I valued the campo experience because it allowed us to spend time with a Salvadoran family. While I love living in community with fellow students, living with a Salvadoran family reminded me how much I love my own family, and how excited I am to see them again. Our campo family was anchored by Rosa, a mother who touched me with her quiet warmth. Rosa’s daughters Susana and Magdalena, or Nenny, both in their early twenties, Rosa’s teenage nieces, Doris and Emely, and Nenny’s five-month-old baby, Maria Jose, also lived with us.
My praxis partner, Natalie, commented on how she liked living in a house of only women. Whether we were attempting to make tortillas with Rosa or watching Disney with Doris and Emely, I also appreciated the female companionship of Las Flores. Our lives gained more male influence when we met Rosa’s three-year-old nephew, Neto. After watching a soccer game on the village’s cancha, (soccer field) Neto and I started an impromptu game on Rosa’s porch. Once Neto tired of soccer, I offered to read with him. He handed me a school notebook, which he referred to as his own, and I opened to a series of poems.
“Tus ojos, tu pelo castaño…” (Your eyes, your dark hair) I began to read, then stopped.
“You wrote this?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s mine,” he responded, “do you like it?”
I reassured Neto that I appreciated his poetry, but inside, I was confused. How could a three-year-old write poetry? Did people starting composing poetry earlier in El Salvador? Was this yet another cultural difference for me to process?
After a brief chat with the family, I learned that Doris, not Neto, wrote the notebook of poetry. Now I could relate. Reading Doris’s poetry reminded me of middle school, when I would listen to the Beatles and sit on my bed composing epic odes. I was sure my braces concealed the soul of a troubadour.
I had another middle-school flashback that night when the Doris and Emely took us to a dance at the town’s Oscar Romero Cultural Center. There were only seven people there when we arrived, and I suspect I was the only attendee over twenty. To my disappointment, Neto did not put in an appearance. Other Casa students staying in Las Flores expressed some discomfort about dancing with fourteen-year-olds, but as I am far taller than most Salvadoran teenage boys, I didn’t have to worry about anyone asking me to dance. We went home at the responsible hour of 10 P.M., and I was happy to go to bed much earlier than I do at school. I had only been in the campo for a day, but I already preferred the schedule to the sleep-deprived haste of university in the US.
The family continued to be central to my experience in the campo, particularly the younger members. At one point, crouched around Maria Jose, Rosa and Nenny asked if babies were bigger in the US. I hemmed and hawed, then responded that I was unsure, but thought babies were about the same size in the US. Rosa and Nenny seemed surprised by my response. They explained that after seeing Maria Jose, an American woman who worked for Casa program if she was premature.
I felt guilty about my vague response. My knowledge of babies is limited, in both the US and El Salvador. Yet at the same time, babies probably receive better nutrition in affluent parts of the US than they do in the Salvadoran campo. Babies probably are bigger in privileged regions of the US than in rural El Salvador.
In the US, I have seen Baby Einstein and Kids R’Us catalogs bursting with goods for babies- walkers, Baby Mozart tapes, rompers, glowing pacifiers, socks, everything. Maria Jose was a fashionable baby, with rompers and t-shirts mailed to her by relatives in the US. She even had a Baby Einstein walker given to her by American friends of the family. At the same time, babies from privileged parts of the US would have more, much more.
I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I firmly believe no one, babies included, can ever be too loved. But at the same time, I don’t know if we should express love through possessions. When I looked at Maria Jose’s US-produced romper that said, “Mommy and Daddy’s Little Sweetest” was that a sign of US relatives’ love for her? Or was it a sign of US materialism encroaching onto Salvadoran culture? Which baby was in the better situation; Maria Jose in a hand-me-down walker, or a wealthy Manhattan baby in a brand-new baby yoga swing?
While I loved Maria Jose, I also have a soft spot for toddlers. Babies are adorable, but kids say the darnedest things, as shown by Neto’s claim to have written a notebook full of poetry. Later in the week Rosa took us to visit Neto’s family. His house was even lovelier than Rosa’s home, with a flushing toilet and unimpeded views of the Salvadoran mountains. Neto’s mother explained that his father does carpentry in Canada, spending some months in El Salvador and some months in Canada. I presumed that the father’s work allowed his family to live so comfortably, just as I assumed that Rosa’s family purchased their large TV with remittances from family members in the US.
I also wondered how having relatives abroad strained both families; Doris and Emely’s parents had been in the US for ten years. Their mom lived in New York City with their sister, while their father lived in Nebraska with their brother. When we asked how having family in the US affected them, Rosa admitted it had been a struggle.
After he lost patience for watching us eat mangos and coo over Maria Rosa, Neto led us on a tour of the neighborhood. I was touched by his neighbors’ calm reactions to a toddler leading two foreigners through their houses and backyards. Neto ended the tour by taking us through his neighbors’ kitchen, then introducing us to their new puppies. He roughly grabbed one of the puppies, causing my partner to reprimand him, “¡con cariño!” (with care)
“Pet it!” he yelled at us, still impervious to our request for gentleness with the puppies.
“No,” I responded, eager to avoid fleas. I wanted an authentic campo experience, but not that authentic.
Losing patience, Neto dropped the puppy. Our tour ended, and we returned to his house, then went home with Rosa.
Neto’s interaction with the puppy highlighted just one of many differences between Salvadoran campo family life and the family life I am accustomed to in the US. In my suburban community, guardians practice constant vigilance over their toddlers. Neto provided a contrast in free-wheeling independence, wandering on-field during a soccer game and leading us on a neighborhood tour that included what he referred to as “the red mountain.” As we climbed “the red mountain,” which I refer to as “a heap of construction detritus,” I noted glass shards and uneven bricks, all of which made me appreciate my tetanus shot.
Who was in the better situation? Three-year-old Neto, eating popsicles and romping through the town square, climbing up “the red mountain” and banging on neighbors’ doors? Or my younger self, eating candies from my piano teacher and carpooling, playing recess kickball and meeting neighbors through chaperoned school activities?
My time in the campo reminded me of the dangers of comparisons. I can’t, and shouldn’t, compare Maria Jose’s life to the life of a US baby, then attempt to decide whose life is “better.” I can’t, and won’t, wonder whether Neto or myself had a “better” childhood. Such self-centered comparisons and judgments are silly. Every situation has its own roses and thorns, and such variation doesn’t indicate what’s “better” or “worse.” Rather, it shows the diversity of human experience, and the beauty that makes all cultures distinct. I am grateful to my campo family for introducing me to the beauty of Salvadoran family life, hence reminding me of the beauty of my own family.
*Eileen McFarland, Casa student Spring 2011