More from my travel journal about my recent trip to El Salvador to investigate the work of Compassion International:
David hasn’t said a word on the trip to his house. His face is round. His hands stay hidden away in the pockets of his red project uniform fiddling with marbles. We met David at his project in San Salvador, an after school program run by a church with the support of, and oversight from, Compassion International. The program is like all other projects, serving a good meal and glass of milk, tutoring students in math and reading, teaching skills like computer science or sewing to those with more initiative or interest.
In the crowd of children at the project today David didn’t stand out. He blends in. He stays quiet. But not because of melancholy. No, David looks as if he’s always thinking, his mind running far away from this place, maybe dreaming of a life different from his own. Something is being turned over in his mind and when he bothers to speak to the rest of us, the people in the real world, he is well spoken and obviously intelligent.
Roberto, our guide for the day, warns us to watch our step. He pulls the chain on the flap of scrap metal posing as a door and David bounds past us and down the stairs into his home. This is where David lives, part of what he escapes each day at the project, where he plays marbles, sleeps and dreams of something else perhaps.
Two dozen steps made of dirt and pieces of pipe take us down ten feet into a small tent made from mud and fragments of metal, plastic and large sticks. A wall of root-riddled earth is his front yard and his roof is cardboard and corrugated metal, full of holes and held down by rocks.
Beside his house is an area with no roof, a side yard I guess, the wall of earth still blocking the outside world from view and maintaining the closed in and safe feeling of this place. It’s there under the large trees that David’s grandmother drags two plastic chairs into formation, shoos arthritic scraggly chickens from her path with a wave of her bare foot, and motions us to have a seat. Her face is round like David’s but she is not as quiet. Her voice belongs on the radio, low and sonorous, hearty and expressive – almost as expressive as her face. Her eyebrows rise almost to her dark brown hairline when excited and bow almost to her cheeks when her lips pucker into disgust or denial.
“Do you go to church?” Roberto asks.
“No. No,” she puckers, “I do laundry so we can eat. I would like to go sometime but how would we live. I must work.”
Roberto turns his questions to David. “What are your dreams, David?” And David lights up, lifts his hands from his pockets and, gesturing as if holding a gun, says, “I’d like to be a soldier.”
His grandmother interrupts, “I don’t want him to go to Iraq.” And Roberto explains that some men in David’s town have died in Iraq. Many men from El Salvador are fighting with the American led allied forces. And may boys long to follow in their boot steps.
The United States, Roberto will later explain to me, funded El Salvador’s government forces in the country’s war from 1979 to 1992 with it’s own people. El Salvador is a democracy. A democracy ruled by twelve wealthy families who own coffee plantations, car dealerships, shopping malls, and other businesses of enormous riches. Members of these families intermarry in a monarchy-like fashion and from this pool of elite citizens is elected politicians and presidents. The revolution began when the poor, later funded by the Soviets, assassinated wealthy aristocrats. The wealthy retaliated by sending “death squads” into the poorest areas to torch every structure and every peasant regardless of gender or age. Their tactics were supported and financed by the United States and the eventually negotiated peace with the poor leftists. Neither side was innocent. Both were brutal.
And today young men like David dream of being soldiers, not caring which side they fight on or what they fight for, because a soldier eats and gets paid. If a soldier lives he’s better off than before. That is David’s dream.
Grandmother wants something more for David. She’s grateful he’s going to the project and learning how to use a computer and to read and write. She’s hopeful that he’ll be better off without risking his life. She says her dream for him is that he’ll be a good man and work hard and live a long time.
“That’s what we all dream for our children isn’t it? Good people living a long life?” I ask.
“Si,” she smiles.
We spend a few more minutes at her house talking about David and his sponsor in the States, about Soccer and praying for her and her family, huddled in a circle, our arms wrapped around each other like friends. One God. One Church. We love our children more than ourselves. And we want them to live.
We hug and say good-byes and make our way towards the steps and up to the outside world again. It’s been nice here, in the shade - palpable love and acceptance from a grandmother doing her best to replace a father and mother who abandoned their son.
I bet David misses this small house when he’s gone - and his grandmother’s big smile and bobbing eyebrows, the safety of a refuge hidden from view and filled with so much adoration. David has a good life, family and faith leaving him better off in the wake of war than some of his neighbors.
I say a prayer to myself as we leave. I pray his life will be long and spent taking the love his grandmother and the project lavish on him to others who dream of a life without poverty. I pray he loves them the way his grandmother loves him.
Even now, she wishes she could do more for us strangers. “I did not know you were coming. I would have cooked. The next time you come visit me,“ his grandmother promises, “I will kill this chicken for you and make a soup. I promise you.”
A bent bird scrambles away from her club of a bronze foot. I believe her.