationship. This led to wise and welcome advice about love from a couple who just celebrated 50 years of marriage. (One gem was, “Amor de lejos, para pendejos.”) They told me about how they dated for 7 years before finally getting married (my mom vehemently declared that dad would come visit her from his town but that “absolutely nothing else happened” before they married), and how they decided to wait to marry until they had the means to start a family. (At their wedding, the priest is said to have praised their patience and told the guests that this was a model couple made in God’s image.) Mom assured me that I still have time for love, since she and don Máximo married at the age of 30. I simply giggled and told her I wasn’t too worried about it. After all, I am practically married to this project and this community.

Yesterday’s birthday celebration was beautiful. The girls did a great job keeping our secret, and despite arriving almost 6 hours later than planned (in typical Salvadoran fashion, “We’re going to run a quick errand before we drop you off — we just need to go sign some papers at the bank. 5 minutes max.” turned into an odyssey around the capital), mis papás were surprised and tickled to see us pull up. I brought a cake adorned with 80 candles, which almost went up in flames by the time we had all the candles lit. The frosting became a pool of colored wax and the “Feliz Cumpleaños – 80” looked more like Chinese characters, but seeing my dad in his party glasses effortlessly blow out the small, raging fire was priceless.


Don Máximo blows out 80 candles on his birthday

birthday cake

My papá’s cake

Last night I had the honor of delivering the news to a scholarship applicant that she has been selected for a scholarship. This is a step in the process that the FCE has purposefully removed itself from traditionally in order to ensure that the community has ownership over the scholarship program and selection process, but Yessica Beatriz was a special case. We had a potential donor approach us a few months ago looking specifically to sponsor a nursing student and coincidentally the scholarship committee simultaneously approached us asking for approval to add a new, non-traditional student to the program. Yessica is a 24-year-old who began a nursing degree in 2010 but had to withdraw after her first year due to financial hardship. We typically only accept students as first-year high school students and commit to their full education, so Yessica would have otherwise been turned away, but the parameters of the donor’s nursing scholarship and the timing of this unusual situation were such that she was the perfect candidate. We presented her to the potential donor and trustees in March and received word last Monday that they unanimously voted to support her. She will go Monday to register and will begin classes on time in July. Her reaction to the news last night was so humbling and so inspirational. I hope to post the video shortly, once I have access to bandwidth that can handle an upload.


Yessica Beatriz and President Anna Stout

I’m hoping to visit some of our students today, though I don’t have anything officially on the schedule. Tomorrow is my godson’s 2nd birthday celebration in San Martin and I’m dedicating all of Sunday to the scholarship students, so today is uncharacteristically unplanned. The stubborn, impenetrable cloud cover today is keeping the heat at bay, but already I can feel the sheen of my perpetually glistening face in this thick humidity. Today might just be a day to spend aimlessly here at the house at the computer working on stuff for the FCE. Or, more likely, it will be the unpredictable and busy kind of day that always seems to present itself to me while I’m here. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about El Salvador in the past ten years, it’s that planning can be cumbersome (and more often than not simply sets you up for frustration), while spontaneity never fails to bring you rewarding and memorable experiences.

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