Patricia’s Papito*

It had rained hard during the night, and in the village of La Realidad, El Salvador, Santiago was thanking God his house didn’t have a leak. It was 5 a.m., and he was about to set off on his 15-mile journey to Santa Ana for another day selling snow cones to support his family. Santiago patted the outside wall of the house, which he had made himself out of plastic, cardboard, and metal sheeting. God willing, he thought, we’ll have a real house someday.

Santiago had already visited the ice deposit and was walking to catch a pickup truck into town when it happened: The rain-soaked ground seemed to slide beneath him, and he fell hard. His only thought was to prevent the ice in his arms from breaking; without it, there would be no snow cones, and he would not be able to bring back the $3 or $4 profit that day for his family. Each dollar was precious: His five children were undernourished as it was.

Santiago saved the ice by falling on his knees, but his legs paid the price. All day he felt a deep pain that refused to go away. I must keep working, Santiago told himself, forcing a smile as he handed a customer a cone. I can get through this.

But Santiago was feeling much worse by the time he returned home. He tried to muster energy to greet his 4-year-old daughter, Patricia, who came flying out of the house to meet him, followed by their small dog Kimba.

“Papito! (Daddy!)”

Patricia wrapped her arms around her father’s waist for a hug while Kimba danced happily around their legs. Patricia then took her father’s hands between hers to soothe them: They always hurt from the contrast of hot sun and frigid cold from the metal ice grinder. Papito talked about working in electronics instead, but since so far he had burned most of the family’s household appliances trying to fix them, Patricia wasn’t sure that was such a good idea.

“Papito, what’s wrong?” Patricia noted that her father looked pale and unusually tired.

“It was a long day,” Santiago said, giving her shoulder a squeeze. “Papito is fine.”

But it is impossible to keep secrets in a one-room house. And there was no hiding the seriousness of the situation when Papito tried to get up to go to the hospital and discovered he couldn’t walk.

“Patricia, get your brothers,” Patricia’s mother said. “Your father needs help.”


* based on the story of Patricia Guadalupe and her family. Research for this story was conducted with the assistance of Henry Flores, CFCA.

As Santiago faded in and out of consciousness, he could see Patricia kneeling next to him on the dirt floor, clasping her hands in prayer. The sight both touched and wounded him. This helplessness, he thought, is torture.

The pain medication from the hospital had not done enough. He had been in bed for more than two weeks, feverish and rapidly losing weight. His pain was so severe he thought it might end his life. But what hurt Santiago just as much was the knowledge that he was not supporting his family. Soon his wife and children would be forced to do as their neighbors did — pick and sell garbage from the city dump eight miles away. It was a dirty business that had brought disease to many of the village children. Santiago had vowed that his family would never suffer in that way.

What good are such promises now? Santiago’s lashes were wet as he reached out and caressed his daughter’s thin hair and face. Please, God, I cannot die, he prayed. I cannot leave my family with nothing.

He lay for hours, uncertain whether he was awake or asleep. All around him, there were people — people taking apart his house and putting up a better one. People exchanging his makeshift beds for real ones. People stringing wire and fitting electrical bulbs. A new house, Santiago mused. A better life…

After Santiago had an operation and recovered from his illness — he learned that his fall had damaged an artery, which in turn caused a tumor and infection — he didn’t give much thought to his dream. After all, his family was still living in the same small, stuffy house, with a cement block for a dining table and not enough food to put on it. Not even when two Salvadoran men from a Christian group came to visit his village, armed with a multitude of questions, did Santiago wonder. You didn’t have time for dreams when there was so much work to do.

Three months after the visit, though, Patricia, who had beensitting outside the house, called inside with excitement. “Papito! Mamita! Those men are back!”

Santiago, his arm around his wife, stepped out of the house into the hot sunlight to see the two men from the Christian group, Henry Flores and Humberto Pacheco, approaching with an American couple.

“Santiago, Estela, I’d like you to meet Arthur and Joanne,” Henry said in Spanish. He was in his mid-30s, with black hair and an energetic manner. Just looking at him was like getting an energizing whiff of the coffee beans Santiago had once picked as a worker in the fields years ago.

“They’re visiting with one of our mission awareness trips,” Humberto continued, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief. “Would you mind sharing your story?”

“I would be happy to translate,” Henry offered.

“You are very welcome,” said Santiago. “Please, come inside.”

Though they were dressed casually, the Americans seemed out of place sitting on cement blocks on the dirt floor in Santiago’s home. But they listened intently to Santiago, nodded at Henry, and smiled at the giggling, curious children. Then at last they all rose, and the couple followed Henry outside the house, talking quickly in English.

A few moments later, Henry returned wearing a huge grin.

“Arthur and Joanne,” he said, pausing grandly, “would like to sponsor three of your children.”

“Sponsor?” queried Estela.“It means they will act as godparents. They will send money each month. Santiago, this means you can send the children to school.”

As the children began jumping up and down in the background, their parents stood dumbfounded. It had long been their wish to educate their children. Santiago had only completed first grade; Estela, third. They knew learning could bring a better life within reach.

“This also means we will be able to build you a new house,” Henry added.

Estela sat down and began to weep with joy. Santiago’s thoughts raced back to his dream — the new house, the new beds, the electricity. He swallowed hard.

“Tell them…” he faltered. He didn’t know quite what to say. Then he felt a small, warm hand slip into his. He looked down to see Patricia beaming at him.

“Tell them thank you,” he said, looking back at Henry with a smile. “Tell them God has used their kindness to help our family’s dreams come true.” CD

Photos by Henry Flores, CFCA

Love Your Neighbor
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