Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Cathedral Loses More than a Facade

Today I learned that the facade of the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador has been destroyed, not by an earthquake or the winds of a hurricane, but by the hands of workers at the direction of church leaders.  The images of the colorful tiles crashing to the pavement, the chiseled shards being gathered into white buckets and irreverently being tossed into a dumpster are painful to see.

I don't want to question the right of the Catholic Church to pull down something old to make way for something new - new wineskins for new wine are sometimes needed.  As a non-Salvadoran, I don't want to impose my outsider opinion on a Salvadoran decision.   But in my heart I do question the wisdom in carrying out such a violent act on a mural depicting peaceful images of the Salvadoran people, and I do wonder what the motivation was for such a decision.

Like any artist, Fernando Llort, the creator of the facade, has his fans and his critics.  I am personally a fan.  He and his family have been very gracious during our visits to their workshops, taking the time to work with Salvadoran friends and artisans who wished to learn more about Llort's artistic style and technique.  His web site has a lovely story which describes the impact of his experience in creating the work of art which framed the entrance to the Cathedral.  I can't imagine how sad and confused and offended Mr. Llort must feel as he witnesses the great disrespect which has been shown to one of his life works.

The most recent photo I have of the Cathedral was taken in September 2011.  I was there with a Salvadoran friend who had not yet seen the completed facade.  His last visit had been during the time when the facade was still covered with scaffolding, and the artisans were putting the tiles into place.  He was so thrilled to see the completed images, colorful and peaceful, surrounding the statue of Jesus.  The plaza in which we stood held for our friend past experiences of fear and violence and death.  On that recent September day, with the sun shining in the bright blue sky, with the green trees shifting slightly in the breeze, with the older men relaxing on park benches and women selling aromatic fried foods and fruit, the mirrored images of colorful Salvadoran life stood as a backdrop to peaceful moments.  It was a profound experience for my friend, and one that Salvadorans and visitors to El Salvador will miss.

My friend Tim has also written about the destruction of the cathedral's facade on his Blog.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Christmas Corner

I entered the house.  It was dark inside, so it took a moment for my eyes to adjust after being outside in the bright sunshine.  "Just a minute," Julia said.  She reached into the corner and dragged a raggedy extension cord over to the socket and plugged it in.

Two little plastic Christmas trees came to life!

The trees framed the corner of the room which held a leveled pile of sand and a multitude of small treasures.  Each item was carefully placed to face the corner, and in the corner there was a well-loved ceramic Baby Jesus. Julia had spent a long time assembling her Christmas corner.

"These are my son's baby shoes.  We brought this pine cone back from a trip to the mountains.  My boys played with these cars when they were little.  I have had this figure since I was a little girl."  Julia carefully picked up treasure after treasure, grateful for the memory it brought to mind, joyful to share the memory and her stories with a friend.

Donkeys and horses made from clay.  Cats and cows and crocodiles made of plastic. Mary, Joseph, Shepherds and Kings of all shapes and sizes.  All positioned carefully in the sand, all with faces toward the corner adoring Baby Jesus, all surrounded by lights and sparkles.

Every year, I assemble a Christmas corner to honor the birth of Jesus and the gift of Julia's friendship.  I try to remember Julia's stories, and the stories that accompany the few Salvadoran treasures I place beneath the tree.  The cup from Julia's cupboard, made by her grandpa.  The stuffed pig from Christina.  The angel from our sister community's anniversary party.  The church made by Papa Santiago.  A photo from the first time we said good-bye.  It's a lesson in humility.  Julia's life treasures fit under two small trees and mine do not, but the love and friendship we share is bigger than any corner or any house can hold.  Merry Christmas, Julia!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tamale Time!

Christmas Eve festivities happen at our house. We go to church in the later afternoon and then come home for a quiet evening of snacking, talking, Christmas music, playing games and opening a few gifts. The family members who do not have other celebrations to attend come to our house, so the guests vary from year to year and so does the food. This year, I have decided to go with a Salvadoran theme.

There are a few Salvadoran dishes which I make pretty often, and they turn out pretty well: guacamole with big chunks of avocado and hard-boiled eggs, cauliflower relleno with tomato salsita, ejotes (green beans) cut fine and made with scrambled egg, and of course, Salvadoran red beans...but there is one must-have for Christmas which I have not yet attempted -- tamales.

If my kids are reading this, they are probably groaning and saying "yuck." It's true, their experiences with tamales in El Salvador have included a few unwelcome bites into chicken beaks, chicken feet and other unknown crunchy things, and the gooey mass of corn dough has not always been cooked to the finest texture. Yet, every Christmas and major celebration of which I have been a part in El Salvador has included tamales. Savory tamales filled with potato and carrot. Sweet tamales slathered in fresh cream. I am determined to try to make a tasty tamale.

So, today I got out my Salvadoran cook book, a gift from my husband a few years back. The tamale section has about a dozen recipes, some of which require some ingredient research and all of which contain meat. With a vegetarian on the guest list, I needed to turn elsewhere for ideas.

As I was about to hit Google for answers, I remembered the video. About 4 years ago, my friend Julia took me to one of the best tamale-maker's house to show me how to make tamales. I filmed the entire process, from pulling the corn off the cob, to grinding, to mixing, to starting the fire, to wrapping, to cooking. Who needs a cookbook when you have a step-by-step film featuring your friends and non-stop humorous commentary?

Tomorrow, I will find that video and experiment with tamale-making, because it just won't be a Salvadoran Christmas without the tamales!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Advent Bracelet

I am still wearing two slightly battered, mis-matched bracelets. The tightly-knotted turquoise, orange and white one has survived on my wrist for an amazingly long time. I did take it off for my son's wedding, which technically broke my wear it til it breaks rule. For a long time, the tri-colored yarn was accompanied by 3 stretchy elastic bands strung with teeny tiny beads. These beaded bracelets are often traded among teen boys and girls in our sister church community and after a while they break, scattering beads across the dirt or across the floor. Some have survived long enough to return to El Salvador for a visit or two.

The second bracelet on my wrist is a purple, stretchy rubber-band bracelet which springs into the shape of a clothes hanger when I take it off. It was obtained in a trade - tiny pink beads for a purple hanger. I have to confess: the hanger was also removed for the wedding.

This morning I pulled out the big plastic box which holds gift bags, tissue paper, tags and ribbons. Time to wrap the Christmas gifts! As I was digging around among the glittery snowman bags and recycled tissue I found a bracelet. What a surprise! I had not thought about this blue and white, ribbon-wrapped bangle for months! I pushed it onto my wrist, resting the image of the Salvadoran flag beside the turquoise yarn and the purple hanger, and I thought about when it was that I had received the bangle...

Almost 11 months ago, Bishop Gomez gave me the lost El Salvador bracelet. I wore it every day for quite some time and now I wondered, how did it end up in the gift-wrapping bin? Prior to a kid's birthday or our nephew's wedding or who knows what special event, the bracelet must have slipped off my wrist and nestled itself among the wrappings, waiting to surprise me on a gray and rainy Advent day.

Dios - Unión - Libertad -- (God - Union - Liberty) -- These words of guidance for a nation which I now carry with me on a bracelet, arrived unexpectedly during this time of Advent. As I catch a glimpse of the bracelet, I think about all of my friends in the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, who share God's love by building community and doing justice among the marginalized, the forgotten and the oppressed. As I bustle around the house, wrapping the gifts and baking the treats, this little blue and white Advent bracelet reminds me of God's purpose in sending Jesus...

Isaiah 61.1:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Off the Beaten Path: El Mozote, 30 Years Down the Road

Thirty years ago, a terrible massacre was carried out by the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran armed forces in the small town of El Mozote. More than 1000 people were killed. This week, Tim's El Salvador Blog is dedicating its posts to sharing the story of this horrific event.

Three years ago I visited El Mozote. Tim was with me. A very dear friend from our sister church, who has a chauffeur's license, drove us there in a rented car. Although our friend had
heard of the massacre, he had not been to El Mozote and he knew very little about what actually happened there. He is a politically active, staunch FMLN supporter who knows a great deal about what happened during the war, so this surprised me a little.

We made the long drive from the capital, from highway, to small paved road, to rocky bumpy road, to dirt path. We paused along the way for lunch in a small town, enjoying a little time for rest and conversation before beginning a visit to a place which we knew would be very difficult to visit.

When we
arrived in El Mozote the first thing that struck me was the quiet. It is quiet. The homes which held life and families in 1981 are dead shells. Signs of the violence which occurred are all around. As we paused near the town square a young woman came to greet us. She is a survivor - a survivor only because she was not at home at the time of the massacre. Her mom had just had a baby, so she had been sent off to her aunt's house in a nearby town. The 1981 slaughter of the innocents, including her mom and her baby sister who she never knew, set the path for this young woman. She has dedicated her life to sharing the story.

As we walked through the town, our guide pointed out the
bomb craters, explained how the men were corralled into an open space, how the women and children were placed into the church. She described their deaths. Our friend asked a lot of questions. He marveled at the richness and beauty of this agricultural land. That juxtaposition of the beautiful and the ugly was difficult for all of us to experience.

Outside the church, a beautiful memorial garden stands as a sign of life and hope. A colorful mural on the side of the church honors the lost lives of the children. It's impossible to understand how the soldiers could have killed grandpas, dads, grandmas, moms, children and babies. The images in the mural -- the colors, the playfulness, and the joy, express what were the hopes for the earthly lives of these lost children, and the faith we have that these little ones are playing and running and laughing with joy in heaven.

At the end of our visit we stopped at the small tourist center which the women of El Mozote have set up near the town square. Our friend paged through a book of photographs, pondering all he had seen. He said, "We Salvadorans need to come here, to remember this. The children in our community need to know something about the history. They don't know anything."

We bought the book and gave it to our friend later as a gift so that he could share the lessons of this horrific event with others. On our drive back, we talked a little about our feelings. I remember one comment which our friend made about the condition of the road, "The government wants this road to be bad so no one will come here." We made a few additional stops, including a visit to the Museum of the Salvadoran Revolution and a park filled with happy families and fresh air.

Since the visit to El Mozote, the adults in our sister church community have shared a little bit more of their stories and the history of the war with their children. They have hosted a couple of movie nights, showing documentaries and films such as Voces Inocentes and discussing them with their children. There is healing in the telling, and lessons for the future.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

O Christmas Tree

When I was in 2nd grade, my Sunday School teacher took a Polaroid photo of me and each of my classmates as we stood in front of a church Christmas tree. We pasted those pictures onto cream-colored tag board stars, and then carefully pasted burnt matchsticks onto each of the star points. This little Linda star was a Christmas present for my mom and dad that year, and it was placed on the tree that year and for several years beyond.

When my kids were in preschool, each of them had the opportunity to make an ornament from an inverted flat-bottomed ice cream cone. A pipe cleaner was stuck through the bottom to make a hook, and the cone was covered with white icing. Colorful cereal pieces were stuck into the icing and the Christmas bell was ready to hang on the tree. Each sticky bell had it's one glorious year on the tree.

Whether it reappears year after year or adorns the tree only once, a home-made ornament is a beautiful and memorable gift.

The first time we were in El Salvador for Christmas, I was surprised to see Christmas trees. I guess I thought that the Tannenbaum was a German tradition, not really Salvadoran, and I had never seen Christmas pines in the Salvadoran forest or on tree farms. Well, the magic of the global economy had brought plastic trees to El Salvador and a few homes and many public places hosted Christmas trees. My favorite tree was decorated with homemade ornaments -- gold-painted tortillas and bright red ribbon. I like to think about the kids and moms making the tortillas, poking holes into them and letting them dry, painting them gold and stringing wire into them to hang them from the tree. The poinsettia flowers on the tree were not real, although red poinsettia flowers line the streets and pathways of rural El Salvador during December. A simple idea and a beautifully simple tree.

We've done a little Christmas caroling in El Salvador, singing together songs which we have in common. I came across a pretty good version of O Christmas Tree in Spanish from
Qué verdes son
(O Tannenbaum)
(Oh, Christmas Tree)

Qué verdes son, qué verdes son las hojas del abeto.
Qué verdes son, qué verdes son las hojas del abeto.
En Navidad qué hermoso está con su brillar de luces mil.
Qué verdes son, qué verdes son las hojas del abeto.

Qué verdes son, qué verdes son las hojas del abeto.
Qué verdes son, qué verdes son las hojas del abeto.
Sus ramas siempre airosas son, su aroma es encantador.
Qué verdes son, qué verdes son las hojas del abeto.