History books and 19th century novelists have created a stereotypical American pioneer woman. She is strong physically and spiritually. She had to be physically strong to do the hard manual labor involved in farming and housekeeping. This was especially true if her husband were away from home fighting Indians, hunting, or trekking to civilization for supplies. Her indomitable spirit kept the family together during the hard times on the prairie or in the mountains. She never complained although she ached from her long hours of work, ailments that went untreated, loss of children to disease or in childbirth, crops that failed, fears from nature, robbers, and hostile neighbors. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Willa Cather portrayed her and the movies made her the American heroine of all time.
We look at life in the 21st century with all its comforts and luxuries, services and benefits, retirement plans and medical insurance and take it all for granted. The American woman has come a long way in the last two centuries.
In the last 25 years I’ve spent a lot of time in many different environments in Mexico and Central America. Among them were places not much different from where the American pioneer family cleared forests and broke sod to make homesteads, form informal communities, and build the towns that are now great cities. I’ve lived with families practicing the traditions of their Indian ancestors in the hunting and raising of food, medical practices, usage of nature and natural things, and blending ancient spiritual beliefs with Christianity. Here, the central pillar of the family, community and society is the woman.
Her strength is in her faith that the biblical God’s promises are true and recognizable. She is the one who sacrifices and suffers silently with a smile on her face and a song of praise on her lips. She does not complain although she has every reason to. Faithless men, a brood of children to raise, sicknesses to overcome with folk medicine, a routine that never changes from day to day throughout her lifetime, the knowledge that it will be no better for her kids than it is for her, beans and tortillas, tortillas and beans. No washing machine and certainly no laundromat. No doctors or dentists. No medical insurance, life insurance, or homeowner’s insurance. Poor education that leads nowhere economically. But television portrays the good life in the novelas. She knows it’s out there somewhere. Maybe in San Salvador, Bogotá or Los Angeles. She may have coins in a purse stuck in her bra next to her cell phone but does not often have bills. There are no birthday cakes for her kids, no Hallmark cards, cheap utile gifts or a toy that will be broken before the day is over. Made in China. But she goes on day after identical day. She’ll find release in local gossip and comfort in a culto, a service in a local church or house of prayer.
If she’s married, formally or informally, she will put her husband before her on one hand and her children before her on the other. She will see to his comfort, tend to his needs and desires, treat him in a way that most American men can only dream about. She will protect her children with all her strength and cunning. She will go hungry until her kids are full. She will give them the only blanket and clothe them before clothing herself. She will instill her values in them as firmly as she can. If she is sick, too sick to move the oldest children are prepared to cook, wash, cut firewood, make tortillas, and take the younger children to school. She will make sure her husband’s meals are prepared and that he doesn’t run out of clean clothes…even if she has to do this herself. She will ignore his admonishments to rest, to see a doctor, to take care of herself. She is the woman in Proverbs 31.
Her name is Margarita. She is the most remarkable woman I’ve ever known. My cultural background makes it difficult for me to understand her. She defies my expectations of her. That’s because she exceeds any behavior, any response to a situation that I have experienced in my culture. She’s never shown an anger to counter my own. Instead, her love and reason make me see the foolishness and pointlessness of my anger. I only appreciate her more. When I’ve been worrying about a financial problem, her health, a problem with our church and she hasn’t shared my panic, I’ve thought she was being irresponsible and thoughtless. I’d worry and get nowhere. She’d pray and tell me to pray. Her way worked. Most of the time I’d worried for nothing. God provided. I’ve learned many lessons from this strong, yet wonderfully gentle woman.
As she recuperates from her recent surgery, I want to tell her not to wash my socks and underwear. Either tell daughter María to wash them or I’ll buy some more. The Spirit that guides her lets her do things that I try to limit. I can’t stop her or slow her down. She knows best.
Just as the twists and turns of my life has led me to El Salvador, the moulding and shaping of hers has led her to me. She is the angel that God has sent to prepare me for the final scenes of my life. She is polishing me as a jeweler finishes a gem for mounting. Her strength reinforces mine to face whatever trials are ahead. Her love is incomparable. With her I am confident that we will cross the mountains and prairies together and safely arrive at our destination. Thank you, Lord.