[Note: Tara McGovern is an anthropology major at UIUC. She is conducting ethnographic research in El Salvador this summer on Salvadoran youths’ memories of the civil war and experiences of violence. This is the second post we have published from Tara about her summer experience. The first was written on May 31 and is available online here: https://anthroillinois.wordpress.com/2011/06/06/musings-on-the-eve-of-fieldwork-by-tara-mcgovern/. Her project is funded by the National Science Foundation, and she is being supervised by Prof. Ellen Moodie, who is conducting her own research for a new NSF-funded project in El Salvador this summer.]
A Day in the Life: The Household of a Single Mother
I shivered with the shock of cold water on sweaty skin, standing up quickly only to smack my head on the roof beam. I cursed loudly in English and hunched my shoulders beneath the low ceiling, hesitantly scooping more cold water out of the pila to dump on myself again. Carmen´s musical laugh trilled out the window. “¿Te gusta bañar, Tara?” she called, “Do you like bathing, Tara?”
Bathing, I learned quickly, is a focal point in the daily praxis of rural Salvadorans. It is absolutely necessary to bathe before leaving the house, no matter the hour. You stand naked, outside, dumping bowls full of cold water on yourself. The water comes from the pila, a giant waist-high cement box filled with water–the shape and size makes me think of a sarcophagus. Every task that requires water—bathing, dishwashing, laundry– is accomplished by scooping water out of the pila with wide flat-bottomed plastic bowls, called huacals. I’ve become much more conscious of how much water we use every day, just in one household, just by watching the water level in the pila sink lower and lower and lower with every huacal scooped out. We can only refill the pila every two days, when water runs out the tap at one end for just a few hours. The water caye oscuro, “falls dark” — that is, it looks cloudy and grey, despite the water purification system installed for the community last year.
To answer Carmen’s question, I actually do like bathing. I look forward to it, as a refreshing relief from the afternoon heat, not to mention the creeping stench of one’s own sweat. In fact, many would-be inconveniences about rural Salvadoran life have benefits as well. The house is always full of smoke from the cooking fire, but the smoke keeps away mosquitoes and eliminates the inevitable mildew of the rainy season. Food cooked over a fire tastes wholesome. Clothes scrubbed by hand are significantly cleaner than those from a washing machine. After drying on the lines outside, they smell like sun and jungle breeze. I find Carmen’s house incredibly warm and welcoming.
I hesitate to call Carmen my “host-mom.” Barely older than I am, she’s more of a friend, and guide, than a “mom.” It didn´t take her long to realize exactly how dumb the gringa in her house was—that I was totally lost on the most common-sense things about being a Salvadoran woman. She has the patience to teach me everything—how to light a fire with the fragrant fast-burning ocote wood, how to dig and peel sweet pale yucca tubers from the backyard, how to fry bananas, how to bathe, how to clean the house, how to wash clothes, how to clean rice and prepare beans. As she moves through the house, she tells me stories about her family, explains folk expressions to me, and corrects my faulty pronunciation. When I moved in, I stowed away the lofty theoretical questions of my project and concentrated on learning the lifestyle of Carmen.
No matter what time I set my alarm, Carmen is up before me–washing clothes. The degree of cleanliness Salvadoran women maintain is incredible. Carmen is always washing something–laundry, the refrigerator, the hearth, the floor, the walls, the pila, her young daughter, herself. I think Carmen´s house is far cleaner than even the most germophobic houeshold in a first-world country, let alone a US college student´s apartment.
Carmen´s life is raw and complicated, too complicated for a blog post, but just to give a glimpse: Carmen (name changed), 23 years old, is the single mother of a bright four-year-old girl, María. Single motherhood is very common; of the women my age I have met, about fifty percent have one or more children and no partner to speak of. Hand-to-mouth is the only way to describe their existence. I literally watch the cash—five to ten dollars, no more—pass from Carmen’s hand to her little red purse to the hand of the storekeeper when she brings back a few days’ worth of food. Carmen makes artesanías (handicrafts)–necklaces and earrings from seeds, shells, and other organic materials she finds on the ground. She sells them to friends, neighbors, and tourists when she can. This income, however, is insufficient. Like many other women I’ve talked to, Carmen desperately wants to find trabajo fijo, steady work, in this region of Morazán. “It´s not that I don´t have time to work, or that I don´t want to work,” she says. “It´s that there is no opportunity to work.” My presence in Carmen’s house, while very welcoming on a social level, has the economic dimension of two solid months of food security.
The gendered division of labor appears to be relatively strict. Women can wash clothes ($5 per day, maximum) or make tortillas; men can work the cornfields ($7 per day, maximum) or construction. Jobs are extremely temporary—lasting at most three months, more frequently only a day or two. The father of Carmen´s daughter lives nearby and visits frequently—visits that Carmen tolerates only because he pays voluntary child support whenever he finds work. Many young people leave Morazán for other parts of El Salvador, or for the United States, just to support themselves. However, most don’t want to leave. Morazén is exceptionally beautiful and peaceful, a sharp contrast with the cities of El Salvador, where more than ten people per day die as a result of gang violence. Even more dangerous is the long road of illegal immigrants to the United States, which many people are nonetheless compelled to take.
When she was younger, Carmen wanted to study medicine, travel, discover other places; now, at the age of 23, she is resigned to do whatever she can to ensure the survival of her daughter. “She will know other places. She will get out of here,” Carmen says, softening her sharp dark eyes as she watches her daughter prance around the room. I swallow the bittersweet taste of privilege that rises in my mouth when Carmen says things like this. It’s become clear in our conversations that I have the life that she wants, and both of us know it. Carmen has shown me the most intimate details of her life; now all I want to is to bring her and little María back to the U.S. to show them my life. But this can never be, for a thousand reasons. The unfairness of it all makes me angry sometimes. What good is my “privilege” if I can’t do anything with it? If all I can do for Carmen is make sure she has food for a few months? I said this to Carmen once. She only half-smiled and said what Salvadorans tell me every day: “Así es la vida.” “That’s life.”