1.12 / Rubbernecking

Shit Disturbances: Being Angry, Being Hungry, and Being Around in Colima, El Salvador

By April 7, 2010

This essay will appear in the upcoming issue of Talking Cure: Spring 2010.

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La Casa de Salud, Colima, El Salvador, 2008

We are all angry. We divide into teams, one team continuing a double-digging excavation of the top two feet of soil outside the neighborhood health center; the other separating a week’s worth of school trash into compost, recycling, and waste. We are disgusted with this patch of land and what it holds, which is nothing less than the residue of the military, corporate, and agricultural imperialisms that bind ‘our’ country there to ‘this’ country, here, and which showcases differences of culture and politics that run all the way to where we put our garbage or what we consider garbage, and perhaps who we consider garbage as well. We absorb the humors of the compost the school has been saving for our arrival, and we gingerly collect the syringes and ampoules from the health center’s front yard in order to make way for three raised garden beds, a patio, and several compost piles that will be tended by the school across the way . The families who help us will add a seed library system, a plant exchange, and a medicinal herbal garden. All the stakeholders are here working, including the schoolchildren, their teachers, their mothers and fathers, maligned uncles, unemployed aunts, grandparents, and babies, as well as our group: students from San Francisco State University's Colima Project in El Salvador, professional artists, a resident gardener, an herbalist, a videographer, and a project assistant from San Salvador. We are all angry, and hungry— angry at what we see in this soil,and hungry about the same.

After each day in the garden, we return to the conference room, which doubles as our dining room, and let down the screen nets against the mosquitoes and flies. After dinner, we hold our evening meetings, as many as three or four per week. We give and listen to lectures on local history, permaculture design, and Spanish language poetry. We offer language lessons, prepare for workshops, and try to map the continents and their countries, checking ourselves against a worn pocket atlas. Sometimes, the cooks sit with us for a minute before they walk home, using their cell phones as lights to make their way across town, which is dark after six-thirty. More often, they run through the rain with umbrellas borrowed from the bodega, and we close the 400-year-old doors to keep out the wind.

Outside the Hacienda, the town maintains approximately ten streetlights for its six neighborhoods. Town residents often tell us that the only reason to go out of the house is to go to evening culto at the Adventist church (children’s service is from 9 – 12 on Fridays), or to play the slot machines at the local billiard. There are ways that the culto and the billiard provide the same balm to the anxiety of never having enough. These are the two lit, public places in town after eight, when the little convenience stores close up and the merchants bring their produce, candies, cigarettes, and phone cards inside.

 

Colima, El Salvador, March 2009 via email to Anne Walsh

The father and son on the computer behind me in this cyber café are playing an English learning game, which seems to involve animals and poker: “The gentleman calls.” “Third.” “All fall.” “Cow.” “River.” “I win.”

 

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Images: Traditional medicinal preparations of herbs found in Colima, El Salvador. Written by Iris Cruz for a medicinal garden project at Colima's health center and translated by Amanda Eicher.

The crows stand open-mouthed in the heat. Their usually sparkle-eyed gloat now appears slightly defeated, their doglike qualities revealed.

I cross the road to Griselda’s house, but no one is home. With the dryness of the season, the garden has withered, and the chickens scrape around in the dust behind a tiny wagon Daniel has built out of a crate. Clothes hang around on the bushes, waiting to be washed. All of a family’s undone errands can be seen when the plants lose their foliage.

*

Today I am going to work with Griselda; she looks after cows before school every day. She stopped me in the road yesterday to invite me to come, saying, “The place where I take the cows, it’s really beautiful. So beautiful.” She seems happy. I visited her brother at the house yesterday; things seem more tumultuously wrecked than ever there (clothes strewn about the yard; a strange scene inside the non-working refrigerator involving some boughs of a fake Christmas tree, eggs, and a few quarter-bottles of soda), but it could just be the dry season—everyone’s gardens have withered, and the houses just stand by themselves, pretty vulnerable-looking.

All this year, I am afraid to write about Colima, because of a critique delivered by my classmate—he commented that, in a passage about a conflict resolution on a hilltop during a storm, I compared a group of children too much to nature, describing them in the same sentence with some leaves blowing around in the wind. I edited the passage out of the essay. However, remembering Griselda indicating the playa— beach—of water lilies in a pond behind her house where she grazes her neighbor’s cows, I want to continue learning from her how she understands this place, and I don't want to leave. I am by myself this time in Colima, though, and my stay is almost over.

Griselda comes to visit me after school, the day before I leave. Her face is growing wider, her jaw more angular. I tell her I’ll see her tomorrow, but I wish she would stay the night in the Hacienda, just for her to feel something special between school, work, and school again— a real bed, a swim in the pool. Her uniform is immaculate. She is ready to turn fifteen.

Oakland, California, Winter, 2010

Morena calls me at five o clock on the Tuesday after New Year’s. I know it’s urgent because the calls come fast together; when I pick up and ask her how she is, she tells me she’s bad. Another accident has happened on the highway, and two children were killed, just like last summer when our friend Chica’s daughter Ana died, hit on the curve. They were crossing the road to the water pump, and a car came around the bend without its lights on. It hit them at eight P.M. on December 31, and they both died around 2:30 A.M. on New Year’s Day. It’s a hard new year for Colima, Morena tells me. They had no pavo navideño this year in her part of the neighborhood, but they may be able to find someone's goat for the funeral.

I always say I am not sure why I continue to work in El Salvador after seven years, with my Spanish language picked up on the spot. But then I remember the sense of being right at home when I first arrived as an artist-in-residence with San Francisco State University’s Colima Project in El Salvador, and coming to understand this phrase, Sentir a la casa, sometime in the second year at a party near the Hacienda. To feel at home in Colima means to eat someone’s goat, even though it has eaten trash soaked in pesticides at the edge of the fields—or the fire that seared it may have been stoked with the plastic lid of a paint can—because it is a goat gotten or raised by someone we know. It is the goat is in front of you, and the next fire or the next goat might grow up in the midst of different circumstances. Sentir a la casa also means to have friends to show you how they live, a family to help you live with that, and an invitation to return. Sentir a la casa means a site that one can enter.

Working with groups of students and professionals from year to year in Colima, our approach tends to stress that we spend time observing, forming questions and opinions, and then confronting those ideas. The changes and frictions that result generate plans, actions, and changes that constitute our art. We are searching for the appropriate balance of being around: for the phone calls and the afterschool visits, the goat parties and the funerals; being angry or hungry; the garbage we find and process; the losses in the slot machines or on the highway; and for something different than what we already know doesn't work. Counting on hope is either luxury or locura, crazy, so we work both with and without it, depending on the weather. But garbage, problems, throwaways, shit— the difficult, ubiquitous matter that continues to accumulate—we disturb it, work it, incorporate it into the soil, our site, which yields unpredictably, but which continues to persist from year to year, no matter what happens.

 

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Amanda Eicher has been a co-director of San Francisco State University's Colima Project for the past seven years. She collaborated with women in Rwanda as a Boston Society of Architects Research Fellow in 2008; with children in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan as a part of a CEC Artslink Residency in 2009; and with local artists as founder and curator of the Back Room Gallery at Adobe Books from 2000-2003. She will receive her MFA in Art Practice from UC Berkeley in May 2010. Her writing will appear in the upcoming issue of Writer magazine and NIDO means Nest, a book of artists' writings on itineracy edited by Rachel McIntyre and Amanda Lichtenstein.

 

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