Sometimes a country and her people can expand your heart profoundly, fill it up and break it all in a single day. This was such a day in El Salvador, visiting families living in shelters made of stick walls we imitate in the States with the rustic Rocky Mountain chic screens some pay big money for to divide an oversized living space. Elderly women gathered in plastic chairs and hammocks behind the woven branches, covered by rusty sheet metal. It protects them from sun, and I suppose the rain as well, as long as it falls perfectly vertically. Children walked home from school along the rocky paths and roads which had never dreamt of being paved. Mothers made fires to cook the days’ tortillas, long since having finished the redundancy of sweeping the dirt floors and husking dried corn harvested from the fields in the community.
The trek to this village was a long one, though the miles were few. Paved roads gave way to boulder-strewn and rutted paths necessitating all of our 4 wheels to navigate though at a pace barely faster than a walk, the steep inclines and descents would have tired us on foot for the day to be sure though. En route, children filled the riverbed with the day’s washing, scrubbing hard on the rocks whose moss will never have a chance to grow. Just meters away, their homes, 5 simple pieces of 4x8’ corrugated metal tied together. Some of these children had the luck of living in a place so new it bore no rust.
We left the river bed after several more ascents, and two kilometers later arrived at our destination in the blazing heat of 10 am, a circle of plastic patio chairs our formal meeting area thoughfully arranged in the shade. Las Piletas is a village of 56 families, the first member of whom was born there 105 years ago, his grandson reported in the oral history we were graced with over the course of our time together. The families have stayed and farmed this land since. Farming, mostly for subsistence, though they are working towards organizing themselves to sell in the local markets as well.
There are few toilets in the village, most families used the land, though some were lucky enough to borrow a friend’s from time to time. Though they labored with much care and skill, their homes were beyond substandard, made of a homemade adobe which, because it is never baked, does not sustain rain. Plastic bags wrap many of the homes now, if the families can afford such a luxury.
It doesn’t seem that many, if any, of these families received a paycheck, though they worked more hours in a day than I ever have. Surviving is work in this land. Ensuring your children are fed and clothed, and providing what shelter you can. Walking the two kilometers each way to the river for the day’s water, and living without electricity in the village until just this month, families are fully occupied with the tasks of daily living.
We met with their community board, self-organized and seemingly more efficient than many I’ve worked on in the developed world. This is the team which arrived at the Habitat offices in San Vicente more than three years ago pleading for help. The local director went to see their village, heard their pleas, and began innovating around what could possibly be done to assist. In collaboration with the national office of Habitat, an application was submitted for grant funding. Enough was secured to build 26 toilets, and the mayor stepped in to provide funding for the other 4, which will provide sanitation services for every family in the area, though some will share a toilet between two families. Assistance from Habitat is always a partnership, so the toilets will be dug by hand, the families trained, and expected to help others in the future when replacements will be needed. There is no funding for homes at this point, but the families made a valiant case for support, and it is my hope this will be a project funded by Habitat affiliates providing tithe.
From what I describe, you might believe that the heartbreak came in the sadness of those I met. Nothing could be further from the truth. They spoke of what awaits them in the future. They told me they knew that whether they get rewards in this life or not, there is a blessing for them in heaven. The children’s eyes were laughing as they showed me their work from school. The two year old returning from the 3 mile roundtrip walk to do the morning’s wash with her mother giggled at her cousin’s antics. Salvadorans, no matter how financially poor, are a people who give. They give to one another, and they give to perfect strangers like me. Their hospitality requires resourcefulness, but rarely money. I left the village with a used roof tile a village member had painted with a countryside scene for me. They offered their hands of friendship, and told of their lives— not lives to be pitied, more lives which simply might be made a bit better through the partnership of a few gringas like me. They filled my heart with the hope they live every day, it swells with admiration and learning watching them parent their children with such tender care and include them in activities which mean something to the family.
Filled with their hope and optimism, I climbed back in the truck to traverse back to San Salvador. I thought of the countless natural disasters the people of this land endure, I thought of those 80 year old women whose bodies are so tired and wondered what they will do when the rains come this summer, I thought of the children who have labored after school to clear an area where the breezes are just perfect for their make-shift soccer field, and my heart broke knowing that getting the funding for the homes they still need will be a long journey. I thought of my own children with rooms so full of things they can not seem to appreciate them enough to pick them up, and I wondered: do we really know how lucky we are to be born within these borders?