September 25, 2018
Culture
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El Salvador
No Secrets in Central America

Gossiping as self-defense

By Wade Shepard

SUCHITOTO, El Salvador- There are no secrets in Central America; the communities are too closely knit for this. If the white baby in town goes to the hospital, everybody knows about it.

“How is your baby?” the girl at the liquor store asked intently, as I tried to buy a beer to wash down the day.

“She is a little sick,” I answered.

“Is it because of the red bites that are on her arms?” she asked.

‘No, it is because of the amoebas inside her stomach.”

But the girl was correct. Petra did have a mild allergic reaction to some insect bites, though I do not know how the liquor store girl could have known this.

Wait, yes I do: the people here talk to each other.

In the U.S., it is almost work to talk to your neighbors. I know that the people who live a couple of houses down from my parents could internally combust all over the place one day and we would never know. We like things this way out in the U.S. countryside. We value privacy; we don’t want people talking about us; we like our secrets.

My father even put up a fence of trees around our property when we first moved in, to prevent the neighbors from looking in at us.

It worked: these trees have now grown to full height, and we live in a community of us alone.

But here in El Salvador everybody knows what you do. As we walked out of the hospital with Petra, there was a man waiting by the gate:

“What did the doctor say?” he asked bluntly.

We did not know this man. We’d never even noticed him before. But we gave him the news that would become the talk of the town: the white baby has amoebas.

There are no secrets in Central America. If you bed down with the cute boy down the street, you will soon have every other boy knocking on your door, wondering if it’ll be his turn next. It is also somewhat challenging to lasso a lady here — as she is well aware of the stir it will cause if she’s seen out alone with you.

There are eyes and ears everywhere, and they are all connected to a united network of mouths.

The people here seem to understand that they are being watched, that people talk, that what they do will be deposited verbatim into the verbal record of their town.

In Central America, you do not need to go far for your news — the front door of your home will do.

It is my impression that this is a sign of a community that is organized, equipped and prepared. The term “close-knit community” may be just a euphemism for nosy neighbors, but this is perhaps the foundation of any strong society.

A community in Central America can be mobilized at a moment’s notice. Verbal news can travel faster than radio. Perhaps gossip is a cultural tool that has been instilled into us from our primitive origins? It feels good to spread news, to “gossip” — and an informed, united community is one ready to defend itself.

Communities in many sectors of the U.S. tend to be weak in comparison with those in Central America. I do not know the name of the people who live next door to my parents. I do not care enough to know their names. Just so they stay off my land, they are all right by me.

“The best neighbor is the one you never have to talk to,” my father would say.

The neighbors could be buggering each other for all I care — and I don’t care. My family does not care. And we can only hope that our neighbors don’t care about what we do.

And this is what it all comes down to: in Central America people do care. They will talk to you, pass on the word about you, find out what you are doing, and make you a part of their community — whether you like it or not.

A lady who lives in an apartment downstairs from us tries to look up into our apartment all day long. I don’t yet know what she is looking for, but I do know that she mostly just finds me typing quietly on my computer, in nothing but a pair of skimpy underwear.

But I know that I live in a safe place. It is safe because I live in an apartment complex with about 10 other people, vigilant guards watching my room. Nothing short of an outright invasion of pistoleros could break through this defense. I am safe, because I am a part of a community that cares.

Wade Shepard has been perpetually traveling the world for the past 11 years, through more than 50 countries on five continents. He writes about the people he meets, the places he visits and his impressions of how the world comes together on Vagabond Journey Geographic and Vagabond Journey Travelogue.

3 comments about “No Secrets in Central America”

  1. Gregory Hubbs says:

    Of course the cliche is that “it takes a village,” and I have heard a good variation on that theme regarding raising your child: “You are not just raising your child for yourself, but for your community.”

    Nonetheless, there is no doubt that romanticizing communal or traditional cultures also has its downsides–especially if one is used to one’s privacy regarding what are considered taboo subjects at home.

    As I live in a city and country which is often very alienating (with many notable exceptions, of course), the allure of communities such as described is great. Experienced travelers all have their favorite communities, but one has to consider the fact that as a foreigner one will ultimately always be considered an “outsider” to some extent no matter how hospitable the native population.

    If you are in such a privileged position, it is a matter of personal preference, in the end. Alienation and all attendant “freedoms” or relative integration into the womb of a community. Or you can attempt to live in both worlds if you have the means.

  2. Samuel says:

    Kudos to you for this article! And so true. I currently live in a small community after years of considering myself a city person. What I most realized is that in my small community everyone is inter-dependent, so everyone is important, well-known and famous here. It’s all our duty to serve this community using our own passions and gifts to make the community run. It’s also understood that if one of us gets drunk and sings a song at 2am… they will be talked about for the next month. :)

  3. Melissa says:

    It is so true that people here in American do not talk to our neighbors. It is strange to think that if anything ever happened to our neighbors we would never know. It is good to know that it is different in other parts of the world.

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