Friday, August 17, 2007

Scenes from a Mall (El Salvador, Day 3)

Thursday, July 19: Today was all about sisters. We went over to San Miguel to take Cruz to look at a truck she was considering buying -- presumably with her compañero -- but after quite a bit of looking to find the place, it turned out the man had grossly misrepresented the vehicle and we had to move on. We ended up going over to Metrocentro, the first shopping mall I've ever been to in El Salvador; I thought they were all in the capital. This was also the first time I'd ever worn shorts on one of my visits, having been cautioned all my international-traveling life about the stereotype of fat Americans in shorts, lugging their cameras and being oblivious to local standards or culture. This year I decided that it was just too hot to wear my usual jeans, and that after all, one of the few advantages of having gained so much weight is that I'd hardly be mistaken for a sex object by anyone but my loving husband!

I picked the wrong day to start, though, because although the shorts were more comfortable in terms of temperature, I felt distinctly UNcomfortable wearing them in a mall surrounded by elegant people in professional dress. To give you more of a sense of the mall, as I took few pictures there: Most stores have a glass door, with an armed guard simultaneously opening the door for you and making sure you are entering with legitimate business. They have some of the same shops and restaurants, such as Radio Shack and Wendy's, along with national companies such as SIMAN, a department store that advertises in the national newspapers and on TACA Airlines. The stores are air-conditioned, but it was so warm inside the mall that I couldn't tell whether it has no A/C or whether the doors simply are open too much of the time for the cool air to stay in.

After buying a couple of items, we called Marco's sister Angélica, said to be living in San Miguel with her boyfriend's family since dropping out of school at said boyfriend's suggestion. We and her parents were deeply disappointed by that turn of events, as she's always been the most diligent and sensible of his siblings and, having graduated from ninth grade, she was the most educated person in his whole family. For Marco's generation, a good education was largely a pipe dream; between poverty, the civil war's fierceness in the region (and related shanghai-ing of young boys that led to their parents' hiding them at home), the distance of the school in his day, and so forth, his experience of entering school at age 11 and finishing only four years before family needs caused him to drop out at 17 was pretty typical. Some of his younger siblings only finished first grade.

The youngest ones, though, grew up after the peace accords and after a school was established just a few minutes' walk up the road. They have been able to progress at a rate closer to normal, though school sessions still last only four hours and thus finishing one grade per year doesn't always happen. All the same, one by one they've dropped out: one sister due to pregnancy and nursing at 15, another sister due to eye trouble, a brother who was sent up here to work at 17 (done behind our backs, believe me). So when this one stayed in school, we rewarded that by paying for band and drill team uniforms and, eventually, a private school when the local one couldn't offer 10th grade and up. The last time we were there, in 2004, I sat her down and had a long talk about the facts of life and the importance of prioritizing education. I pointed out that while her older sister is fond of her children, she had initially wanted to stay in school and now had far fewer options due to bearing children so early in life. Angélica seemed to listen attentively and always before had followed my advice closely ...

She'd only been at the private school a couple of months when she met this young man. Somehow everything else went out the window, including consideration of the fact that he soon would leave for the U.S. and she'd be left behind. In the time we've been away, she'd grown older than I realized, and I can see how at 19, it's easy to think that "real life" is passing you by. Those who may think it's too strict of us to think that a 19-year-old shouldn't date, aren't aware that's not how it works where they live. There is no "dating." A couple are either platonic friends or novios, a word often translated "boyfriend/girlfriend" but actually tracing back to the days when friendship was followed by engagement. Novios these days typically turn into compañeros, used in this sense to mean living together as if married. (Most people don't even bother to distinguish linguistically between those who are formally married and those who simply shack up -- the latter is referred to as "getting married" by most country people in El Salvador and Guatemala.)

We got her to meet us at the mall, as Marco wasn't ready to go over to her "mother-in-law's" house and appear to sanction her impetuous decision. She shyly came over and hugged me, and I took her aside to say what I had to say (for Marco as well, whom I'd consulted beforehand). The message, greatly condensed: It hurt her parents very much that she had basically hidden herself from them and cut off contact ... probably she was doing this in order to avoid being scolded, but she should realize the criticism was earned and "suck it up." We love her and care about her, but that didn't mean we weren't angry that after all everyone had done to give her a better life and more options, she couldn't see that any man worth the trouble will still be there when she finishes school. The example she's setting for younger siblings and the nieces and nephews, who already have seen so many drop out, also came up in the conversation. Probably the hardest part for her was hearing that her brother had forbidden me even to speak her name to him because it hurt him so to think of her, and that this generous man now said he felt like he never wanted to help anyone again. By this time, I was crying as I told her how it hurt not to see her or hear from her when that's always one of the highlights of our visits -- she's been as much a little sister to me as to my husband -- and within seconds the tears were more than mutual.

Eventually we sat down and caught up a little. Turns out her companion's mother has been telling her to go back to school as well, making many of the same points I did: she has nothing to do now anyway, it would distract her in the short run as well as helping her in the long run, who knows how long this fellow will be in the States. (The mother also urged us to tell Marco's mother that she had had no idea of her son's plans and would have discouraged them had she known; she had no idea until he showed up with girlfriend in tow.) For now, she insists she will go back to school in January when the new term starts, either at her old school near her parents or at one that her "suegra" recommended in San Miguel. The next step was getting her and Marco talking. I finally told her that if she waited for him to approach her, it could be years. She didn't know what to say, and I didn't know what to tell her; after all, I said, I couldn't suggest what I'd say in her position because I could scarcely imagine making the choices she had made. After a time, she sat down and they made some awkward small talk for about half an hour.

We bought her a $5 phone card before we left, on the understanding she'd use it to call her parents. She assured us she would call before we left and try to come for a visit (not that her mother bought that when we got home and told her).

And now that I come to write this, it occurs to me to go back and look at the photos to see if there's any hint she might be pregnant, because if so, it's going to be even harder to turn back the tide ...

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