Zacatecoluca sounds like “sacate la peluca” (remove the wig in Spanish) to us, but for the Salvadorans it is something simpler: Zacate= grass, and tecoluca= owl. We don’t know exactly why we entered the city of Zacatecoluca, but we clearly know why we stayed. The view of its imposing Cathedral with the corresponding park across the street all perfectly laid out –the opposite to what we had observed in the tight and messy markets of other parts of El Salvador– surprised us and captured our attention. Asking around, we reached Father Francis; a great motivating engine of social activities in the city, who rapidly added us to his hyperactive agenda introducing us to the referent volunteers of the projects that he manages in this community that is so beaten up and so sensitive to poverty, civil war and the current ‘maras’ or gangs. But, he doesn’t fight alone in this city, Guadalupe, from his desk (when she is found there) is another ‘altruistic’ –as she is called– which by the way reflects exactly what the Spanish Real Academy sustains in its definition ‘Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness’.
Guadalupe is 51 years old and since she was young she has always had a need to help others, offering the food from her own plate to someone who didn’t have even if she was left hungry, under the surprised stare of her mother. She makes flesh the phrase of the Saint of Calcutta, “Give until it hurts”; she never tires of giving, giving and giving what little she has. To be truthfully, it seems that often happens to her, to be left without any money for her own food; she gives without sparing and gives herself out without sparing.
In one of the 15 daily meetings of Father Francis, we met part of the volunteers who form this wide web that is silently extending their efforts, supporting and visiting old people in need, sick people, children and families in conditions of extreme poverty, training teachers, making doctors and nurses stronger in moral values, distributing basic household provisions, obtaining clothes, providing legal assistance, and so many other things. They get together as a fighting team, putting aside their religions or beliefs to join forces and help the youth go forward, encouraging activities to keep them away of the streets, the guns and the gangs. This work is imperceptible, silent but so intrinsically helpful in a country where ordinary people are afraid to leave their houses when the sun comes down, terrified of the violence that gains more adepts absorbed by gangs in search of an easy way to obtain money. While Francis runs against the clock, organizes, orders, delegates, smiles, encourages, pushes and enlightens those who surround him being practical and firm at the same time; Guadalupe visits the families of the most margined areas, listens to them, understands them, provides counselling and guidance, spends time with them and dignifies them being affectionate and realistic at the same time. Both fight against the current in a country where violence and gangs scare most of the people. They are conscious that with love, work and dedication they can transform this fear and intimidation into value and hope for so many young people.
Francis is always in search of economic support, covering needs and various urgencies, while at the same time he brings a man to the hospital and tries to get him the medicine; he does the impossible to help everyone, and also to create projects to form the teachers of every school in moral values, vegetable garden or plants nursery programs, etc. On the way he tells us about Guadalupe, always deviating away the attention from himself; emphasizing her actions he tells us: “She doesn’t take into consideration the risks; in order to achieve her objectives, she deals with catholics, protestants, pastors, gang’s chiefs, etc. She is able to exchange ideas with each of them, adapting to everyone and pulling others to get help. She is very sensitive towards sick and old people. She may not feed her family as a consequence of feeding other people, it has happened lots of times. We have taken buses full of people, and maybe she has not eaten for a whole day, nevertheless she shares what she has with those who don’t have anything, or she openly gives them all she has.” Leonor, her daughter’s godmother, who works with the old people, also tells us that “she has always cooperated in the different areas, with children, old people; she has even asked help from the politicians in order to help them. When there are catastrophes, she really gets moving, helps everyone, organizes, get buses to take the people, help them, etc. How does she get food to feed them? Only Gods knows. She could be in a higher position at work, but from where she is she can reach more people, she can do what her heart dictates her and dedicate more time to them; I admire her, she goes to muddy places, rains and cliffs, places I would be scared to death to go! It was extremely hard for her to lose her daughter and her mother at the same time, but she recovered because she is always working for others, and doesn’t expect rewards.”
Some years ago, while she was doing a field work for the local municipality, Guadalupe met –where she later got completely involved in on her own– one of the most needy and dangerous communities on the outskirts of Zacatecoluca, the Cosme Espesote neighbourhood, which is kind of isolated due to the terrible conditions of the roads and the bad reputation even though it is just 8 minutes away from downtown. It’s been a long time since she has assumed responsibility for the community, and they had made a place in their hearts for her, opening their doors to her, calling her in an affectionate way Lupita. She is the only ‘guest’ that can enter, (informing in advance and with the presence of a reference from the neighbourhood Lillia), not even the police dares to enter that area. “Some guest has been sent back wearing only his underwear (and he was lucky) because they are tired of being lied to, no one can enter there, and they respect me, because I respect them and I want to help them.” She invited us to go with her, and we noted that she is not afraid of anything nor anyone, and she would repeat constantly: “We are going in the name of God, nothing will happen to us”, while she enters with her own car, dodging holes (the condition of these holes on the road made her engine fall down once), not considering consequences, not even thinking about herself but her commitment towards them. She has been dedicating her time for more than 5 years to these 180 families, helping them with everything that she can. We can see it in the thousands of pictures she shows us of old or sick people to whom she acquired wheelchairs or medicine. Putting ourselves in her shoes for just a while, we met a community who feels discriminated and rejected, that tries to go forward with a desperate wish to work with her, who is constantly guiding them and supporting them in their Bakery project, homemade marmalades and bijou that would provide work for many of them who cannot leave the community for their own safety. She knows everyone, and everybody knows her, they call her name in the corners and invite her to their houses, they want to show her a sick person, ask for her advice, tell her about someone who needs her help, ask her about the Bakery project, show her the finished bracelets and necklaces or maybe just wondering if she was able to get the paint to make the neighbourhood look better. She devotes her time to all of them, specially listening to them and taking care of the sick people, taking them to the hospital, getting them clothes, food from donations that Father Francis receives or from raffles.
Curiously, they call each other “brother” and “sister”; and Guadalupe with her deep sensitivity feels them like that: “There is something inside me that when I can’t give something, I cry, I feel that they are my children; and if they are old people, I feel they could be my mother.” Guadalupe suffered the loss of her 3 year old daughter and her own mother in an accident 7 years ago, but nothing deterred her from her service to others, that built-in energy that makes her give and give herself to others, never pausing for a break, always searching to give more, completely giving herself out: “The Lord took my mother, but gave me thousands of mothers more in exchange; He took my daughter, but gave me thousands of daughters more, far more in need than mine.”
To get an idea of her generosity, we asked Guadalupe what she would do if she was given a big house in San Salvador, and she told us: “I would go there, but I would bring people with me! I used to have children at home, their mothers would leave them with me because they couldn’t take care of them, so I would look after them, bathe them, send them to school, heal them; then the mothers liked to have them back when they were clean and healthy, so now they ask me to take care of their children when they are sick, because they know that I can give them the medicine in the right time so they may heal well. I have always prayed in my life; my dream is to have a house for children and old people abandoned, all my life I wanted to take care of children and old people, those who have no one to look after them! I have always wondered why I felt like that. When one cannot help out, one can feel like crying, many times I don’t want to feel it because it hurts so much! It is that deep feeling, as if I had a little spine very deep inside, a feeling of love so deep… and I feel that so many people don’t have it. I feel very bad looking at someone who is hurting, I have to do something, I can’t stay there with my arms crossed, it always happened to me since I was a little child. And no, I don’t get tired of it, look when I was 7 years old, we had a farm where I would go to pick up mangoes, there was a little girl poorly fed, her ribs could be seen from her skin; her mother was a prostitute and would leave her alone all day, so I would look after her and give her food, I would ask my mother to buy milk for her. One day I went under a mango tree and asked God to help me, so I could assist this little girl, because it hurt me so much to see her suffering. Immediately I felt the presence of the Virgin of Guadalupe, I don’t remember what happened afterwards….but that really marked my life, deeply!”
Guadalupe suffers her commitment intensely, not because of the dedication itself, but because it brings consequences to her personal life. “My kids complain because sometimes I give away their clothes to other young kids who need it; but I know that someday I’ll be able to buy them new clothes, while these young kids don’t have anything at all; they have a strong resentment towards me; it is because of the time, they complain why I dedicate so much time to others and not to them; they may not have everything but at least they have food and clothes, while there are others that don’t even have that.” This bad feeling not only increased as time goes by, but got worse when she helped someone who had been shot in the street into her car; her teenage daughter received 2 shots from the same place. Guadalupe remembers: “I became crazy, I requested so much to the Lord, I told Him that I would have done the same thing He would have done if He had seen someone shot lying in the street, but that He dare not take my daughter away, I had taken care of His stuff, He better take care of mine!. Thank God the shot was close to the lungs without even touching them,” she shares with much pain, “But all this hardened my daughter’s heart and she says to me: You see mom, you see what happens when you are helping out other people”.
Guadalupe doesn’t have a bulky salary or a comfortable economic position, but she doesn’t hesitate, not even for a second to offer her food to someone who doesn’t have it, even if it means she will not to eat till the following day. For unknown reasons, she receives half the salary of other bosses like her, and also after the accident, she had to obtain a mortgage from her house, leaving her with 118 dollars a month to live with her daughter. She never complains, nevertheless she doubled her effort in helping out and goes beyond, dedicating herself to help others: “I don’t know how, but here I am. It is not easy, but my objective is to help others. In my relationship with the Lord, I like to fast, as a sacrifice to help someone. Today I’m not having supper and tomorrow I’m not eating breakfast either, as an offering to the Lord; and when I’m in these situations is when I’m offered the best meals, but for me is more important my commitment with the Lord. This is when it gets more difficult, but when it is more worthy. I ask for His help, because I can’t do it alone; many times I was without any money or any food left, but I’m not going to get away from the Lord because of this.”
Yes, it surprises us her enviable faith, a blind trust and a completely uninterested devotion; at the same time she feels pampered, because despite all the difficulties that she went through, she doesn’t give up and keeps on fighting, submitting her effort and changing the lives of so many people. When we say that she is pampered, we are referring to the evident presence of Someone who wants her healthy and alive, to continue to be a tool of help, feeding and making her faith grow, making her breast cancer the size of a baseball ball disappear suddenly in a day, like many other things that she receives. “Some days I don’t even have anything to eat, but it is incredible how those days, someone appears with a chicken soup bowl or something else. It is on those days when I am in more need of food! I have even found money on the street when I didn’t have anything at all!”
We see her being brave like the Zorro and she is alone… Or maybe not so lonely. At first glance we would say that she is alone, someone who suffered the violence from her husband and decided to take a different path with her kids; but she has a bodyguard who saves her from everything, who gives her the strength to multiply her efforts every day a little more. Her struggle is not easy, and despite all the hard tests she has to face, she never doubts about God, even when she was asked where God was when she was being beaten or when her daughter and her mother passed away. Without hesitation she emphasizes that her god is ALWAYS beside her. The same as Francis, who has the same bodyguard, who goes with him everywhere he goes, through the streets and fields in the hot summer days and the scary deserted nights of Zacatecoluca.
[Note: Mysteriously all the pictures were damaged; these are the only 2 left…]