My parents’ house has an expansive yard, the kind that’s commonplace among Midwestern suburbs. It doesn’t need watering to stay green and lush beneath my father’s footsteps as he walks in dusty loafers to his garden.
I know one of their neighbors, Steve. He has three 50-ft. flagpoles in his front yard that sport his affinity for the Badgers, the Packers and the USA. His Wisconsin accent is heavy when we exchange pleasantries, the one or two times a year that I see him.
Given the circumstances and the distance from Wyoming to Wisconsin, I’m not sure when I’ll next see him.
My parents wave their hellos at a distance. The pandemic hasn’t changed that.
The neighbors to their left I’ve never met. They moved in after I moved away and my mom might know the adults’ names, but probably not the kids. I think there’s three, maybe four.
When I went to El Salvador in 2010, I saw no yards. There were parks and plazas and rooftops and colorful walls with barbed wire at the top in front of every home. It was rare to get a glimpse of a front door.
That changed with graduation as I rode away from San Salvador in a minibus. The walls turned into fences and eventually, nothing at all.
But still no yards.
At least, not like the yards you see in the US, where half-to-full acres of land separate you from your neighbor.
In the 10 years since I visited El Salvador, I’ve traveled to Europe, Asia and Africa. I have never met a more hospitable people than Salvadorans.
These are a people who have seen horrific loss and hardship. Hardly a generation removed from a gruesome civil war. Ravaged by and deeply exposed to gang violence, including one of the most dangerous gangs of all — the US.
I saw the graves at El Mozote, the bullet holes left in walls where men, women and children once stood. Bullet holes caused by the Salvadoran military, trained by the US government.
You would expect resentment and bitterness towards myself and the other US travelers in my group. You would be wrong.
There were no yards in El Salvador but there were fountains and in small villages, the people gathered there. One fountain had a wrestling ring next to it. A friend of mine started getting into a fake fight with some of the locals and everyone circled around (squared around?) to cheer and laugh.
I saw no yards but I ate more chicken than I thought possible. I kind of got sick of it. When I stood after one particular lunch of chicken and noodles to clear my half-eaten plate, my hosts refused to let me or anyone else in my group take care of it. As we left they ushered in children hovering shyly by the door. They ate our leftovers off of our plates.
That night was not the first nor last time I cried about El Salvador.
I danced in small clubs and stumbled over cobblestone streets and down dirt roads in the dark but still I saw no yards. In one village in the mountains, everyone in town worked together to throw us a dance and to string up a single light, half a mile away at the village’s soccer field (a source of pride amongst locals) where my traveling group was staying.
We camped out in refugee tents sent from Peru during the civil war and silently questioned whether those were bloodstains on the tarp or something else. It was one of the few nights in my life I didn’t sleep a wink. I had packed for sunny Central America, my Midwest self not thinking twice about what it means to camp in the mountains.
I laid awake all night, wondering when the men of the town were going to sleep. They stayed up the whole night singing, drinking, laughing around the fire. Aren’t they tired? I thought, their voices carrying with the crackling wood. They party harder than I can (I was 19 and in awe).
When daylight finally broke and my shivering beneath a thin picnic table cover began to subside, I saw I wasn’t the only one in my group who hadn’t slept. On the bus, now headed toward Guatemala, a friend who knew the town and lived in El Salvador for months explained quietly how a neighboring village heard Americans were coming. They planned to visit us with guns.
The men at the fire stayed awake all night, watching over these strange Americans who they’d never meet again. Strange Americans who had never thought about them or their families once before this trip. Americans from America, a land that tampers with Salvadoran presidential elections and trains the military to kill civilians and weakens the economy so much that the currency is the US dollar.
There were no yards as we drove away, a group of college kids who were finally rendered silent.
Every Salvadoran seemed to know each other. A man on our trip named Arcangel, who wore no underwear (and demonstrated this for us) and taught me how to juggle and use a slingshot, was recognized in every town we stopped. He was still heralded as a guerilla war hero who shot down a helicopter and fought for the people.
His then-girlfriend, Suri, knew people everywhere we went. Their friend Carlos, same thing. There were no yards and people gathered in kitchens, on steps and rooftops, in public buildings designed solely for the reunions. There were quinces, feast days, Sundays, birthdays and the people got together.
Even when you couldn’t drink the water, even when grey wastewater ran through the streets, even when you couldn’t walk across a green grass yard, let alone San Salvador by yourself, everything was vibrant. I was shocked at the sterility of the US when I landed in Houston and walked through customs. It’s a shock I still think about, 10 years later.
There were no yards in this small country that no person here thinks about (unless, of course, they’re from El Salvador). I never felt more at home.