A lay missioner in El Salvador brings books—
and learns to sign from the heart
By Rick Dixon
Upon returning to La Esperanza after a few weeks away, my biggest desire is to visit the 35 families involved with our mobile wheelbarrow library. I fill my wheelbarrow with books and hit the road after a night of heavy rains. The path along the railroad tracks, which serves as Main Street, is full of gullies and holes.
“Libro” (book), Brandon shouts excitedly. He’s one of the library’s youngest clients. I then make another stop at Julie’s. She’s a bit taken aback by my long delay and asks where I’ve been. As soon as she hears “visiting my mother,” she is satisfied and takes a few books.
The path continues to become rougher, and one book pops out of the wheelbarrow into the mud. As I pick it up, a woman and little girl pass by. “Would you like a book?” I ask. Only the woman turns and approaches. The girl keeps walking, but when she discovers the woman is no longer at her side, she stops, turns, and walks toward us.
Many times I have seen this girl along the tracks. Her eyes are like dark stones staring up from the bottom of a river. Her forehead and neck are slightly too large; her mouth twists in. Whenever I’ve asked her if she wants a book, she turns her copper-toned face away so quickly that her brown hair swings around her head like some veil. Then she runs and hides.
The tall, slender woman says that she’s been wanting a book but hasn’t seen me for a while. I explain that I’ve been away, and she introduces herself as Jasmine and her daughter as Leslie, who is now hiding behind her mother. Jasmine takes a book from the wheelbarrow—Doley, the Guatemalan Street Dog—and shows it to her daughter. “Do you want this one?” she asks, speaking very slowly. Leslie doesn’t respond, so the mother points to the book and then to Leslie. “My daughter doesn’t hear or speak well,” she says.
“I’d like to read a book and sign the story to her. We’re learning sign language.” When she opens the book, the girl’s eyes blossom wide. The page shows a volcano with the sun’s colors all over it. Doley is barking up at two quetzals in flight. The text says, “Doley keeps birds up in the sky.” Leslie takes the well-used book as if it were a Christmas vision.
Since then, I’ve made a few rounds of book lending to Leslie and Jasmine. The last time I asked the mother how to say “How are you” in sign language. She placed open hands on each side of her heart and fingered them up to her shoulders and then put two thumbs in the air.
A few days later, I saw Leslie returning home from school and asked how she was. Her face opened curious and tender but then she grinned with wincing eyes, conveying that my sign language clearly needed a lot of practice. So I went home and spoke in finger and thumbs in front of a mirror until I could feel “How are you” as a rhythmic and fluent place from the heart.
I look forward to seeing Leslie again, to see how I’m doing with my new language.
Rick Dixon is a Maryknoll Lay Missioner serving in the La Esperanza community of Cojutepeque. His ministry takes place in a squatter settlement that dates back to the Salvadoran civil war. He promotes education, family literacy, and adult and youth skills training to help people develop confidence, leadership skills, self-esteem and handicraft abilities.
Photos by Rick Dixon