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Each woman tells her own life story, and interspersed with recollections of childhood, marriage, and childrearing are revealing accounts of El Salvador's turbulent political past and present. Reflected in the stories are the vast changes in educational and occupational opportunities for women and the shifts in male-female relationships. Class differences are still a fundamental part of Salvadoran life, but changes are occurring in this area as well.
From Grandmother to Granddaughter is a vivid and authentic portrait of today's El Salvador that convincingly illustrates how individual lives can reflect the larger changes within a society.
At sixty-seven years (as she claimed), or perhaps seventy-four (as we reckoned), Cecilia de Nuñez has the manicured and matronly look of a Salvadoran older woman of means. She is short and plumpish but carries herself with the slow, quiet grace of one whose place in the world is secure and respected. Having spent her childhood on her parents' finca (farm) 35 kilometers west of San Salvador, she now lives with her husband in a four-bedroom house in one of the capital's attractive old neighborhoods. However, it was not there but at her daughter's even more fashionable residence that we first met and subsequently interviewed her.
Cecilia de Nuñez, or Niña Cecilia as we respectfully addressed her, appears here as our first subject. In fact, she was the first person, along with her daughter, Monica, whom we interviewed. With an enthusiasm that surprised us, Niña Cecilia immediately agreed to participate in our study. She is an avid reader, even a writer of poetry, and the project intrigued her. Yet once the interviewing got under way, she proved at times to be an elusive subject—less open than her daughter and granddaughter.
Now and then Niña Cecilia would bring to the interviews short statements that she had prepared for us, and on occasion she read us a poem of hers. Soft-spoken and articulate, she is a person of staunch convictions that generally reflect the conservative views of El Salvador's upper class. The twelve years of civil war and its difficult aftermath have marked her. And yet as a person who, as she says, "always adapts to whatever fate brings," she continues to go about life these days—teas with friends, family visits, trips abroad—with an outward calm and even cheerfulness.
On occasion we were invited to meet socially with Niña Cecilia and her family—for example, for the fiesta de elote (feast of the first corn) prepared at their finca (and of course, we did not take a tape recorder). On this particular visit, her husband offered a tour around the finca, lovingly pointing out some of the thick-trunked trees and whitewashed adobe dwellings that had somehow survived this century's slings and arrows, as he and his wife had. Out of tact or lack of interest, he did not refer to the interviews we were conducting with his wife, daughter, and granddaughter, although we knew from Niña Cecilia that he was fully aware of the project.
In all, we had seven interviews with Niña Cecilia over a period of about a year. As she recalled the events of her long life, at times her memory would fail her. Precisely then, it seemed, her daughter would appear from out of the kitchen or an upstairs bedroom to refresh her mother's memory. Far from being disconcerted by these sudden daughterly embellishments, Niña Cecilia would smile benignly and then proceed with the tale as she remembered it. Below, then, are some of Niña Cecilia's recollections from her sixty-seven—or seventy-four—years as one of El Salvador's well-to-do and, in her view, "most fortunate of people."
* * *
I come from a large family, eight children in all, and I was the only sister. I was right in the middle, the fifth child. To me this was wonderful. Think of it, just one girl with all those brothers surrounding me. I was pampered by everyone—by my mother, father, grandparents, by everyone. They all doted on me, and I had this feeling, always, of being special.
We lived out in the countryside of Sonsonate [a department in western El Salvador], on a beautiful finca. It wasn't as large as some other fincas in the area, maybe 10 manzanas or so, but oh, what a place! Several kilometers away was the Izalco volcano. Here, I brought you this ... [Niña Cecilia hands us a colored postcard of a huge volcano hovering over a lush valley, with a sombrero-wearing peasant walking beside a wooden oxcart in the foreground]. That's how it looked. Izalco was still active back then. Today it's dormant, a tourist attraction. And that oxcart, that's how the peasants would haul the sugarcane from the fields. Sometimes, when I was a child, you'd hear this sudden "Brrrrr!" And then the whole earth would shake, and Izalco would light up like a Christmas tree. Red-hot lava would come flying out of it and flow down its steep side. A magnificent thing to see, I tell you, especially if it happened at night. No, no, it wasn't dangerous; we were too far off. You just jumped a little at the first rumble. But really, it wasn't frightening. You had a feeling—how can I describe it?—a feeling you were living in a magical place, a place with a mysterious force around it.
That whole area where we lived was fertile land, good for growing anything you wanted. The finca belonged to my grandfather, and some of my aunts and cousins were living there too, along with our family. We all lived in this enormous house with all these corridors, and many rooms. How my grandfather came to own this place I can't really tell you. I never looked into it. All I know is that he was some high army officer, a close friend of General Martínez, the one who crushed that Communist-run peasant rebellion in the area in the '30s. He was a fine man, my grandfather. He adored me, I remember that. But more than that, where his people came from, I don't know. I guess they came from Spain, maybe sometime in the nineteenth century. I'm only guessing, though, because I know my mother's people came from Madrid about a hundred fifty years ago. Why they came, how they made their money and got their lands, I don't really know. I was never curious about these things. For me, it was enough that we had such a magical place. For a child that's all that matters, right? And to me, that spot we had way out in the countryside was a place as close to heaven as you're going to see in this life.
You'd wake up in the morning with the roosters and robins singing to you, and the cows mooing just outside in the corral where they'd be for the morning milking. I'd look out the window to see the whole world glistening. The nights were cool, so in the mornings all would be covered with dew—coffee bushes, sugarcane, and fruit trees. The scent of my mother's rose bushes, planted near my room, would waft through the window. And the peasants who gathered at dawn just outside the house, would be waiting there for the mandador [work boss] to assign them their tasks for the day. Sowing, weeding, harvesting, depending on the season.
We grew everything. Some was for our own use and some we'd market. Maíz [corn] and frijol [beans], of course, and all kinds of fruits—oranges, bananas, avocados, mangos, coconuts. And we had a bit of sugarcane we'd grow for our own use, squeezing it in a trapiche [wooden press], and then filling bamboo molds with the honeylike boiled juice that would harden later, and then you'd chip it off and put it in your coffee or just eat it. Delicious! Real sugar, that was. Like everything else back then, it had real taste. Chickens, like the ones we raised on our farm, they had a rich chicken taste, not like the stuff you get in the supermarket these days. And fresh milk and cottage cheese, which we made on the farm. Even fish—we had a manmade pond, maybe the size of this huge living room we're sitting in—and we raised freshwater fish. What a taste! In soups or just fried up, they were wonderful. Everything was wonderful! Life itself was like magic. As God is my judge, it was really like that.
Back then, living deep in the countryside was a calmer life, not so much agitation as this city life of ours. To me it was better. Maybe I say this because for a child everything is wonderful. Later the problems come, right? You can't avoid that. You have to cope as best you can. But when I was a small child, life was carefree. Just perfect.
* * *
How did I spend my days as a child? Well I didn't have to work, cleaning my room or sweeping up or in the kitchen. We had muchachas [girls, i.e., servant girls] who did all that. My mother supervised them. She was a strong woman and she was in charge of the house. She could cook herself, sure she could. Christmas time, Semana Santa [Holy Week, before Easter], or special days like the local saint's day, it was she who took over in the kitchen making her specialties—stuffed fish, roast turkey, or her special tortas [cakes]. What a fine cook she was! She taught me when I got older. "Someday you'll need to know," she told me. "The servants may be sick, or who knows what? So watch me and learn!" So I watched and learned, and I can cook. And my daughter knows too. Only my granddaughter, Paulina, hasn't learned. A shame, really. A girl should learn these things, don't you think?
Anyway, where was I? My days at the finca, yes. Bueno [good, well], when I was small what I did was play with my cousins. Girl cousins, I mean. I didn't play with the boys, my brothers. "They're too tough for you," my mother told me. "You're going to get hit and hurt. No, no, you stay away from them!" That's what she told me. So I played with my girl cousins. Especially with this one cousin, Veronica. She was a beautiful girl, still is. She lives in the United States now, an old woman now, but still a great beauty. She and I would play together. We'd plan out these plays, with singing and dancing and acting. At first we used dolls, but later we started playing the parts ourselves, along with our other cousins. Me, I was thin as a noodle back then—not the way I am today. So I'd stuff my dress with pillows to play the lady roles, and I'd sing. I had a good voice too, not like today with this raspy sound, right? We'd entertain ourselves for hours like that, day after day. Or we'd sit and chat, chat, chat. That's how I remember it.
And school, certainly, I went to school. I wanted to learn, and my mother and father too, may God bless them, they supported me in that just as they supported my brothers. Even before I was old enough to go to school, I started learning to read. I was four years old and I went to my mother and aunts, and I told them I wanted to learn to read. "You're awfully young for that," they told me. "But if you want to try we'll get you a tutor." I didn't want some stranger coming to teach me. So I insisted—you see, I was a determined little girl—I insisted, "No! You are going to teach me!" And that's what happened. They bought this book, a beginner's book, and sitting there in my little rocking chair in the garden, I started learning the alphabet. What I wasn't aware of was that sitting there in the tree above was the green parrot my aunts owned, and he was learning right along with me. He didn't say anything for about a month, he just sat there quietly. Then one day, when I finally had mastered the whole alphabet and was proudly reciting it to my aunts, I hear this a-b-c-d coming from above me, and in my own voice. It scared me at first, but then I started laughing and laughing. My aunts told me the parrot would practice while I wasn't around, and sure enough, he'd got it all memorized just like me. Can you imagine it?
From then on, I started learning words, and by the time I was five years old, I was reading. I read books for small children—don't ask me to remember. I read anything they brought me. My mother said I was really smart. I don't know, maybe she was right, I guess she was. She had the opinion that a girl had to know how to fend for herself and that education was the way to do that. She herself didn't have much schooling, but she was determined that I'd go. As it was, in the town of Armenia, which was the biggest town around, the schools weren't so advanced then. I went to some small school there for a couple of years or so, yet the only way you could really learn something was to go away to boarding school. One of my brothers was going to a boarding school in Santa Tecla, near the capital. So my mother decided to send me away too. And I went, gladly. I wanted to learn.
It was a two-hour train ride to get to Santa Tecla, even though it wasn't much more than 30 kilometers away. The roads were no good then. So you went by one train to San Salvador, and then took another to Santa Tecla. Beautiful trains. I think they came from England. They had steam engines, fed by firewood. On the outside they were all shiny and on the inside they were so comfortable. In the first-class section there were these cushioned seats, as in a living room. The second-class section had wooden benches, but I don't remember sitting there. I'd go first class, with my brother or my mother accompanying me. I never was allowed to go alone.
I went to this boarding school in Santa Tecla for eight years, from the time I was ten years old till I was seventeen. Santa Inés was the name of it. It was a place run by French nuns, just for girls. My brother went to a boarding school nearby run by priests. I got a good education there, I think. It was the best there was in El Salvador at the time. And I enjoyed it. I had good friends there, girls from some of the best Salvadoran families. We were very close. We spent all those years together, studying and living together. In the summers, of course, or on Christmas and Easter, we'd go our separate ways. I'd go back home and always my mother would treat me like a princess, making me my favorite dishes and spoiling me in her way. That's the way she was with me, softer than she was with my brothers. With them she was firmer. I guess she felt she had to be, especially after my father died and she had to be both mother and father to us all.
* * *
My father died when I was ten. It happened while I was at boarding school. I knew he was ill, some kind of kidney infection, but I figured it would pass. Then one day I get this telegram at school. My father had died, it said. I couldn't believe it. He was this strong man, always riding around the finca on his horse. A hard worker, my father was. A good man. And now, gone, just like that. How could that be?
So I took the train home to be with my family. My father was there in the house, laid out in his coffin, and people were already there for the wake. My mother and brothers were in shock, just like me. Nobody could accept it. We didn't talk much, we just sat there all night, with people from all over the area coming in and out to pay their condolences. The next day we took him to the cemetery in Armenia and buried him. In twenty-four hours, he was gone and buried.
Today it's done differently, right? Today, here in San Salvador, they have these ways of preserving the cadaver, and the family will sit around in the funeral parlor—as in La Auxiliadora, that's the best one—and they'll stay there for days before they bury the person. But back then it was done quickly, in one day. The way we did it. After the burial, our family went home and we stayed together for the novenario [nine days of prayer or mourning]. We built a small altar in the house with flowers on it. That was the custom then in the villages and towns. You'd recite the rosary and other prayers, and on the last day you'd hand out to guests some coffee, tamales [cornmeal delicacy, usually with chicken or meat] and quesadillas [cornmeal pound cake made with cheese], and also a small memento of the deceased, maybe a medallion or photo, or some such thing. And that was it. The family would take up its routine again, as best everyone could.
With us, my mother called us together. She was in terrible grief, you could see. My brothers were grieving too, they felt cheated that our father had been taken away from us. But my mother was a strong woman, I tell you, and she called us together and told us, "We've all got to go on, we've got to overcome our grief." She would take over the reins at the finca, she said, along with the help of some of my older brothers. And those of us who were in school would go back to school. This was our fate, she said, we had to accept it. And so that's what we did. I went back to boarding school, and I had good friends there who helped me. They consoled me and didn't leave me alone. That's how I coped with the situation. Eventually I came back to myself again, though the world I'd known before, our family, was never the same again. How could it be without our papa?
* * *
I was seventeen when I graduated from Santa Inés. I was given a certificate, not a title like those the Ministry of Education gives these days, like "Secretary," "Office Worker," and so on. Did I think of studying more? No, not really. In those days there were no opportunities for women to go to university in El Salvador and become doctors and lawyers, as they can today. The only way you could pursue a university education was to go abroad. That wasn't something I even thought of doing. I wanted to go back home, be with my mother and help her out.
By then Mama was in full control, running the farm just as my father had done, and taking care of the house too. She was a good manager, and the farm kept turning a profit. Enough so that my brothers all got their high school education, and one even went on to university and studied law. Mama was a clever and active woman. I can still see her in my mind, riding her horse around the farm, wearing one of those skirts that open in the middle so you can mount the horse. She didn't wear makeup. Only on fiestas, she'd put on powder, talc, and lipstick. Did she think of marrying again? Oh no, not her. There was nobody after my father. She stayed alone. That was her fate and she accepted it with dignity.
Excerpted from From Grandmother to Granddaughter by Michael Gorkin, Marta Pineda, Gloria Leal. Copyright © 2000 Michael Gorkin. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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|Map of El Salvador|
|La Familia Nunez||17|
|La Familia Garcia||91|
|La Familia Rivas||159|