While she passes most of her time in Chalatenango proper where her family lives, and Soyapango where Carlos’s childhood home is – Suegra sometimes goes to visit her childhood home which is in a town in the mountains of Chalatenango called San Luis del Carmen.
I visited there one afternoon when we went to El Salvador. Against all my gringa instincts which screamed that I needed a seat belt, I rode in the back of a Tío’s pickup truck with my then one year old baby. They threw cushions from the sofa in to make the ride more comfortable. We rode up, up, up, stopped for some bony looking cattle to cross the road, and then up, up, up some more. San Luis del Carmen was very quiet. There was a pretty white church, typical Salvadoran-style cement block homes lining the road, the ever present chuchos aguacateros (street dogs), and a small store selling soda en bolsas and snacks.
Suegra’s modest childhood home has been kept in good repair despite being over 50 years old, though no one inhabits it. The home sits on a fair amount of land – the trees in the backyard are heavy with coffee beans.
That is how I remember San Luis del Carmen, so I was surprised when Suegra told me there are a lot of gringas there now – “jovenes, chelitas, americanas – como vos!” she says, though I imagine they are younger than me – maybe Peace Corp. volunteers or missionaries. She says they are pairing up with young Salvadoran men, (she emphasizes that they are dark-skinned country boys – “pero puro del campo!” she says, as if this made it more shocking, which to me it isn’t. Country boys have their charm though I married a city boy.)
Suegra went to San Luis during the feast day in December. During the festival, the town traditionally picks a “reina” (queen) … This year, the reina was one of the gringas.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this. I’m fascinated by the idea of an entire village that ten years from now may be made up of families that resemble my own. Part of me wonders if these girls know what they’re getting into. It’s one thing to marry a Salvadoran who has immigrated here – but quite another to marry a Salvadoran in El Salvador. My mind swirls with the compromises, sacrifices, and struggles they will face. Culture shock. Language barriers. Machismo. They are on his turf. They are on their suegra’s turf. As romantic as it appears on the outside, the situation raises many concerns.
Honestly, I do laugh a little imaging the phone calls home. The parents expect information about when to pick their precious daughters up at the airport now that their volunteer assignment has come to an end. Instead, their daughter’s voice sounding farther away than ever says, “Mom, Dad, I met someone here. I’m staying in El Salvador and getting married!” … Those poor gringo parents! …And then imagine when the parents go to El Salvador for the wedding. Will there be tears of joy or tears of sheer terror for what their daughter has done? (Oh wait, I’m just having flashbacks to my own wedding…jiji…)
But what about the relationships that don’t work out? What if they love each other but the girl desperately wishes to return home? It isn’t easy to adjust to a drastically different culture and way of life. It also isn’t that easy to bring your new novio with you thanks to immigration law which splits us all up into these man-made parcels called countries. Will the girls go home with broken hearts or will it be the muchachos who are left con el corazón en pedazos? (Either way, one must make the sacrifice of being away from their own family and culture.) If the girls stay in El Salvador, get married, start a family and then for whatever reason, end up divorcing, what happens with the children?
How do the Salvadoran women of San Luis del Carmen feel about this “invasion” of gringas? Do they feel animosity towards the gringas for “stealing” the men? Was it fair for an outsider to be chosen as the “queen” of the town?
If I were a sociologist, I know where I’d be buying a plane ticket to right now.