Thin line between life, death


El Salvador: After decades, poor people who have come to call a cemetery home now face possible relocation.

November 06, 2003|By Sarah Park | Sarah Park,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ANTIGUO CUSCATLAN, El Salvador - On a Sunday evening, Jose Ramon Delgado runs from the outdoor community bathroom, past crypts and crosses in the narrow walkway, to receive an urgent call from his mother in San Francisco. She has just watched a report on the Spanish-language news there about problems brewing in his neighborhood.

Delgado lives in the cemetery at Antiguo Cuscatlan, a town a few miles west of San Salvador. A barbed wire fence suspended between trees and tombstones separates a sprawling mass of houses, all capped in corrugated metal, from the rest of the graveyard. It is a flimsy boundary between the living and the dead.

The town government plans to relocate the graveyard's 457 inhabitants, the TV report says. It is the largest and oldest such community in the country, and Delgado has lived here for 24 years. His mother wonders where he'll be moved.

Delgado, 45, doesn't know. Officials have not discussed moving with the cemetery's 50 families. Nevertheless, he is not surprised by the question from his 75-year-old mother, who left the neighborhood, called Las Colinas de Cuscatlan, 11 years ago to live with her sister in California. "Even when my mother was here, it was a routine for [the town government] to say they were going to move us out of the cemetery," he says.

People have lived in the cemetery for 56 years. The town is in one of the country's wealthiest districts, but like the rest of El Salvador, it is filled with marginalized communities that have emerged in unlikely places.

This year, rumors and news reports about relocation have circulated with increasing frequency, said residents and officials. One newspaper says the families will be moved to a neighborhood of 46 houses beneath four high-voltage electricity towers and above a defunct railroad track, a mile away from the cemetery.

Another paper says that the destination is an old coffee plantation and environmental reserve that has undergone numerous disputed development projects over the past decade.

"I am waiting until we have begun constructing houses to tell the people," says General Manager Gilberto Perez, the municipal official in charge of the relocation project. "I don't want to start any rumors."

In this smallest of Central American nations, they say that everyone has at least one family member in the United States. There are 2 million Salvadorans and Salvadoran-Americans living in the United States and 6.3 million in El Salvador. Delgado's mother - and a brother who lives in Georgia - are exceptions in this impoverished community. Most people in Las Colinas are far too poor to leave. Most spend their first and last breaths in this cemetery.

"The majority of the people living in the cemetery have their family members buried a few feet away [from their homes]," says William Hernandez Escamilla, 35, who moved to Las Colinas 32 years ago, after his father died.

For these people who spend each day living alongside and above corpses, the national holiday to commemorate the dead, observed over the weekend, came and went with little fanfare. "Chatting with the dead is part of everyday life here [in Las Colinas]," says Mariano Lemus Cortes, 58, who is president of the community's governing board.

For most other families, the two-day holiday was an annual opportunity to renew bonds, with the living and the dead. The first day was devoted to the memory of dead children. The second was for the adults.

"On the Day of the Dead, families and communities reunite in cemeteries to visit their loved ones," said Ramon Rivas, a professor of anthropology at the Universidad Tecnologica in San Salvador. "Even enemies talk to each other."

As countless families filled the country's burial grounds, bearing sponges to clean tombs and flowers to decorate them, the Las Colinas community worked. At least a dozen of the graveyard children spent the weekend climbing up and down the cemetery's dirt slope, selling drinks and plantain chips. Many scrubbed crypts and repainted tombstones for small change. It was no holiday for them.

Normally, walking up the steps of the cemetery leads to a field of thousands of colorful crosses - blue, green, white, and yellow - sprouting from a steep, grassless, dusty hill. Over the weekend, however, visiting families transformed the cemetery into a lush garden of flowers, some real, most fake.

Coffee plantations surrounded the cemetery when a handful of homeless families first settled outside its walls in 1946. Today, busy streets of businesses, schools and stately gated homes surround the cemetery. As the town has grown, so has a generation of Las Colinas residents who were born and raised in the cemetery.

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