Monday, September 1, 2014

The Corn Fiesta

After marching with flags, balloons and a few thousand other Lutherans through the hot, sunny streets of San Salvador; after listening to speeches, admiring community banners, honoring the king and queen of the national youth group, singing a couple of songs and clapping wildly for the youth dancers; after listening to the story of the Subversive Cross; after meandering over to Pizza Hut for a quick lunch and a bit of luscious air conditioning ... we were ready to celebrate corn.

Every year, the Corn Fiesta is celebrated on the afternoon of the Anniversary Celebration for the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  A few years ago, the planning for the Corn Fiesta was turned over to the youth.  Maybe this is a way in which to make an old tradition seem fun for the younger crowd.  As the afternoon sun baked the pavement, gringos piled out of their little buses and Salvadorans emerged from their community trucks and cars, and headed toward the covered area near the big portrait of Jesus.  People gathered in the circle of plastic resin chairs. There was a little bit of waiting-around-time, an opportunity to meet up with delegations from different parts of the US and Europe.  You never know who you might meet at the Corn Fiesta!  This year:  Bavaria, Washington DC, California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Bishop Gomez traditionally begins the fiesta by recognizing the Mayan ancestors' cultivation of corn and their story of creation in which humans were formed from corn.  Thanks and praise were given to God for the harvest. A drought has destroyed the corn crop in about half of the countryside.  It seems difficult to celebrate when the food situation is so dire for so many, and might explain why several Salvadoran communities were not able to participate in the day's events.

The youth band from Soyapango provided dance music - not your average corn-fiesta-folk-music, but some pretty hard-core rock.  Refreshments were served:  the central moment of the fiesta, when each guest receives a hot ear of corn wrapped in a small white napkin and rich atol de elote (corn milk) served in a styrofoam cup.  As we sat in a patch of shade munching on the corn, someone commented, "This corn is dense.  It really fills you up.  It's a meal."  I think that pretty much describes the role of corn on the Salvadoran table...whether eaten off the cob or as tortillas or tamales, corn is a high-calorie food which fills you up.  Salvadorans are people of the corn.

Most of our group loved the corn milk.  Seriously, these particular Lutheran Church women make the best corn milk I have ever tasted.  It is smooth, not chunky, with real cinnamon and no floating corn silk. My opinion aside, one of our guys just could not drink it, "I just don't like this stuff."

His comment made me think about the previous August.  During that trip, our delegation spent a lot of time visiting families in their homes.  Everywhere we went, as a gesture of hospitality, families offered us plastic chairs in the shade, boiled ears of corn from their milpas, and styrofoam cups full of steaming atol de elote.  We spent a lot of afternoons picking corn silk from our teeth and sweating our way through hot cups of corn milk.  Near the end of the week Pastor Santiago whispered in my ear, "The group is really eating all the corn!  I am surprised.  Are they all OK?" We just had to laugh about the corn and corn milk which was brought out everywhere we went!  We were always so full!   I did write down one comment in my journal from the last day:  "It's just so hard to drink another cup of this stuff you have to chew!"  On the next page is a big stain labeled with the words, "Julia's corn was here."

People created from corn, corn tamales, corn pupusas, corn tortillas, ears of corn, corn milk, corn fiestas...that's a lot of corn!

Like most people in the Americas, I have a relationship with corn.  When I was a kid, there were a couple of weeks every summer during which we ate corn for lunch and corn for dinner, ears of corn drenched in butter and salt.  We purchased bright yellow sweet corn from local farmers - small ears for the kids and big fat ones for Mom and Dad.  Sometimes the corn would be a little tough and my dad would say, "This is field corn."  We chewed our way through it, hoping the next kettle-full would be tender and sweet.  We froze corn for the winter.  Today, the corn at my grocery store is pale yellow and white and every ear looks the same.  I buy corn from small farms.  I think about genetically modified seeds, mono-culture farming, corn production for animal feed, ethanol production and the impact chemical farming practices have on the environment and our health.  I have learned some things about corn production in the Americas.  I need to learn more.

The Mayan ancestors established corn as the source of daily bread, as the stuff of survival for the people of El Salvador. The Corn Fiesta brings honor to this simple grain which provides Salvadorans with calories and full stomachs. At this year's fiesta, after the refreshments, the youth drum corps from the bishop's church played some high-energy music.  Dancers gathered to step and jump to the rhythms.  It was a great testimony to the rich energy which corn provides for the people.

The Corn Fiesta happens on a very full and busy day, both for the Salvadorans and the visiting delegations.  The fiesta provides time to give thanks and celebrate and taste and enjoy.  It is an honor and a blessing to share in the celebration.  I believe it is also a responsibility to reflect upon the experience and upon our own relationships with corn.

During this year's visit, our delegation ate corn with a family at an organic farm where Bishop Gomez provided seeds that had been saved by indigenous people.  The site provides classes for farmers to help them move away from chemical-dependent seeds and practices.  There, we learned about compost and natural insect repellent -- knowledge we can apply in our own gardens in the US.  At this year's fiesta, we ate and drank corn which was grown in a large organic garden, tended by students and adults and which produces food for the meal program at the Lutheran homeless shelter.  This garden is supported in part through Lutheran World Relief.

When we eat corn, when we eat animals which eat corn, when we use products made from corn, it is good to ask ourselves, where did the corn come from?  how was it grown?  how did its production impact the environment?  how did its production impact small farmers and family farmers?  Whether we are connected to the Mayans through ancestry or geography, as Americans we are all people of the corn.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Let's Play

"Want to play Los Soldaditos?" my little buddy asked.  He grabbed the spiral Spiderman notebook and a pencil.  He turned to a right-hand blank page.  "OK, you draw about 4 little soldiers on different parts of the page, like this."  He drew 4 stick-figure soldiers in strategic locations on the page.

"Then you make 2 or 3 little tanks, like this."  He drew 2 small rectangles with little guns sticking out off of their sides.  Satisfied, he looked up and said, "OK, you are the guerrillas."

He turned the page over and then turned another page.  On the back side of the second page, my little buddy drew 4 stick figure soldaditos and 2 tanks in strategic locations.  These were the "armed forces."

"Here are the rules," he explained, "each soldier or tank gets 3 shots.  You take a quick look at the other person's page, then draw an arch to where you make your shot.  Color really hard with your pencil to show where your shot lands.  Then turn the page, and see the dent in the paper (this is the back of the opponent's drawing) and color that darker.  When you look at the other person's page, you can see the mark through the paper and that is where your shot landed."  His first shot took out one of my tanks.  My first shot was a miss.

This game reminded me of Battleship.  "Where did you learn this game?" I asked.

"I made it up," said my little buddy.  He makes up lots of games.  He entertains himself while his mom is at work.  He has missed so much school because of gang harassment and moving around that he cannot re-enter school until the new year begins, and he will have to repeat this year.

"Good shot," he said, as he made an X over a tank I just hit.

We lobbed shots back and forth until I only had one little soldier left and three tries to hit his last tank and little soldier.  "Let me help you," my little buddy said.  He didn't want the guerrillas to lose.  The armed forces made some bad shots so that the guerrillas could catch up.  He took a bonus shot on behalf of the guerrillas, but when he missed he said, "Oops" (his new favorite word) and declared the game a tie.  When he plays by himself, I think Los Soldaditos usually ends in a tie.

"Now let's play checkers!" my little buddy said. He turned to another page in the notebook...

Friday, August 1, 2014


When God created the world God did not mark it up with borders, but borders were probably inevitable. Creation includes the food chain.  Creation includes weather. Creation includes geographic separations. Creatures seek out safe places to nest, to sleep, to protect their babies. Many creatures hang out in groups.  There is strength and comfort in that. Creatures need to protect themselves and their resources. Borders make sense.

Lake Suchitlan - Feb 2013
Migration is also part of creation.  Birds that hang out in Canada on sunny July days make their way to Lake Suchitlan in El Salvador in the winter.  Native peoples followed the bison across North America in order to sustain themselves.  Famines in Europe led boatfuls of people to cross the ocean.  Violence in Cambodia led migrants across another ocean.  There is that within creatures that calls them to move, sometimes to survive, sometimes to thrive.  Borders don't make sense.

This summer, my niece needed a job.  Like many college grads, she is searching for a way to survive until she finds that career in which she will thrive.  Prospects for a 2-3 month job near home in the middle of the USA were difficult to find, so she took a childcare job in Spain.   The job did not turn out to be all sunshine and roses, but she had a good place to live, was well fed, got to see new places and made a little money.  As US citizens, we take it for granted that if we have the resources, we can hop on a plane and move ourselves to find work or take a break from work or learn about the world.  How many times have I heard, "Your US passport is your ticket to anywhere," or "Your US passport is your guarantee of safety."  Of course this is not true if you fit a certain ethnic profile or you struggle economically.  Still, for my niece it was pretty easy to migrate.

The economy in Spain is in a slow recovery.  Their unemployment rate for recent college grads is well above the 12% rate recently cited in the US.  I can imagine that Spanish politicians and parents and young adults might have a little attitude about a US 20-something coming in and taking a job which could have gone to a Spanish citizen.  Yet, my niece has a skill that was needed - fluency in US English and in Spanish.  Spanish visa and immigration policies allowed for the easy crossing of borders for work.  My niece entered, worked, and went home to her family.

This management of the border makes sense.  Enter, work, go home to the family, repeat as necessary.  Let's face it, we have all kinds of work that either we cannot do because of lack of qualified persons (been in a physics lab lately?) or deficit in the quantity of persons needed to do the work (as in agriculture).  The jobs are not all sunshine and roses, but they provide money for families and opportunities to learn.

Most families, wherever they live, want to be together in their homes.  Most families will sacrifice some time together so that a parent can travel for work.  What would it be like...for the thousands of Salvadoran children who have traveled alone to the US southern border so that they can be united with mommy or daddy or both...if the US had efficient, functional immigration policies which allowed parents to enter, work, go home, and return to work if need be?  I know, many critics will counter with the argument that everyone will overstay their visas and no one will go home.  But, if it were not so crazy difficult to get a visa, if people didn't have to sneak into the US to find work, if we figured out a way to bring all of those who are living in the shadows out with a plan that would preserve families, I believe the separation culture of sneaking and overstaying could be broken.

Children are coming to the border, as are adults for many reasons, but it has become clear that one of the main reasons is because they want to be with their parents.  As one Salvadoran woman said to me, "It is not natural for creatures to abandon their young.  The young are not protected."  (She always calls people "creatures.")

A few years ago, a friend came to me overcome with worry.  His wife had left to go work in the US some time before to help support the family.  He could not go due to health reasons.  She could not risk returning to El Salvador and losing her work in the US.  The marriage suffered.  They agreed to divorce.  Their two little girls missed their mom.  Unknown to the father, the mom arranged for the girls to travel to the US with a coyote.  The dad woke up one morning and the girls told him they were leaving.  They were age 12 and age 8.  He could not stop them.  At the time he talked with me, he had not heard from them for 10 days.  The last he had heard was that they were walking across Guatemala.
A few days later, he learned that they had safely made it to the US.  Now they live with their mom.  They miss their dad, but there is no way they can come to see him.  They send him photos.  Photos can cross borders.  I think God intended that creatures could too.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

The "Madrina Letters" Part 3

The following letters are not real, but the facts are real.  Names have been changed.  Several young people who have known me since they were little ones call me "Madrina" - it is a term of endearment which means "Godmother."

Dear Madrina,

Our prayers were answered!  I have work.  I am very excited.  I will start on Monday.  I will care for a cancer patient in her home - two 24 hour shifts per week.  It is a probationary job, but I feel really good about it because I am reminded of the care I gave my mother.  My cousin will babysit for my son and I can pay her too.

God bless you!
Your Amiga

Dear Amiga,

Congratulations!  We are so happy for you!  You have a gift for caring for people who are very ill.  May God bless you as your new life begins!

Your Madrina

Dear Madrina,

I lost my job.  I cared for the woman for three days.  She died.  Now the agency won't pay me because I did not work for a whole month.  I know this is wrong, but I have to move forward.  I can't be sad because I have a new job!  I was talking to a lady at church and told her about my work as a nurse.  She said she needed a nurse to care for a family member.  I have already started working!  I work six days a week from 7 am to 5 pm.  It is difficult with my son - he will have to stay home alone.  But I will give him a chore list and studying to do and he will do it.  

God provides!
Your Amiga.

Dear Amiga,

You are right - God does provide!  It is not right that you were not paid.  Yet, the care you gave your patient for 3 days was surely a beautiful thing for her.  God must have placed you in her life for a reason.  We can't always understand the way things work out.  It is good that you are continuing forward with your new life.

Your Madrina

Friday, July 25, 2014

The "Dear Madrina Letters" Part 2

The following letters are not real, but the facts are real.  Names have been changed.  Several young people who have known me since they were little ones call me "Madrina" - it is a term of endearment which means "Godmother"
Dear Madrina,

I am wondering if you showed the doctors up north the photo that you took of my leg.  I am so ashamed of my skin.  I only wear jeans.  Let me know what the doctors say.

My big brother dropped out of school.  We need him to work to help support the family.  He is working at a mechanic shop.  Maybe you did not hear that my dad left for the United States.  I am worried about him because we have not heard from him for a long time.

My little sister and I continue with our studies.  Did you like the necklace I made for you?


Dear Yenny,

I do love the necklace that you made for me!  I wear it often and people ask me where I got it. I tell them that you made it for me.

The doctors here do not know what kind of infection you have on your leg.  It looks like it might be under the skin.  They say that you need to go to see a doctor in your town.  Can your mom take you there?

I remember the time my husband and kids and I stayed at your house.  You and your brother and sister were pretty little!  I remember your brother was taking recorder lessons at the church and he liked to play for us.  I will never forget how you all slept on the floor, using your clothes as a cushion so that we could sleep in your beds.  That was one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for us.

I am very worried about your dad.  Families at our church are praying for him.  


I hoped Yenny's dad was not lost.  He had tried to catch rides and walk to make his way to the United States twice before.  One time, he made it across the border and worked for a few months before returning home.  He has family in Virginia.  He asked me if Virginia is close to Canada - he was thinking of going to Canada.  I drew a map of North and Central America with the states and we talked about the long distances he would need to cover.  I thought maybe this would deter him, but no.  He wanted a good job so he could provide for his family.

Dear Madrina,

My dad came home.  He is in bad shape.  The coyote took his money and beat him up and left him in the desert to die.  I don't know how he made it home.  He can hardly move.  My mom said that the whole experience made his disease much worse.  He has Parkinson's disease.  What if he can't work?  Our uncle has a car repair shop in the north part of El Salvador and my brother went to work there.  At least he is away from the gangs.  Our street is bad.  We can't go outside after dark.  I need to go to a different school.  


Dear Yenny,

It was great to see you during my recent visit.  It seems like your new school is very full of students.  It must be difficult to concentrate when your classes meet in the common area.   It's nice that you have a place outside for gym class.  It was fun to be at school on the day when the government gave out shoes to the students!

After we left the community I was so surprised to see your brother standing by the road nearby.  We stopped when we recognized him and I had a chance to talk with him about his work and his girlfriend.  It was good that your relatives could help your dad set up the little shop by the side of the road to sell things for cars.  The pastor bought a steering wheel cover and your brother installed it, which made him pretty happy.  Your dad seemed a little more steady and able to speak a little more clearly.  Thanks be to God the local clinic has the medicine he needs.  

You are all growing up so quickly.  Stay safe and listen to your mom!


Maybe big brother is in the gang, and maybe not.  I couldn't tell.  Hopefully Yenny's dad makes enough money so he can pay the weekly "rent" which allows him to have is store alongside the road.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The "Dear Madrina" Letters

The following letter is not real, but the facts are real. Several young people who have known me since they were little ones call me "Madrina" - it is a term of endearment which means "Godmother"

Dear Madrina,

I hope this letter finds you well, surrounded by your loved ones.

My situation in El Salvador has become desperate.  As you know, I still have not found work in my profession, despite the fact that I graduated from the university a year and a half ago.  In fact, no one in my graduating class has found work in our profession.  I am trying to survive, but I cannot afford even the smallest things like a few clothes or a notebook for my son.

You asked what kind of work I have been doing to support us.  I buy small things and resell them on the buses that run near the community.  Yes, I know it is dangerous to hop on and off of the buses.  Yes, I know it is dangerous to carry the little quarters I earn on the bus because the gang members also come on board looking for money.  I don't really earn enough to support us like this, but I can buy two fish and some tortillas.  We like to eat fried fish, and it is one thing I can cook really well.

I recently returned from Guatemala.  I went there because some relatives told me there was work.  I left my son with a cousin.  I did find work for 3 weeks working heavy construction.  Are you surprised by that?  Hahaha, sometimes women can get jobs working construction.  You know I am strong.

No, my son did not go to school during this time.  He does not like to go to school.  He is only in first grade, but the gangs already bother him on his way to school.  They call my cell phone and ask for him.  They tell me he needs to be at a certain place at a certain time or they will hurt our family.  Maybe they want him for a lookout.  I don't know if he has carried things for them.  I cannot protect him in the community or on the way to school so he does not want to go to school.

Sometimes we are alone in the house and cannot go anywhere or do anything or eat anything.  When times are difficult and we are alone, we pray and pray.  We read the Bible together.  My son can read the Bible.  He reads really well for his age.

The rain is coming and I am more afraid than ever.  The hillside under my house is washing away.  I am afraid the house will cave in and we will be buried.  We cannot stay in the community.  For so many reasons we are not safe there.  You know my father is an alcoholic.  The only choice is for me to come to the United States.  I want to work to earn money and buy a house in the countryside where we can grow food and it is safe.  That is my dream.  I saved money to hire a coyote.  My son will stay with my cousin.  I think I can work for 3 years and then have enough.

You told me that you do not want me to travel north because it is dangerous.  I know the dangers.  I am street-smart.  You told me that you do not want to have to travel to Guatemala to identify my body and buy my coffin.  I understand what you are saying, but I will not change my mind.  This is the only hope for me and my son.  I am leaving for the United States tomorrow.

You said you will pray for me.  When I am outside under the stars I will know you are praying.  God will be with me.  I will not tell anyone that I know you and I will not carry your name with me.  I don't want you to get in trouble or to receive threats.  I memorized your phone number in case I need to call you from a detention center.

You will not hear from me for a long time.  But God will keep us together.  Your love for me is the only thing that will keep me going, along with the love of God.

May God bless you,
Your Amiga

Dear Amiga,

The three weeks when I heard nothing from you were very difficult.  My heart ached every day with worry.  I am glad to learn that you are safely back in El Salvador with your son.  You were very fortunate to have met people along the way who could travel with you and keep you safe.  I am sorry you lost your money to the coyote.  It sounds like you learned a great deal about yourself during the journey north.  We will continue to pray for your situation and ask God to provide you with work.  We will try to make more connections with our friends in El Salvador and help you with your resume.  We know God has great plans for your life.

May God bless you,
Your Madrina

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Journey North

Children hopping on trains.  Mothers carrying babies through the desert.  Thousands of dollars passing from families to coyotes (smugglers who guide migrants to or across borders).

Stories of the harrowing journey north, stories of abandonment by coyotes, stories of arrest by immigration police, stories of help received along the way, stories of successful border crossings, stories of appeals for sanctuary, stories of deportation.  These are not stories of the moment, attractive in their drama to mass media.  These are not stories to be twisted for political rants.

We see and hear the stories of thousands of Salvadoran children who left their homes or were sent from their homes by their parents.  They leave with a small bundle of clothes.  They carry no phones nor phone numbers so that drug thugs or gang members cannot track down their families and demand ransom.  They depend on the kindness of family and strangers in Guatemala to give them food and shelter.  They sneak across the border into Mexico.  They hop onto moving freight trains.  The girls fear being raped.  They move forward, hanging onto the dream that in the United States they will find work.  No matter how hungry they are or how many nights they sleep out in the cold, they are not deterred.  They know hunger, and a night in the cold can be safer than a night in a Salvadoran community held captive by gang violence.

These are the driving forces of the journey:  the desire for work and the desire to live free from violence.

In Mexico the children find their coyotes.  The families have wired the money ahead.  Many children and families do not make it beyond northern Mexico.  Their coyotes are nowhere to be found or are in jail.  Mexican police apprehend families and send them back.  The need for food and shelter drive the children to find work in Mexico. There are good people offering shelter and wicked people taking advantage all along the way.

Children take off their shoes and place them and whatever bundle they may still have onto their heads.  They cross the river. Children sneak through small breaks in the wall.  Children walk into the desert in rugged, unguarded areas. Adults do the same.

Children present themselves to border agents, thinking they are safe.  Children who are nearly dead are found by border agents.  A few children make it beyond the border and somehow end up with their people. Adults do the same.

Children and adults from El Salvador have the right to a hearing.  They are detained in an immigration detention center where conditions are described by the media as "deplorable" where children sleeping on floors.  The conditions are not acceptable, but the physical situation is not difficult for Salvadoran children who have spent their lives battling hunger, living in crowded conditions, sleeping on floors and surviving as prisoners in their homes due to violence in their communities.

Officials ask the children, "Why did you come to the United States?"
"I want to help my mom take care of my little brothers and sisters."
"I want to buy my mom a house."
"I want to get adopted."
"There are no opportunities at home."
"The gangs will kill me."
"I want to be with my mom (or dad) who lives here."

The detention centers are over-crowded.  Children with family members who have legal documents to live in the US are released to their families.  They most often do not report for their court dates.  Why?  Children and families who ask for asylum through the court system are typically denied.  Everyone lives in danger.  Everyone might be killed by the gangs.  Children who are not released remain in detention for a few months, have their hearing and are usually sent home.  Many will try to journey north again.  Some will be killed by the gangs they feared.  It's the same for adults.

People move.

Indigenous tribes once moved across the land bridge from Asia, then across the North American plains with the seasons, following sources of food, sustaining their families.  European families moved across the ocean in search of land, religious freedom, escape from hunger, respite from totalitarian regimes.  African peoples were moved, made captives by those who had moved before them.  War. Disaster. Education.  Work.  Dreams.  Within the US people are constantly moving.  Moving for work, moving to be with family, moving to start new lives.

From the fourth grade classroom to the White House, I think we need to ask some questions.  What is my story?  How have I moved across borders?  How have my people moved?  What movements would I make to sustain my own life or the life of my children?  Would I leave for the good of my family?  Would I send my child?  What has caused me or would cause me to make the decisions which so many Salvadoran children, youth, moms and dads are making?

Thank you Pastor Ben for your inspiration.