Sunday, July 27, 2008

Maiz and El Mozote

I believe I can now boast that I have survived July. July is not quite over, but I am finished with delegations for a while, well at least until August 13th.

The Youth delegation went very well. We welcomed 14 delegates from around the US. We split the delegation in half and each group spent two nights in two communities in Chalatenango, Teocinte and Ellacuria. I went with the group to Ellacuria. I was excited that the bulk of the delegation planning was conducted by the youth committee. I wanted the bulk of the exchange to be by for and about youth. It seemed to go well, and allowed me the chance to take a back seat. Grassroots Development 101: "If you are doing all the work, you're not doing your job." Granted, I'm not doing development work anymore, but I still jump at the chance to dabble in it.

While in Ellacuria, I stayed with an amazing family and was able to hone my tortilla making skills. The dad in the family, works each day in the cornfields on the surrounding hillsides. The corn that is produced is the main staple in the community's diet. The corn is cooked, then ground on a flat stone. The corn is then mixed with water to form a dough and then formed into tortillas and cooked on a flat clay griddle. In this case, the griddle is built into the top of an adobe oven and a fire is built inside it. (See pics) I have been "taught" various times to make tortillas. I am hesitant to use the word "taught" because there is not really a teaching process. Salvadoran women learn to make tortillas much the same way they learn to walk, they just get up and do it. To say the least, I started the process a little later in life. So my learning process has been trying to copy what I see the women doing and repeatedly asking them to slow down so I can figure out what it is that they are doing. I'm getting better though. Generally my tortilla making involves much laughing (with me as well as at me) and thick amoeba shaped disks of corn dough. I'm getting better though. My tortillas were all nearly round and I even think I got the "spinny" part of the process down, although the "clap and turn" technique continues to elude me. It was impossible not to notice and admire the fact that they participate in every part of the food cycle. They plant the corn, grow it, harvest it, grind it, then cook it. How many of us can say that? That we participate fully in our own nourishment? Unfortunately this way of life is being threatened by mining companies that are looking to put and open pit mine on the hillside from which the communities gets its corn as well as it's water. As a well organized and tight-knit community, they've managed to resist so far. Hopefully their luck will hold out. That evening, the daughters of the family sang songs while a neighbor played guitar. It was a moment of simple beauty and I felt honored to have been present.

I had two days off after the delegation went home which I spent staring at the wall and babbling incoherently. I got nothing done. House did not get cleaned, books not read, emails not responded to. When I described this to my coworkers they diagnosed the episode as a "delegation hang-over" makes sense to me.

I spent Thursday and Friday in the department of Morazan. We took a delegation to the war museum in Perquin and then to El Mozote. In early December, 1981 the citizens of El Mozote were gathered in the town square by US trained, government soldiers. The men and women were separated and then locked into separate buildings. The men, locked in the church, were tortured then killed. The women, as well as girls as young as twelve, were raped and then killed. Children and babies as young as two and three days old were also killed, tossed into the air and bayonetted. The justification was that the community, located in Eastern El Salvador, an area rife with insurgent activity, was composed of guerilla combatants and sympathizers. And the children? Well, they would just grow into communists so they too were killed. At the end of the day the entire population had been exterminated. Nearly 800 people were killed, their bodies buried or burned.

The entire population was killed, save for one woman. Rufina Amaya miraculously survived that day. Somehow, in the shuffle of mass executions, when Rufina was lined up alongside her friends and neighbors to be showered with machine-gun fire; somehow, they missed her. She managed to hide herself in the brush and then snuck past the armed soldiers amidst a group of escaping livestock. Her testimony of the events of that day were taken down soon after the event by Salvadoran journalists. The massacre was denied by Salvadoran and US authorities until archeological investigations, ordered by the United Nations Truth Commission, confirmed her account in 1992.

Rufina Amaya died in March 2007. Her daughter Fidelia guided our group through the town of El Mozote. The town's small public plaza holds a memorial to those that were killed. Beside the church, is a memorial garden for the hundreds of children that were systematically killed. Fidelia described her mother's escape to us, as we walked down the same narrow road her mother had followed. I wondered if there was a point; after she passed the last man dressed in green and guns; after crawling through muck and and thistle and thorns working into her hair and embedding themselves in her fleshy knees and arms; past the mounds of burning bodies, there had to have been a line between fleeing and escaped, and I wondered if she realized when she crossed it. And then I wondered if she ever felt safe again.


Anonymous said...

What an amazing story... There is and has been so much inhumanity committed between humans for time immemorial.

The story you told reminds me of your great grandmother's family who lived in Columbus New Mexico when Poncho Villa's men came through and killed every man, woman and child in the village, except for the one woman who escaped into the outskirts of town and had her baby on that very day out in the woods, in hiding ... the baby was Grandma's Uncle Ted ...

I'm always amazed at what a kind and generous and wonderful person your grandmother was when something like that was in her history. That was her family story. She grew up hearing the firsthand stories of loss and sadness and hardship and how mean people can be to others. Maybe there's a lesson there for all of us... It seems the human spirit can and has survived many atrocities through history...

In the case of El Salvador, it helps so much for the people to have someone like you come through their lives who gives them a glimmer of sunshine and hope.

Anyway, keep on making tortillas and spreading joy and laughter!

Love and miss you,

quele said...

Just for the record, it is not I who gives them a glimmer of strength and hope, but quite the opposite. The lesson here is about the resiliance of the human spirit but also that there is no idea, ideology, governmental or economic system that is such a threat as to justify the slaughter children.

Anonymous said...

You are so right, people who are trained for one purpose but are so corrupt that they kill children will be dealt with by a higher being. I am sure that God has spent many tears for all the innocents who have been killed not only in third world countries but the 50 million or so who over the past 35 years have been killed before they took their first breath of air. I know that Grandma Elna is in Heaven rocking alot of them right now. As always, Aunt Debra