Fr. Tom's July 2002 Calavera Report




In the eleven years of our annual delegations some traditions have
developed. One of these has been the wonderful variety of celebrations of
welcome in each of the five settlements. There are speeches, applause,
music, posters, dances and dramas by the students. The people obviously
spend much time and effort to let us know how much they appreciate
our visits. A teacher in one of the settlements told us this year:
“We treasure your visits each year.” We try to reciprocate with our
words of gratitude for their generous hospitality.
Our entry into Guachipilin, the largest settlement, has become quite
a festive occasion. Our three-and-half hour walk from San Miguelito
leads to a high point across a deep ravine from the settlement.
We usually stop there for a rest and to share some of our trail mix
with the couple dozen people who make the journey with us. Some young
enthusiasts who have spotted us from the yonder community shout their
“holas (hellos)” across the more than mile-wide ravine. It’s far
enough across that it is difficult to see persons but we can see the
school and the soccer field.
As we would approach Guachipilin, Francisco Perez Garcia often has
met us with fresh cooked corn on the cob, his response to our trail mix.
Then we are usually met on the trail before we enter Guachipilin
by Conjunto Guadalupano, the community band, and lots of people.
After serenading us with a few songs, the band would lead us in a kind
of parade into the community.
This year a heavy downpour canceled the usual musical reception
and parade. We dashed the last quarter mile and ran soaking wet into
the church where everyone was waiting to welcome us. We were greeted
with smiles and applause, and were congratulated for bringing the rain.
This is their rainy season, but it had been a worrisome two weeks since
the last rain. The school children put on an excellent program as we
sipped the fruit drinks prepared for us. In these and many other ways,
the people of Calavera offer us excellent hospitality. On two other
delegations we have brought the blessing of rain with us into other
settlements. We need to reexamine this rainmaking role.

This year’s delegation consisted of seven persons. As in all
previous delegations, Kathy Fries was the organizer and as usual she
concentrated her efforts on the schools. The teachers in the five schools
appreciate her efforts to assist and encourage their work. The children
know Kathy and look forward to the classes she has with them. We bring
along a large suitcase of school supplies for each of the five schools.
Contributions to the School Fund enable us to do this.

A medical clinic was held in each settlement. Two Sisters of
Charity, Ceil McManus and Dianne Moore, took a break from their work
in a clinic for migrants in Maryland to join our delegation. They
were assisted by Anna Maria Escobar who translated for Dianne as she
interviewed patients. Beth Hand and Natalia Pagliuca, Anna Maria’s
daughter, alternated working part-time with Kathy in the schools and
part-time in the clinics.
Ceil and Dianne showed remarkable energy and expertise in responding
to the large numbers who came to the clinics. In the five days they
took care of 520 patients. Anna Maria, Beth and Natalia were joined
by Samuel Guzman, Rosa Perez and Tomasito Luna in making the clinics
work efficiently. A most generous annual donation of medical supplies by
Provena Hospital makes it possible for the clinics to provide appropriate
medicines for the patients.

I have always been impressed with the people who join our
delegations each year. This year’s delegation was certainly notable.
In spite of the hard work, long walks and some inconveniences, these
trips are a great blessing for me because I can be in the company of
these exceptional delegations. I wish we had the time to hear more
about Ceil and Dianne’s work in clinics in Haiti, Somalia, Thailand
and Bolivia, and to listen to everyone’s stories, hopes and dreams.
Our busy schedule each day, however, does not allow it. Anna Maria’s
professional interest in indigenous languages led her to discover some
remnants of ancient languages among the people of Calavera.

Calavera is the name we use to refer to the five settlements that
have been our sister community since 1989. The five settlements are
Gimilile, El Salamo, El Rusio, San Miguelito and Guachipilin. They are
in the mountains near the Honduran border in northeastern El Salvador.
During the 1980s and until 1992, this area was one of the battlegrounds
of a 14- year war. This war resulted when the people refused to accept
the cruel oppression by the military government. The oppression and
the war brought enormous suffering to the people of these mountains.
Archbishop Oscar Romero, the great pastoral leader of the people until
his assassination in 1980, called the suffering poor of El Salvador
“the crucified people.”
Our sister relationship has allowed us to meet and to walk with
the remarkable people of Calavera whose stories and example of faith
and courage have been a blessing to us. In these five settlements there
are about 1500 people most of whom scratch out a living by raising corn,
beans and other crops and possibly a few chickens in this rocky mountain
The droughts brought on by El Nino have had a troubling effect on
them. With generous donations from our supporters we have been able
to participate in a special nutrition program in these settlements.
We witness the people’s love for their children and we join them in
their struggle to provide a better future for them.

In our eleven years of visiting these settlements we have observed
some improvements. The schools are a noteworthy example of positive
developments. New schools have been built in four of the settlements
and more teachers are involved, although seriously underpaid. Over the
years we have partnered with the people in some development projects,
like the hammock project, the cable construction, the church roof in
Guachipilin, the nutrition program, the chicken co-op, the sewing co-op,
the water project and a few others. Some of these are doing well,
others have failed. We are discussing several new ideas. The interest
and generous support of people back home make these efforts possible.
A big factor has been CEBES-FUNDAHMER, the organization that enables
these sister relationships. We look to Armando Marquez, Anita Ortiz,
Elizabeth O’Donnell, Reina Leiva, Jose Gomez and the others at the
office in San Salvador for their guidance and encouragement in our
support of our friends in Calavera.
The greatest hope for a continuing development of these mountain
settlements is the people themselves. In spite of their poverty, the
scars of the war, and the hurricane and the droughts that have ruined
their crops, they continue to work for a better future. One of the
reasons for their hope-filled attitude is their deep faith in a God
who accompanies them. Jesus, the peasant Messiah who preached good
news to the poor, is an authentic sign to them of Emmanuel (a God truly
with them).

We observe their struggles. Those conducting the clinics listen
to some distressing stories from the long line of patients. The effects
of poor nutrition are obvious. Ceil told about a woman who came to her.
The woman told of her twelve children, seven of whom died of fever in
less than a year. Ceil noted that their deaths were preventable.
Their way of dedicating a new stretch of road between Gimilile
and El Salamo this year was to conduct the stations of the cross along
the new road. They are familiar with the way of the cross. They walk it
each day. At the churches in Guachipilin and San Miguelito they meet
each Sunday to conduct services in the absence of a priest. The people
in Gimilile told us they want to build their own church. It will be
a small simple building. We will try to help them because we know how
important it will be for them.

We celebrated the Eucharist in each of the settlements. At the
Masses this year I read a letter written to them by Sister Dorothy
Hennessey. Last year they were very interested in hearing about this
88 year-old Franciscan sister from Dubuque who went to prison for six
months for demonstrating against the School of the Americas. Her action
was seen as an act of solidarity with the poor of El Salvador who had
suffered as victims of some of the battalions trained at the SOA. Last
year Sister Dorothy had sent our settlements a letter along with her
love and prayers. They were glad to hear from her again this year.
We had a baptism in El Rusio. Most of the people stepped forward
to receive the Anointing of the Sick given after each of the Masses.
We visited some shut-ins as we walked from one settlement to the next.
In some of these pastoral visits, after the anointing of the sick, our
delegation held hands around the sick person to pray the Lord’s Prayer.
The people greatly appreciate this. I brought the Anointing of the Sick
and Communion to Celestina Martinez, the old blind woman. Afterward,
when I asked her to give me her blessing so that I could bring it to
my community back home, she solemnly laid her hands on my head for a
few moments. I have brought back Celestina’s blessing in other years.
In the silence of dawn at Guachipilin I stood in the ruins of
the old church destroyed over 20 years ago by a bomb. Now it is only
scattered rubble overgrown with weeds. It was dedicated to St. Francis,
the poor man of Assisi. Nearby is a large crater created by another 500
pound dropped from a U.S. bomber. This settlement was destroyed during
the war in the 1980s. I picked up a small piece of the shattered altar,
a sad reminder of the pain and insult against these people. In a face-off
with Caesar, St. Francis seems to have lost.
In our annual delegations our friends of Calavera accompany us from
one settlement to the next. Their mountain paths eventually lead us
to the new church of St. Francis, a simple building next to the ruins,
which everyone in Guachipilin built together, including the children.
This is their answer to Caesar who has gone on to other jihads against
the poor in other lands.
Our clinics have noted the deep wounds the war has left within
the people. Perhaps our oft repeated apologies for the war touches
their brokenness, but we come to them with our own disabilities.
The children of Caesar are often illiterate, because they are blind
and deaf. Though we have heard of mega bombs, low intensity warfare,
free trade agreements, and other words in the vocabulary of the power-
ful, it is the poor of the world who know first hand the meaning of
these weapons of mass destruction.

Those who plan wars and control global economic systems should
walk into the Calaveras of the world. They should meet the people,
eat their tortillas (or what- ever is their daily bread), hold their
children and listen to their stories. It is the victims of this world
who can help us become literate about the true meaning of our power and
about what really matters. We just might begin to see and hear globally
for the first time in our lives.
Archbishop Romero experienced wisdom from the humble poor of
his land. He admitted: “The people are my prophet.” So they can be
for us.
Our friends in Calavera come out to greet us with smiles and corn on
the cob, their children sing and dance for us, they welcome us into their
humble homes. In their company we hope to become literate in the language
of peace. We need Celestina, the old blind woman, to heal our blindness.

Some Profiles

Fermin Ortiz has offered his home in Gimilile to our delegations for
many years. He and his wife, Natividad, have given us a place for our
hammocks, provided us with delicious meals and created a private place
for us to wash up at their pila (a concrete water basin) in the morning.
They have ten children and eleven grandchildren. He is a kind and
gracious host.

Rosa Perez works with CEBES in coordinating our
visit with her community of Guachipilin. She is on
the committee of health for her community. She
worked with Samuel Guzman in helping our clinics run
smoothly. She has two children. Her mother, Maria
Natividad, who died a couple of years ago, had been a
pastoral leader in Guachipilin and a great friend of our
delegations. Her mother had nine children.

Maria Luisa Perez has been a leader in Guachipilin for many years.
Since our first delegation she has welcomed us warmly, often with
special treats for snacks on the trail. She and her husband Santo
Victorino have served on the pastoral committee and other committees for
their community. She is the health promoter who has received special
training to use the medicines we leave with her community. She and
Santo Victorino have six children.

Sophia, an old woman of the mountains, has witnessed much upheaval among
her people: war, a hurricane, drought, earthquakes, hunger and sickness;
but also new times and some hopeful dreams. She sits in the doorway of
the new church at Guachipilin.

Celestina Martinez, the old blind woman, sends us her blessing. She is
being examined in her home by Mary Beth Appel, a nurse practitioner, who
was on the 2001 delegation.

Armando Marquez Ochoa is the executive director of
CEBES-FUNDAHMER (the Christian Base Community
Organization) in San Salvador. CEBES is our connection
with Calavera. Armando, Anita Ortiz and the others at
CEBES give us hospitality in San Salvador. They also
give us much encouragement and helpful advice. Armando
has taught theology at the University of Central America,
the Jesuit university in San Salvador. He has visited
St. Mary, Champaign twice to speak with our parishioners.
He and his wife have two daughters. Armando and his
daughters and another friend are seeing us off at the
airport in San Salvador.

Valeria Ortiz Perez is a valiant woman and a valuable
friend of our delegation. This year she walked over to
the clinic in Gimilile with young Maria Francesca
Bonia so that she could cook for us the next day in her
settlement, El Salamo. Here they are accompanying us
back to their community. Valeria has taken care of Maria
since finding her abandoned in the woods by her mother
several years ago. Maria was close to death. Besides her
own child, she cares for other children who are not her own.
She is a shining example of loving generosity.

Lucio Sanchez Luna works with CEBES as the coordinator
of the pastoral team in Guachipilin. He is a devout man who
assists in the Sunday services at their church. He helps with
the music for our Mass in Guachipilin. He was one of the
leaders in the project to build the church several years ago. He
often walks all the way to greet us in Corinto, a heck of a long
walk. Lucio and his wife Julia Luna Martinez have four
children. In recent years we have visited Julia at their small
home because she has been sick.

At the Atlanta airport on our return flight, we are holding a plaque
presented to St. Mary Church by CEBES: Tom, Ceil, Beth, Dianne, Kathy,
Natalia and Anna Maria.