Life on the side of a volcano in rural El Salvador is not without its hazards and disappointments. We have experienced our share of scorpion bites, injuries, and illness. We have lost precious pets for reasons that at home, would be unacceptable. The coffee harvest suffered terribly this year from unusual weather, and the cacao was hit with a bout of black pod disease. Like anywhere in the world, you deal with your challenges.But this past Monday, the 19th of April, left us stunned and heartbroken and we are still trying to find our way forward. It was a morning like any other. Carlito and Evers were busy in the new vivero filling bags with soil for the new coffee trees. Vigil, always a late starter, was finishing his tortillas and coffee while catching up on gossip with Juana. It was 7:10am and Beto had not shown up yet. When I asked after him, they all assumed he had missed the bus and would be here shortly. By 7:30, they were themselves wondering where he was when a white truck skidded up to front of the house. A man and a woman emerged asking for water. When I came out with two glasses, I immediately sensed something was wrong. Juana was crying and everyone was talking at once. They turned to me and told me that Beto had been hit by a truck on his way to work and did not survive.
It did not register in my mind. I kept thinking this was a good case of when the Spanish language floats beyond my comprehension. There must be a mistake, but my puzzled expression only evoked louder repetitions of the same statement. Beto was dead. The woman who I finally recognized as Beto’s partner, Senora Gladys, pleaded that they needed a coffin. The man accompanying her turned out to be from a funeral home and was offering me full funeral services, with candles and coffin included for $300. All eyes were pointed my way.I went inside and called my cousin Gustavo for advice. He told me that I was not obligated to pay for the funeral, but they had done so on their own finca last year when they lost an employee. It was up to me. Gustavo said he would send his foreman, Olevidio over to make sure I had someone looking out for me. Carlito rushed in at that moment saying we needed to hurry as Beto was lying on the road and the police were waiting for us.
You don’t have much time to think under circumstances like this. But some heart driven ability kicks in enabling you to try your best. It took us only a few minutes to reach him. We came around a bend and there he was on our left, in a pool of blood. His body was ravaged by the impact of the truck, and we all gasped with fright. The police waved us to the side of the road, but would not let us near Beto until the health inspector arrived. Senora Gladys had thrown herself to the ground and was wailing hysterically while a crowd gathered.When the inspector arrived, the police dragged Beto to the side of the road by his arms and legs. His head flopped over and suddenly he was staring at us with one side of his face missing. When the men let go of his arms and legs, they crumpled in distorted positions making it clear that his limbs were broken. I grabbed myself tight and let out a cry. Where was the dignity that should be afforded in such a tragic scene? Where was the ambulance with proper medics to cover him with a blanket and gently place him on a stretcher so they could whisk him away to examine him in privacy? We watched while the police took off his watch, removed his shoes and socks, counted the money in his wallet, and checked his cell phone for his last phone call (which happened to be to me). We believe he was trying to call me to tell me he was going to be late when the accident happened. The phone log said, "Nina Stephanie."
The police asked me if I had made my decision yet. No. I had barely come to realize this was all real. So Don Olevidio and I rushed into town to pick out the coffin and returned to the scene to take Beto home. Carlito, Vigil, Evers, and I picked Beto up and carried him to my truck. It was then that we realized his head was almost severed and Evers quickly threw a t-shirt over his face, but it was too late. His image was forever imprinted our minds. We could never forget.I had never seen Don Beto’s home. I had always imagined a tidy home built of cinder blocks. He lived outside of town in a small canton a few miles from the finca. What I found was a shack of three rooms held together with corrugated tin. One imagines what is acceptable to us, never quite what is real. The men carried him into the house and laid him on a sponge mattress on the floor. The funeral director arrived a few minutes later and set up the coffin next to him. Evers volunteered to help change his clothes while Senora Gladys ironed a newly laundered shirt. I could have stayed in the room, but I decided it was too much, too many painful pictures already running through my mind. I did not want to see the rest of his body torn and bloodied. I needed to stay focused on the tasks at hand, and, yes, I was a little afraid.
While we waited, people began streaming up to the house. An unusual number of young men arrived, and I wondered if Beto had been a soccer coach on Sundays. When I asked Carlito and Vigil who they were, they told me they were Beto’s sons. After the fourth son was pointed out, I asked how many sons did Beto have. Carlito answered with twenty sons and six daughters. Vigil confirmed my amazed expression and noted this had been achieved with five or six women if he remembered correctly. I couldn’t quite believe them, but thought they certainly wouldn’t pick that moment for a tasteless joke. The following day, they were all in attendance at the burial with the exception of four that had passed away.It occurred to me that Beto had never made of point of telling me this and I wondered if it was something he was proud of or embarrassed by. One should never be embarrassed by their children. They are a gift. But it begs the question of the responsibility to effectively raise so many children when you are poor. I noticed some of his offspring at the funeral seemed very detached and without tears. I wondered what kind of relationship they had had with their father, if any at all. I learned there was much squabbling amongst the clan and that they rarely speak to each other.
After Beto had been transferred to the coffin, we left the family to their wake which lasted through the night until the funeral procession the next morning. They invited us back that night, but we were emotionally spent. Early the next morning, the funeral director pulled up to the house to collect his payment which I had ready for him. We piled into the truck picking up more people from Tecapan and joined the procession following right behind the hearse. I say hearse, but it was an old pick-up truck fitted with a glass box on top of the truck bed that held the coffin inside. Attached to the sides were eight vases which people filled with flowers cut from the roadside. The truck had a speaker mounted to the top that played music announcing our presence as we passed from town to town. Our final destination was Beto’s birthplace, Santa Elena, forty-five minutes away. When we arrived in Santa Elena, we were a caravan of several vehicles and three large trucks brimming with people. We stopped in front of the church where everyone disembarked and thus began the one mile foot procession to the cemetery.Beto’s coffin was set on a cement platform just inside the cemetery gate so people could pay their last respects. The coffin had a window about 12 x 24 inches on the lid, with a similar sized door covering it. The family threw themselves on the glass in fits of hysteria. Senora Gladys who noticed I had my camera asked me to take his photo and then another with her standing next to him. It felt a little morbid to me, but it is a different culture and in the darkness of grief, she seemed to feel the need to hold on to every moment. I took the pictures.
Some of the sons had dug the grave. There were no tidy carpets, shade tents, or flowers to hide the dirt. Just a deep dark hole with two ropes nearby. Six men lowered the coffin down, and the coffin bumped along the dirt walls. At one point, a corner became wedged and the lid started to open. I gasped and prayed. We saw a foot and then mercifully, the lid fell shut. Three men jumped in and took great pains to make sure the coffin sat at a straight angle. Above, the crowd issued directives. A little to the left, more to the right. Finally satisfied, the men took turns shoveling the dirt while the women tossed in personal effects and flowers. Someone had fashioned a cross with two pieces of wood and Beto’s name written in black marker. His youngest son pushed it in the earth and then fell to his knees in despair. I kept taking pictures, trying not to lose it myself.
It is Friday now and we are managing to remain strong. We are overly kind to each other and look for the slightest reason to smile. Evers slept soundly for the first time last night. I wasn’t aware that ever since Monday he had been suffering from nightmares. I bought him and everyone else sedatives at the pharmacy. I held a meeting today and told them that while Beto and I had some issues about his majordomo skills, he was a good man and we will all miss him terribly. I am leaving the finca for a month to promote Tecapa Blue Coffee, but promised we would hold a memorial for Beto when I returned. The men suggested we invite the families that farm land here as they too are in mourning. I added that perhaps we could get Don Jorge and his band of musicians to play some songs and Juana could cook up a big pot of her famous beans. They all became excited and I left them to their plans.
I used to tell Beto about this blog and the website for the coffee. I showed it to him several times and he always glowed when he saw his photo on my computer screen. I told him the whole world could see him. I don’t know if he ever completely understood the concept of the internet, but I think he thought it was pretty close to being on TV. He always left the room by saying, "Thanks be to God for our good future." Don Beto, you will always have a special place here on La Finca.