So……… writing has not seemed to fit into the fullness of my life here, despite being such a love, such a craving, such a central piece of the vision I hold of my future. But I cannot begrudge the fact: the lives and ancient rhythms that are filling my days have a flawless, gentle quality I am not willing to sacrifice.
Here, though, is a little (true) story I felt the need to capture – an event that just broke across the lives of a family I’ve come to love….
At 4pm yesterday Rosa’s cow swallowed an unripe mango and choked.
Black and docile, as much pet as beast, the cow stretched her jaws wide and began to hack, eyes clouding with fear, head jerking forward with each attempt. A sudden shudder slid through her and she reeled from the ground, snorting. The fruit had shot up her nasal airway.
By the time Rosa’s husband and son arrived the cow was splayed across the mountainside wheezing, foam splattering from her mouth, eyes rolling and crazy, her whole face beginning to swell. The men stretched her tongue to pour in oil, groped down her throat to their elbows, and then, as the first stars shown through, folded to the dirt and exhaled: the cow was dead. She was weeks from giving birth.
Swiftly, sadly, Rosa’s son scampered down the mountain for a knife, light, and their horse. When he returned the husband stared at their cow for a moment — Hija, they called her, “Daughter” — and then began to carve. The innards stank, the fetus was wet and unwieldy. They loaded the best meat and pelt onto the horse and at 9:30 began to lead him down the path.
Minutes later, as they rounded a dark switchback, the horse’s hoof slid out and he buckled, coming down hard on his side and then tipping forward, the weight of the meat seizing him into a slide and then an all-out roll down the ravine. The husband — rope wrapped around his hand — went with him, skidding in an attempt to slow the fall and then wrenched arm-first into the tumble. Twenty meters down they slammed into a gully. The husband’s shoulder was dislocated, his face bashed in. The horse’s spine — shattered.
Cow, calf, horse: gone in three hours. Dairy, income, transportation, pride. Gone.
Rosa’s eyes glistened with emotion and fatigue as she stepped onto my porch in the morning, a plate in her hand heavy with thinly-sliced, uncooked cuts of steak. They’d lost a cow last night, she explained, but at least they hadn’t lost the meat. Her hand stretched toward me: “For you,” she said in Spanish, her face lifting into a smile. “I imagine that you know how to cook it nice and tasty in your American style, with tomatos and spices and everything.” Then she glanced down and added, “I don’t know if you’d be willing to teach me.”
“Wait,” I began, stuck on her first point. “Your cow died? La Hija?!”
“Yes,” Rosa repeated, “but here are some pieces of the meat. For you. To cook.” I took the plate absently, eyes widen by the news. “I don’t know,” she started again, “if you’d want to teach me how to cook it with veggies and all.”
“La Hija died…” I murmured once more, not ready to move on from the sadness. But Rosa was persistent: she wanted to learn, in the kitchen, in the midst of all her pain.
We set the meat marinating and left for her two-room adobe, Rosa sharing details as we walked. It was devastating, the loss. No more milk for the kids. No more cash from loaning the horse. No more help with heavy loads during the rainy season, when for months no vehicle can make it up the final five kilometers to our community.
Neither Rosa nor her husband had slept. Her middle son — 14 years old — would refuse food all day. Her eldest had gone in with them on the horse, helping pull together $250 for the purchase a year ago. Rosa wept over the phone with him as she revealed what had happened.
“But the daily chores of life don’t stop,” she explained, looking straight at me, softly. “You’ve got to keep going.” She shrugged, then turned to serve me lunch.
As I ate, Rosa told me how Hija used to munch straight from her hand, the cow’s big nostrils blowing warm huffs that would tickle the thin skin on her wrists. “It’s true, isn’t it?” she asked her husband as he stepped in slowly from stretching the hide with their son-in-law out back. He began a deep, slow laugh and nodded, lowering himself into a chair. His face was battered, his left hand gashed, his right shoulder immobile.
Rosa sat down next to him and — as he watched her — the heavy lines across his face loosened. After a moment he said, “I feel for those who lose family instead of animals,” his eyes trailing away, his tone revealing how close his own family had been to losing him last night. “I feel for them.” He repeated the line three times over the next several minutes, tears nearly reaching his mustache before he smeared them away. Every single member of the community lost family during the war.
Rosa pulled out a cream and began to massage it into his open wounds. “Over twenty people hiked up the mountain at 10pm last night,” she told me, “bringing their mules and horses with them. They came as soon as they heard what was happening, rushing to help the injured, haul the meat, hug the child.” Rosa paused to pick a tick from her husband’s bicep, another from below his lip. “Though our family has just lost an unbearable amount of money,” she went on, “we are giving away the meat, making sure that most of the thirty households in the community receive some. It’s the custom here in this community – it’s always done when somebody loses a cow.” I asked her to repeat that: giving away all the meat of a pregnant cow, for free?
Rosa nodded: “That’s called unity.”
El Salvador, it’s worth noting, has ranked as high as #4 in recent global studies of happiness and life satisfaction. Despite the gangs, overpopulation, and natural disasters, despite the poverty, emigration, and ceaseless homicides, the people of this little war-pocked strip of land have smiled into the top third of every nation-by-nation survey done on the subject. Researchers dubbed it the Latino Bonus: for all the indigence and violence that lace through Latin America, its citizens are generally more satisfied and happy than others.
But — at least in this community — that’s not because people pass the days lazing under cacti in the shade of their sombreros. Nor is it because they stretch out each afternoon with piñatas and cases of cold longnecks, pushing back work ’til “mañana, mañana….”
No, I have found most villagers here gently fulfilled without ever seeming hedonistic or simple. These families know hardship. They know suffering. They know what it is to stride the mountains shielding their babies from shrapnel, digging up roots to feed their loved ones, watching the Jute River surge red. They’ve learned the sound of their children waking in the night because the tin roof is dripping on them again. They have felt fear clench through their chest as they run from stalk to stalk, the morning’s storm having ruined their entire crop. They’ve seen the impoverished monotony of the campo turn the young people’s vision north. They know that agro-chemical companies prey on them, and that junk food companies prey on them, and that rich economies prey on them.
……….but they don’t seem to let that get in the way of their love for what is here. Their love for who is here. Positivity, hard work, human connection: they are choices people can make, priorities people can define and stick to. Doing so is — undoubtedly — a form of courage, a brave, willful focus on that which is important.
What we are, they tell me here, is imperfect, poor, and beautiful, and we want to share in this with others.
Imperfect, poor, and beautiful.
As I stood to leave, Rosa’s youngest daughter brought out a box with baby parakeets. They hand-feed the little birds several times each day, spooning a watered-down corn dough into their frantic beaks. When the food comes near, the birds clamp onto the spoon and begin to shake spastically, spraying the dough all over.
“They’re really fun, aren’t they?” Rosa asked, eyes still glistening with fatigue and emotion but now bouncing with the rest of her head in imitation of the nestlings. “They always make me laugh.”