Editor’s Note: Businesses in El Salvador, like those in the U.S., are experiencing the tragic ripple effects resulting from the COVID-19 virus. Guesthouses are highly dependent on visiting international delegations as their means of financial support. With the country’s border closed to visitors, those delegations are no longer able to visit. One such organization we support, CRISPAZ, a faith-based organization, for example, will lose half of its visiting delegations this year due to cancellations. CRISPAZ sends many of its groups to guesthouses for accommodations during their stays.
We learned from the woman who manages this San Salvador guesthouse we often stay in that she has had to close its doors for the entire year. Its gracious manager rents the facility and continues to pay the rent and utilities but fears staying alone in the facility. She has moved in with one of her adult children and family. (On our last visit this guesthouse was filled beyond capacity by a group of Lutheran youth from Germany on an exchange program).
The following interview is with a hard-working hospitality worker in the guesthouse (name changed) conducted when the guesthouse was up and running, busy, and vibrant. We sincerely hope that will be the case in the future. During that time the guesthouse manager also was operating several apartments nearby.
Priscilla — She is a tiny wisp of a girl who floats around the guesthouse from pre-dawn to post-dusk and beyond energetically performing whatever tasks need to be done. Being a light sleeper and awaking with the calls of the first birds, I’m up with my computer before the other guests. Soon Priscilla appears turning on fans and lights for me to work, opening the back door for fresh air, and serving my morning coffee. She begins to sweep and sweep and sweep the never-ending vegetation that constantly blows into the house. Throughout the day she will prepare the meals, wash the laundry, clean the rooms, purchase food from the street vendors, and do whatever else the guesthouse owner asks of her — always with a smile.
What is your working schedule? It seems like you are ALWAYS here.
“I work 12 straight days. Generally I work one weekend, and then I have one weekend off.”
So you live here in the guesthouse while you work?
When you aren’t working here at the guesthouse, what do you do on your days off?
“I work on a finca either picking beans or working in the coffee industry. I work all year round from January when we plant the coffee seedlings to the harvest of the ripe beans in December. I do whatever is necessary to support the life of the tree during the entire year.”
Please tell me you don’t carry those large bags of beans on your tiny shoulders.
“Oh yes, I carry the 100# bags of ripe berries at harvest. [This girl can’t weigh much more than that! We also know they get paid by the amount they harvest, however, making it advantageous for her to carry as much as that back can hold.]“
Where is the coffee finca in relation to your home?
“It is near Sonsonate and takes only about an hour to walk there from my home; it is in a cooperative [a campesino community].”
Can you share a little about your home?
“I live there with my mom, dad, and two brothers in the Santa Ana department. My parents own one manzana [1.7 acres] where we raise crops to sustain our needs.”
Were you able to attend school when you were younger?
“Yes, I attended school through 3rd grade. In my community you can take classes through the ninth grade.”
Is there a church within your community, and if so, do you attend and participate in its life?
“Yes, there is a Christian church. I enjoy singing in the choir. When I am working here at the guesthouse, the owner and I have our own worship service together.”
Are you required to help support your family using your salary?
“No, that is not necessary. My brother works in San Salvador also and rides his motorcycle back and forth every day.”
We can tell by the way you speak of your family that you are very devoted to them. How do you handle the situation if one of them is sick and you are scheduled to work here at the guesthouse?
“I take care of my family and find someone else to work here in my place. We are flexible about things like that.”
Santa Ana is quite a distance away from San Salvador. How did you find out about the job here at the guesthouse?
“The girl who used to work here left for another job, and she made me aware of the opening.”
Did you know how to cook when you were hired?
“No, but I learned quickly and now am creating some of my own recipes.”
How do you get from your home to the guesthouse here?
“I travel by bus; it takes 3-4 hours including transfers and costs $1.25.”
We understand buses can be dangerous. Have you had any bad experiences on them?
“No, I personally have not, but the girl who used to work here was robbed and dropped off at another place. She needed to call for help.”
What specific tasks do you like to do best on the coffee finca? Same here at the guesthouse?
“At the coffee finca I like picking the beans at harvest time. Here at the guesthouse I like EVERYTHING! I get nervous about not knowing English for our English guests, but the owner tells me, Don’t worry; smile first, never say no, always say yes. Always think positive things; if you want, you can do it; show them!”
Do you have a boyfriend?
“Oh yes [she answers dreamily and laughing]. He lives in my community. The guesthouse owner’s granddaughter says when we get married, we have to live in an apartment in this neighborhood and always stay close by because their whole family loves me.”
What do you enjoy most in life?
“Spending quiet time with my family.”
Has the dwindling number of international delegations coming to El Salvador had a direct effect on you and your income here at the guesthouse?
“No, I am salaried, and by law I work whether there are guests here or not. There are always things to do here such as cleaning and gardening. [This surprised us on the one hand; however, we were in discussion with another employer recently who also explained that if you have a contract, the employer must honor it.]“
Editor’s Note: At this point in our interview, Priscilla received a cell phone call from a renter in one of the apartments who had locked himself out. She needed to absent herself to go let him in. She said the apartment renters typically don’t require much assistance other than things like internet help; but this was an example of one of their needs.
We fear what happens to kind, hard-working staff like Priscilla when places of employment such as guesthouses close. Will it be temporary or permanent? Only time will tell.