Life near a cemetery, with chickens

Faustina’s family posing with the pet chicken on a bench outside their home. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

Faustina’s family posing with the pet chicken on a bench outside their home. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter

EL SALVADOR — Community Manuel II lies in an abandoned rail yard and some houses straddle the tracks. The “street” is paved with mud and pools of water from the rain. The Unbound translator leads the way up a slight incline to a sheet metal and wood house with a flat metal roof. Faustina stands at the door, a huge smile lighting her face.

Faustina (38) and Carlos Omar Menjivar (34) have three children — Omar Ernesto (11), who is sponsored; Karla Lorena (8), affectionately called Karlita, and Gabriel Alejandro (2). The two older children attend school in the mornings. Due to a shortage of schools, children are assigned to classes either in the morning or afternoon. Faustina gets up at 5:30 a.m., starts a fire in her oven, prepares breakfast and awakens Omar and Karlita to get ready for the walk to school by 6:30. She and the baby walk the kids to school, a 10 minute walk, so they arrive before classes start at 6:45 a.m. Faustina then carries Gabriel to the public market for supplies, walks home and begins cooking.

Faustina prepares finger foods including fried plantain, cassava roots and chicharro (dough shapes that puff up when fried) and sells them in Santa Isabel Cemetery next door. She markets and cooks in the morning while Omar and Karlita are at school; after the two older children are home from school and have eaten lunch, they all troop over to the cemetery. Faustina goes to work while Omar and Karlita tend to Gabriel, daily from 2 until 5 p.m.

“We play toys with him,” Karlita said proudly. “We also play futball.” Both children are big soccer (futball) fans and are trying to teach Gabriel to play.

Selling food in a cemetery is hard work, but Faustina has figured out how outsell the other vendors and make the most money. She waits near the gates for mourners attending a funeral or municipal cemetery workers taking a break to leave the grounds. As they approach, she begins calling attention to her foods, and how perfect they would be as a snack on a bus or while walking. On a good day, she can make about $10, leaving a $4 profit after expenses.

Henry Flores, Unbound’s communications director in El Salvador, commented that this was the dead bringing life to others through her food sales in the cemetery. Faustina solemnly nodded.

Carlos also sells from a push cart. Every morning he rides two busses to downtown Santa Ana, picks up a cart stocked with sno-cones (popsicles) and walks to his community before turning around to walk back downtown, trying to make sales along the way. He goes to schools, kindergartens, homes and roadside stands to sell his sno-cones. He must sell between 120 and 130 sno-cones in order to make a $10 – $12 profit. Obviously, he likes hot, sunny days better than cool, rainy ones. Sun and heat bring people out of their homes.

Along his route, he is exposed to potential robberies, delinquencies and extortion by gang members (known as “rent”), but he is thankful he has been left alone – “I know many people.”

After returning the (hopefully) depleted cart to the vending company, he again rides two busses home, making his workdays about 10 hours long.

Carlos wasn’t always a sno-cone vendor. He worked in construction until he was laid off three years ago. He found this job after 10 days of worry, and has been faithful to it.

“A situation pushes you to do something to earn money for your family,” he said.

Carlos and Faustina have dreams for their children. Omar dreams of being a teacher, teaching children his favorite subject, Mathematics. He practices on his parents, teaching them what he has learned. Karlita, who loves Spanish grammar (she won’t take English lessons until 4th grade) hopes someday to be a doctor, perhaps combining her favorites – sports and medicine. Their parents hope their dreams will come true, and pray they will be able to provide for them.

“They are my motivation for getting up in the morning,” Carlos said. “My love for my family gets me up to work to support them. It’s not good to be alone as we grow old.”

Carlos completed 9th grade before the economic situation created by the civil war (1980-1992) forced him to go to work in a supermarket to help his mother and father.

Faustina’s family was old school; they believed that women should not attend school, but stay home, caring for the house and the children, an attitude that is less common today. Now that Omar and Karlita are in school, she has learned to write her name and, in helping them with their homework, she has learned to recognize certain words. “I don’t get lost downtown anymore,” she proudly announced. She dreams of learning to read and write, not only to keep up with her kids, but to be able to learn things that might help her in her business.

One dream shared by Carlos and Faustina came true last year. The family lived in a hut built of spare pieces of wood and laced tree branches. Benedictine College students on a spring break mission trip built them a new house of sheet metal on wood foundations that can be dismantled and moved if necessary.

Built in three days, the materials were provided by Unbound as a benefit through the Hope for a Family program. Carlos and Faustina, indeed most of the community, live as squatters on government-owned land under the threat of eviction. However, the family has water and electricity, so it seems likely that they will eventually obtain a deed to the land their home sits on. The Hope for a Family sponsorship program is geared toward helping families living in extreme poverty by connecting them with sponsors in the U.S., whose monthly contributions help fund basic necessities and, in many instances, livelihood programs to help families become self-sustaining. The program is about teaching a family to be part of the process of deciding how their sponsorship benefits would best help their children and the whole family.

Mothers Groups are part of that process. Still in the infant stages in many communities, the groups are beginning to take root and flower. In the Manuel II Community, Faustina has joined and helped the group grow. Motivated to improve educational opportunities for Omar and Karlita, as well as the other children in the community, Faustina leads the education committee, one of the Group’s four committees, finance, nutrition and health, education and recreation.

As we rose to leave, there was a cluck at the door and in walked a chicken. She was apparently a pet, as the children leaned over to pat her. With laughter and hugs, we said “Adios.”


  1. June 22, 2014 at 7:32 pm #

    I really enjoyed this article, Marty. It captured the essence of this community and these determined people! It was such a pleasure to meet you on the trip.

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October 25, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph