Meet The Colleagues

Listening to the Community of Tenango


Don Ernesto by Tom NorwoodI send you greetings from the community of Tenango. I have been listening to and writing family histories, and I decided to write to you how I would summarize their history as a community. You may read it in parts if you'd like.

The community of 23 families is growing into 3 generations. The first generation includes about 6 couples who grew up together in a small valley called San Jerónimo, cantón Peña Blanca of northern central El Salvador, where everyone knows everyone. From around age 8 they learn to farm the earth as their forefathers have done for generations before them. The girls play games with other girls, and begin helping their mom out in household chores and in caring for younger siblings. The all learn early on to obey their parents, to work hard every day, and to ask God and thank God for the blessings of each day, according to the Catholic tradition. In the teenage years, the boys hang out with a group of about 15 ‘muchachos' who on their one day of rest go fishing and bath in the river, wander around town, serenade girls, or play soccer. Meanwhile, the young ladies don't get a day off. They learn more fully the difficult responsibilities of taking care of a home and develop character and intuition, which makes them just sensible enough to keep the pack of guys serenading at their door from sweeping them off their feet.
They all began to make the faith of their parents their own, and learn to express it in true community. If someone is sick or in need, you help them get well, and you do it together. Sometimes it's even you who gets sick. One brother and sister have learned what it feels like to be orphaned, when one day dad just abandons his family and the country, leaving mom pregnant and deathly sick. They have grown up under the stiff rod of their uncle, and have turned that suffering into a lesson: Suffering happens, but no one has to suffer alone. As Christ suffered with us, as a poor, homeless man, and as we suffered, we will never let any man, woman or child who passes our way suffer alone, and we'll see what we can do to alleviate that suffering together.
In the later teens and early twenties, the time comes to take new steps into adulthood. Those who grew up together begin pairing up. Eventually these friends enter into the sacrament of marriage-new families begin to grow. Amidst the pre-occupation about how to care for the family and the routine work of the day, welling up like a black cloud on the horizon come whispers of social instability and groups who are starting to take a stiffer, more dangerous stance against the corruption and exploitation of the government. More consumed by the need to protect and provide for their families than by the reality of their oppression, they take a passive stance, and try to stay clear of the violence. This is not as easy as it sounds. The violence comes literally to every doorstep, and families sleep under trees in the hills to avoid the almost "passover" style death, as soldiers, by foot or by air, sweep through rural towns, leaving trails of torture and murder. Word of murders, kidnappings and massacres becomes common. It is only a matter of time that something has to give.
One night, word arrives that tonight is the night to flee into refuge. With a small sack of belongings in one arm and an infant in the other, these young mothers and fathers join the town in flight north to Honduras. Those families who can bear the expense flee to make a life in the towns, but the poor majority is not afforded that luxury. The mass exit includes hundreds of families groping through the darkness along paths and on roads. When the day comes, they are attacked by air bombs, and by soldiers on the ground. Men, women and children fall. Families are separated in the scramble. As they reach the border they are cut off by the wide River Lempa. In desperation, those who can swim and those who cannot throw themselves into the river. Some cling to logs or branches, others float by means of an air-filled plastic bag. Many drown, unable to stay afloat, more are shot as they swim or drift. They say the river literally turned red that day. Those who order the massacre call the shooting justified, as even children must be seen as "future guerrillas". These young families join the ranks of the fortunate, as they cross the river and scramble up the other banks. They find their way to Honduran towns to spend what few pennies they brought to feed their hungry family.
With the help of international organizations, refuge is secured with the Honduran government, and a place is designated for the refugees to live. The climate is fierce and the beans are hard to digest. The canvas-roofed, open-air dwellings are crammed together. Days pass, and more families arrive. Food begins arriving on a weekly basis. Still, the new surroundings and harsh conditions lead to sickness. It seems that every day people, young and old, are dying. Maybe even one of your own children dies. She is buried alongside the others in the nearest town. After a year of waiting and surviving, the camp is bursting at the seams. Hundreds of refugees have turned to thousands. A transition is made to a larger camp called Mesa Grande.
Life is bearable in Mesa Grande. The international aid is better organized, and there is room and work for everyone. Some choose to be idle, and not take advantage of the opportunities, but most want to learn. Workshops to learn trades, and schools for children and adults are started. Classes are everywhere: carpentry, horticulture (growing vegetables), car mechanics, sowing with machines, pottery, welding, embroidery, hammock-making, and more. There is nothing else really to do, so these young families make the most of the situation and learn bits and pieces of various trades. Of course, there is a chapel, and there is music, and the young children begin going to school. The families of San Jerónimo choose to stick together with the friends and family from before, in camp #5. There are about 1700 in each of the 7 camps, all set up inside the ‘limits' of Mesa Grande. Of those who risk leaving the camp to bring extra firewood or sneak into town, many disappear, and their bodies turn up in the river. It is a cold reminder that they are refugees, prisoners in a foreign land.
Friendships are made, life goes on, and restlessness is combated with a variety of helpful distractions. Still, life is not the same as it was. Even growing vegetables is not the same as growing corn. The children are growing up without a single memory of their homeland, and without learning to farm the earth as their fathers taught them. The women also are grateful, but tired of the life of refuge. The realization hits: Even the greatest camp of refuge will never be "home." Talks are begun and the long road of negotiations is traversed. After 7 long years, people start going home. A couple of years later, when transportation is paid and rights to communal land are part of the deal, the families hop on a bus and return to home.
Life is not the same as it was in the neighboring cantón of Santa Marta. But this is where we negotiated to return to. Work is hard to find. There are lots of people and many new faces. The earth is dry, and work is hard to scarce. Frankly, the spirit of the community is not the same as it was. Some of the friends from before are in other towns; friends and acquaintances from Mesa are everywhere. Connections are made and old friends visit each other. "Compadre Ernesto", one of the gang, who grew up an orphan, has a little land in Aguas Calientes. The soil is not very good, but there's a lake right there full of fish. The place is a bit too warm, and it is not perfect, but Ernesto invites those who visit to live on his land and make life like it was before. Families arrive one after another. Some are friends from long before, and some are friends from Mesa, but all are searching for a place to settle down, and all are welcome with Ernesto and Isabel.
Even the strength of that community has its limits. The flies and mosquitos won't grant a moment of peace. The crops are failing on a small piece of rented land. The fishing cooperative is falling apart, and most of the families are having serious doubts about trying to make life work here. If this is the promised land, things looked better in Egypt. Sensitive to this, a couple of families use their connections from Mesa Grande to scout out a new place where the community could make life work together. The surrounding neighbors have expressed disagreement with Ernesto inviting these poor, landless families to live with him, but he will not disband the community of friends and family that has formed. A lead is found through a friend of a friend, one who received land returning from Mesa and is willing to sell it. The place is less than a 2 hour walk away. It is called Tenango.
The soil is good, the mosquitos are few, the climate is more refreshing, and surrounding land is rentable. There are even a few fruit trees. Unlike Aguas Calientes, there is no electricity, road access is very limited, water must be hauled from natural springs 10 minutes away, and there is no school for the children. But, it is decided together that this will be their new home. Ernesto and his nephew Arturo sell their plot of land in Aguas Calientes and buy an acre of land in Tenango for a reasonable price. They foot the bill for those who cannot pay to transport their few belongings up the steep hill to Tenango. Don Jesús does not overcharge them to haul their things in his flatbed rig.
Meanwhile, from Mesa Grande to Santa Marta, to Aguas Calientes, 8 years have passed. The mothers and fathers have been growing older and wiser, and the children are bigger and more. The oldest have learned to work the earth, and are beginning to start families of their own.
The construction in Tenango begins, but in a unique order. By an emotional dream in the night, Don Cipriano sees a vision of a uniquely-shaped, bamboo Chapel. In the morning he draws the picture, and it is agreed that they will make the church first, and then build the stick and tarp houses. This community will be an example of prioritizing God first.
Another old friend arrives with his family, and is invited in. Still, the new start in Tenango is stunted by the failure of the previous year in Aguas Calientes. There just was not enough, despite the hard work, to feed the family. And they can no longer live on fish to calm their hungry bellies. Friends from the Catholic church and the nearby town of Papaturro, family or friends from Mesa, pitch in to help them in their need. They are suffering, but not alone... and things are beginning to look up. The land is fertile for not just corn, but beans, sesame, and maicillo (squash). There will be food for the next year. A couple of organizations work to bring the community more together in its goals and hopes. There is desire to find a way to actually own land to farm, and to pass on to the children. Unfortunately, there is much talk, but little fruit in the discussions with these organizations.
Ernesto gets word through a man who works at the mayor's office that a foundation called Agros buys large pieces of land for groups of poor families to pay back over a reasonable period of time; land on which to farm, build houses, and build community. A meeting is held in San Francisco Colimas, and then a follow-up meeting takes place in Tenango itself. Agros asks for a big commitment, so many meetings and discussions take place to assess compatibility with the Foundation. Lots of meetings take time away from work in the fields, but it could be worth it. Months later, much discussion and soil analysis, an agreement is made, and a piece of land is negotiated. Everyone will have a share. The families will own land. The children will have an inheritance. First, before the land is bought, the families discuss the need to generate income in order to pay back the land, this will dictate how much land they will request from Agros. They thank Agros for being an organization of work and action, not just words. Chicken wire and small silos for corn are received. The chickens and pigs won't get eaten by coyotes in the night, and can be sold to pay back the loans. The corn can be stored, well protected, to eat throughout the year, and some could be sold when the market is good. Despite a year of earthquakes in the country, inside the community there is a growing sense of stability. The plots for houses are measured and chosen, and through a German relief organization, materials are donated for temporary houses made of corrugated metal. The old stick and nylon shacks are torn down, and the belongings and kitchens are moved to the new plots. The floor is cement, and there is a door with a lock. Only the church and rubble, and Arturo and Amilcar's new houses, are left on the old plot. There is a feeling of ‘home' here. The houses are farther apart, but not so far that you can't talk to each other from the porch. Flowering plants, orange, lime and banana trees are being planted. These are signs of stability and hope. There are more laughter and smiles. Each night, the families join to recite the misterios, the rosary, and give thanks to God. There is togetherness as a community, and no major problems or conflicts between families.
The water is hard to carry, and it is a chore to do laundry by hand in a stagnant stream. The kids still don't have school. One mother refused to leave Aguas Calientes, because she wants her kids to grow up with an education. When there is school, she will move up with the children, and the family will live together again. Don Toño was giving the kids classes, but then he left to be with other family members in Papaturro. He said they weren´t respecting their notebooks and pencils. The government says there aren't enough kids, but the list of thirty names has already been submitted. They aren't responding, and point out that we do not have a building ready. The old school house was bombed in the war.
Sometimes groups of younger people fly here all the way from North America to work and hang out in Tenango. They are Christian brothers and sisters with the Agros Foundation, who have helped to fix the road here, (and that's hard work). Another group helped build four latrines. They like to sing, and they agree that Tenango is a beautiful place. They bring pictures, like to play games with the children, and play soccer too.
The Agros Foundation has negotiated getting a system of drinkable water to the village. It is going to have to come in a pipeline from Papaturro, on the other side of the river. Work has started to bring cables to hang the pipe above the river. It took the whole morning to find a fallen power line to carry back to the community, but everyone carried their part of the cable. Getting the water lines dug will be hard work, but water is on the way. This will make life easier, especially for the women of Tenango, who tend to have the task of carrying water from the spring.
The Agros Foundation has also hired a man named Ramiro to work with the families in agriculture. Serious discussion has taken place about planting vegetables. Those years in Mesa Grande may come in handy after all. There will be tomatoes, cabbage, watermelon, onions and radishes, just to name a few.
The new houses are located where we had the soccer field, so we are chopping out a new one. Arturo let us use his land again for this, because he says it isn´t very good for corn. He says having a soccer field and team helps the youth of Tenango visit new places and also learn how to host other teams. The team is training for the festival in Papaturro. Anticipation is growing.
The spot for a new church has been decided. It will be in the center of where the two groups of houses are, in the shade of some trees, and with a beautiful view. It will be made, of adobe, and be the first permanent building of Tenango. They have been reciting the misterios at a different house each night. When the church is built they will gather there every night to pray.
In February is the festival for the Virgin of Candelaria. Family and friends come from all over. Children of these couples, now adults, come from Cabañas, or San Salvador, or Papaturro. Friends since Mesa Grande and Santa Marta come too. Last year friends even came from the Agros Foundation. It is a very fun celebration here for everyone.
Basically this generation of grandparents are looking to keep working hard to make a better life. The children, now young parents, are looking to follow their parent's example, for their own children. They all want to work the earth, to work hard, to keep improving their community, to keep praying together to God, and to keep their arms open to invite in all who would join them.
These couples joke about their aging: "I'm getting old, I'm going blind, I can't remember what day it is, and I can't lift a sack of corn like I used to. I'm planting banana trees so when I can't work the fields all I have to do is pick and sell bananas." Yet, after so many years of wandering, they say and feel they have finally found the place where they can say, "In this place I will live and work, and in this place I will die." They will keep working hard to continue making life better.

These are the families with which Agros has partnered. These aging couples who grew up together, their friends who were in need along the way, their children, and a growing number of grandchildren. These are the families that 3 churches from Seattle have chosen to "journey" with.
This is why when I arrived with the Agros Foundation to write their stories, a house was not being occupied, and they invited me to live there. They helped me build a shaded porch so I could sit in my hammock on hot afternoons. They arranged for me to eat, and tried to refuse that I pay them. They do my laundry, and come to sweep my house, even if I have just swept it. They spray a natural poison made from chile and onions to keep the biting ants away. They give me gifts of oranges or guayabas. They invite me to work with them and I agree, though I end up exhausted and with blistered hands.
It is all I can do to share what little I have with them. To invite the children to look at my picture books and draw pictures with my crayons. It is a joy to keep the motivation up for chopping the field for soccer, and to train for the festival in Papaturro. I love to recite with them in the evenings, asking God and thanking God in everything. I pray in Spanish, Our Father who is in Heaven, your name is holy, come to us, O your kingdom. Do your will here on earth like in Heaven. Give us today our bread of each day. Pardon us, as we also pardon those who offend us. Don't let us fall into temptation, and free us from evil. I even talk to Mary, and marvel at the fruit of her womb. "How incredible it must have been to bear the son of God inside you!"
As I pray, in the sweet hum of the rosary, I watch the stars in the open sky and thank God for the chance to be part of this community. I ask with great longing that God would show me what I am to do with what He has shown me. If I can't have an answer, I ask that He would still conform me to the likeness of the heart of Christ. I try not to focus on the fact that I am so far from it, but rather rejoice that God is growing His Spirit in me. And I am filled with thankfulness.
These are the lives God has knit together with mine, and I hope they inspire you as they do me. Know that if you are ever end up homeless or just in need of a place to live, and you're still willing to work, you will be welcomed and loved in Tenango. I hope that thought is as beautiful to you as it has been to me.
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to meet the families of Tenango.