Story and photos by Rick Dixon, MKLM
Books open the world to children in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in El Salvador
Nine-year-old Karla picked up the Spanish edition of The Rainbow Fish and the Blue Whale. She examined bright colors of sea fauna, water and bubbles, ran her fingers across the back cover and rubbed them together, as if an ocean were reachable from where she sat. Suddenly, her eyes flashed with curiosity: “Was this going to be thrown away?” she asked.
“Of course not,” I told her.
“Don’t people give things they don’t want anymore?” Her small, round face—dotted with insect bites and white blotches—looked out the window of the library. A swarm of mosquitoes puddle-jumped down the road littered with pieces of brick and cement and stagnant water. The road also serves as a drainage canal for waste that runs from the mud homes that line its edge. The community, known as La Esperanza, is one of 32 zones of extreme poverty in El Salvador. The United Nations estimates one-third of El Salvador’s 6 million inhabitants live in such conditions.
“The book is brand new,” I told Karla. “You’re gonna be the first to read it. A woman named Judy and her sister, Carol, from the United States sent it.”
“Because they want to contribute to the future of children like you, who love books and are learning to read. She wants to be a part of your life,” I said. A tidal wave of emotion crossed Karla’s face as she got up to go home to take care of her little sister. “Take the book with you,” I told her. “Maybe you can read it to your sister.” Karla ran out of the library clutching the book.
I opened the library when Carol Kaplan started sending books last year after she had visited La Esperanza through an immersion trip called Friends Across Borders, sponsored by the Maryknoll Lay Missioners (see story, May/June 2014 Maryknoll magazine, page 24). Carol is helping the family literacy project in La Esperanza that is part of my ministry as a Maryknoll lay missioner here. She also got her sister, Judy, involved in sending books to us.
As Karla left the library, she passed several children coming in. The children sat down and Wendy, the teenager in charge of the library that afternoon, asked them to draw pictures of what the library means to them. She put plenty of crayons on the table.
Another teenager, Sofia, walked in. I asked how she was doing. She grunted, “Too much homework.” We sat down and got started on it. At 15, Sofia has a strong, pliable personality. Her Afro-Salvadoran heritage gives her a body language that exudes, “I’m gonna survive.” She is one of two teens from our base Christian community who made it into the only public high school where kids from La Esperanza can go.
Only 500 of the more than 1,500 teenagers who took the entrance exam to enter the high school were accepted because there is not enough space for all who want to study. For most of those who didn’t get in, their formal education is over. Forty percent of Salvadorans have a high school education, but according to UNESCO, a country needs to provide at least 60 percent of its population a high school diploma to be on the road to development.
“Why do we need a good education?” I asked Sofia. She cracked a sarcastic grin and said, “To heal people of dumbness.”
“Being smart has also to do with learning to serve others,” I said.
“That’s why I’m here,” she shot back. I asked her to help me check the kids’ drawings.
Veronica showed us her sailboat—an open book for sails, a yellow pencil for a mast—sailing through colorful islands with palm and coconut trees. “You can go anywhere once you learn to read and write,” Veronica said, explaining her drawing. Most of the other kids copied pictures from books they had checked out. This is typical of work they do in school. With classes of 40 to 45 students and limited resources, teachers stick to rote educational methods.
Before Wendy closed the library, 5-year-old Anderson’s mother came in holding a book called Prayers of Hope. She handed it to me, apologizing that Anderson had forgotten to return it. When she left, Anderson told me his aunt was using the book to teach his mother to read and it wasn’t his fault the book was returned late. He picked up another book, called Tattoos of the Heart, to take home for his aunt to read.
Walking home, I met Karla, running toward me and shouting, “I read it all.” She handed me The Rainbow Fish and the Blue Whale. I thanked her for returning it so quickly and asked if she wanted to keep it longer. “No,” she said. “Tomorrow I’ll go to the library for another one.”
Maryknoll Lay Missioner Rick Dixon from Orange, Calif., has been serving in El Salvador since 2012.
Featured Image: Youths of all ages line up, waiting for the library in their community of La Esperanza to open.