Among the slices of life that have kept the Parent Imperfect from his blog was a trip to El Salvador to spend time with an environmental research organization there. If you’ve been reading along here, you know that Liz and I both spent a few years in that country before marriage and before Vince and Connie burst onto the scene. That is where we first lived together and began to think about life together.
As the country recovered from a long civil war, I imagined that the two of us would continue our work in that amazing little place, create a more settled existence there and maybe even have a family. As it turned out Liz–who had strong ties to her family here–had different ideas and we eventually agreed to return to the United States, at least temporarily. In a few months, we’ll celebrate twenty years of temporary return to the U.S.
While in El Salvador, I saw some friends but spent most of my time moving between a nice little hotel and the nearby office of the organization hosting me. Given security concerns, I almost always moved in a car. When one of the leaders of that organization offered to take me to visit her house in Oloquilta, I jumped at the chance to get out of the city. Oloquilta is located about 20 miles south of the capital, but it was still a chance to see something other than the Colonia Escalón. I had driven past Oloquilta literally hundreds of times on my way to the airport or to my work along the country’s Pacific coast, and had occasionally stopped to sample the town’s famous pupusas de arroz, but I had little knowledge of the town behind the rice pupusas. Like me, the person who invited me on this excursion is someone who got involved with El Salvador during the country’s civil war. While still living in the U.S., she worked closely with Central Americans who had fled the region’s various conflicts and she became quite connected to the social change movement in El Salvador.
She moved to El Salvador at just about the same time that Liz and I were making our decision to return to the U.S. Around that time, she met a Salvadoran man with values similar to her own. They decided to marry, settle there and work to help the country rebuild after the war. Coincidentally, they had two boys, born at almost the same time as Vince and Connie. As the economy worsened in El Salvador and violent crime exploded out of control, they considered moving to the U.S. to raise the children, but decided to stay put. The fact that the boys’ father is a Salvadoran with an extremely strong commitment to social change in his country certainly influenced that decision. From where I sit in Boston, their’s is the parenting road not taken…the other side on which the grass must certainly be greener.
As more Salvadorans with resources sought the refuge of locked, guarded neighborhoods in the city, my host realized she had to do something different if she was to raise her family in El Salvador.
This is where Oloquilta came in. Her husband had worked in and around Oloquilta a lot during the war and knew the area well. The couple began to look for a house in Oloquilta that might provide both reasonable access to work and the kids’ school in San Salvador, but would give them a different environment in which to raise their children. They didn’t find their dream home, but did find a nice little manzana of land–about an acre and three-quarters–without water or electricity, but with an extraordinary view to the south, all the way to the Pacific. They took the leap to buy the land and slowly began to make plans to build a home there. Building took time and more money than expected, but in less than two years the house they had imagined was in place. Solar panels on the roof provided basic electricity and a truck arrived each week from town to fill a large water tank. They purchased large bottles of drinking water in the city.
The house was certainly nothing like what they might find in the city, but it was comfortable and full of little personal touches that made it very much their own. For example, my host had created special designs for each sink in the house and had them made at a ceramics workshop in San Salvador. In the stairway that connected the main living area to the bedrooms, they placed ceramic tiles with images of the birds of El Salvador.
It took the boys some time to adjust to their new home outside of the city, but, within a few months they were quite comfortable in Oloquilta. They had limited access to video games, TV and friends from their school, but living with fresh air, open space, fruit trees and many animals in Oloquilta also had its charms. I’m sure that there were adjustments for the parents, too, but my host was clear that she had found a way to raise her children in El Salvador, consistent with her values. Living outside the city also provided a way to deal with the increasing stress of trying to run a nonprofit organization in a crime-ridden urban area.
Since the boys studied in the city and both parents worked there, the family had to commute to San Salvador each day. Given the dangers of evening travel in the country, this meant that they all had to leave work and school on a strict routine to get back home at a reasonable hour. As time passed, it became more difficult to keep to the routine, but the little changes in plans seemed manageable…until they didn’t.
One day last year, the family was on its way home, a little later than usual, but not much later. Because of its tropical location, darkness always falls early (before 6:30PM) in El Salvador, and comes even earlier in the so-called “winter” (the rainy season). That day, darkness had fallen as they made their way up the hill along the 300-yard dirt and gravel road that led from the main road to their home. Within sight of their home, several armed men emerged from the underbrush along the road and the family’s lives changed, forever. The material losses to the thieves were minimal and, miraculously, no one was hurt in the attack. The real and irreparable harm was to the sense of security that had come to surround their lives in their Oloquilta sanctuary. I can only imagine what went through the father’s mind when he saw men with guns. His chosen life had tempted death each day for the long years of the war. At just the time I moved to El Salvador in 1989, he had been captured by the military and badly mistreated, leading to exile until the war’s end. His first reaction to the robbery was to get his family out of Oloquilta, to a safer space in the city. The world of their manzana, so painstakingly created, evaporated in a New York minute.
Today, this family lives in a comfortable rented home in a guarded neighborhood in San Salvador. One of the boys continues to go to the same school, and has quickly adapted to the life of the city, with its television, video games and carefully orchestrated visits to the guarded homes of his friends. If our kids in Boston are under “house arrest” due to security concerns, these children live a much more complete confinement. The older of their children has escaped to live for a year with my host’s sister in Berkeley, CA. I can’t help but wonder what it will mean for him to return to San Salvador, let alone Oloquilta.
The house in Oloquilta sits there, as enchanting as ever. Fruit matures on the trees, birds, unknown in the capital, fill the air with song and the view of the Pacific continues to take one’s breath away. I could, truly, have sat there all day. The family has rented their sanctuary to someone who, from time to time, hosts students in the house. He is aware of the risks, but willing to take them. The father returns each week to Oloquilta, to check in on the house and to talk to the neighbors who keep an eye on the place. My friend, the mother, seldom visits, as being there stirs emotions better left alone. My visit provided both the excuse and the motivation for an exception. The man renting the house is so taken with the place that he has offered much money to make it his. To sell makes perfect economic sense, but my friend’s connection to the place is not economic. Her younger son was noticeably happy to be in his old home, but pretty quickly ready to go back “home” to Saturday afternoon plans with a friend. Her husband believes that conditions around Oloquilta are changing in ways that will eventually make this a safer place to be, but how long will that take and how will they know that it has happened? In the meantime, the road not taken has become bumpy, and full of indecision…very much like the one taken.
- President makes moving visit to Archbishop Romero’s grave (irishtimes.com)
- El Salvador’s holding cells worse than ‘life threatening’ (seattletimes.com)