Monday, November 21, 2016

This is our King

As we drove down the road to Tonaca, a pick-up truck pulled out in front of us.  "Hey, it's Jesus!" my husband said, as we followed close behind.  The large statue of Jesus stood on a processional platform, with the wooden handles laid across the sides of the bed of the pick-up.  Jesus wore a golden crown and robes of white and crimson red - the traditional colors chosen for Jesus by most Roman Catholic churches for their Christ the King celebrations.  In the back of the truck, a man was practically wrestling with Jesus, as the strong wind tried to lift the statue right out of the truck.  We followed the truck all the way into our sister church community.  They turned off at the Catholic Church, and we climbed up the hill to the Lutheran Church.

Christ the King Sunday is a Lutheran tradition too.  The decorations in the Lutheran Church were already blue for the coming season of Advent.  A little Christmas tree stood in the corner with blinking lights.  The pastor welcomed everyone and made note of the celebration going on at the church down the hill, complete with fireworks, and a procession of prayer and song with a statue of Christ the King.

We sang a song - a song about our King Jesus...

You are the God of the poor,
The human God and simple,
The God that sweats in the street,
The God of the weather-beaten face.

You go with my people by the hand.
You sweat in the countryside and the city
And are standing in line over there at the camp
In order to receive your daily pay.
You eat a little bit over in the park
With Eusebio, Pancho and Juan José,
And you protest about the syrup
when they lie that it doesn't have much honey.

I have seen you in the pupuseria
that's in the community.
I have seen you selling lottery tickets,
And you are not ashamed of this role.
I have seen you in the gas station,
checking the tires on a truck
and repairing the highways
with leather gloves and overalls.

God came to hang out with regular people, with poor people, with people who were sick, with people cast aside by society, with the migrant and the widow.  Our King was born to a poor family.  Our King, the King of Kings went from place to place to be with people.  He was homeless.  The King of Kings was crucified, hanged between two criminals.  The Son of God, our King, was beaten, insulted, and crucified because he loved people, because he healed blind people and deaf people, because he cared about the widow and the outcast, and mostly because he forgave people.  The King of Kings was crucified for doing all this good.

"I would much rather hang out and be friends with this humble king of love who has a heart for the poor, than the rich and fancy kings of this world," said the pastor.  He reminded us that our mission as the church is to continue this work done by the King of Kings.  Each one of us is called to be that person that shows up to share, shows up to love our neighbor and shows up to forgive.  When something happens we cannot just sit on our butts and expect someone else to do the work.  We are the ones who have to be there and carry out this mission of love, or Jesus' church is not going to grow.

We celebrate Christ the King Sunday by recommitting ourselves to be faithful to what God's Word teaches us, that is to love God above all else, and to love each other.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Off the Beaten Path: A Fiesta to Remember in Tonaca

Siguanaba, Headless Priest
and Cipitio
The sun fell low in the sky.  At every turn we were confronted by ghosts and ghouls, devils, screaming women, and headless priests.  She was there...the Siguanaba!  Along with her pitiful little son, Cipitio. 

The legends of Tonacatepeque had come to life as they do every year for the November 1st Fiesta de la Calabiuza.  (Calabiuza is a word which is like the Spanish word calabaza which means "pumpkin" - but in the local vernacular means "skull.")  Characters from imagination and legend wandered the cobbled streets and posed for photos.  Some ran up to us, screaming and acting their roles with great enthusiasm.

As the evening light grew dim, the characters gathered around their hand-drawn carts - some with metal bases, some constructed of wood and bamboo, most with big wooden wheels. Adorned with skulls, coffins, large paper-maché characters, and carved calabiuza skulls, the carts were designed and decorated by different school and community groups.  The competition was stiff.  Who would win the award for most authentic and most frightening?

Preparing to march in the evening parade

Over the years, Salvadoran friends, especially those born and raised in Tonaca, have woven their spooky tales for us late into the night.  These legends hearken back to Nahuat ancestors.  Over the centuries, colonial culture and Christian morality have seeped into some of the stories, but the people of Tonaca proudly claim to have preserved and carried the lore of the indigenous peoples into the modern era.
The Screamer
Despite years of listening to tales, there are many stories we do not fully understand and there always seem to be new characters emerging.  After doing a little digging, I finally learned that the boy with the screaming red face is known as El Gritón (The Screamer) whose cries pierce through the silence of the night out in the countryside and in the mountains.  The tale goes something like this:

As the sun sets and the darkness rises, perhaps some brave souls will venture out beyond Calvary or will remain too late in the hills.  If you are out after dark, beware!  Without your white cadejo (dog) at your side, you will not know where to go.  The heat of the evening will be broken by a rush of cold air, and the leaves above you will rustle violently.  You will turn a corner and it will hit you - a piercing scream like none you have ever heard before!  Suddenly from behind the figure will appear, and then all of a sudden it is in front of you.  You will try to move, but it will be futile.  You will be paralyzed with fright because you have no idea how this gigantic figure was first behind you, and then ahead of you, spreading over you its cold shadow and piercing scream.  For three days you will not know who you are nor whether you are alive or dead as you lie in your bed trembling with fever and fear.  So beware...

It would not be a fiesta
without the light sabers.
Entrepreneurs of all
sorts had a good evening.
We waited in the dark for the parade to begin.  Torches on the sides of the carts were set aflame, and were pulled to and fro along the route as if they were about to crash into the crowd.  Old pieces of corrugated tin dragged along the ground behind the carts, creating an eerie thunder.  The characters screamed and lurched at the spectators.  It was magnificent.

After the parade, we held onto one another and wormed our way through the tight crowd.  "We are headed toward Calvary," Pastor Santiago said.

Calvary after dark.

"Every town has a place called Calvary," he continued.  "It is at the edge of town, and whenever there is a procession or a march, it ends at Calvary."  We passed by a big stage.  The mayor was giving out awards and loud music interspersed with announcements from the local pizza place.  We found friends selling their crafted jewelry.  It was a good night for artisans.

Just before we made it to Calvary, we found friends at the FMLN tent.  The women gave us steaming bowls of ayote (like calabaza or pumpkin) which had been cooked for hours in a sauce made from panela (solid sugar made from boiling cane juice).  Everyone who wanted a big bowl was served.  We sat in plastic chairs, eating our ayote con panela.

At about 8:30 PM we wormed our way back through the crowd.  We wandered through the park.  The statue of Cipitio and the fountain have been enlarged as part of a park beautification project.  We ran into friends from our sister church community along the way, all of whom were pretty surprised to see us.  It was a memorable night of story and fun, in the light and in the dark, with the ghosts and ghouls and families of Tonaca at the Fiesta de la Calabiuza.

A cart - much more scary in person

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Legend of La Llorona - The Moaning Woman

"What is the story of the screaming bride who clenches her dead baby?" we asked.

 Not too many people could tell us the details about this legend, though some of the most convincingly scary figures in the Celebration of the Calabiuza in Tonacatepeque this year were dressed as this tale's ghostly brides.

This girl was legitimately scary.
She ran up behind us
screaming at full force!

The legend may have originated in Mexico, but it is told throughout El Salvador and other Latin American countries.  Like many Salvadoran tales, this one was probably created, adapted or propagated by missionaries and priests in order to teach the native peoples a moral and societal lesson...

There once was a beautiful peasant girl who lived in the countryside near a large hacienda.  When she was old enough, she took a job at the hacienda and attracted the attention of a young man.  He was the son of the owner of the hacienda and was an educated and handsome man.  He and the girl fell in love and together they conceived a child.  Of course the girl wanted to marry her beloved, but he could not tell his parents of the affair.  The girl tried to conceal her pregnancy, but eventually her condition could not be hidden under her apron.  She was fired from her job and left on her own.

In time, the peasant girl gave birth to her baby.  She dreamed that she and her beloved and their child could be a family.  That dream was shattered when the young man married a Spanish woman of his own class and heritage.  Completely distraught, the girl went down to the flooded river and threw her child into the water.  The child was carried away by the current and drowned.  Horrified with what she had done, the young woman threw herself into the raging water, moaning and screaming after her child.

When the young man learned of the fate of his former love and his child, he could hardly live with himself.  In the dark of the night, he haunted by the moans and the screams of the young woman.  To this day, on dark nights when the waters run high, you can hear La Llorona crying for her dead child.

The majority of Las Lloronas at the fiesta were teen boys.  It really was quite impressive to see the great effort put into the costumes and the floats and the acting at this event.  What a great outlet for fun and creativity and connection with the local legends and history.  

Part of the expectation for this cultural celebration is that each young person dressed in costume needs to ACT as the character that he or she is portraying throughout the entirety of the pageant and parade.  Community judges give awards to the most convincing actors.  In a time and place when youth are subject to so many dangers, I believe it is especially important that they have safe times and spaces in which they can be a little wild and goofy and let their Llorona hair down.

Related stories:

Making a Living on the Day of the Dead

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Off the Beaten Path: ¿Donde está el Baño?

It's your first time in El Salvador.  You are excited and a little nervous.  You have done your best to memorize a little bit of Spanish, and you have mastered three very helpful phrases:

  • Mucho gusto - pleased to meet you
  • Con permiso - may I come in, or excuse me
  • ¿Donde está el baño? - where is the bathroom.
You have been well prepared by your trip leader, and you are confident that you can keep these three important rules:
  • Do not use the water to brush your teeth.
  • Never eat lettuce.
  • Never pass up a flush toilet.
Well, first time visitor, have I got great news for you!  Parque Cuscatlán now features brand new bathrooms!  I won't tell you exactly where they are, because, of course, you will want to test out the appropriate Spanish phrase which you worked so hard to memorize.  There are plenty of signs in the park pointing you in the right direction if you can't find anyone on whom to test out your "¿Donde está el baño?"

And you guessed it, there are FLUSH toilets!

Seriously, this is a wonderful development for the park.  The bathrooms are wheelchair accessible with a central entry where both men and women pay 15 cents.  The women's side has a hallway with stalls on both sides.  They are very clean.  The sink area has a couple of faucets and soap.  There was no dryer, but I did not think that was a huge deal since they break all the time.

 Near the sink area, there is a large, private stall big enough for a wheelchair and an attendant.  There is also a nice private shower.  For a small charge, you can get a clean towel, soap, shampoo and even a razor.  The gentleman at the entry desk was very kind, and laughed when I told him I would be writing a blog story about these awesome bathrooms.

There was a special event in the park on the day when I discovered these bathrooms.  Over the course of the event, it appeared that the bathrooms were well-used.  I think it is great that there is a decent place to shower for someone who needs a place to do that, either after a workout in the park or if a person does not have a home.  I think most people would gladly give a few coins to a person in need who could use this bathroom.

I did not take note of who funded these bathrooms, but to whomever did:  THANK YOU!

For anyone who is interested, here is a video with park improvement plans from the Parque Cuscatlán Alliance.  Not sure if these dreams will ever become reality.  For now, I am grateful for the new bathrooms, and if you come and visit, you will be too!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Day After The Election

November 8, 2016.  We hosted an election-returns fiesta in our home in El Salvador for friends from the United States who live here.  We were a like-minded group.  The US Embassy in El Salvador held an online symbolic vote for anyone who wanted to click on the link with results giving 79% of the vote to Secretary Clinton and 21% to Mr. Trump.  That seemed pretty positive.  Our group was 100% for Hillary Clinton.

As the map turned red, the positivity waned and our stress increased.  Never had we hosted a party during which no one could sit down, during which inboxes were exploding with texts and messages, from friends both in the States and El Salvador, expressing worry and dismay.  At one point I received a call from our sister church pastor:  "I don't understand what the media is saying," he said.  I tried to explain our system.  It is difficult for Salvadorans to understand how the media is allowed to predict or report results while citizens in parts of our country are still voting.

Never have we eaten so many M&M's while in El Salvador.  M& M's, wine and beer - comfort food.

As Lutherans and Anglicans whose faith journeys have brought us into ministry with our companion churches here in El Salvador, we the people at our small fiesta are guided by the principles of Liberation Theology (The written Word of God is the story of the liberation of God's people, and the suffering of Christ is present in the suffering of those who are poor, marginalized and oppressed.  Matthew 5:3-12); The Theology of the Cross (God revealed God's self to humanity in Jesus and the ultimate revelation of God's mercy for God's children took place on the cross.  Humanity does not save itself, but in response to God's great love and mercy, we act in love and mercy to one another.);  and The Theology of Life (All of creation is sacred.  All life is sacred.)

Out of these theological perspectives, the historic churches in El Salvador march in the streets, demonstrate before the Supreme Court, advocate with their legislative representatives and work with the executive branch of the government to protect the human rights of those most in need of protection.  For those of us who accompany the Lutheran and Anglican churches here, we tend to find ourselves doing very similar work in the United States:  accompanying victims of violence, standing with those who seek justice, welcoming refugees, protecting children, advocating for dignified wages, and caring for creation.  

A few years ago, the Salvadoran Lutheran Church had as it's year-long theme, "Nobody is illegal in any part of the world." In a country in which thousands of children, youth, and families are fleeing from their homes and communities in order to protect their lives either to escape violence or starvation, the church gives the clear message that each person has value, each life is precious, and no person is illegal.  The Lutheran church in El Salvador and the Lutheran Church in the US do not encourage people to flee to the United States without proper process, but together understand the realities and accompany the migrants using best practices.

So, in this context, you can see that those of us gathered for our election returns fiesta were championing the causes of the Democratic platform.  Beyond the focus on the platforms, none of us gathered were accepting of the racist, anti-Muslim, misogynist, ego-centric behavior and attitude of the Republican candidate.

During the primaries, all of us had had the experience of being asked about the legitimacy of the Trump candidacy by our co-workers and friends in El Salvador.  As many in the United States did at the time, we brushed aside the possibility of a Trump victory as unthinkable and impossible.

After Mr. Trump was nominated, again, we found ourselves scrambling for words to explain how his candidacy had come about.  Each time Mr. Trump denigrated someone in a public manner, each time Mr. Trump adopted the posture or the language of a bully, we found ourselves scrambling.  "How can Christians vote for him?" we were asked.

We ended our fiesta.  We went to bed prior to the concession speech, but the handwriting was on the wall.

November 9, 2016.  Today we joined teen-agers to celebrate their graduation from 9th grade.  The school-yard was filled with beautiful youth, accompanied by parents or grandparents or in one case, a stand-in-dad from the US (that would be my husband).  It was inspiring to hear the speeches from the lips of 15-year olds who talked about all they had learned at the hands of their beloved teachers, the encouragement from their parents, and the bonds of friendship they had built with one another.

This was a beautiful day of celebration.  And this was also a day of questions:  "Did you hear the news?  Trump won!"  "Did you vote?  How does early voting work?"  "What's going to happen next?"

Try explaining the Electoral College, in not your native language.  Try explaining how a candidate wins the popular vote but not the election.  Try explaining how people in the sister churches in the United States, people who know about the impact of climate change in El Salvador, people who know about the plight of migrants, people who love Salvadoran families and who understand the dangers to beautiful ninth graders who are trying to grow up here - try explaining how these hermanos y hermanas en Cristo elected Donald Trump.  In the eyes of our Salvadoran sister churches, millions of people across the United States seem to agree with Donald Trump's xenophobic rhetoric.  "Build a wall" and "deport millions" makes Salvadorans wonder if their sister churches understand what their lives are really like.

As we walked toward the graduation ceremony, the mom of a ninth grade graduate gave the following economic reflection.  "Well, maybe they (the US) will send everybody back.  We will have to build some factories or make some plans so people can work.  How will we take all these people in? Oh my God!  There are a great quantity of Salvadorans up there, you know.  The funny thing is, there will be no one left to do all their work.  There will be no workers up there."

So, maybe in El Salvador and in the US we are all asking:  where do we go from here?

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the President of El Salvador have set the example.  We don't need to agree on much, but we can be civil and congratulate the President-Elect of the United States.  And we can get busy.  Those of us who have knowledge and experience in El Salvador and other Latin American nations can continue to share real stories about real people, and to break down barriers of culture and bias.  We can listen to one another, look for common ground and try to work in good ways to make our world a better place.   Those of us with knowledge and experience in Latin America and with migrants and/or refugees in the Unites States can share information with our representatives in the House and in the Senate - from a humanitarian perspective, an economic perspective and a political perspective.  We cannot know one another's realities if we are not talking to one another.  

Somebody asked us if there would be a civil war in the United States because of the election results.  This was a real question.  The day after the election, in El Salvador, this was a real question.

Please send a note to your sister churches.  Let them know you love them and will continue to hold up the values of the covenant agreements you have signed together.  Let them know that you will continue to hold to the values that all life is sacred and that no matter what borders exist between us, we are one body, working together to love God and love one another.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Off the Beaten Path: Swim Little Turtles, Swim!

A few days ago, we held tiny sea turtles in our hands.  They were only one hour old.  We were taught how to pick them up, gently grasping them by the shell, between thumb and forefinger so their little flippers were free to wiggle through the air.

A few days ago, we gently set little turtles on the sand and watched them scurry, scurry toward the waves.

A few days ago, we were part of a movement which has released 46,000 baby sea turtles so far this year in an effort to preserve these beautiful, ancient sea creatures.

We found out about this opportunity through a friend who saw it on an ex-pat Facebook page (a page where folks from the US and who live in El Salvador post helpful information).  We got up early and headed toward La Libertad, asking at a few points along the way for directions to the specific beach.

Once we arrived, we were greeted by our guide, Francisco, and were seated in plastic chairs under a palm-frond canopy.  First we would receive the charla (educational discussion) and then we would help some new baby turtles to make their first journey to the sea.

Francisco gave a passionate and detailed charla, and we really learned a lot!  We asked Francisco how he got started in this work to save the sea turtles, and he remembered a time when he was 11 or 12 years old.  Francisco's grandfather was a tortuguero (a turtle and egg hunter).  Grandfather, father and young boy Francisco came down to the beach one night to dig up some eggs.  On that night, Francisco saw the mothers digging their nests and laying their eggs.  He had never seen that before, and he realized that each little egg was a future turtle.  From then on, Francisco wanted to help the turtles.  He told us that while he did not graduate with any degree, his experience and multiple training events over the years have helped him to learn about all aspects of sea turtle life in El Salvador.

We could feel the love and respect Francisco has for the turtles.  I took just a few notes during his charla:

The charla complete with turtle diagrams in the sand
  • There are seven species of sea turtles in the world, and four of them navigate the waters off of the Salvadoran coast and lay their eggs on the nearby beaches.
  • Tortugueros (turtle hunters and turtle egg gatherers), fishermen and environmentalists are working together in an NGO (non-governmental organization) named ATOPLOPC (Association of Turtle-Hungers of the beaches of Los Pinos Cangrejera).  The association has started micro-enterprises for turtle-hunters so that they can make money in other ways, such as a bakery, an artisan project and fishing (using an ATOPLOPC fishing boat.)
  • School groups, international tourists and Salvadoran families come to the Los Pinos beach to learn about the turtles.  The entrance fee helps to pay for the turtle recovery programs.  Groups can help to release turtles, like we did, or do beach clean-up projects.
  • The methodology of ATOPLOPC helps to increase the odds of survival for sea turtles.  The turtles come to shore to dig their nests, and then within 24 hours, workers carefully transfer the newly laid eggs to plastic bags and carry them to the nursery.  There the eggs are reburied in the same way in which the mother buried them.  Because global warming has caused Salvadoran beaches to be hotter than in the past, without shade protection, the eggs actually cook (and become like hard-boiled eggs).  Therefore, the nursery is shaded with palm fronds and careful attention is paid to the temperature of each nest.  The nursery is fenced to prevent dogs from digging up eggs and has a net barrier to prevent crabs from sucking the insides out of the eggs.
  • Fencing to keep dogs and crabs out of the nursery
  • Out of 1000 eggs laid in nature, only 1 will successfully produce a baby sea turtle which makes it back to the sea (due to dogs, and crabs, and birds of prey and humans).  The hatch and release program from January through October 2016 has released 46,000 baby turtles into the sea.
The banner posted under the palm frond canopy included photos of each of the 4 species found in El Salvador, along with details about their physiology and nesting habits.  Beyond what the poster says, and beyond what one might find on the internet, Francisco shared details from his years of experience.  Maybe these little facts are not super-exciting to your the person sitting at the computer reading this story, but if you have ever had a pet turtle, if you have ever held a baby turtle, if you have ever loved stories about turtles, or if you are an especially ecologically-minded person, then these details are for you:
    Baby Golfino
  • The Tortuga Prieta (Green Sea Turtle, English common name) in El Salvador is most threatened by toxins in the water.  They return to nest every 2 or 3 years.
  • The Tortuga Carey (Hawksbill Sea Turtle, English common name) is hunted for its beautiful shell which is used to make craft items.  It is the only sea turtle that lays yellow eggs (all others are white).  They hang out near coral reefs and help to keep an equilibrium in the fish population.  Sometimes they become luminescent from eating certain coral species.  There are only 300 adult turtles left.  (I believe this number is how many are known to nest in  El Salvador).
  • The Turtuga Baule (Leatherback Sea Turtle, English common name) weighs in at a whopping 1500 lbs and is about 2 meters long.  It eats medusas (jellyfish).  One of the biggest threats to this giant turtle is plastic bags.  As the bags float and decompose in the water, they look like jellyfish and the Leatherback turtles eat them, which messes with their digestive and reproductive systems and eventually kills them.  An overabundance of jellyfish can be seen in the Salvadoran oceans because there are only 6 of these turtles left in this area.  The jellyfish sting and kill off the fish population, so it is important to try to repopulate the seas with Leatherbacks.  Egg fertilization happens inside the mother, and when she lays eggs some are unfertilized.  The goo (yes, my sophisticated technical term) inside the unfertilized egg evaporates and leaves a shell full of air.  When the baby turtles hatch, they can poke into these pockets to get air during their process of digging through the sand and making it to the surface.
  • The Tortuga Golfina (Olive Ridley Sea Turtle, English common name) is the species which we helped to release.  In the early 2000's there were 120 to 130 females which came to this beach to lay their eggs.  In the last few years, there have only been 10 to 15.  These little guys were pretty cute, and very speedy once they realized they were free to go!
Golfino turtles fresh out of the nest
We took photos.  We cheered them on.  We worried for the ones which were swished away by a big wave.  We were ready to scare off the giant predator birds which were fishing just off shore.

This was a great experience.  I had no idea that El Salvador was a nesting site for four different species of sea turtles.  There is something about holding one of these little guys in your hand, and helping him to take his first little waddles, and cheering him on as the waves come crashing in that makes you really care about these creatures which perhaps you have only seen in picture books or at an aquarium.
Racing toward the waves

Go little guy, go!
This type of eco-tourism is something that El Salvador is building, and is something that delegations or visitors to El Salvador can really help to support.

After we said good-bye to Francisco, and gave one more parting glance in the direction of the babies swimming out to sea, we headed over to the fishing pier in La Libertad.  As we relaxed with some fresh fruit frozens, a little boy came by to sell us some cashews.  We told him we had already bought some from a little girl (truth), and then he quietly patted the bottom of his backpack.  "I have turtle eggs in here, do you want those?"
The tell-tale tracks of the baby sea turtle's first journey
Digging and selling sea turtle eggs is illegal.  All of these species of sea turtles are protected.  Clearly, there is more work to be done.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Making a Living on the Day of the Dead

In El Salvador, the 2nd of November is not a day to go to work or school.  Known as El Día de los Difuntos or the Day of the Dead, it is a quiet day.  It is a day on which families go to the cemetery to spend time with their loved ones who have passed on to the next life.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, November 2nd is All Souls Day - a day dedicated to praying for the departed loved ones who are passing time in Purgatory.  Masses are said and intercessions are made in the hopes of shortening the time loved ones have before entering heaven.  In El Salvador, whatever their faith tradition, families find comfort in observing the Day of the Dead.  Especially for families whose hearts are broken by the loss of young lives due to violence, this day brings a chance to remember with photos, candles, flowers and time at the grave.

On November 1st, we traveled to Tonacatepeque for the Fiesta de Calabiuza.  This is an elaborate celebration of the spooky folk legends of the region, and includes an evening parade that begins near the cemetery outside of town.  Since we were so close to the cemetery, we decided to enter and walk for a bit, and to visit the graves of friends who are buried there.  

On our way into town, Blanca came running with big hugs and smiles.  She had been selling water and soda in the cemetery.  "The sales were not very good today," she said, "but hopefully they will be better's my tradition.  I sell drinks every year."  She was leaving to pick up her little guy, and also as the crowds seemed to be gathering in the streets for the parade.  I wondered who might have been around during the day buying water and soda.

As we wandered into the cemetery, it was clear that there were a whole lot of people there who might buy water or soda.  The place was crowded!  Young men and women with large home-made hoes were busy mounding the thin soil over grave sites.  Old men and little kids with paint brushes were touching up aqua or gold crosses, whitewashed tombs and little black fences.  A few families were gathered together placing plastic flowers over ceramic crypts.  

"Do you want us to paint?" a little boy asked us.  

"Um, no," we said.  

We slowly became aware that most of the people in the cemetery were not family members.  Most were workers.  A loud call of "Cleaning!  Painting!" confirmed our realization.  Like sellers in the street calling out "French bread!" or "Milk" the teams of grave cleaners were making the most of this work day.  Some had been hired by families ahead of time to wash the ceramic, clear away dead leaves, repaint names and even decorate the graves.  Others were taking advantage of the few family visitors to offer help with whatever grave project they had planned.

We spent a little time wandering, and had a hard time navigating through the crowded plots.  Some of the crosses were buried almost to the top.  These are the old graves, with layers of soil added to the original site as people are buried one on top of another.  The people with the hoes had mounded most of the newer dirt graves so that they looked freshly dug.  It was a little creepy to walk among the freshly hoed graves and look for our friends.  It was difficult to find them.  So many graves.  We remember our friends, how we miss them and how we continue to accompany their parents or their children in this life.

"Can we paint something for you?" children asked as we made our way back toward the entrance.

"No, thank you" we said.  A mariachi group played near one of the fancier graves:  a family celebrating their loved one.

We left the cemetery and walked past stands selling plastic flowers, thin fry bread served with honey, coconut water with ice, sweets and pupusas made with chipilin.  The crowds were growing larger - promising for those who were working to make a living on the Day of the Dead.