Thursday, April 18, 2013

Off the Beaten Path: Wandering in Nejapa

"Drop us off in Nejapa; we'll wander around; we'll figure out how to get ourselves back to Apopa; we'll be fine!"

In the early years, our sister church pastor would not have gone for this idea.  Even 15 years into our sistering relationship he was a bit skeptical, but he was busy and we wanted to hang out and take in some everyday life, so with a little trepidation, he drove off and left us in Nejapa.

Of course, this was not the first time for my friend Deb and me to experience Nejapa.  Over the years we have driven through the town center on our way to the nearby pool complex, and we often love to eat at the Pupusodromo on the edge of town.  Deb and I (and a team of many) had just completed a week of holistic healing at the nearby Lutheran Church site at Fe y Esperanza.

We drove into Nejapa early that morning toUnidad de Salud (government health clinic) to express thanks to the director and all of the doctors and nurses who has assisted us during the Mission of Healing.  We brought a box of medications and small equipment as a token of our gratitude and made plans to stay in touch regarding
ongoing patient care and future healing events.  We are very impressed with the work this small clinic is able to do with limited resources and a very dedicated staff.

After that short visit, we headed over to the offices of PRO-VIDA, a humanitarian organization which works in the areas of healthcare and clean water.  The clinic in Nejapa has a strong focus on preventing breast, cervical and ovarian cancer in women and prostate cancer in men.  PRO-VIDA provided some medications for the Mission of Healing, and we were interested in learning more about ways in which we could work together in the future.  The doctor at the clinic was worried about Deb and me wandering around Nejapa on our own, so we agreed to return to the PRO-VIDA clinic after our explorations.

Deb and I share the same strategy when exploring:  first head to the church.  This is a good plan when exploring Salvadoran towns, because in typical colonial fashion, the cathedral is located on the town square, and the government offices and market are close by.  We walked through the outdoor market, which is tucked into a small street next to the church Iglesia Católica San Jerónimo.  We entered the church by the front doors.  It was cool and beautiful, with Lenten purple banners fluttering in the soft breeze.  We walked slowly, giving honor to the relics and story of this place.  

The small park in front of the church holds the famous statue of a boy throwing a fireball, in honor of the traditional Bolas de Fuego Fiesta.  When we had driven by in the past, I had noticed this statue, but I never noticed the other sculptures in this garden.    

We headed out into the streets.  People were very friendly.  We visited the indoor market which was small, filled with fresh foods and the things of daily life.  We wandered far enough not to get lost, and ended up back in the town square.  It was fun to sit and be a part of natural life in the park.  We chatted with the gardener, a seasoned grandpa who watered each row of hedges.  A dad played with his little boy on the rocking horse.  A group of students gathered in the gazebo.  They were surprised to see two very pale ladies seated in the park, and there were a few comments about that.  We walked over and greeted the students, asking if they were finished for the day or on their way to school for the afternoon.  Our Spanish caught them off guard, and the girls proceeded to reprimand the boys for making remarks.  We all laughed about that.  We chatted for a little while and waved adios when it was time to go.

Our meanderings ended, and we walked back through the outdoor market back to PRO-VIDA where our new friend called a buddy who had a mirco and could drive us to Apopa.  Our adventure in Nejapa lasted only for a morning, but we really enjoyed it!  

Photo taken by Mike Dawson at the Pupusodromo

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Corn is Life

"Corn ... es ... vida."

Our very first visit in El Salvador.  These words came carefully from the mouth of our pastor who was a little nervous while preaching in the tiny church in Los Héroes.  We all remember this moment:  the people were crammed into every corner of the space, our sweaty pastor holding an ear of corn out to the crowd and daring to try a bit of Spanish, "corn es vida," and the translator looking puzzled and finally blurting out, "maiz es ... vida" as everyone giggled.

Corn es vida.  Corn is life.

It was harvest time during that first visit.  We walked the pathways of our sister community for the first time, shyly accepting invitations into people's homes as we went along.  "Pase, por favor.  Come in.  Sit down.  Are you hungry?"  We were handed warm ears of corn, warm tortillas, or warm plastic cups full of sweet corn milk.  Corn es vida.

"We are the people of the corn."  The Mayan story of creation tells of the origin of humankind, made from the corn of the earth.  The people of Mexico and Central America are all people of the corn.

Corn in the field, mostly planted with beans and squash, is the milpa.  An ear of corn is elote - eaten plain, covered in mayonnaise and chile, or drizzled with lime juice and salt.  Maiz is the kernels of corn, wet or dry.  Tortilla, tamal, quesadilla, atol de elote... corn es vida. Corn is life.

Corn is also big business.  In the United States, corn production is carried out by small farmers and large agri-business, is subsidized, is used primarily to produce animal feed, is used to create ethanol, is genetically modified, is shipped around the world, is complicated.  I don't know too much about US corn production.  What I do know is that the people of the corn are frightened.

Corn plants are grass plants, native to Meso-America.  Early people saved seeds of the plants with the largest heads.  Little by little, corn varieties developed.  Different varieties adapted to different geographic zones, different soil types, different climates, and the plants grew resistant to local plagues (insects and disease).  The people of the corn with their wisdom and closeness to the earth developed the culture of sharing.  It was customary for the farmer to walk past the neighbors' fields and to take an ear of corn from each.  These seeds were mixed into the farmer's own saved seeds to create diverse and heartier plants.  Growing corn for food and for seed continues to be the tradition for small farmers throughout Mexico and Central America.

Genetically modified seed from US corporations threatens this life cycle of native corn.  Genetically modified seed produces a field of uniform corn, which is not adapted to diverse geography and local plagues. To grow, it requires application of chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides.  Seeds cannot be collected and saved because sometimes they do not produce new plants.  Collecting them and saving them sometimes violates the intellectual property rights of the corporation.

A few years ago, a family in El Salvador received seed to plant a crop which had been destroyed by a flood.  The family was hungry.  The father told his wife to take some of the seed, to grind it and make it into tortillas to feed their five hungry children.  The family became sick.  Two children, ages 10 and 12 died.  The seed was coated with a pesticide.

I recently returned from a visit to Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico.  In town, store after store advertised agricultural chemicals.  The town smelled of fertilizer and pesticide.  Miguel told us about his efforts to produce organic corn in his field, to discontinue slash and burn practices in his community, to use companion plants with his corn to produce nitrogen in the soil, and to encourage neighboring farmers to discontinue using chemicals.  He showed us his worm compost.  He told us about farmers with cancer.

For the people of the corn, corn should not be death.  Corn is life.