Gringa Frijolera

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Pura Roja

Memo and I met in a village of 180 families right smack dab on the El Salvador-Guatemala border. I've stopped trying to make sense of the fact that we bumped into eachother and fell in love under strenuous circumstances and strict cultural guidelines. Ni modos (Salvadoran for "whatever") we're happy as clams in a pea pod- how's that for a cliche remix?

Memo left the village when I did, followed me to the big city where we've been shacking up ever since- I work, he goes to school. Its interesting to me that after all this time we still learn things about each other and our "country come to town" outlook on life has made these last 10 months in the city surprisingly full of, well, surprises.

El Salvador is admist a highly charged political campain. Old trucks and moving vans with huge, beat up speakers on top rumble through town playing the Top Pop Hits and announcing the names of their candidates. Often times, the trucks are followed in caravan by honking cars and screaming teenagers. Sleep is sacred.

Inevitably everyone is talking about politics, the election, corruption- its absolutely unescapable.

So at night when we're watching the news and I scream at the TV about what a moron Salvadoran President Tony Saca is for saying that "a vote for Arena is a vote for me" and I sit in disgust thinking that a president should represent all of the people, not just those from his party Memo turns to me slightly and says "you're all red- pura roja."

He grew up in an enviornment where the words communist and leftist and liberal were the harshest of all insults and yet slowly but surely he's beginning to see that maybe, just maybe, all the lies he's been told all of his life are indeed that- lies.

Maybe its because Memo is going to school and learning more about how the world works, maybe its city life that exposes him to new ideas and new types of people. I like to think that his political leanings are changing out of a pure curiousity about the woman he loves.

Perhaps he asks himself why I get so worked up about this stuff and why a gringa whose spent the last 4 years of her life living in El Salvador could side with the political party that LEAST resembles any of those that exist in her country. Perhaps he sees how the left represents the ideals we share in our home.

Perhaps he just plain thinks its hot when I get all crazy about politics and wants to tag along for the ride.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

What We Learn When The Boss Is Gone

I'm sort of famous among my oldest, closest friends and within the Seoane-Sair family as being the most vocal about the lack of "competence" in the world. I used to be obsessed with it.

I went to college in the South which was one of the stupidest yet most intelligent things I've done in my life (for those who know me personally you know why). I would call my mother out in California on a daily basis just RAGING about the incompetence of "Dug" the local Kroger's check out guy, or Rebecca in the business office who still couldn't get my bills straight. It caused a lot of migraines and indigestion and just way too much bitching.

In El Salvador, incompetence and efficiency is at an all time low and although I've always known that it just doesn't quite bother me as much anymore.

For the last month or so my two bosses have been out of the office and even out of the country. During that time I was sort of appointed "supervisor" even thought I'm the newest on staff and most likely because I was the only American around (that topic could be a whole other blog).

What surprised me was how proactive and COMPETENT my coworkers were in the absence of our bosses. Instead of sitting back and going through the motions, they took charge, took ownership and got creative. Working here was like being in the twilight zone.

So I've come to a new understanding about competence...

Even if the whole friggin' culture is back asswards and a week late, even if mediocrity is the norm, all you gotta do is empower some folks, let them do their thing and watch the competency meter blow right up.

I hope I remember that lesson if I'm ever in charge anywhere again. That's a good one.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

When Good People Go Mojado

This is not about immigration, so don't turn the dial.

Marta, 26, was my next door neighbor for the better part of two years while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small village near the Guatemalan border. Like most Salvadoran families Marta, her husband Obed and their two little girls Judith and Johana were very close knit.

Marta and Obed have been in the US for two and three years respectively and announced Sunday that they have no intention of coming back. This implicates a serious problem for the family, seeing as Judith and Johana were left behind in the care of their grandmother. Marta's solution is a frightening one: bring the girls North with the aid of a coyote. Besides my gut reaction that an 11 and 6 year-old have no business wandering the desert with the likes of someone who trafficks in human lives, I've got a more philosophical objection to the plan.

At what point did living in the United States become more imporant than the safety of their children? When did the plan change from "let's work hard, save, and go back to El Salvador to give our girls a better life" become "hey! let's bring them over so they can go to Disneyland too!"

Maybe I've been here to long or maybe I'm just too traditional, but it seems to me that nothing should be more important than a mother and father raising their young daughters and that doing so should not implicate the childrens' lives. It seems down right selfish to me.

Like I said, this isn't about immigration. This is about family and responsability and the fact that materialism and the love of money can destroy even the strongest of family units.

When I asked the girls if they wanted to go to Los Angeles, Judith, 12, replied: "yeah, so I can learn English and I can have nice clothes." Six year old Johana said, "if Judith goes, I'm coming to live with you."

Perhaps gringa serrogate mothers can come to the aid of El Salvador's abandoned children to teach them English and buy them nice clothes and give them a poor substitute for the life they had when own mothers were here.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Crazy Puppy Love

I didn't realize I was a "dog person" until I got sent off into the Salvadoran wilderness all by my lonesome and discovered, well, I'm lonesome. Come to think of it, I come from a long line of dog people- my paternal grandmother and aunt, my maternal uncle... it somehow skipped over my parents because Mom has horrendous allergies and Dad's about as finicky about a clean house as a man can be.

The first dog I owned here was a Great Dane named Chorizo that died at 3 months of parasites and other stomach ailments. He passed away alone in my small cinderblock house while I was hospitalized in the capital for the same illnesses. After that, my neighbors snickered and laughed every time I got sick, saying it was the close relationship with the dog that kept me from being healthy.

Jefe came second, a beautiful green eyed pitbull who instilled fear and respect in everyone throughout our small village. I hiked in big bags of Pedigree, boiled his water, bathed him in the river and took him to all the soccer games. The villagers thought I was crazy taking such good care of him. I would even put him 75lbs frame on my lap in the bus so we could see the vet. I gave Jefe to a guy who owned a restaurant out on the road that lead to the nearest town. Six months later Jefe was hit by a big flat bed truck carrying bags of cement and died.

I brought ChaCha, the third, from the US. My dad and I found her at rescue, house trained, a few years older and the calmest Chihuahua I've ever met. She flew first class with me back down to El Salvador and acclamated to country life just fine. I dress her up some times and take her for walks where people inevitably ask whether its a dog or a rat. I say rat and just keep walking.

Ten days ago, we welcomed Samba the French Poodle into the family. She's number four. On my way to the dermatologist I'm always drawn to a make shift pet shop on the corner of the Masferrer roundabout. Yelping furry little bundles hop and squeal in cages begging for food, a bath or just a little privacy. This time I made the mistake of actually holding one of the puppies and that, well, that's all she wrote.

So like a good Mommy, I took Samb directly to the vet to be checked out because let's be honest, anything you buy on the side of the road is more likely to be defective. She checked out all right, we got her some parasite pills and off we went.

Yesterday we rushed Samba to emergency, well, as much as you can rush in an interdepartamental bus that stops every 50 feet to let on fruit vendors and the occasional passenger. Once the vet looked her over, the prognosis wasn't good. He said she was really dehydrated and it would be difficult to get her well- all the while filling out prescription sheets. Forty-four dollars later we were out the door uncertain about how much longer Samba would survive at all.

On that long bus ride home, with my sickly black animal on my lap I felt like a total failure. How was it possible that Samba's been in my care only one week and she's so near death? Its times like these that I wonder if motherhood is a good idea at all. Watching my sick little puppy cut me right to the bone and suddenly what I wanted most in the world was for her to get better.

So last night, 8 hours after she'd been given her first doses of antibiotics Samba got out of bed and began to play. It was joyful to watch but at the same time an affirmation that I'm a good owner and I'm capable of taking care of a life even if its an animal one.

Although Salvadorans generally think my relationship with my animals is insane at best, I can't help but feel that Crazy Puppy Love.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Good Life Never Gets Old

Nine months ago I was living in a house with mud walls, tree branches for beams without running water and a latrine instead of indoor plumbing. My lifestyle was simple and my life, fabulous. I had lived that way for 3 years- frugally, with very little money, animals roaming in my yard and right into the house, living out in the middle of no where. It took a bit of getting used to, but I adapted quickly.

Flash forward to present day. I'm still not living in what most Americans would consider "nice conditions" but I'm pretty excited about indoor plumbing and good electricity service. The surprising thing about this change is that it hasn't bit difficult to slip back in to life's luxuries.

I've got cable and watch TV at least 1.5 hours a day. I have a washing machine, a night light, a stove and oven...

I'm surrounded by most of the comforts I enjoyed growing up and its like I never left them behind.

Even after living the simple life and LOVING it, I slipped right back into my consumerist ways without a hitch.

How's that for social condition?

Friday, January 27, 2006

When it comes to TORTILLAS, size matters

El Salvador is about the size of the State of Massachusettes- tiny, tiny, tiny and over populated. Even after 4 years of making this country my home, it still surprises me how much variety there is here. If you're lucky enough to have a car (or have enough $$ to rent one in my case) you can drive border to border in less than 5 hours-its that tiny.

Yesterday I drove out East to a little town called Conchagua. I haven't been out East much and the drive was absolutely gorgeous. Time seems to slow down on that side of the country, even if you're speeding by in a government issued vehicle. Out East it just feels different but I noticed some physical differences as well.

The people, for example are shorter than in San Vicente with wider noses. Legend says that the inhabitants of Conchagua once lived on the island of the same name (Isla de Conchagua) out in the Gulf of Fonseca until they were chased landside by Brittish Pirates. Assuming that's true, we can infer that residents of Conchagua have a different genetic/racial make up than the rest of "mainland Salvadorans." That wasn't the only difference.

It was lunch time as I wove out of La Union and back towards San Miguel. Several young men steered their bicycles on the side of the road holding plastic bags with BIG HUGE TORTILLAS in them. By far, these were the biggest tortillas I had ever SEEN!

And it made me think... in San Salvador, by far the richest area in the country, the tortillas are made out of Maseca and are small, puck-like. In the Santa Ana countryside they are thick and the size of coffee saucers- made out of corn ground, harvested and planted right there in the same communtiy. Out East in the most forgotten of the 14 departments, where the government is hesitant to send aid and the civil war's scars are still pink with newness they make huge thick tortillas.

Is the correlation between poverty and marginalization and the size of tortillas flattened and flipped over a hot comal at all indicative of the region's economic prosperity? Are the tortillas bigger to make up for a smallish food supply? It made perfect sense to me, maybe tortillas size should be used as a poverty indicator.

Out East the tortillas are big, and in almost any arena SIZE MATTERS.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

I'm the Gringa Frijolera

Back in 2003, a Mexican band called Molotov released a bilingual, bicultural song called "Frijolero." They managed to capture the feelings associated with the immigration phenomenon expressed on both sides of the border with a catchy tune and raw lyrics. "Frijolero" isn't for the politically correct.

A sample:

"If it weren't for Santa Ana, where your feet are planted would be Mexico- correcto!"
"Don't call me gringo, you fuckin' beaner, stay on that side of the goddamn river"

See what I mean?

This song came out right in the middle of my own cultural adaptation phase where I bit my lip when referred to as "gringa" and tried my best to convince community members that we were equals. It was so catchy, in fact, that the young men in my community hummed it incessantly, laughing at the stanzas that made me shiver.

It was Max, an outgoing 16-year-old that put me to ease about my cultural adaptation progress and that nauseous feeling I got when I heard that song.

"Don't take it so personally- Molotov meant to be political and provocative. We don't feel that way about you, gringa. You're a Gringa Frijolera."

In his own way, that was Max's way of telling me that the community accepted me and that I had done a good job intergrating into and learning to respect the Salvadoran village life.

From that day on I was known as the "Gringa Frijolera"- the bean-eating white girl. I think it suits me just fine.