Dear “Hermana Ann” by Maria Vazquez-Smith
by Mark Chmiel
Maria is taking a class with me based on The Book of Mev. One of the weekly themes was Direct Address, and Maria wrote the following and gave me permission to share it.
Dear “Hermana Ann” September 12, 2017
Hello, my name is Maria Smith and I am a 2013 graduate of Saint Louis University. It has been a true honor getting to know you through The Book of Mev (as in your friend, Mev Puleo. Her husband, Mark Chmiel, wrote a beautiful book that you’d enjoy. It includes people like you that make me proud to be a SLU alum). This afternoon, I read an excerpt that features you being interviewed by Mev. During the time of the interview, you were both in El Salvador, perhaps sitting outside somewhere. While I read the interview, I was sitting outside my office. I had just finished eating lunch and was taking a moment to breathe and sit in the sun before returning back to work.
Seeing your name in the book reminded me of the time I met you back in June 2013, when Lindsey Weston, another graduate of SLU, and I found ourselves in Guarjila, Chalatenango, El Salvador for the 20th Anniversary Celebration of your life. Your spirit was so alive during that Mass. Lindsey and I met three of your sisters and actually ended up sitting next to them to help with translation. To be honest, I wish my Spanish comprehension had been better at the time. I did not understand a lot of what was being shared. I tried my best to translate, especially the Homily and testimonies, but Lindsey sitting on the bench in front of me with two of your sisters, surely did a better job. Never the less, there was a spirit during the Mass that was understood by all. The sheer amount of people present was a testimony to your impact. A documentary shown afterwards gave us a deeper understanding of your work.
You truly are a living saint.
And those you were so wise to teach have continued your legacy. Loaves and fishes, eh?
What captured my mind today (before I came across the pictures of the Mass, your clinic and the mural that was painted outside of it) were your words. To be honest, I would have been (or perhaps I should say, I am) very fearful – perhaps even too fearful – to make the commitment to serve in a war zone. But, as you note, you had scripture as a source of strength, along with the Salvadoran people. I am so proud to know you through the testimonies of others. It is humbling and helpful to hear that you, too, struggled to sustain your level of empathy. I am in no way living in a war zone, but I do work with people in crisis situations. Some more urgent than others. As I left work today, I had to swallow the fact that a client of mine, a single mother of three, will most likely be evicted from her apartment tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, very soon. She’s been homeless before and most likely, will be homeless again. My supervisor reminded me that I’d done all I could do. And sometimes, often, it just isn’t enough.
How did you grab hold of the courage to live amidst war? Did you ever fully recover from that? Unfortunately, El Salvador is still a war zone for many. As Mark mentions in his book, white skin often protects us from being harmed by violence… to be continued…
Backing up a bit. In response to the pictures I came across of your Mass, I’m reminded of how beautifully things seem to connect in El Salvador. Lindsey and I had been planning a trip to El Salvador after graduating from SLU. We were eager to return back to the families we met while studying at the Casa de la Solidaridad, a program through the UCA formed to host U.S. students for a semester. We bought the tickets back in December 2012 and as the trip drew closer, we heard about the Mass. As I’m sleuthing for information online to remind me of the details, I believe Lindsey and I actually attended a “Share the Wealth” by Ellen Rehg about your life in March 2013. So, perhaps it was in St. Louis that I first met you. But surely it was in El Salvador that I saw you come alive abroad. And it’s been through the Book of Mev that I’ve had the opportunity to know you through your own words. Thank you, Mev and Mark, for that gift.
While on that trip with Lindsey back in June 2013, we spent a night visiting the becarios, the Salvadoran scholarship students who are connected with the Casa de la Solidaridad. It is there I saw my now husband, Saul, for the first time since saying goodbye back in December 2011. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d ever see him again. But there we were, sitting around the same table, among friends. We had shared our feelings for each other back in February 2012, but we made no verbal mention of those feelings that night. It was special being reminded of the way Saul made me feel, even if I’d continue to bury my feelings under the guise of fear, borders and focus on my own academic/professional goals. I didn’t imagine ever getting married at that time because there was too much I still wanted to accomplish before “losing myself to someone else.”
There was a time in which I was discerning becoming a religious sister. And surely, it was women like you who inspired that thought. Your dedication to the people was… genuine, hardcore and lasting. Your persistence in sticking with your faith and vocation admirable. It allowed you to dedicate your time and live your mission in a unique way.
What a powerful image of you biking from near SLU at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital up North Grand to Karen House. To serve, to live, to dedicate your one life to the greater good. To do your small yet significant part to change the narrative. To make amends for the millions and billions of dollars our country has not invested in places like North St. Louis and instead shelled out to make and re-produce wars around the world.
Until later my friend. I have so much to say, but I must rest to face another day of disappointments and crisis. There is so much suffering in this world. I am on a daily basis amazed by how much suffering exists just within the very wealthy DC area county in which I work. You’d be happy to hear that my Spanish has improved. I can now meet with and work with and sit with and try to support many Salvadoran who’ve found refuge of a better life, better work, safety and security here in our local community. I try to do the same for each person I meet, but, at times, it can be trying to find the right amount of empathy. On days when we are very busy and many come tired, weary, afraid, upset, I pray I can find enough empathy to go around.
Thank you for your example. Thank you for your lived life. Thank you for giving of yourself and for sustaining us all through your actions and words. You are loved. Que descanse (porque ya lo merece!). Que descanse en paz.
Your friend from afar,
Quote on mural: “La muerte no es verdad cuando se ha cumplido bien la obra de la vida” … Rough translation: “Death is not possible for those who have completed well their life’s mission.”