Culture Clash

Birthday Exorcism: How “Satan” Helped Me Find a Home

Written in the spirit of Halloween. From my Peace Corps journal. Published in El Camino, a publication of Peace Corps El Salvador, July / August 2006.

Sometimes the best way to end up with an awesome housing set-up is to have your host family perform an exorcism for you.

Two years ago, I transferred to a new site, and my counterpart placed me with a host family to help me adapt to the new environment. Two and a half weeks later, on my birthday, I was sick with the runs, projectile vomit, and nausea. I decided I couldn’t eat more of what my host mom was giving me, so I took a one-hour bus ride into my pueblo for some wholesome goodies. When I got back to the house, I discovered my host family’s “thoughtful” birthday present.

The door to my room was locked, but from behind came multiple howls, moans, grunts, yells, shrieks, you name it, in different pitches, tones, and volumes. I thought I had stepped into a horror scene from The Serpent and the Rainbow. An old campesino “bouncer” on the front porch explained that the people inside were praying. “But why are they praying inside my room?” I asked as I stared into the open door of the large empty living room area. “Because they needed a quiet place to pray,” was the response I received. Why would anyone need a quiet place to pray when they were creating bastante buya? Plus, the living room seemed as quiet a place as my small bedroom normally was. It didn’t make any sense to me, so I went with my small sack of groceries to the back of the house to patiently wait for the Halloween show to end.

Half an hour later, I heard them come out; in whispers, I heard them mention la gringa. On cue, I came around the house, said Buenas with a look that could kill, went into my room, locked the door, frantically tried making phone calls to my counterparts to understand the situation, which was futile due to no signal, and finally resorted to eavesdropping for a good 15 minutes at the hushed conversations going on outside my door.

There was a good amount of talk of the Devil, but I couldn’t figure out if they thought evil spirits haunted my room, if they thought I was possessed, or if they thought I was consorting with Satan himself. Unable to extract any logical sense out of their conversations, I decided to get a Salvadoran perspective on the matter. I exiled my room with yogurt in hand, smiled sweetly at the assembly on the porch, gingerly explained that I was going on a house visit, and then power-walked as fast as my short legs would carry me to a house on the outskirts of my caserío.

I had met niña Leti only twice before, once to help her feather and peel chickens, so we had confianza. I knew she was Evangélica, like my host mom, and was even related to her, being hercuñada. I hoped she could help me make sense of my host mom, and to see if she could let me stay in her over-crowded household – even if it meant sleeping outside with her cabras. She promised not to tell my host mom I had confided in her, and vetoed my idea of moving in with the cabras due to lack of privacy,

“It’s true that we are both Evangélicas, but our churches are very different. She belongs to the church in Zamora,” emphasizing Zamora as if that explained everything. With some gentle prodding, she elaborated that the Zamora caserío church believed all illness was caused by Satan. The fact that I was recently sick, and that my host mom was usually sick, likely made  her think Satan was running loose in the house, and maybe even that I had brought him. “Who knows what got into niña Teresa. She should have known better. Le han lavado la cabeza.”

Under the circumstances, niña Leti understood my discomfort with the housing arrangement. She realized I had been exorcized along with niña Teresa’s idea of Satan, and vowed to secretly house hunt for me. But how could we make it seem that my leaving had nothing to do with the exorcism? As luck would have it, the Training Center asked if I could host a trainee for Immersion Day. I delivered this news to my host mom, emphasizing that I didn’t know if they were giving me a girl or a boy. I was going to need more room, especially if it turned out to be a boy, so he could have his own room.

My host mom accepted this, realizing that having a boy around the house would make things very weird and uncomfortable for her and her daughter. I was scot-free! The house niña Leti found was huge –  a real find. Yes, it had no corriente, but who cared so long as I was out of that infernal house.

As it turned out, my visiting trainee was Scott, who due to some unfortunate circumstances couldn’t make it all the way into my site. I was Scott free again, but I got a nice house in the bargain. I’m almost positive I faired better than Satan did, but the move would not have been possible without him. So if there’s something strange in your caserío, whether it’s you, your stomach parasites, or a crazy host mother, have an exorcism. They really DO work wonders! I for one have never so much as stepped into niña Teresa’s household ever again. ¡Nunca, jamás! Ni aun cayendo hielo en el infierno.

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