The waters of the Lempa river are born out of the Sierra Madre’s southern edge, from volcanic waters that begin to flow one mile above sea level in Guatemala. From this Mother mountain range comes the longest river in Central America, at whose shores we have lived for centuries.
Lempa means “by the riverside,” and it is by this river’s side that 75% percent of the city population of El Salvador lives. Its waters descend from its volcanic highs and run for 220 miles, nurturing the copious vegetation at its wake. It gives fish to the fishermen in the north. Its force becomes electricity and feeds the industrial machineries of civilization as well as the single lightbulbs of the small shanti houses in countless towns. It provides the main source of drinking water to the country’s capital, San Salvador. It then splits. It becomes majestic landscape and romantic countryside as it turns south towards its ultimate end––the Pacific Ocean. But before it turns, part of it becomes the river Acelhuate.
Acelhuate derives from axol–river flower, and huatl–place.
When placed together, the meaning of Acelhuate is usually translated as “place of river nymphs.” The magical implications of this name began to die off when the river became the main dumping vein for the growing industrial factories and the waste of a growing capital and its surrounding cities. Now, it is one of the most contaminated rivers in the country—even in a country where only 5% of its river waters are considered free from contamination.
I new this river as the river of black waters. When I learned the name of the river, I thought Acelhuate meant feces and urine. What had happened, then, to the nymphs and magic of pasts long gone?
Santa Elena was east of the Lempa, and to cross it we had to drive through the Golden Bridge, el puente de oro. The one that in the eighties would be blown by the dynamite power of the guerrillas, to make army tanks left swift. I stopped visiting my grandma’s house then. Not only because it was now impossible to go there by car, but also because the war had intensified in that region.
I couldn’t see the rains on the huge palm tree leaves anymore, and watch the rain water become tiny waterfalls, and then rivers to the eyes of a child. In Santa Elena, the water did not go into dark and cold copper pipes under miles of cement. The rain water joined with the soap and grime from the stone basins, and flowed down gentle slopes to the back of the property. I enjoyed following the path of this flow I called a river. I walked for a little over 200 meters watching the cement channel in front of the kitchen become a soil riverbed right when the stream turned to the right, and started its journey through the back yard. It turned, right there! I can see it again with my child’s eye, there, beyond the first outhouse––the one with the single stall over a septic tank where I used to sit and listen to songs and whispers of spirits outside, and where I often felt swirls of energy go up and down while I read the square newspaper cut-offs we used instead of toilet paper.
The river turned right, into a bed of stones. It continued among banana trees, bushes and flowers. The water kept flowing in small dances, over rocks and toads. I tried not to step on the toads because they could spit a white poison into my eyes that could make me blind. They were the same toads that our dog, pirata, liked to eat even though he got poisoned each time until the last toad he failed to survive. The river kept going to the spot where I liked to sit to pretend I was long lost in the jungle, away from all things and wars. Right there, my older cousin, taught me to build palm tree houses. He was the son of the priest in San Rafael whom I called tío Padre and had fathered three children that my grandmother took to raise away from the potential embarrassment of a priest who slept with nuns and hid hand-grenades under his bed. In this spot, I undertook many construction projects for me and my younger cousins: houses, casinos, barricades, river front properties.
The river continued beyond that, all the way beyond the zahuan, the wood and metal big gate that kept the house protected with a huge wooden beam. The river disappeared there, beyond the zahuan next to the last room of the big house. It was a mysterious small room. No one was allowed there and it was locked from the patio side. I found that through the metal keyhole I could see inside, but only when the door on the other side was opened and a little light entered the room. I had to time it right, to see through the keyhole at sunset. That was the time when the mysterious lonely teacher came to his room. He was renting it from my grandmother, and I never learned his name. I only saw him coming in, sad and silent each day, sit on his hard bed and stare at the floor until the darkness hid him again. Beyond his door and the zahuan, the river went to a jungle I couldn’t fathom, a jungle that in my mind was home to spirits and things both dangerous and fascinating. All the legends and tales, I imagined happening somewhere beyond that gate guarded by a silent, sad teacher.
But just before the ending of the river, and before the room that stored the statues of lions, saints, crosses, angels, and chariots for the church, there was a second outhouse with three stalls where the children used to poop, sometimes up to three children at a time. There, I invented a sacred show, where I invited my cousins and brothers. I would have each one put their faces close to the hole of the stall into the septic tank, looking into the darkness inside. Then, I would lit a piece of newspaper used for wiping, and throw it inside the tank. For a brief moment, we could see how the paper became a comet of fiery colors flying over a strange landscape: a world of valleys, lakes, rivers and volcanoes illuminated by strange lights and moving shadows. We saw this magnificent world made of piss and shit which the adults never wanted to see or hear about, but to us it was a magical moment when our secretions became a world of mystery and beauty and our children’s eyes became, for an instant, the eye of God surveying a world become alive and awesome. All the old people in the family remember this incident and laugh at how I tricked my smaller cousins into looking inside the toilets at shit and piss, but we who saw it know the truth: we witnessed beauty and mystery by tricking the boundaries of our senses into revealing the sacred in All, and the vast in the small.