It was after dark about a month ago. I had gone with Father Rafael to a parish about a half hour from San Francisco. It was the first time I'd met the congregation. Just before Mass I introduced myself to the congregation and explained that I am here to learn about Salvadoran life and to help Father where I can. I was tired and just realizing how complex he Salvadoran poverty really is. I'd already been to one Mass that day so left to sit on the stone church steps where I cried. The boy, probably about 8 years old, didn't say a word about my tears. He simply plopped next to me and interrupted them. He asked me to teach him how to count in English. He got me laughing right away. There is such goodness here.
It is a flip-flop wearing crowd that we meet every night for the four weeks before Christmas to participate in the posada. We gather outside a different house each night. The house we gather at has statues of Mary and Joseph that were left there the night before. The statues are mounted on a sort of cardboard altar, making them less awkward to carry. The leaders carry the statues into the street to begin a procession to a different house where the statues will "sleep" that night. The procession walks slowly and Spanish Christmas carols are sung that everyone knows, except me. There is that feeling in the air that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Even though I don't know the words to the songs, I've gotten to the point that I recognize them and associate them with the anticipation of something great.
Once at the next house, some of the procession goes inside while the statues, and the other half of us, stay outside. The door is shut. We, on the outside, begin a song saying that we are far away from home and need a place to stay. Those on the inside sing that there is no room here. Then we on the outside explain that our wife is pregnant. The song goes back and forth like this, maybe five times, before those on the inside open the door saying they did not realize that it was the Holy Family they were not letting in. We crowd into the house, filling the room. The statue is placed in a corner and one of the women put flowers around it. It's symbolic but powerful that for tonight Mary and Joseph will get to stay at theirhouse. The first time I participated in the posada and walked into the house, I couldn't help but to wonder if a stable wouldn't be better. (However, there are no stables or barns in El Salvador.)
The house we entered was bare and the adobe walls cracking. Water had seeped through the cracks in the adobe, taking some of the mud with it, causing gruesome dark stains seeping down the walls. The beams over our heads were decaying. There were no windows. That was an especially poor house. I don't know that family well. The woman of the house sells tortillas, three for one colon (8 colons to $1) She sells a lot of tortillas. I'm not sure why they remain so poor. My guess would be that her husband is an alcoholic and spends the family's money to finance his habit. Alcoholism is a real problem here in El Salvador. Subsistence farming seems simple and quaint in the United States, but when you have no choice it can seem hopeless. People don't have a vision of a way out of poverty. The only way for a Salvadoran to become rich is to go to work in the United States. One month at a minimum wage job in the States pays more than five months working (that's working, not subsistence farming where no money is made) here in El Salvador. If a family has running water and cheese with every meal, you can bet they have someone in the States sending money. How can a country get out of poverty if the only way out is to leave it?
Cows, dogs, chickens and pigs all roam streets in mountain towns like mine. There are no trash containers and no garbage pick up. The streets are filthy. I quickly learned to walk in the middle of the road. On a good day, during the rainy season, the streets become like shallow rivers so water carries the filth out of town, lower down the mountain. But it's no longer the rainy season. Children will get sick if they go barefoot since the filth spreads disease. Shoes are expensive. The poor can't always afford them. What almost everyone can manage to get is a pair of flip-flops. It is a flip-flop wearing crowd that we meet every night for the four weeks before Christmas to participate in the posada.