On Christmas Eve I visited with my friend Ileana and her family near San Salvador. It was a nice gathering, and each of the three sisters/daughters’ children came by also, along with a neighbor and friend of the family who is 92 years old. The highlight of the evening was dancing with the very strong 92 year old woman who was showing me how to dance better. She said she was a “bailarina” (dancer) when she was younger, and that even her son doesn’t believe her. Well, we all did! Tamales were served first thing in the evening, made by Ileana’s mother, and later on we ate “Panes con Pollo” which are sandwiches of small French bread, filled with chicken, a special tomato-based sauce, and fresh vegetables like cucumber and tomato, and a leafy herb called “berro” – I don’t know what it translates to in English.
The tradition in El Salvador is to stay up until midnight on the 24th, until “Jesus was born” on the 25th. Then at midnight the whole room goes around hugging each other and saying “Feliz Navidad”, much in the same way we do in the U.S. on New Year’s Eve.
Meanwhile, throughout the afternoon and evening, and especially at the crack of midnight, fireworks aplenty are set off and everyone catches the celebration fever.
We danced to cumbia music much of the night, and long before that, way earlier in the day the major music stations in El Salvador, like radio UCA and radio Nacional, were playing back-to-back Cumbia, all day long.
Unlike the United States and some other countries where the 25th and the opening gifts the morning of are the big highlight, here in El Salvador, the afternoon and evening of the “24th” or “VeintiCuatro” is IT. It’s all about the party on the 24th, be there or be square, don’t miss it. The 25th is really nothing but a catch up on sleep day and just leftovers of the 24th for relaxing and doing nothing.
But the 25th for my friends family was a bit more than a catch up on sleep day.
On the 24th Ileana’s mother’s cousin was shot in San Isidrio while milking the cows. They do not know who killed him, but someone stole one of his cattle about 2 months ago, so something was happening back then already. The shooters wore ski-style masks to hide their faces. They invited me and I decided to accompany them to the funeral.
San Isidrio is located in Cabañas, the same department where all the mining controversy (and murders on both sides of that conflict) are taking place. Ileana’s family lived there during her childhood years, and two aunts, along with a bunch of other relatives, still live there now.
It was sad to go to a funeral on the 25th of December, and though I do not know the man being honored, I did get teary eyed watching others crying, and just thinking of how he died; its unjustness makes one sad. The first place we went to was Aunt Clara’s house. Though her house is right on a main street in town, her backyard is extensive, and she had chickens, yay! She has a regular kitchen, but also uses an hornilla (firewood) stove made out of simple rebar. “That’s for the beans and long cooking stuff,” she said.
Then we crossed the street and visited the other Aunt, Magda, who has a bit richer trimmings that humble old Clara, but still country style. Her house, like the one at her deceased cousins, has a courtyard in the middle of it. Juanita, my friends mother, is so funny. Magda offered us all coffee, and had some nice dainty china cups, but there one small plastic coffee cup happened to be on table. “I’m not drinking out of that stinking PLASTIC cup,” says Juanita. “Get me a better one!” She’s a character. Never a worry she won’t speak her mind.
Then it was off to the funeral. We went to the home of the deceased cousin’s family, where a gathering had started. The house had a courtyard in the middle of it, with patio on all four sides, and sofas and chairs were lined up against the patio walls, where family and friends sat, greeting and talking, and others waited to visit with the sobbing wife and sisters. After awhile, in the front room of the house, a pastor began to hold a small mass, with prayers, and then songs some of the visitors were singing to.
When we arrived, it was obvious that we were the “city slickers” and there was a clear difference, and likely distance, between my friend’s family and the local (lugareño) family members now living in San Isidrio. I don’t know if my friend noticed, but I sure did and it was one of those fly on the wall moments in life.
Because of the heat, it felt like forever before the funeral procession would begin, and sometime around 4pm it finally did. By then we were all gathered on the sidewalk and in the street, waiting for someone’s cue. I looked to the right and saw the crowd moving in one direction, and then saw the casket up high, in its glass casing, slowing drifting away from us.
This was the first “walking with the funeral procession” experience I’ve had since I came to El Salvador. I’ve been to two other funerals here, but because of their distance, most of the attendees drove in with cars, and, as you often see here, a large group coming in on a local bus chartered for the funeral. It looks like any other bus route vehicle, old American school bus with the local route number and all, but someone has rented it for the day to bring family to pay their respects. I have to say, walking in a funeral procession, versus driving feels a much better way to commemorate someone who has passed on. There were probably 3-400 people walking along the street of this modest sized pueblo, it felt like half the town was there walking, all slowly together towards the church, where mass is held, and then afterwards, they march again to the “enterro” or burial. We made it as far as the church but did not go in, there were so many people we could not all fit. Meanwhile, we ran into a childhood friend of Ileana’s who is now an English teacher in Costa Rica and happened to be here visiting for the holidays. It was a serendipitous moment, and we stopped to visit with her, as it had been about 20 years since they last saw one other. They yakked about old times, and were joking around about how they used to walk/crawl on the roofs together as small children, breaking the “Tejas” (terra cotta roof tiles), or moving them out of position as they walked along. Days or weeks later, people would look up at their ceiling at a leak suddenly sprung up in a rainstorm, saying, “hmmm…wonder where that leak is coming from…”
As both an attendee and observer, I felt the weight of that particular day, of paying respects to the deceased, but also how important is was for the community and family to come together. A funeral is a place where long lost friends and family who’ve become distant have a chance to reconnect. And for people who have never met to start a new friendship or connection. The passing of someone significant gives an opportunity to strengthen or start relationships. Through death we are given the gift of renewal. We are reminded of the importance of today, because once we are gone we can no longer connect, reconnect, make an impact; it is a tap on the shoulder, noting the significance of our actions every day while we are still here.
What to wear? On a humorous note, if you dear readers will allow me, I’ll say a few words on attire. Wearing a borrowed brown long sleeved shirt, I felt a bit of a stepchild, but since I knew no one, I felt no shame, not to mention that being a gringa I’m excused of almost any social misstep I make in El Salvador (lucky me!). I made a note of what most women were wearing, and almost giggled to myself. If you are not sure what to wear to a Salvadoran funeral, just remember two colors: black and white. I thought black would be an important color, but it seemed almost always paired with white. Black pants with a white blouse – popular outfit. A black dress with white trim or accent. Black polka dot blouses. White striped with black, white flowers on black background, or vice-versa. Black and white and white and black, everywhere. But never with red.
After returning from the funeral we were famished. Part of the reason is because Ileana’s sister has to be the slowest driver in El Salvador, after Aunt Jesusita, who drives 30 on the highway. On the way there it was less of a big deal. On the way back, when we are were all tired, hungry, bones and muscles aching or had to pee. I watched the speedometer with devotion. It was in Kilometers per hour, and I looked carefully and almost continuously as it went up to a maximum of 60 KPH – somewhere around 42 mph. On the HIGHWAY. TOPS! Then it would drift down again to 30, 40, 50 KPH… I give her accolades for safety, that’s for sure. A good thing is that Ileana’s entire family are good conversationalists, so there was never a dull moment on the drive there or back. We made it home in one piece, kudos to our safe driver. Ileana’s mom Juanita made a B line for the bathroom. Meanwhile, Ileana was toasting fresh rolls she’d bought the night before, and heating up the now infamous NACATAMALES. Yes! These babies were FANTASTIC! Ileana had either brought in or commissioned a woman from Honduras to make them. Still cant get the story 100% clear but basically it’s a Honduran woman who cooks them. These are super-tamales. They are almost double the size of regular tamales, and have typical ingredients one would expect like chicken, wrapped in the “guerta” (banana leaves), but there’s extry special stuff in there…. Some kind of spice, it tasted like the heat of hot green peppers if you ask me, but I could not “see” the spice, so I’m guessing. Nevertheless, they were picante! They also sported garbanzo beans, and some other kind of bean/nut/pea like ingredient that was hard to deciper. We had to keep contain our excitement, since less than 24 hours before we were eating Juanita’s tamales and would never want to put her tamales in the shadow of these, but the bottom line: Nacatamales are D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S. Yum Yum Yum. If you ever get a chance to eat them, do!