The importance of correct verb conjugation

We gathered around the back door, myself, Suegra and the boys, to watch the baby bird learning how to fly. His attempts weren’t successful and then he stopped trying – just sat there like a feathery lump, as if he had given up. The mother and father bird encouraged him, flapped their wings, flew from one point to another to demonstrate, but the baby bird seemed to look away with indifference.

Suegra clicked her tongue, “pobrecito,” she said.
My older son shook his head, “No puedo volar,” he commented.

I caught the wrong verb conjugation but didn’t want to correct him directly. Instead I just repeated what he said correctly so he would hear the difference and self-correct later.
“No,” I said sympathetically, “El pájarito no puede volar.”

Suegra snorted. She takes a more aggressive approach when the children make mistakes in Spanish.

“No ‘puedo volar’ decís. Como sos pajaro vos! Claro que no puedes volar, cipote.”

My older son sometimes gets defensive when corrected in this way. He doesn’t like being made fun of and can be kind of sensitive. This time he just smiled and flapped his arms.


Note for non-Spanish speakers:

The verb “poder” (to be able to) – is conjugated “puedo” to mean “I can” and “puede” for “he/she can” … By saying “No puedo volar” my son said “I can’t fly” instead of “No puede volar” to mean that the bird couldn’t fly.


Pobrecito – poor little thing
No puedo volar – I can’t fly
El pájarito no puede volar – The little bird can’t fly
No ‘puedo volar’ decís. Como sos pajaro vos! Claro que no puedes volar, cipote. – ‘I can’t fly’ you say. As if you’re a bird! Of course you can’t fly, kid.


Note for bird lovers:

The bird did eventually learn to fly. (Sí se puede!)

Tener miedo, o no tener miedo

[Scroll down for English translation!]

La casa de Carlos está en la parte más peligrosa de El Salvador, un barrio que se llama Los Santos 1 en Soyapango, San Salvador. Cuando fuimos en 1999, yo no sentía nada de miedo aunque habia grafiti de la mara en la pared de la casa del el vecino de enfrente, botellas de vidrio quebradas y alambre de espino de protección en la azotea y un bus abandonado en la calle. Tal vez me sentí demasiado abrumada de todo, no quedaba espacio en mi cuerpo de sentir miedo, no sé – pero estoy cierta que no sentía nada de peligro y que yo no tuve miedo de la gente. Fuimos andando en los buses, nuestros anillos de bodas de oro en los dedos, caminando en las calles – aún en la noche! Y con un bebé! Nadie nos amenazo ni nos robaron, nadie nos miro con malas intenciones – al contrario – todos nos saludaron con un “Buenas.”

Graffiti on a neighbor’s house / Soyapango, El Salvador 1999

An abandoned bus / Soyapango, El Salvador 1999

Barbed wire and broken glass bottles protect a rooftop / Soyapango, El Salvador 1999

Carlos and the baby – waiting for the bus / Soyapango, El Salvador 1999

Pero esta vez que regresamos a El Salvador, siento que tengo un poco de miedo. Quizás es porque soy más mayor de edad, más sabia, más cuidadosa … menos invencible. Tal vez es porque conozco a más salvadoreños y todos están diciendome la misma cosa – “Soyapango? Con cuidado, hermana.”

El otro día en la tienda, yo estaba buscando un bolso pequeño y discreto para llevar mi cámara a El Salvador.

“¿Y este?” dije, enseñado a mi Suegra un bolso negro que no parece nada especial y era tan chiquito que quedaba bien guardado en mi mano.

“¿Para qué es? respondio Suegra.

“Para mi cámara, cuando ando en el bus.”

Suegra hizo una inhalación brusca, “Y vas a llevar tu cámara en el bus?!”

“Pues, sí,” dije yo, “no puedo andar sin mi cámara.”

“Ay hermana, estás jodida,” dijo ella, mirándome con lástima.

“Este bolso no llama mucho la atención,” dije, defendiendome.

“Jaja! Te van a meter el cuchillo por quitarte esa bolsita, nana, no creas. Son brutos.” Ella señaló con su mano en su costado para dar énfasis.

Y allí está – el miedo. Respondí a Suegra que si alguien me jode, van a tener un gusto de mi puño. Han pasado años desde que practicaba las artes marciales, pero todavía tengo el instinto de lucha en lugar de correr, pero eso no significa que estoy llena de nada más que coraje.


Carlos’s house is in the most dangerous part of El Salvador – a neighborhood called Los Santos 1, Soyapango, San Salvador. When we went in 1999, I didn’t feel any fear at all even though there was gang graffiti on the neighbor’s wall across the street, broken glass bottles and barbed-wire protecting people’s rooftops, and an abandoned bus in the street. Maybe I was so overwhelmed by everything that it left no room in my body for fear – I don’t know – but I’m certain that I didn’t feel in danger and that I wasn’t afraid of the people. We rode the buses, our gold wedding bands on our fingers, we walked the streets – even at night! And with a baby! No one threatened us, or robbed us, no one looked at us with bad intentions – on the contrary – Everyone greeted us with the traditional Salvadoran, “Buenas.”

But this time as we return to El Salvador, I feel a little bit of fear. Perhaps it’s because I’m older, wiser, more careful… less invincible. Maybe it’s because I know more Salvadorans now and they’re all telling me the same thing, “Soyapango? Be careful, hermana.”

The other day at the store, I was looking for a small, discreet bag to carry my camara while in El Salvador.

“And this one?” I said, showing Suegra a black bag that looked like nothing special and was so small it fit inside my hand.

“What is it for? responded Suegra.

“For my camara, when I go on the bus.”

Suegra inhaled sharply, “And you’re going to take your camera on the bus?!”

“Well, yes,” I said, “I can’t go around without my camera.”

“Ay hermana, you’re screwed,” she said, looking at me with pity.

“This bag isn’t flashy, it doesn’t draw attention,” I said, defending myself.

“Ha! They’ll stab you to take that little bag from you, nana. You don’t believe it. They’re brutes.” She jabbed her hand in her side for emphasis.

And there it is – fear. I responded to Suegra that if someone messed with me, they’d get a taste of my fist. It’s been many years since I’ve practiced martial arts, but I still have the instinct to fight rather than run away – yet this doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m full of nothing but courage.


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Passports, luggage & tickets

Poco a poco, our trip to El Salvador is coming together, although we have come up against a few obstacles.

At the passport office.

First step, passports. Carlos needed an American passport, our oldest son was an infant in his expired passport photo, and our youngest had never owned one. (Mine also needed to be renewed.) At the passport office, the clerk was very friendly but she regretted to inform us that Carlos’s official Salvadoran birth certificate and official translation, didn’t meet their strict identification requirements. “We need one with a raised seal,” she said, running her finger across the flat piece of paper.

I laughed out loud. This certificate is his real birth certificate, not a copy. Good luck getting the government of El Salvador to send you another one designed to their specifications. (George Lopez voice: “Raised seal! ‘Ta loca, raised seal!”)

I pulled out Carlos’s Naturalization Certificate and the clerk agreed that this would work – pero – she wanted the original. Anyone who has gotten their papers knows that the Naturalization Certificate is something you guard with your life – they cost hundreds of dollars to replace – but we didn’t have a choice. We handed it over and she promised that once they were done processing the passport, they would send it back to us.

That was a few weeks ago and thankfully we’ve received three passports and Carlos’s certificate back in the mail. (My passport is still processing.)

Final cost of passports, almost $500. Ouch.

There was no way to cut costs on passports, but we thought maybe we could on luggage. My parents generously agreed to let us borrow some of their suitcases but they’re going to the beach two weeks before we plan to go to El Salvador, (which means I won’t be able to pack early as I like to do.) Another problem? My parents wrote their surname in big block letters across the front of each suitcase. Walking around El Salvador with an Anglo name scrawled on our bags will make us (okay, me), look even more conspicuous than I already am. I kind of don’t want to look like a tourist, if that’s even possible. My plan for blending in is:

#1. Speak Caliche
#2. Wear sunglasses (Carlos says my blue eyes will give me away)
#3. Avoid sunburn
#4. Don’t walk around with an Anglo name scrawled on my luggage

(If you have any other ideas, let me know.)

Anyway, determined not to buy new suitcases, we went to Goodwill. Their vast selection included a steamer trunk ala Titanic, (or “pirate box” as the boys called it), and a handful of smaller bags.

Arrrg! Here be the treasure to take to El Salvador!

In the end, we bought suitcases. Hopefully that means we’ll officially be traveling more.

The funny thing about buying the suitcases was that when we entered the luggage section of K-Mart where we ended up buying them, there was a guy who looked to be Latino in the aisle. He was wearing a fishing hat and clothes that suggested he might work in landscaping. (He also had side burns that would make Elvis jealous.) At first he said nothing to us – just kept pulling down suitcases, inspecting them, comparing them, and then putting them back.

I spoke to Carlos in Spanish, maybe a little louder than usual because I can be a show-off like that. The guy didn’t even look up. I tried again. Nothing. I shrugged and decided maybe he was Filipino or deaf. Then he cleared his throat and asked Carlos, “Vas en viaje, eh?”
“Sí, pero están bien caras las maletas, man,” Carlos said.
“Sí, muy caras,” the man said, inspecting a price tag.

They were quiet for a moment and then the guy spoke again, “Y a dónde vas?…Guatemala?”
“Cerca,” Carlos answered, “un poco más al sur. El Salvador,” Carlos said, eyeing the not deaf, not Filipino guy.
“Oh, disculpa. espero que no te insulté,” he said laughing.
“No, man. De ningún modo,” Carlos said, before asking, “y usted es de Guatemala?”
“No, de El Salvador también…”

I watched the conversation, noting how neither Carlos or the guy used the Salvadoran “vos” – The guy didn’t make eye contact with me, even when I asked if he wanted my older son to help him reach something on a high shelf. (My oldest son is taller than both Carlos and this guy.)

It was a strange encounter. What are the chances of two Salvadorans buying luggage in the same place at the same time? (Or one Salvadoran and one Guatemalan pretending to be Salvadoran? I’m not totally sure.)

Tickets were our next challenge. After sweating over the rising prices we kept finding online, Carlos finally called the travel agent. I don’t know how she was able to do it, but she got us direct flights on TACA at the price and dates that we wanted.

We now have three weeks to get it together and aren’t nearly ready. I’m relieved that passports, luggage and tickets are taken care of, but our last and greatest challenge still awaits.

Suegra is coming with us.

Statues + Boundaries

“Someone wants to come stay with you,” Suegra teased us weeks ago, knowing that Carlos has sworn off allowing family to come visit after some not-so-good experiences.

“What are you talking about,” Carlos demanded.

Suegra smiled, enjoying the game.

“Someone very special is coming to stay here at the house. She wants to live here.”

“Well, you better tell her she can’t come… Who is it?” Carlos said.

“It’s a surprise,” she said.

“¡Mamá!” Carlos said losing patience, “I told you that you can’t keep inviting people here.”

Suegra giggled, which had a maddening effect on Carlos. How could she think this was funny? Had she seriously lost her mind? This is our house and she has no right to invite anyone without our permission. We don’t even have an extra bed! Last time she invited cousins to live with us temporarily and they ended up sleeping on the floor.

“¡Mamá!” Carlos said, now obviously angry, “You better tell whoever it is that they can’t come. I’m serious.”

Suegra finally confessed that the “guest” that wanted to come live with us was the Virgin of Guadalupe – more specifically, a statue she had been secretly making payments on. She explained that she was buying the statue “for the household” and that she had only one payment left before she could take her home.

Finding out it was a statue and not a person did not make me or Carlos any happier. Not only has Suegra been warned about not inviting people to visit, she has been warned about re-decorating our home. Gifting this statue “to the household” is her sneaky way of adding something to the general living area that quite frankly, we really don’t want.

This isn’t about religion, this is about boundaries. Suegra has once again crossed a line and knowingly, purposefully, broken rules, despite all of the compromises we’ve made to allow her to live with us. If she wanted to buy a statue that would fit in her bedroom – that’s her business – we turned a blind eye to her destruction of our third bedroom with her junk collecting – but the rest of the house – that’s where we draw the line. She has her own living room in El Salvador, which she is free to decorate as she chooses – this living room is ours.

Carlos assured me he would “take care of it.”

Days later, Suegra asked Carlos to take her to the store to make the final payment and pick it up. At the store they discovered the statue was broken because the person who delivered it hadn’t been careful with the box. Carlos breathed a sigh of relief, thinking the problem had taken care of itself. The merchant collected the pieces that had shattered into a bag and offered to sell it to Suegra half price – Suegra likes a good deal. She still wanted to bring the broken statue home.

An hour later I heard Suegra and Carlos struggling to bring it in the front door.

I put my head in my hands and took deep breaths to calm myself before coming out to see it.

The statue stood almost as tall as my 9 year old. As I could have guessed, Suegra didn’t get a simple, tasteful statue – but one with added touches, like two angels crowning the Virgin… Y con todo el respeto, it looks like something you’d buy at a dollar store.

La Virgen doesn’t look right to me. The original image has her looking down and to her right, a neutral expression on her face. This statue has her smiling silly, like the Mona Lisa. The apparent rush paint job has the Virgin and the angel holding her up, looking a little cross-eyed. Instead of a simple base, the statue stands atop a mound of puffy, white clouds.

Even after an earnest attempt to glue back whatever I could, there are still many pieces missing. The statue is overly-big, broken, faux-fancy in a way that makes it look cheap, and inaccurate.

I do not like the statue, at all, but I rearranged furniture in silence, biting my tongue, to make room for the Virgin – trusting that Carlos would take care of it.

The next day, Suegra invited friends to our living room to visit the statue. The day after that she invited more friends. She brought them before it and bragged about what a fantastic statue it is and how she generously gifted it to the household. All of this seemed very wrong. You don’t brag about the Virgin of Guadalupe. It isn’t for showing off.

On the third day, Carlos and I went out together and temporarily left the boys in Suegra’s care. While we were out, our older son texted me, “She’s being really weird. She’s making us watch her sing songs to the statue and then she was dancing around ringing bells. She won’t leave us alone. We’re just trying to watch TV and she’s ringing bells in our ears!”

That’s when I decided enough was enough.

“The statue can’t stay. Please, you need to take care of this. She needs to find space for it in her room or donate it to a church or something,” I told Carlos, feeling guilty for the position he was in, but angry for the position I had been put in as well.

Carlos wanted to avoid drama and tried to find a solution that would create the least amount, (because at least some would be inevitable.) Compromising yet again, I agreed we could move the statue to the garden outside. Suegra narrowed her eyes at me as we prepared the spot in the fenced-in backyard on the side of the house where no one, including myself, will see it. She didn’t dare say anything to my face, but the next day during an unrelated argument with Carlos behind the closed door of her bedroom, she spit the words out, making sure to say it loud enough that it would reach my ears.

“¡Sacaste la Virgen y entró el diablo!”

This was followed by other random attempts to induce guilt in Carlos – to manipulate him into doing what she wants. When guilt didn’t work, she tried her other favorite psychological warfare weapon, religious fear: “God will punish you for treating your mother this way!”

These tactics used to have their desired effect, but Carlos has grown a lot this past year. Carlos has come out of denial and admitted to himself that she is emotionally abusive, mentally unstable – that she is selfish – that she isn’t a very good mother. He isn’t afraid anymore that God will punish him for admitting this truth. He knows it isn’t his fault though she would have him believe it. Things have changed. Her words can’t hurt or control him like they once did. She’s like a cat that has been de-clawed – her swipes at him are harmless soft-padded paws, failing to dig deep and bring blood to the surface.

The statue stays outside. Suegra stays locked in her bedroom, praying that God will punish us.

Crying in El Salvador

When we went to El Salvador in 1999, I was woefully under-prepared. With a trip to Europe and an afternoon in Tijuana under my belt, I thought I knew what to expect, but El Salvador threw me for a loop.

The weather was hot, I got sunburn and a urinary tract infection, the mosquitoes ate me alive, Suegra arranged for the baptism of my baby without permission, I had to sleep in a hammock, no one in the family had hot running water – (and that’s when the water wasn’t completely shut off), the baby had colic and cried almost non-stop, there were no seat belts so I thought we would all die in a car crash and I was starving because my gringo doctor scared me off eating most of the food saying I could get really sick.

After spending a sleepless night being eaten alive by mosquitoes and trying to hush my colicky baby, Suegra insists we have our son baptized. As you can see, I was crying.

It was unbearably hot and the baby was crying too. Even though I told the Tio not to, he began to strip off the baby’s clothes to cool him down.

More crying. (Carlos and the baby.)

The baby got to bathe in water warmed on the stove. I wasn’t so lucky.

Carlos enjoys a coconut and a break from all the crying.

On a pony… getting ready to cry.

And yet, ever since we left I’ve been saying that I want to go back — I guess I’ve always known that none of this was El Salvador’s fault – it was my fault because I wasn’t ready for it and I was being a spoiled American, (and come on, traveling with a baby can be hell even under the best circumstances.) I could see El Salvador’s beauty even through my tears. There was so much I loved, but I was so completely overwhelmed that I couldn’t take the time to experience it the way I wanted to. The only thing that has prevented another visit has been the expense – year after year, we just haven’t been able to afford it.

More than a decade later, everything has fallen into place so that we’re finally able to return, and the kids, (thankfully at an age that won’t require diaper changes or preparing bottles) – deserve to see where their father came from – a place which probably seems more make-believe than real to them at this point. El Salvador – as if Carlos and I invented a fairytale land of volcanoes, paletas, stray dogs, careening buses, pupusas, debris of war, the sound of green parrots flapping their wings, unexpected downpours which disappear as suddenly as they came.

And so, we re-new our passports with plans to travel sometime in August. We hope to bring back plenty of photos of us smiling, laughing, eating pupusas, climbing a volcano, riding the bus, and abandoning Suegra at a Tio’s house, lest she unexpectedly arrange my forced baptism.


Related Links:

The Pichichi
El Policía

My Salvadoran Crocodile Dundee

[Today is Spanish Friday but I won’t be translating my entire post to Spanish today. Instead I will offer some vocabulary and phrase translations of the Spanish that appears within the dialogue at the end of the post.]

“Is that a snake?”

It was too late to be going anywhere, but Carlos and I were in the car, pulling out of the driveway. The plan was to sneak out and get ice cream without the kids or Suegra tagging along. The headlights lit up something black and twisted by the side of the road near our mailbox.

“Nene, that’s just trash or something.”
“No.” He put the car in park and opened the door, “that’s a snake.”

I got out too, rolling my eyes. That big, black, twisted thing was just a trash bag or something. Where did he think we lived? The Amazon Rainforest? As if a snake that big would just be hanging out near our mailbox.

We walked up to the object. I carelessly walked closer to it than Carlos. The “piece of trash” slithered.

“Oh my God,” I said, backing up and standing behind Carlos, “it’s a snake!”
“I know,” he said, “I need a flashlight, I can’t see it well.” He started back towards the house, leaving me and the snake to entertain each other.

The snake started to move towards our house. I picked up a big rock and threw it in his path, but missed. I threw another rock which landed right in front of his nose. The snake reared back and opened his little mouth. I stood my ground, armed with another rock, freaked out but determined not to let it anywhere near the house, until Carlos returned with a flashlight and a broom, the kids and Suegra trailing behind.

Carlos uncoiled the snake with the broom and it became clear that it was at least 4 feet long and, venomous or not, aggressive. The original plan was to carry the snake on the broom over to the nearby woods but the snake did not cooperate, and instead made every attempt to come at us or go towards our house.

Suegra kept telling Carlos to throw it in the road so the passing cars could run over it.
“Ay! Dejala, hijo,” she pleaded, “Las culebras pueden tirar veneno a tus ojos y vas a quedar ciego!” (She must have seen an episode about spitting cobras on National Geographic en español.)

“I’m going to have to kill it,” Carlos said to me. We didn’t want to, especially not knowing if it was even dangerous, but we didn’t want to take the chance of it getting into our house and hurting the kids.

“Traigame algo por matarla,” Carlos said to no one in particular.

Suegra and our youngest son ran off for the house.

Suegra returned first… with a weed whacker.

“Mamá,” Carlos said, exasperated. “Cómo voy a matarla con eso?”

Our youngest son, an animal lover, came out of the house with the white bucket that Suegra uses for washing her chones.

“Can we just capture it?” he asked, holding out the bucket.
“Cipote!” she said, grabbing it from him, “No! Con mi cumbo, no!”

“Get the machete,” Carlos said. I went to our closet and got the machete.

Carlos chops the head off

Doing away with the body, which was still moving

Head of the snake on the tip of the machete

All of the commotion attracted a crowd of gringo kids who had been playing flashlight tag or something in the neighbor’s yard.

“Dude, what’s going on?” one of the gringo kids said to my older son, seeing Carlos with the machete, looking like some sort of Salvadoran Crocodile Dundee.

“My Dad killed a snake,” my older son answered, his voice calm, as if this was a normal activity for our family.

I really wanted Carlos to ask me if I was alright after the whole snake thing went down so I could be silly and use a line from the movie, but he was too busy putting everything back in the shed that Suegra had thrown all over the yard when she had pulled out the weed whacker.

…but since it’s my blog, I’m going to pretend that he turned to me as he re-sheathed the machete.

“You alright?”
“I’m always alright when I’m with you, Carlos.”

—Vocabulary for this post—

Nene – baby (term of endearment, from woman to man.)
Machete – A big ass knife
Suegra – mother-in-law
Culebra – Snake
Chones – Underwear
Ay! Dejala, hijo – Ay! Leave it, son
Las culebras pueden tirar veneno a tus ojos y vas a quedar ciego – Snakes can spit venom in your eyes and you’ll be left blind
Traigame algo por matarla – Bring me something to kill it
Mamá, Cómo voy a matarla con eso? – Mama, how am I going to kill it with this?
Cipote – kid/male child (Salvadoran slang)
No! Con mi cumbo, no! – No, not with my bucket! (“Cumbo” means container or bucket. Salvadoran slang.)


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Drunk on Happiness

It was sometime last year, during the summer, that I stopped at a gas station downtown while out running errands, having found my tank on empty once again.

Suegra happened to be along for the ride, sitting next to me in the passenger seat. I pulled up to the pump and shut the car off. As I blindly rummaged in my bag to find my debit card, I watched a couple cross the parking lot, laughing so hard that they had to hold onto one another for support as they walked. I began to smile, feeling their infectious happiness, but Suegra clicked her tongue.

“Borrachos,” she muttered, shaking her head.
“Drunks?” I said, “Maybe they’re just happy?”
Suegra looked at me like I was stupid. I shrugged my shoulders and got out of the car.

The rest of the day, and even a year later, I still think about that moment because it so clearly demonstrates how one’s outlook on life can change any situation.