I crossed into El Salvador from Guatemala at the Anguiatú border post, on a quiet road linking the Guatemalan backwater of Esquipulas with the Salvadoran backwater of Metapán. There were once silver mines in this part of Salvador, but the metal ran out as it did in all the precious mines of Mexico and Central America. It was a Saturday afternoon. It was very hot. The bus dropped us on the Guatemalan side of the border, and we carried our bags through the heat towards the luxuriant blue and gold uniforms of the Salvadoran border guards.
The town I had left, Esquipulas, is one of those places famous to Central Americans and ignored by the rest of the world. It is a little town, almost a one-street town, which lives off the ‘Black Christ’ guarded there since it was carved in 1594. My guide book described Esquipulas as ‘a tourist centre’. In fact it is a place of pilgrimage, a rather different matter. Walking up the main street I met a lawyer who said that he had seen two Italians in Esquipulas eight months before, otherwise no Europeans or gringos in three years. He was from Guatemala City but had come to Esquipulas ‘to get away from the death squads.’ It was safe in this part of Guatemala. ‘There are few Indians, so few comunistas.’ He was speaking humorously. The lawyer lived with a beautiful girl. He introduced her as his wife, and then told me, rather proudly, that they were not yet married, they were ‘living-in-sin’. It seemed the sort of sin that might escape God’s attention on the Guatemalan–Salvadoran border.
Earlier I had watched the pilgrims, whom the lawyer distinguished from tourists, at work in the Benedictine church. At six-thirty in the morning the monks sat on chairs scattered along the nave hearing confessions amid the bustle of family groups arriving from all over Guatemala, as well as from El Salvador and Honduras. There were Indians kneeling on the flagged floor setting up little shrines with candles and rosaries. Some knelt holding a candle in each hand, others returned from the communion rail wearing a smile. The women’s costumes showed that they came from all the villages of the Highlands. Having travelled up there I recalled that it had been hard to think of the Indians as anything but political people. Whose side were they on? Where they sheltering guerrillas? Would they join the Civil Guard? How could one persuade them to talk about the army? Here, out of journalistic context, they were just people on pilgrimage, excited and happy. Some of them had babies, carried in white cloths across their backs from head bands, but suspended horizontally so that the babies lay as though in hammocks. To soothe them the mothers, many of whom were teenagers, tossed their babies in the air, swinging them from the hips in semi-circles. This did not soothe the babies. The noise of children crying during Mass was extraordinary but not distracting. It was not urgent, it just drifted up to the roof of the church like incense, and failed to rebound.