Monday, May 12, 2014

A Mayan Mass

Community Highlight: Thanksgiving in San Romero

Last weekend, Noah and I attended a mass in San Romero to see El Salvador's first mixed Epispocal-Mayan service. The community had decided to celebrate the Day of the Cross on May 2nd rather than its usual September date so that it coincided with the Mayan Thanksgiving. The event was of particular significant as the Mayan Thanksgiving has not been officially honored in El Salvador since the 1932 massacre that effectually stifled all expression of indigenous culture and beliefs in the country.

The padre and his assistant hang San Romero's new banner in the make-shift Church. This past Sunday, Bishop Martín came to recognize the church as an official member of the Iglesia Episcopal Anglicana de El Salvador.

As the priest's assistant explained to me, the mixed service was a means of honoring the dual histories and symbologies of the cross - a sign of abundant wealth and blessings from Mother Earth, as well as a simultaneous homage to a violent colonial past. He quoted Eduardo Galeano's book Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina (The Open Veins of Latin America): 

La espada y la cruz marchaban juntas en la conquista y el despojo colonial.
The sword and the cross marched together in the conquest and colonial disposession.

Women of the community prepare the cross, hanging fruit from the freshly cut branches.
San Romero is a relatively young community outside of Nahuizalco, a small city in the west of the country famous for wooden furniture and a burgeoning tourism industry. Most of the residents in San Romero are indigenous, with physically apparent Mayan roots. We arrived for the service, harvesting mangoes off the ground and throwing the peels into side yards. An unexpected lunch of black bean soup, toasted tortillas, rice and scrambled eggs was served, followed by a tour around the small community.

San Romero's priest showed us around the area, highlighting the nearby farmland and deforestation nearby. The area is also surrounded by the silouhettes of multiple volcanoes bordering western El Salvador.

The service begins with children and dogs running between the aisles.
After the service, everyone lined up for a piece of the offering, many children coming back for seconds and thirds.

Noah and the priest's assistant look on patiently waiting for their own portion of fruit.
Following the service, Noah and I were presented to the community leaders at their weekly Sunday meeting. The community's junta directiva (directive board) is incredibly well organized, with meetings every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Tuesday is for planificación - setting agendas and objectives, checking in on project progress and hearing new petitions from community members; Thursday is for capacitación or targeted skills training; Sunday is for celebration via the morning mass, honoring the community's efforts and progress through worship. With community funds, they direct their own development projects with a current focus on protecting nearby water sources and refurbishing the road.

The community board's main members and secretary meet in the church following the morning's service.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

If Music Be the Food of Love...

Play on. Of all the old books, I have to include Shakespeare as one of my favorites. (I’m actually shocked it took me this long to exhibit my full nerd-dom). I’ve been thinking about music a lot lately – it has always been a part of my life in one form or another, from when I was little and I learned my grandmother was a world class soprano opera singer to early years (or given the theme, my salad days) of violin lessons with Xin Ding (Dad used to call her Shin Dig – he swore every time it was an honest mistake, but I know better).

Despite a long history of sheet music and orchestras - even conducting the score of Pirates of the Caribbean in the chemistry lab when no one was looking - I never thought music would be a large part of my life in El Salvador. The gifts I thought I was bringing here were the practical and the methodical - mathematics, language, science and research. I am a girl very comfortable with knowing the rights and wrongs (you know when you’ve screwed up your Spanish… turns out sentar is very different from sentir - to sit and to feel), but improvisation? Not my thing.

But Shakespeare wasn’t talking about mathematical etudes. He was talking about music that feeds true love. And I’ve fallen in love with El Salvador. And it’s not because I get it right all the time, or because I’m the best at something (which, for me, was a big piece of feeling accepted at Columbia). It’s in large part due to music. My friends, my Salvadoran family, are tied by that one strong thread. When language fails me, or when I don’t understand, somehow I come back to this one part of my life I had always considered sideline stuff, a backdrop to a good college resume. Not as a lifeline, though looking back at my YASC training, that’s exactly what it was.

During our YASC training we attended a bilingual service at Christ Church in Tarrytown in half-English/half-Spanish. The service itself was still pretty new to me, and my fellow YASCers were patient enough to humor my questions: Why do you say it this way? What does the Lord’s Prayer mean to you? Why do some churches have those wafer things and others delicious loaves of real bread?

But then someone started to play guitar. A repetitive, strumming rhythm that made sense to me, even the words I could place within my own lexicon because something switches in Spanish. Yes, words are words, translations are literal and effective, but you can’t explain the flow from one sentence to another, or the difference between cielo and heaven. It’s like having someone explain strawberries. You have to taste it to understand.

And I think that’s a lot of what YASC is all about. Elizabeth Boe, Director of the YASC program, is here in El Salvador for the IARCA Synod, a meeting of the Episcopal leaders in Latin America, from Panama to Guatemala. During the meetings, the various Bishops presented social works from each country, ranging from new schools to organic agriculture and capacity building trainings. But with the heat, the language, the rapid-fire references, and ice cream vendors enthusiastically shouting out flavors from the street just outside, it was a meditation exercise of Mr. Myagi-like proportions to fully understand. But at the end, there was a song. The priest from San Juan Evangelista (the host church here in San Salvador) got up and started to play, and it was a song I knew from that first service in Tarrytown.

When you mix the foreign with the familiar a strange thing happens. A recognition that despite the discomfort, the unknown, the scary, the strange… we are a lot closer than we think. It’s that something bigger than yourself that shows up in the strangest ways, but only if you make room for it. For me, YASC is that room, that crowbar that forces open your routines, your preconceptions, your judgments, so that new light can shine through. For each person it’s different. For me, it’s music. Music has come flooding in, the food of love and passion and exploration for things, people and places I never imagined I could relate to, let alone construct my life around. But that’s exactly what has happened.

A long overdue dinner with Elizabeth (from the 815 office) and Rachel (YASCer in Panama) after they arrive in El Salvador for Synod.
Our growing capoeira family here in San Salvador (the big stick is part of an instrument called a berimbau).
All the troublemakers, together at last. Rachel, Joseph (other Panama YASCer) and I the night they arrived for Synod.

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