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Return to El Espino

By Andrew J. Tonn

Media Director

 EL ESPINO—The early morning was dense with the sounds of mourning doves and cock crows, car horns and traffic that intruded on sleep as they echoed through the hard corridors of tile and plaster. I slipped from bed, dressed and padded out into the flower-filled courtyard of the Hotel Via Real, savoring the moment of solitude in the grayness that would soon blaze with the heat and light of Central America.

 Soon the others were downstairs. We breakfasted, and for once the day’s travels began on time. The bus arrived, we loaded the gear, the medical supplies for the clinics, the presents for the children, and we were off into the bustle and din of San Salvador and then onto the Pan American Highway, heading south through the open countryside with volcanoes to our left.

 After three hours, more or less, we made a right and began climbing into forest-covered hills. Finally we topped a ridge and there below us were the coastal mangroves, dense green with glimpses of silver water: rivers that flow out of the mountains to join in the jungle delta before emptying into the blue Pacific beyond. And soon after that we had wound our way out of the hills and were entering the dusty streets of El Espino with its north and southbound streets that lead to who-knows-where and its westbound ones that end nowhere but the ocean.

 All of my trips to Central America after the first, all the months and years down in this crumpled land between two continents, have been exercises in interrupted memory. I always have explored somewhere new but, as well, I have returned often to certain places. Here in El Espino the experience is particularly poignant as the work here has centered on children. These are the currileros, the children of the mangroves, those children who dig clams from the tidal mangrove jungles. SARA works with these children, in conjunction with the CRD (a Salvadoran NGO) and the local youth group to provide education, fund and supply health clinics and work on local infrastructure development.

Two currilerro boys from El Espino.


 I first came here some six years ago and all I could think about afterwards was coming back, something I have now done five times. I have been photographing these children at work and at play and around me in the town I see faces, now oddly changed by time, that I have stared at for hours on a computer screen or in the red light of the darkroom. I see them now, gone from six to twelve, or from twelve to young men and women. Francisco, a young man of 25 is the leader of a local youth group and the son of fisher folk. He tells me of children we have known—that some have moved away, some gone to the U.S. like so many Salvadorans, some who     have died.

Youths of El Espino, gathered for a SARA sponsored fiesta at the local school.


El Espino girls waiting for the fun to begin.


And let the games begin!


Dr. Alan Mikesell braves the mosh pit.


 As we have done in the past, we arranged for the local kids to be at one of the schools. They were waiting in two lines as the bus pulled up and we ran a gauntlet of cheering children. Games were played and presents given out. Some who were excited about a stuffed animal a few years ago, are too-cool teenagers hanging back on the sidelines. Piñatas are hung from the ceilings and paper mache Barney and Spiderman and Dora the Explorer meet their gruesome fate, their candy guts beaten from them with sticks and then torn to shreds like martyrs by Roman lions.

"My name is Enigo Montoya. You are the purple dinosaur who killed my father. Prepare to die..."


 When the youth were sated with sugar, piñata violence and new hats we returned to the hotel, walked the black volcanic sands in the hour before sunset. The Pacific mist made a haze of the endless palms as the strand curved away into infinity. I watched as the sun made its red dive into the blackening sea and we returned to the hotel to sit and plan for tomorrow, to briefly ponder the impossibility of snow. The Mexican band Mana was on the radio and the wind was in the palms and in the village around us slept hundreds of children who would be hard at work come the morning helping to feed their families.

The beach at El Espino at sunset.

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