Mired in poverty, the Salvadoran experience

Ben Wolford

If you are born in Tremedal, you probably won’t ever leave.

It takes 45 minutes to drive there on coiled mountain roads from Agua Caliente, El Salvador. Google Maps hasn’t labeled Tremedal on its satellite map, but if you know where to look, you can zoom in to find the cluster of shacks and the church on the corner.

You can’t see the old, rusted swing set, probably purchased with American fundraising money decades ago. You can’t see any of the 500 or so people who live there. But you can get a sense of the dust that covers everything in the dry season.

There’s almost no money in Tremedal, a pastoral town of women and children. So to keep 10 children fed (including two untreated epileptic adult sons), María Morena Echeverría Arqueta, 54, says, “God has helped me.”

That’s really all they have: a hope for external intervention.

Echeverría Arqueta found intervention for a time in a government program that paid her $80 a month to help plant trees. To supplement that wage, she cared for the children of well-off San Salvadorans for $7.50 a month. Of course, San Salvador is hours from Tremedal and $1 each way by bus. So she lived there and came home every other weekend.

But not all her children still live in the one-room house (two rooms if the sheet down the middle is a wall). One of the epileptic sons begs for money in San Salvador and brings it home to help the family. The other has lost touch with reality and wanders around Tremedal muttering nonsensically. The community cares for him.

And Echeverría Arqueta’s beautiful, intelligent, 16-year-old daughter by the same name, María, doesn’t live there anymore. She escaped the extreme poverty two weeks ago.

“If she stays in Tremedal, she will be pregnant in one year,” says the Rev. Rafael Fuentes, Catholic priest of the diocese of Chalatenango.

Most girls in Tremedal become pregnant very young — sometimes by 12 or 13, sometimes by 50- or 60-year-old men, sometimes by coercion or rape. The new mother will stay in Tremedal, isolated from any hope of education or release from poverty.

“You’re throwing your life away if you stay here,” Fuentes says. He says it to María. He has been pressuring her for months to come live with him and get an education in Agua Caliente. She would live in the rectory with boys and girls and men and women whom Fuentes rescued from poverty and rape. He has given them a big house and a way out through education.

On Jan. 7, María agreed to go. She climbed into Padre’s truck and left her home. Now she eats three meals a day and plays Uno and will learn about science and how to speak English. In Tremedal she didn’t have any of those things; it’s the poorest of the poorest places in the world.

No one from the tiny mountain village of Tremedal has ever graduated from college. Fuentes hopes María will. With any luck, she’ll bring her new knowledge back to her village to help others.

For now, babies in Tremedal will meet the world in dusty shacks. They won’t leave. Their potential as humans will stagnate.

Ben Wolford is a junior newspaper journalism major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].

To learn about how to sponsor a student from El Salvador, contact Carmen Roebke with the University Parish Newman Center at [email protected] or call (330) 678-0240.