Abuelita, (little grandmother) sat quietly in her plastic chair at the back of the build site in Santa Ellena. Her light cotton dress, faux pearls and earrings contrasted with her bare old woman’s feet. Exquisitely wrinkled, they were as eloquent as the lines on her weathered face. She was hesitant, a bit pensive at our first meeting and watched us with a wariness, born of having lived ninety years in a country rife with turmoil, revolution and natural disasters.
Home grown and American inspired coups d'état have been the order of the day in El Salvador throughout the Twentieth Century. It is the smallest but most densely populated country in Central America and repression of peasant rebellions and the slaughter of thousands are part of its history and of Abuelita’s life. The grinding poverty of much of the population is everywhere to be seen and several million Salvadorans live outside the country, refugees who have stayed in Guatemala, Honduras and the U.S.
Our crew of nine American men and women, ranging in age from our 20s to our 60s, must have looked a bit strange, out of place to say the least here in Abuelita’s home town, decidedly not a tourist destination. Her reticence fell away quickly, however, and the smile was genuine when she greeted each of us. As I took her hand she grinned up at me and said something in Spanish I didn’t understand, but which was translated by Jen, our Habitat for Humanity leader as “You’re handsome.” What’s not to like! She was my favorite family member for the rest of the week.
We were only half of a seventeen member team from Habitat East Bay who had come to El Salvador to help build two homes, one for Abuelita’s granddaughter, Dinia, and the other for Evelyn, in the little rural community of Erojoaquin, south of Santa Ellena. There were six Habitat teams in country while we were there and we stayed at a hotel in the larger town of Usulutan with a group from Iowa. All of those whom I met were wonderful, caring people. Some of them are so dedicated to Habitat's work that they spend their weekends and even weekdays helping on builds in their communities back home.
El Salvador is a tropical country, the forests made up of mangos, heavy with fruit, coconut palms, bananas, cashews and breadfruit. But the horizon to the east is dominated by shield volcanoes and cinder cones, evidence of this country’s place on the “Pacific Ring of Fire.” The Pacific Plate dives deeply under this part of Central America, melting as it hits the mantle and giving birth to volcanism that regularly shakes El Salvador with great earthquakes. It gives this land its rich soil but it also destroys the traditional adobe and unreinforced masonry buildings by the thousands, burying people in the rubble. Many of the families Habitat contracts with in El Salvador are still living in the temporary shelters built after the last big quake in 2001. The home we were helping Dinia build in Santa Ellena is to replace one damaged in that quake.
Dinia is the mother of three year old Nicole and five year old Carlos. She takes care of her seventy-five year old mother, her uncle and Abuelita, her ninety year old grandmother. Earning $200 per month selling fruit in the town square, she receives approximately $300 monthly from her husband who is in the U.S. With that $500 she qualified for a $7,000, thirteen year, no interest loan through Habitat for the construction of her new four hundred plus square foot home, where they will all live. Tight? You bet, but this home will have a tile floor and be able to withstand the next earthquake.
Evelyn, a school principal who earns $600 per month, was also able to qualify for a no interest loan for her home, which is being built on property owned by her family in the rural, forested community of Erojoaquin.
Both builds were fascinating and very different. Santa Ellena was on a small lot right next to the town soccer stadium. It was a sunny, hot site, but we never got bored as the little road was used by many more cattle and horses than cars. One of the vaqueros riding by had lived for a number of years in Atlanta Georgia. That was home for Jared, a member of our crew, and the two shared stories and excitement at the connection, so far away. A day later, another vaquero let his vacas (cows) be herded down the street by a couple of young boys while he stopped to give horse rides to several members of our team. These folks were appreciative of our presence.
The build in Erojoaquin was more isolated, down a dirt road in a tropical forest. Papayas, mangos, bananas, plantains and several fruits we couldn’t identify grew nearby. A little pathway led behind the property, looking not much more than a hiking trail, but people walked by regularly, coming and going from their own homes. They always looked discreetly at all the Americans hard at work alongside Salvadoran masons and laborers.
Across the little path was a low slung adobe home, so typical of these rural areas, part plastic, part plywood and corrugated metal, with a beautiful mud beehive oven in the front yard. An elderly woman could be seen cooking in her smoky kitchen/porch and at times, knocking fruit from her trees with a long bamboo pole. Ramshackle buildings like this were common everywhere, often right next door to obviously well to do homes which were always fenced and protected by concertina wire.
The work was hard and hot at each site, one hundred degrees and tropically humid. We traded off between the two, which put me at work shoveling dirt on day one then mixing cement for the foundation pour on day two and then again on day three. Lifting the shovel wasn’t too bad, but twisting it over with my wrist became painful, and when we finally got to the point of filling the cinderblocks with chispa (cement), and troweling in the mezcla (mortar), I was greatly relieved.
And then there was smoke. Smoke from the ever present cooking fires, smoke from burning garbage and the huge plumes from the burning of the sugar cane fields. Cane was everywhere, recently planted or fully grown and dried in the fields, waiting only for fire so it could be harvested. Blackened, it filled huge semis and everyone noticed how much sweeter the Coke and Pepsi were here. However intensely addicted we are to sugar in the U.S. they are even more so in El Salvador where all the garbage on the sides of the roads is made up of plastic candy wrappers and junk food bags. When these piles of garbage and leaves were being burned it became hard to breath.
Although the families provided us with beautiful cut up tropical fruit for our morning breaks, we all came to crave salted snacks to keep our bodies processing the water we had to drink to stay hydrated. Even with this, hosing each other down became part of the routine by late morning at the Santa Ellena site.
If you’ve ever mixed bread dough in the traditional manner of creating a small volcano of flour and adding water to the center, then slowly incorporating the two, you’d probably do well mixing Mezcla and chispa. To mix cement we made that volcano on a huge scale. Ten wheelbarrows full of sand, five of gravel and five ninety pound bags of cement was all it took. Dump it all in the road, mix thoroughly, turn it into a sand castle that looks like a low volcano and add lots of water. Then mix it some more. Then some more again, until your wrists don’t want to mix anything ever again with that shovel! Vitamin I (ibuprofen) was an after dinner treat on those days.
It wasn’t all work however as Jared was always trying to teach us. At nearly six foot five, he towered over all of us, but his most towering of course was over those little ones who were barely three feet tall. Little Nicole, her big brother Carlos and their cousin Sergio all loved him, and he couldn’t stop playing with them. On that first day of moving dirt we made a huge pile at the back of the property next to the outhouse and little plastic wrapped shack the family had been living in. That was soft dirt and there was nothing anyone could do to keep those kids out of it. Nicole played in it for days. At three, she kicked it and patted it into cakes, dusted herself from head to toe and Jared buried her in it. Which of course tickled her to no end. She simply couldn’t get enough of all that soft dirt, until Jared brought the mini Frisbees and bottles of bubble stuff. If we were late in our build it was all Jared’s fault. He and those kids were always in the way, but I wouldn’t have missed the fun for all the building schedules in the world. The “stars” of the build at Santa Ellena were Nicole and Jared, without question.
But there were others. Brad was one. A site supervisor for Habitat in the South Bay, he broke his wrist diving for a Frisbee less than a week before we were to leave. He put us all to shame by figuring out how to hook three buckets of dirt together and carry them all with his one good hand. He later learned how to throw a football left handed and even went body surfing with his bright pink cast held as much out of the water as he could manage. He was not the poster child for OSHA, and we all threatened to report him to his doctor, who would have been horrified at the site of him wielding a shovel as handily as any of us.
There were John and Di both a little older than me, who wouldn’t let any of the younger folks outdo them in the least. Others handy with tools were Nick, an Englishman who balanced a career in computers by spending most of his time off volunteering at Habitat sites in the East Bay, and Sis who did the same in Pittsburg and Bay Point. My good friend Scott had worked construction for many years before becoming a personnel manager for his families company, but his heart never left the building trades and his only complaint was when we stopped for the day. He just wanted to go on working. The truth is, everyone on the team was quite a star in their own right.
Our time off was back in the larger town of Usulutan where we showered with cold water and then swam in the pool till dark. Somebody brought a football and we wreaked havoc with that, eventually breaking some of he outside lights. We did clean up the mess.
On Sunday I attended mass in town and had my first quiet time to just look at the faces of the people. Several men and women appeared to have just stepped off a Mayan glyph. The high sloping forehead and beak nose gave them a streamlined, unmistakably Mayan look. As an old art history major, I notice things like that. Royals bound the heads of babies to make sure they had that profile when they grew up, as it was considered a regal trait. It is a striking look, and I wish I had been gauche enough to just whip out my camera and ask to take a few portraits, but the service was in full swing. Incense filled the church as a little ten year old acolyte leading the procession, swung the censor so roundly he couldn’t possibly miss shooing out every evil spirit lurking ahead of him.
I followed the service as if it was in English. I even recognized some of the hymns, sung to an accompanying guitar. The place was jammed and the congregation joined in with relish and a volume that almost drowned out the political rally happening outside in the town square. When the hymns ended, and the politicians weren’t speaking, the sounds of pan pipes and traditional drums filtered in from the wide open doors and the mix of centuries and religions was palpable. I don’t know who was playing those pipes and drums, but that echo of the past couldn’t have been a more beautiful answer to the life inside the church.
Thursday we broke off work an hour early and drove to a habitat house that had been completed fifteen months earlier. Scott and Nick had both been part of that build. We were greeted cordially by the woman for whom the house had been built, but when she recognized Scott and Nick she became elated at seeing them again. Her gratitude for what they had done was deep and genuine. Out of nowhere darted a little neighbor boy who had helped with the work and had become very close to the Habitat team. He had left such a wonderful impression on Scott that I remember him talking about the little boy last winter when we skied together. He had light brown hair and didn’t look local at all. People had said he must have been Scott’s son as they resembled each other so much. He was obviously deeply moved by seeing Nick and Scott again. More was going on here than simply putting a roof over someone’s head.
As the week progressed we grew closer to the families, the masons and their helpers. People in the neighborhoods would stop by to see how the construction was going and the team itself became tighter as we got to know each other. The spirit of these Habitat folks, the altruism and joy they embody reminded me of the "hiker trash" I came to love so much on the Pacific Crest Trail a few years ago. These were people working beyond the call of an employment, beyond the simple work of fixing up a house or a yard. They were building for others with a selflessness utterly rare today. There is such need everywhere, at home and abroad. Some of us have so much and others so little. These people were choosing not only to spend their hard earned American dollars in a poor, non touristed country, they were also adding their own sweat and smiles to the equation. The person to person contact became central to the Habitat experience as our two little homes came closer to reality.
By Friday, we had done as much as we could at each site. The walls were up to nose level and another team, or just the masons themselves, would have to finish the projects, but we’d done plenty. The staff of Habitat in Usulutan threw a fiesta for us with the country’s most famous food, papusas, and pickled cabbage, fried yucca, enchiladas, and a fruit drink that was all cut up tropical fruit. Speeches and thanks were made and then the piñata was hung for a fight to the death. Little irrepressible Nicole was up first, and was the darling of all. Not to be outdone by just any little pip-squeak, Jared joined the fray. Blindfolded, he jumped wildly in the air as he tried to reach the very branch the candy filled effigy was suspended from. But the piñata master was too quick for him and the doll bounded above and below Jared before finally succumbing to the blows of a wily ten year old.
That evening we all went out to one of the few local restaurants and listened to a DJ and karaoke in Spanish, and I had iguana for dinner. They served beef and chicken and seafood, but it was the first time I’d ever been offered iguana and I jumped at it. Several of us did, and no kidding it tastes like chicken! A bit more stringy and all hooked to one very weird skeleton with lots of long flexy ribs and little backbone protuberances where the fin used to rest. It proved to me that birds are related to dinosaurs, or at least to lizards. Best of all, it was delicious! Once you got over the strange pile of bones the meat was attached to, it was quite good.
The next morning we left town for one day of R & R, surf and sand at La Hojas Resort, a short half hour from the airport. Some of us rode horses on the beach, others got massages and some just stayed in the huge, warm surf. Sunset was one of those equatorial plunges where the sun goes straight down, blood red, with no side glancing approach, and then dark. Our week of work and connection was over.
On the second day at Santa Ellena I had noticed Abuelita using a plastic chair as a walker to help her move to and from the outhouse. I offered her my arm and helped her walk back and forth, helped her negotiate the mud near the outdoor kitchen sink so she could wash her hands. She gave me a smile and a few pieces of candy and tried so hard to talk to me. But the light in her eyes was communication enough whenever we shared this little ritual.
The history of El Salvador is full of horror, of peasant revolts brutally put down. La Matanza, “the slaughter” in 1932, involved the killing of thirty-thousand peasants, butchered at what was supposed to be a peaceful meeting with the government. Thousands more were killed in the recent Salvadoran Civil War. The brutal subjugation of the poor goes back several hundred years, however. By the nineteenth century the entire country was said to be owned by only twelve families. Fascist dictators have been the norm.
Abuelita has lived through much of it. She is one who has stayed, not choosing to flee as so many millions did during the Civil War. I have no idea what she’s witnessed or how this has affected her personally, but when I looked into her beautiful wrinkled face I saw life experience very different from mine. Yet toward the end of that life, she was no different from me in wanting a roof over her head and a floor beneath her feet. And soon she would have both.
Habitat for Humanity is in the business of putting people in homes, plain and simple. The unadorned, decent, strong houses Habitat builds across the world, and the no interest loans, make them affordable for many who would never have a chance to otherwise buy or build. There’s sweat equity involved too. Here at home and abroad, folks don’t just buy the homes, they need to put in their own muscle, or that of a family member. To date, Habitat has built and restored over half a million homes around the world, over ten thousand in El Salvador alone and they do this without government funding. If you have skills and time, consider giving them a call and a day or two of sweat on site locally. If not, money will do. Every donation helps put a roof over another human beings head, and the world is full of Abuelitas.
"A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.”