The trip down: "Guate and San Sal"

Looking back on my journey through Mexico and Central America: Part II.

No remembrance of a visit to Guatemala would be complete without a tribute to my teacher, Fidel Xinico Tum, pictured here preparing a Mayan ceremony near Chichicastenango, Guatemala, in 2004. Fidel passed away in September, 2020.


This is the second in a series of posts here on the blog. I am doing a review of my life and travels throughout Latin America, and I thought I would unearth my former blog for you, dear reader. I first wrote these next posts on my way to Costa Rica back in 2008. That was when, in August, I flew to Mexico City and proceeded to take buses through Southern Mexico and the four other Central America countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua) until I reached Costa Rica.


I had decided that this would be a good idea, since I had friends in all of the capitals of these countries. It would be like a classic US-road trip to see friends, just on King Quality (Greyhound-style) buses, with border crossings and passport checkpoints, sleeping in hostels or in indigenous villages in the jungle, and carrying all of the possessions that I planned on using for the next year of my life. Mom and Dad, how you let me do this trip, I’ll never know, but I’m glad you did.


It is at once inspiring, terrifying, embarrassing, and nostalgia-inducing to read these posts. I like to think that my writing has improved some since I wrote them. And my confidence. Some of my “major insights” or observations from back then today do not seem all that major. I miss being 24 and jetting off to explore countries I love. And I also don’t miss it – after all, I now have a great husband (who at this moment is folding clothes, taking out the trash, and putting away groceries), two fun kids, and more good fortune than I or anyone deserves.


I am embarrassed and surprised to read some facts in these lines, because of how I felt at the time, or because I had totally forgotten about them until going back and reading. Some of them are important (I’ll show you a real doosey when I get to Managua, Nicaragua)!


Here is the second installment, originally entitled “Guate and San Sal” (for Guatemala City and San Salvador, El Salvador).


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September 3, 2008


Some more big cities… lots of buses belching black smoke these days, with some very pleasant experiences in between. Let’s see…


I didn’t expect to feel so at home in Guatemala City. I had only stayed there for a couple of days when I studied here, and then for a week in 2005, and both of those times my group only ventured out of the house for a quick seeing of the sights at the central plaza, or for a beer down the street. This time, however, I had family waiting for me at the airport! Well, family of dear friends back in the States: O– and E—. They are from Guatemala, and E—‘s sister still lives there, and owns a juice store next door to her husbands mechanic shop in Guate (the name for Guatemala City). The minute I saw E–‘s sister, I knew it was her: she was the spitting image of E—. Haha. They took me home after a quick stop at McDonald’s for coffee and a hamburger for little B–, their five-year-old granddaughter. I have perhaps never met such a precocious little girl.

B- at the family mechanic shop in Guatemala City.


After comparing music collections at home with their grandson, we ate some dinner and headed to bed! Important, because the family gets up at 5 AM every day, the grandmother cooks some food that she will sell at her shop, and the whole family heads out at 6:30 AM. They take L– to school by 6:40, and then swing around to the bakery and another store that sells a lo-mein type dish, which C— also sells at her store. When we got to the shop, at 7 AM, we began to organize all of the sodas, juices, food, chips, etc, that C— will sell. She puts up an awning and secures a plank that acts as a counter, where she places fresh fruit and a blender to make licuados, and her coffee pot. Soon, all kinds of people are coming to buy egg sandwhiches, or tostadas with lo-mein on top, or stuffed chiles, or licuados that she makes and puts in a plastic bag with a straw to go.

C- and her juice and food store in Guatemala City.


B- and I helped a little to set things up, and then we played in the back room with B–‘s beads, sorting and unsorting them, and then we watched Shrek on the computer. Business was a little slow that day, perhaps because it was the first of the month, and it would be a while before workers would get paid, again. That was C—‘s guess. She works very hard, every day. When we got home that night around 6:30, she started making dinner for the family. She is sad that much of her family is in the US and they cannot be together. She imagines that they will probably never all be together again. Her granddaughter is a US citizen, having been born there, but her grandson is not, and it is very difficult for him to travel to the US to visit his parents, and even more difficult for them to come back to Guatemala…


All in all, though, it was quite magical to be in Guatemala City and to be with a family that I felt I already knew. It was much like visiting O- and E- in the States, and it was like coming home to family. Thank you to all of them for their hospitality and generosity.


That afternoon, I was picked up by Nury, a woman who does extensive volunteering with the Lutheran Church in Guatemala, and with whom my mom has worked in past trips to Guatemala. Nury is a former archeologist, so she has lots of historical knowledge of the city and gave me a tour. She was also a good listening ear as I processed some of my past work in the Hispanic/Latino community.


I was especially interested to pass by the Politecnica, this time, something I don’t think I have done before. It was the first (?) military school in Guatemala, and it is the site of the torture of Sister Diana Ortiz, a US nun working in Guatemala in the 80s. I read her book called The Blindfold’s Eyes, which I would recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the Guatemalan civil war, US involvement in Central America, and about survivors of torture.

Guatemala is still a difficult place, though I passed my day there in good company and high spirits.


THEN, El Salvador!


Because I had studied in San Salvador, before, I was interested to come back and see what it felt like. Funny, but it felt like I had never left, somehow. There’s MetroCentro, the UCA, the red-white-and-blue painted electrical poles representing the colors of the ruling party, Arena… And then, when my friend’s cell phone was out of service, there was the Lutheran Bishop’s office, where I had listened to a lecture by Bishop Menardo Gomez, 4 years ago. I arrived here to a warm welcome and to the information that Dan’s phone had been stolen. Ah, out of service. I see. But, again, I felt as if I was received by family. They fed me, and let me hang around until Dan got here. Which he did do, later, and off we went to the botanical gardens and the UCA (University of Central America) and the Centro Monseñor Romero.

A favorite friend, a new friend, and some bastones del emperador at the botanical gardens in San Salvador.


The botanical gardens were impressive, with lots of tropical plants, little rodents, big butterflies, and fish and turtles that congregated around the edge of the pond to look at us, as if WE were the exhibit. Seemingly out a blue sky, a mist began to fall, and as we headed out of the gardens it turned into more of a downpour, and we found our sodden way to the UCA.


Ah, the UCA. Always sobering, yet not despairing. A fine line to walk, and they do it well. It is the site of the assassination of 6 Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989 by military forces. A museum, rose garden, prayer room, and chapel commemorate their deaths (martyrdom) and all of the violence that has happened in El Salvador, mostly in the civil war that raged here in the 70s and 80s. Fernado Llort’s art grants symbolism and dignity to the people and their search for God in the midst of such violence, and shows that beauty can still be found here, in a very profound way. El Salvador was a life-changing experience for me, once, and it has not lost its power, this time. I had the chance to leave this place, but there are so many here who continue to live with their own past experience of the war — it did not leave one person untouched. It’s humbling to be back.


Today when we showed up at the bishop’s office, there was a meeting of Salvadoran pastors going on. Every Wed they get together and have a Bible study and workshop, seemingly mostly led by the bishop. Today the workshop was on immigration, which was extremely interesting to me. Here are some highlights:


1/3 of Salvadorans live outside of their country.


Causes of immigration: poverty (of 35 million Central Americans, 20 million live in poverty, and 9 million in abject poverty, which is that they survive on $1 a day); unemployment (the bishop said that in El Salvador, there is 20% employment in dignified work. That’s right, 80% unemployment, which includes people who work in the informal economy); insecurity (violence, gangs, drug trafficking, but also government-connected death squads); reunification with family (kids that get left behind are more likely to join gangs); high cost of living (there is a big gap between the rich and the poor, here: before the war, 14 families basically owned the country, now only 5 do); privatization of national resources and corruption in business and government (electricity, water, banks, and nearly everything but small-scale farming is owned by foreign companies); and natural disasters.


Effects of immigration: more poverty (there is a drain on the economy of El Salvador, and a brain drain when professionals leave); loss of values and culture (people here may lose their work ethic, depending instead on the remittances their family members will send them from the US — and they send a lot: the Salvadoran currency is the US dollar).


Feminization of immigration: coyotes (those who charge money to transport illegal immigrants) charge double for women; women are in danger of being raped or used for prostitution along the way; women earn less money working the US than men do.


Here are some recommendations that the bishop gave: More jobs, with fair wages; humanitarian assistance for immigrants in the countries of origin, transit, and destination; education in the countries of origin; help facilitating the returning of immigrants to their home countries; support for the organization of the people to make government here more just, humane, and democratic.


Ok, there’s a lot to read, there. I’ll be done for now.


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