A couple of weeks ago was Valeria’s 10th Birthday! This girl is one of my absolute favorites here at the mission. She is unbelievably smart and goes to one of the best bilingual schools in the area on an academic scholarship. Valeria is in fourth grade and has the most complicated homework I have ever seen for elementary school. Last year, we started doing algebra equations in third grade! She has some of her classes solely in English and therefore Andrew and I, the resident English experts here at the mission, are tasked with helping her prepare for presentations, work through projects and homework, and just speaking good conversational English with her. For a child that has only been learning this language for three years, going on four now, she is incredible. After attempting to learn a foreign language myself, to hear her flip back and forth between verb tenses and know so much vocabulary, I’m amazed… and jealous.
Anyways, I am blogging about her birthday because I like this memory a lot. Maybe ten years from now around this time of year, Valeria and I will be sitting in a Starbucks in the US while she’s on spring break from a phenomenal university like Florida State, remembering the good times like this over a $5 coffee. And yes, it has clearly already occurred to be that I need to plant the seed early on in this college situation. She probably needed her first FSU shirt like yesterday. Nonetheless, about a month ago, Valeria was up here in the apartment working on an assignment with me and we began to talk about her 10th birthday coming up. I asked her what she wanted for her birthday and she responded with a hair straightener, now that is a girl after my own heart! She mentioned that this would be the second gift her father would give her. At first I thought he had already given her an early birthday present and this was going to be his second gift to her. Then she explained that she received one gift from her father for her first five years (of life) and she will get one for her second five years. My heart broke for Valeria in that moment. Her father doesn’t want a whole lot to do with her and she doesn’t spend too much time with him for that reason. She wasn’t so much excited about the hair straightener itself so much as the fact that her father had actually promised her a birthday gift.
So on a Sunday morning, the phone rings and it’s Valeria inviting us to her birthday party that afternoon. Andrew and I figured we would probably go for a little while, long enough to make an appearance and get the opportunity to invite her to go to dinner with us one evening as our birthday treat to her. I was a little nervous to stay too long because sometimes events like this are not so fun for the mediocre Spanish speakers such as ourselves. To be at a big gathering with people who speak no English is sometimes quite lonely. But as soon as we arrived, we saw Valeria’s mother, Teresa, and her aunt who we know pretty well by now. By the grace of God, I can understand Teresa’s Spanish very well. Plus Valeria speaks great English so we were already more at ease. I noticed that there were only a few family members at this birthday gathering. A couple of aunts, cousins, grandma, and a few friends of the family. I immediately felt grateful to be invited to an event that was clearly a small gathering of close friends and family.
The food that was being prepared was ready shortly after we arrived. We were going to have chalupas. Previous to that moment, I had only ever heard of chalupas in the Taco Bell context. Let me tell you, that is not what this was. Taco Bell has clearly taken some artistic liberty on their menu choices and creations.
This was a flat, hard shell tortilla topped with beans and pulled chicken mixed with some sort of sauce. I was good with that part. Then, of course, it was covered with cabbage and the dreaded mayonnaise and ketchup combo. That is one thing I hate about this culture, they love putting mayo and ketchup all over things that definitely don’t need it. I only eat ketchup with french fries and mayonnaise very lightly on a sub. As you can see, a picky eater such as myself is not going to fare well in this situation. We were served first so I sat with my plate in my lap and politely waited, thinking of a back up plan on how to eat most of this without the cabbage and condiments to avoid making awful faces and potentially throwing up. Teresa realized we weren’t eating and told us to go ahead and not wait. Great. It was go time. Andrew fared amazingly well even though he doesn’t so much like the cabbage, mayo, and ketchup combination either. I was able to do some interesting shifting on my plate to consume most of what was there without all the mayo and ketchup. Minus the previously mentioned questionable parts of the dish, the chalupa was actually quite tasty. Nothing like Taco Bell, as to be expected. I think if Valeria ever visits the US, she’ll need to go to Taco Bell just to compare and contrast. That will be an eye-opening experience on several levels.
We hung around the house for a bit, saw family pictures and talked with different family members.
Then it was time for an adventure. The main house we were in is the grandparents’ house. They own quite a bit of land and several of Valeria’s aunts and uncles live right there on what I’d call a family compound almost. Valeria, Teresa, David (Valeria’s little brother), and a friend of the family started to take us on a tour of the land. I would have never guessed the family owned so much. We saw all kinds of things; spiny trees, a small natural pool of water that comes up through the earth, beautiful flowing plants that they call golden rain. It is a fantastic area for kids to run around and play. Slightly wooded, but not dangerous in the slightest.
Then we made our way to the chicken coop. This one is quite legit compared to what Andrew and Mark were building in Panama. This family apparently knows a thing or two about raising chickens. Valeria let us feed them and told us all about what her responsibilities were each day with the chickens. It was all very cool.
Our last stop was at Valeria’s house. It’s the one directly behind the grandparents’ house that I had only ever seen from the street. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I will say, it is much nicer than the average house in Bajo Tejares. But you still always need to put into the perspective of what it would actually be like to live there day in and day out. It is one thing to see it on a short fifteen minute visit to the house and say ‘oh that’s not too bad.’ It’s an entirely different situation to imagine waking up each day and living in that house, going to sleep there each night. When I look back at my college dorm room and consider it fancy compared to what most people live in here, that should say something. Nonetheless, Valeria asked very slyly if I knew which room was hers. It was the one with the bright pink cross on the door that I gave her for her first communion last year. Inside her room, she has pictures of Larry and Cheryl along with everything they have ever given her.
She was so proud to show us every Christmas gift she has received from them since the mission opened five years ago and started doing the Christmas parties each year. Teresa showed me a picture of Valeria hugging Larry and told me that the picture was taken the day they told Valeria that Larry had cancer. Valeria told me just a few days ago that she loved Larry so much because he was more like a father to her than her own father is. She holds on to every memory of him as tightly as she can because what she misses the most is the love he showered her with. Maybe she will never get that from her real father, but she will always remember what it was like to be loved by Larry. When I think about how smart she is, all that she has learned, and how beautifully she is growing up, all I can think is that Larry would be so, so very proud of her.
We made our way back to the main house where we got ready to have some coffee. As we were waiting for the coffee, they brought out these crazy fruits called granadillas. Being quite skeptical of this, Andrew and I let Valeria know that we’d be happy to share one. Yeah, right. All of our attempts at getting out of things (disguised as using good manners) just seemed to fail miserably when put up against their generosity. We each got our own granadilla. It looks like an orange but inside are small, grayish, edible seeds in a jellylike substance. The texture is quite uninviting, but we had to try it. I have the worst gag reflexes out of anyone I’ve ever known, so this did not go so well for me. I actually spit some out in my hand and wiped it on my jeans when nobody was looking. I got Valeria to take a few bites of mine, but then she caught on. She finally said “you don’t like it, do you?” and I felt terrible. I lied and said I thought it was wonderful, I was just so full that I could hardly eat anymore. Thank God the coffee was ready and I could move past the granadillas.
I brought some girl scout cookies with me to share with the family. I’ve got to be honest, I have never seen a box of Samoas inhaled so quickly. Those were a hit. We enjoyed our coffee and cookies, homemade bread among other things. And alas, it was time for cake. We all sang Feliz Cumpleaños and had brightly colored pieces of a princess decorated cake. As Andrew and I said our goodbyes, three hours later, I couldn’t have imagined a more delightful Sunday afternoon. I honestly wonder sometimes why God would ever choose me to be a part of things like this. Why would I ever be worthy enough to live this kind of life? Lucky enough to make these memories? I have no idea, I really don’t. But I am beyond grateful to be doing what I am doing and to be given these opportunities.