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Commentary: A tale of two mangos

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 26, 2010 - A very big part of a trip I'm now on in Central America can be summed up in a story of two mangos.

The first part of the trip was with my daughter who is in San Salvador with a group of students from the University of Santa Clara. She is taking courses -- Spanish, philosophy, history -- at the University of Central America in El Salvador. She is also taking a graduate-level course in life.

One of her for-credit courses is called a praxis. I had understood this to mean that she and the other students went into poor communities and served the people there. Her first choice for a praxis assignment was a place that works through yoga and art with women who are still recovering from the effects of the civil war.

That, to me, was easy to understand. You go somewhere and do a job. Instead, she got her third choice: the Quintanillas. So, I would ask in emails, what do you do? The answers never gave me a clear picture. They couldn't.

Rachel and Chris, the other U.S. student lucky enough to get this praxis, spend time with the Quintanilla family in their community. Oh, they help teach some English to some of Christina Quintanilla's students who come to the house. They read the Bible with Adela, a neighbor. But mostly they listen.

On the day I visited, Adela took us to the buildings where the Quintanillas lived when they came to San Salvador, fleeing the violence of the civil war. They came with five children, two had been killed, one hit by shrapnel as Rosa held her. From these rooms, the Salvadoran military had earlier taken four students and a priest in the night and killed them. The complex of buildings was abandoned -- until the Quintanillas came.

They were the first family who lived there after the massacre and, with the Jesuits, rebuilt a community.

Adela then took us to visit a family who had always lived in the area. The older women told their stories, of bombs and raids and people hiding forbidden reading material. The home was as simple as possible -- chickens scratched for food outside, younger women handwashed clothes in a stone basin.

And here we come to the mangos. You must eat, we were told. And even though Rosa had given us a large breakfast, we could not refuse. We stood around the kitchen as our hostess grated green mangoes. "Muy acidio," she kept saying. Very sour. And they were sour but they were oh, so fresh. Salt was put in a little bowl and we dipped our fingers in and ate with our fingers and listened as she told us about the war years and the importance of Oscar Romero, the country's archbishop who was gunned down in a church 30 years ago. The students must learn these things she said and asked them what they were studying at UCA. They told her, but over those mangos it became clear that the best professors were Rosa, Adela and the woman grating mango after mango and telling us her story. The praxis is a service to the students rather than the other way around.

The next day I left for Antigua, Guatemala. Rachel had classes and had no time to "entertain" her mother. In Antigua, I could walk by myself in the evening, something that was frowned on in San Salvador, even in the area where the students lived. In Antigua, my terrible Spanish would be sufficient and many, many people speak English.

Antigua is a colonial jewel, where ruins from earthquakes are retained and pastel buildings come right to the edge of cobblestone streets. I walked and walked and delighted in everything I found. But where to eat? I asked at the hotel and was given directions -- very clear directions -- to a place Jeannette thought I would like. I never found it.

But near to where I thought it should be was a place whose signboard proclaimed gazpacho and salmon. It lured me in.

The tablecloths were crisp and white. Etta James played on the sound system. They were out of pinot grigio, so we debated wines. I would like this one from Chile, the waitress-proprietor said. She was correct.

What did she recommend for the entree? Well, she said, the mangos were just now really good, so the mahi-mahi with mango. But of course.

Before the mahi, came a surprise -- and I have no idea what the Spanish is for lagniappe. But there was a tiny tureen of warm tomato-stock soup and two toast rounds: One with tapenade, the other with caviar. And the main course? The fish and mango and wine all came together wonderfully. The salt was in a little pewter dish with a mini-scoop.

Salt and mangos. Served in a kitchen with chipped enamel bowls and eaten communally with fingers. Served in a beautiful setting with lovely music and a nice glass of wine. The latter was a delight. The former was unforgettable.

Donna Korando started work in journalism at SIU’s Daily Egyptian in 1968. In between Carbondale and St. Louis Public Radio, she taught high school in Manitowoc, Wis., and worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the copy editor and letters editor for the editorial page from 1973-77. As an editorial writer from 1977-87, she covered Illinois and city politics, education, agriculture, family issues and sub-Saharan Africa. When she was editor of the Commentary Page from 1987-2003, the page won several awards from the Association of Opinion Page Editors. From 2003-07, she headed the features copy desk.