I kneel down in front of Anna and stroke her hand. Then I say to her, “Mi amor. ¿Puedo recibir una sonrisa? ¿Por favor?”
I say this dramatically. I’m not exactly sure what it means. But everybody is listening. I know it means something like, “Honey, I love you. Will you give me a smile, please?” I know how to say, “mi amor” and “sonrisa.” But I can’t really remember how to say the other words. So I make that part up, and I hope that it sounds like words.
Everyone laughs. Which is exactly what I wanted.
We’re crowded onto the patio, standing in a tight circle. We’re crowded together so we can all fit under the roof of the porch. Even though it’s a warm evening, the rain is pouring down. Sometimes lightning flashes, and I can feel the thunder. But I’ve been in El Salvador almost a week now. I’m not scared of the thunder any more.
Right now we’re playing all sorts of games. Some of us only know English. Some of us only know Spanish. We’re making each other laugh and laugh and laugh. Sometimes the games make sense. Sometimes we don’t understand the words at all. But it’s still fun. Sometimes we even have more fun when we don’t understand the words.
It makes me feel free to know I can have fun even when I don’t really understand. I can find the little bits that I do understand. I can fit them together. I can wait to find out the rest of what happens.
That’s how it felt when we did our service project during the El Salvador trip. We helped at the school in the village of El Barío. We spent our mornings at the school, teaching English. And when we were done, lots of little kids rushed up to us. They hugged us and gave us friendship bracelets. And they talked to us a lot! And it was all in Spanish! At first, I felt bad that I couldn’t understand anything they were saying. All I could do was tell them, “No entiendo. ¡Lo siento!” Meaning, I didn’t understand, and I was sorry. But later, I could sometimes talk with them for a long time in Spanish. I just stopped worrying that maybe I didn’t make sense. It made me remarkably happy.
The El Salvador Trip let me hang out for two whole weeks with a group of my friends. We were in a really beautiful place, having fun, and doing something useful. But that was only part of it.
During that trip, we did not stay in hotels, we stayed with families. That was my favorite part. I really got to be part of people’s lives for a little while. My first night in El Barío, I had a wonderful talk with my host family. I told them about the land and the farming in California. They told me about their country and how they live.
Lots of people in El Salvador were kind and patient with us. They taught us many things we didn’t know.
They taught us how to make tortillas and pupusas. (I’m still trying to make them successfully at home.) They taught us El Salvadoran dances. They showed us paintings and murals, and told us what the pictures meant.
They showed us holes in the ground near their homes. Bombs had exploded there. They told us about the war in their country, when they were young. They told about poor farm workers fighting against the army. They told how a few rich land owners paid for the army. The told about the American government helping the rich land owners.
We were Americans. Our new friends did not blame us for the war. They thought that we might make our government better some day.
Everyone we met on the streets of El Barío gave us big smiles. Everyone greeted us warmly and said, “¡Hola!” When I got back to California after the trip, nobody here smiled like that. It seemed weird at first. I smiled at people on the street and said, “Hello!” And they just looked at me, puzzled.
It would be amazing to live in a place where it’s normal to greet everyone and smile at each other. It would be amazing to live in a place where we really got to know each other. Where we could share meals and dancing. Where we could paint buildings together and play games together. Where we could sometimes play on the patio in the middle of a thunderstorm. And we could make each other laugh and laugh and laugh. ~~~
Hannah Mackinney grew up in Strawberry Creek Meeting in Berkeley, CA (PYM). She co-clerks the Teens Committee for College Park Quarterly Meeting and serves on the Youth Program Committee for Pacific Yearly Meeting.