A Message From Molly - January 21, 1999
Estella is 15.The oldest of eight. She held the youngest on her hip while we visited. Her mother was inside, sick, most likely dying. Her father hovers close, worried about his wife and this year's small corn crop. She didn't go to school today. Her mother and younger siblings take priority. Her smile wasn't pathetic, or an attempt to reassure us that they were all right . . .She smiled because she honestly saw goodness in our visit. I don't know anything.
Celestina* is 17. Tall (approximately 5 foot 3 inches) with thick black hair that, when down, flows to her waist. She's beautiful but doesn't let it get in her way. Finishing the eighth grade this year is her first priority. She is not from San Francisco, but here we have school up to the eighth grade. Celestina lives with Nina Tila's family during the school year in exchange for housework and helping make cheese (the daily income for the family). Celestina's mother died in an accident when Celestina was three (not war related). Her older brother was recruited by the guerrillas and was killed by a land mine when he was twelve. Celestina's father took her to be raised by her extended family.
The family has had to move a lot; but her home is Las Canitas, a mountain village that had to be deserted during the war. Since the war, a few families have gone back to the land where they now grow coffee. Last weekend, Celestina needed to make a trip home and I went with her. We left San Francisco at 4:45am taking a bus partly up the mountain until there was no longer a road. There we waited for daylight before following a footpath up the mountains. It was an uphill climb and we hiked quickly. When we got to Las Canitas, which was at the top of the mountain, I realized that I'd been paying so much attention to the hike that I hadn't realized the beauty I was passing through. The village is high enough that there are pine trees, and though it's the dry season, they still get rain. All that can be seen for miles are mountains followed by more mountains. Here I'd hiked up the side of one of these mountains, focusing so on my balance and making each step that I didn't stop to take it all in.
I found the village enchanting. Translated "Las Canitas" means, "The Sugar Canes". Sugarcane grows plentifully in the high mountains. While there I tried homemade honey(not from bees but from heating sugarcane), a candy that is crystallized honey, and a sugar drink, as well as simply sucking on sugarcane. All of these things were new experiences for me which I delighted in. The product of Las Canitas is coffee which the families sell. I'm told that the coffee grown in this tiny village will eventually make its way to New York City. Every time I think of it, it throws me into some culture shock. When I left in August, coffee was right up there with bagels as being trendy. Imagine people in NYC, paying god-only-knows how much for NYC coffee, so they can get in their shiny cars and be held up in NYC traffic. And I'm laying in a hammock, sucking sugarcane, looking at mountain after mountain. There is not even a bit of New York City up in Las Canitas. It's so peaceful and I feel as if I've been given a chance to step back in time. It's like the peace that people of New York City must dream of.
It can seem that way from my perspective. I visit Las Canitas with the security that I can leave if I need or want. However, for those who live here, there is no doctor, school or church, no electricity, and the water is brought up daily from a nearby stream. There is no way out; the world has gone on without them. They don't have control over their lives; life happens to them.
On our way to her grandmother's house, Celestina and I were on the high side of a steep ravine. Below was a stream that went around a huge volcanic rock. Celestina pointed below, explaining that when she was two months old, the guerrillas took over their village and the family had to spend the night hiding by the rock in the stream. She said that her father tells her it was amazing she slept the whole night without making a sound. Had she made noise, of course, the guerrillas would have opened fire on the area and the family probably would have been killed. After describing this to me, Celestina simply said, "My family's story is very sad". She smiled; and once again, I don't know anything.
Celestina is remarkable. She has a sense of self worth that will give her options. She explains that school comes first. If a boy really cares about her, he'll wait for her to finish. And if Celestina can find the money, she intends to go to college (secondary school) in San Salvador. I admire her. She sees what few Salvadorans see: a vision of the future. Youth like her could change El Salvador for the better. But still there are many who simply cannot look beyond surviving today. Estella is as strong as Celestina, but she does not have the privilege of thinking of the future. For her, and most Salvadorans, it's an uphill climb. There is no way one could ask them to stop and take in the view of the future. Keeping their balance, climbing, plodding on, surviving takes all they have.
I admire Estella, probably even more than Celestina. The suffering that constitutes her life would crush me. At 15 years old she has to look misery in the face and believe in a power that is greater. She can find goodness, when I want to look away because it hurts to see her pain. Both she and Celestina are teaching me to accept an imperfect world. I'm struggling with the balance between accepting suffering as an instrument of growth, and then wanting to relieve the world of it. I cannot accept it as a good that children lose their mothers, and I know that school is something that every child should have. And so I ask God for serenity, courage and wisdom where I am. I continue to be astounded by what a true privilege it is to live with the people of El Salvador.
Pray for us; we are praying for you.
Love and Peace,
* Name changed for my friend's privacy.