“I knew I wanted to do something related to my faith, but not alone — with a community. “
Ana is part of the Salvadoran landscape in the San Ramon neighborhood where she was a founder of the Soya Program in 1994 and continues to provide for the health and nutritional needs of those living in poverty. Besides providing soy food and drink byproducts, she offers education to support the families. Ana is a forward thinker who earnestly hopes that one day the Soya Program will be self-sustaining. Right now the Maryknoll supporters who believe in this program help with its funding as does IPM, International Partners in Mission.
We had the pleasure of talking candidly with Ana and her colleague, Dwayne Fernandes, on a wide range of topics today. Their unwavering commitment to the Salvadorans in the midst of so many obstacles is nothing less than sacrificial .
What brought you to El Salvador?
In the sixth grade when our class researched what we each wanted to do as a life vocation, I researched a chef because I loved to cook. My dad discouraged me by pointing out I also loved math and science and why not consider those fields?
Later my parents supported my decision to join the Peace Corps in 1977, which was an eye-opening experience here to El Salvador. I returned to the States in 1979 when the Peace Corps asked for a 50% staff reduction. At that point I began to contemplate what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to do something related to my faith, but not alone — with a community. I had worked with migrants on the East Coast, and a woman there gave me contact information. I looked at mission work and felt the Maryknoll model was a good fit for me. I always remained in touch with people in El Salvador. There were no Maryknoll missioners in El Salvador at that time, only fathers and sisters.
In 1982 I joined the Maryknolls as a missioner spending that year in formation and then spending ten years in Peru beginning in 1983. By 1990 I began communicating with Maryknoll to see if they would consider accepting lay missioners for El Salvador. Sheila Matthews (in Guatemala) and I came in 1993. I wanted to be part of the enthusiasm at the Cathedral for the signing of the Peace Accords, and we came to attend along with the millions of others. At the time I returned there was a great deal of distrust after the war with neighbors not knowing if they could trust neighbors.
I have been here for twenty years.
Can you explain the Soya Program?
In 1994 another woman and I started this program of providing soy products to families who otherwise could not afford nutritious meals. Our goal is supplementing the diets of families with limited resources. They work in the informal sectors where income doesn’t reach far enough to allow adequate nutrition for their families. The gospel says to feed the poor. It’s all word of mouth information to get word out about us. The numbers fluctuate. Sometimes we ask locals to help out. We provide three components to the program:
- Community support – we feed 40-50 families who come here Monday through Friday between 2 PM-5PM. They can pick up soy milk and other food staples such as lentils, rice, beans, or spaghetti.
- Education – we provide soy workshops and nutrition education by demonstrating how to make soy products from the soybean and its byproducts. Sometimes program themes come from the locals who may request a class on diabetes, for example.
- Commercialization and promotion of soy products – to help this program become self-sustaining. IDP in Cleveland has been supporting our efforts for 10 to15 years as do our many Maryknoll supporters in terms of monetary, technical, and resource support.
What are the biggest challenges in your work?
It is challenging on all levels: emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and cultural. The increase in the country’s violence due to the organization of gangs and lack of social and economic opportunities makes recruiting youth easier. Gangs offer youth something in life to give them purpose.
How do you work around that element?
Both gangs operate within this area. We walk with the people as they struggle and live in fear. It is often a feeling of being useless. As a staff we come together to talk about their frustrations. We took down our sign to prevent gangs from coming here to ask for extortion money. We have installed a more secure door. Our cafeteria used to be open from 11 AM – 4:30 PM, but we cannot do that any longer. We will not endanger our staff. Likewise, we turn down no one who is in need of our products. Last year we had a part-time computer teacher helping kids with their homework. Now the mothers often don’t want their kids coming here because it’s not safe on the streets for kids to be out. Therefore, the moms must accompany kids to and from here, which may not always be convenient or safe for them.
How do you personally deal with the frustration and stress?
My local Christian-based community is an area of strength in my life. Our Maryknoll community is composed of nine adults and two children, three fathers, and five sisters. We meet monthly to share with the larger community. We have a resource person who comes from the States to address trauma and violence.
What is one thing that weighs most heavily on your heart?
I would like to see the whole border issue re-visited. It is important for U.S. citizens to ask their politicians to be more compassionate about the border and look at migrants as our brothers and our sisters leaving a tough situation, not as intruders. They are people needing help. The politicians make it so difficult, and the numbers are going to continue to increase. Look how many have already lost their lives before they even reach the border or are detained or deported. The political aspect amplifies the criteria of those trying to cross the border.
How is the migration issue being handled in this community?
In this country it will not be addressed until after the U.S. Presidential elections in the fall. In this small community people are leaving daily for the States. Adolescents are dropping out of school to go North. Locals drop in here crying. Recently a woman burst into tears because her child had just left. She has six children and said she didn’t think she would ever see her child again. She has no money to support these kids other than the $3 a day she makes selling fruit. She has AIDS. HIV/AIDS is growing rampantly mostly in the heterosexual community because precautions are rarely used due to the macho culture.
What are you hearing about the Zika virus?
Water is a precious commodity, and rain doesn’t fall every day. It becomes a more complicated issue for poor people who have to guard it. To clean the pilas *of mosquito larvae requires draining the pilas often. Not knowing when the next rain will fall to re-fill the pilas creates a dilemma for poor people. It is very worrisome in rural communities. Add to that health officials and government recommending women not become pregnant due to microcephaly caused by Zika, I’m not sure how this will all pan out in a highly machismo culture.
*Note: A pila collects rainwater. One can use a basin or bucket to dip into the pila to wash yourself, do laundry, brush teeth, etc. You take only what you need.
[As an aside, I recently read a reliable source on 5/22/16 that 618,000 Salvadorans living in rural communities still do NOT have potable water.]
What is the relationship between the formal Roman Catholic Church and you lay missioners?
Things have improved with Pope Francis. The Catholic Church is good to Maryknoll because they know our history here and support our program. It is in dialogue with other groups to allow more participation.
What are the biggest tensions in the country?
The First Lady has been helpful in spotlighting women’s rights. Inequality of wages between sexes and between rural vs. urban workers is common.
Do you see hope in the country?
I see hope and resiliency in the people. They don’t throw in the towel, even during their civil war. I have seen no change or hope in the government during the 20 years I’ve been here.
Your personal hope?
A missionary’s call is to walk with the poor.
Editor’s Note: Ana sends a colorful menu with us asking us to encourage others to take advantage of their catering service for a nutritious lunch sometime. The soy burger, quesadillas, and four flavors of soy milk look delicious, but it’s the chocolate chip soy muffins, cookies, and brownies that catch my eye. All this and more for a mere $5 per meal. They can cater to any dietary need, including vegan or vegetarian plates.
The Peace Corps whetted her feet in serving others, but after joining the Maryknoll missioners at 29, Ana has no regrets. She is a dynamic, devoted 62-year old whose sense of mission is an outstanding witness.
She asks us to share the Maryknoll website and reminds anyone interested that you must be Roman Catholic to pursue this way of life.