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Omar and Alisander

There are lots of ashes in La Esperanza. Fine soot sometimes falls like snow, as sugar cane companies burn fields in preparation for new plantings. Also people will soon be burning fields to prepare to plant corn. And even garbage burns and rises in dark smoke over homes of corrugated tin. It seeps into everything, even the hidden corners of our lives.

Heidi Cerneka or Pete Altman got a taste of it during their visit here last week. I introduced them to Eva who was standing in the small store of her home, where she sells school supplies. The store is a project of our small Christian base community to make these items available and economically feasible so kids don’t have to take the bus trip into town to purchase them.

Pete with Tulia

I explain to Eva that Heidi works at the U.S.-Mexico border helping migrants. “Que triste la situación allá,” Eva says. “Tanto muertos en el desierto. Hemos perdido familia en esa travesía.” (How sad the situation there. So many dead in the desert. We have lost family on that journey.)

Eva’s round face loses color as if the event had taken place just yesterday, but she is referring to her cousin who was among 72 migrants kidnapped in northeastern Mexico in 2010. They were massacred for refusing to pay ransom for their release or take jobs as hitmen.

“Now my son wants to go to the north.” Her voice knots in slight gags of trauma. “Don’t go,” she tells him. “Have patience.” Her son graduated from university with a degree in computer systems, but he’s now working 60 hours a week grilling chickens over charcoal at a local food stand because he cannot find work in his field. Heidi and Pete listen with compassion.

We then meet up with Pepo for a wheelbarrow tour with our mobile library. One of our first stops is at Omar and Alisander’s home. The two are 6-year-old twins. They return two books and take two more. Omar then disappears into his house and reappears with two parakeets.

“What are their names?” Pete asks. “Tulio y Tulia,” the boy whispers. He gives one to Heidi and one to Pete. Heidi notices that the birds don’t like being separated, so Pete hands his parakeet over to her. Shy Omar continually tugs on the sleeve of his baseball jersey. He isn’t accustomed to visitors so interested in his life and the life of Tulio and Tulia. “What do they eat?” “How old are they.” “Look at those beautiful colors.”

It would be easy to see only pain and ashes in La Esperanza, but I’m reminded this week that Ash Wednesday is about listening and comforting, receiving the gift of new friendships, and humbly loving oneself and others into a beautiful world.

Rick Dixon Rick Dixon
Rick Dixon is a Maryknoll lay missioner facilitating base communities, adult literacy, youth development and job skills in the La Esperanza community of Cojutepeque, El Salvador.