“I don’t like serious people,” she says to me. We’re standing along a night-time two-lane highway next to the smoking Ford Ranger, hood propped open. We’ re three hours into our road trip. We just called the police to see about getting a ride to the nearest big city, San Miguel, but they tell us they have no gas. This is no place to be stuck, but here we are. “Hay que reirse o no vale la pena,” she says. You’ve gotta be able to laugh or it’s not worth it.
Her name is Gloria, but she goes by Negra, and she is 25. She studies physical therapy at the National University. Six of us are accompanying Negra this weekend in an annual pilgrimage with her community back to a parcel of land in Honduras. The UN High Commission on Refugees built a camp there to receive them as they fled the Civil War, and for nine years her family lived in exile. Negra was born in the refugee camp. Her history has led her to this night with us, when she's standing on an abandoned stretch of dangerous highway next to a totaled truck, and laughing.
We finally arrive to her home community of Segundo Montes in the department of Morazan late that night, and our sunrise awakening comes too soon. A quick cup of coffee and then we're driving the winding rock road to Honduras in the back of a rollicking cargo truck bulging with the people of Segundo Montes, kicking up Negra's memories along with plumes of dust. “We lived well here,” she says. “We always had beans, corn, tortillas, bananas from the trees.”
Life inside a refugee camp is highly regulated. Refugees cannot leave the territory; enforcement soldiers roam and shoot on sight of an attempted escape. The only supplies available are those that are shipped in by the United Nations. Thus, Negra didn’t taste soda until she was six years old and returned to El Salvador. She didn’t know what potato chips were. Negra remembered, “Hondurans would cross into the camp with fruit that didn’t grow inside our area,” she said, “and we were like the damn natives forking over gold to the Spaniards: we handed over pounds of beans and corn to the Hondurans for a few pieces of fruit.” I gaze out. These are the same hills that greeted the sea-legged Spaniards hundreds of years ago.
Negra brings me back. She's talking about how a kid lives cordoned off by rifles instead of picket fences. “One day, a bunch of us decided to play soccer in a flat patch, but it was a little outside the camp territory. Suddenly the soldiers appeared with their guns, poised to shoot, and we ran like crazy people. We got back inside and fell down laughing. Whoo! We made it!” We drive past a thick bunch of trees on the crest of a hill: “Oh, there! Daniela, the kids used to do theater shows, reenactments of natives running out of those trees with painted faces and sticks for spears.” A little further on: “See there? That was the health clinic. And there? That was the school.” All I can see are flat patches of land stuck suddenly among the hills, overgrown. We're driving through Negra's past.
When she was five, Negra experienced her first car ride. She had seen the four-wheel drive UN beasts but didn’t know what they were. Once, an official invited her to ride with him as he distributed grains around the camp. As the jeep shifted into gear, she exclaimed to the man, “The trees are moving!” She and friends spent all afternoon riding around, savoring the wonder of this new thing, but had forgotten to tell their families where they were. “When we got home, boy, were we in trouble,” she says. “They had given us up for dead.”
We arrive at a cemetery and hop off the truck. This is Negra’s principal reason for returning here every year: to clean her mother’s grave. Her mom was seventeen when she died in an accident in the camp, when Negra was one. We begin to pull weeds from the simple mound topped by a circle of stones and a wooden cross. Negra’s constant joking banter quiets, and instead, she's grabbing at each fleck of weed as if it were a premature gray streak in her ebony hair. She places and replaces the rose arrangements she has brought to adorn the grave, her aunt and younger cousin chiming in from behind: “No, tie it against the cross, it’ll be more balanced that way.” Negra steps back. Raises her finger to her lips, hushed, concentrating. Steps forward to pluck out the shiny plastic heart that the florist placed in the center of the bunch, blows the dust off the top, puts it back in. Steps back, finger to her lips. It’s ok. She sits in place, crosses her legs, gazes at her mother’s mound. She doesn’t look sad, but she does look connected to this place, serious. Pulled into the moment.
Then, the spell breaks. She’s back to her banter. We crack open the fresh tortillas and cheese for lunch, wash it down with Pepsi.
Some members of Segundo Montes decide it's time to take a walk. We wander the mountainous green hills that surround the camp. A few women who were guerrilla fighters during the war are accompanying us. They laugh when they spy a familiar tree that was a landmark, a meeting space. One of the women hasn't been back to this land since the end of the war. She left her family and picked up her rifle when she was fifteen, living bunkered in these hills for ten years. Today upon returning, she is sobered, even while flanked by playful Negra and friends. The women navigate the unmarked paths through the endless corn and brush. They look like they also sprouted from this land.
"Where are we going?" I ask, wading through green. Negra laughs, "We're just walking." She pauses, nods her head. "Yeah. We lived well."
- 20 December 2009
(Photos courtesy of photographer Pat Flajole. See more of Pat's work at http://picasaweb.google.com/PFlajole. Thanks also to Pat and Dan Nemes for editing help to get this little adventure down on paper.)