Every year when she was a child, Magdalena Cruz piled her arms full of sand at the beach near her home in El Salvador.
Just before Good Friday, she would carry the sand to the main road where she, her family and her neighbors arranged it into designs on the ground, which stretched far down the city street to honor an Easter tradition.
That was only a few years before a civil war resulted in bloodshed and violence on those same Salvadoran streets and forced Cruz to flee the only country and family she had ever known.
Last week, churchgoers at Sacred Heart Chapel in Lorain, where Cruz and her husband Carlos are both members, recreated those same sand designs in a maze on the church floor.
They incorporated colored sawdust, salt and glitter to make “rugs” — or alfombra — with religious designs celebrating loved ones, God and their community.
The rugs are part of a tradition for many countries in South and Central America. Each year, the week before Good Friday, neighbors and friends will create the rugs out of colored sand and sawdust in the streets of their town. On Good Friday, community members will carry a symbolic body of Jesus through the rugs to a final resting place at the end of the road.
While it’s a common tradition in many Hispanic communities, creating alfombra for Good Friday was relatively unheard of in Lorain.
That changed when Cruz fled El Salvador to come to Lorain. With few friends and no family members around, Cruz said the tradition gave her a connection to the place she had called home for 21 years.
“I feel like I have a part of my country with me over here,” Cruz said.
Cruz sat on her couch in the center of an immaculately clean living room. Framed photos covered one wall — Cruz in a bridal dress, Cruz grinning brightly with her husband, her teenaged children.
She works in Lorain Schools, has United States citizenship and is happily married with two children. The seemingly picture-perfect life did not come easily.
Twenty-five years ago, Cruz was a 21-year-old student in El Salvador, where she wondered every day whether she would return home from school alive.
“If they had a mission to accomplish, they would burn your bus and leave you there,” Cruz said.
The war started when human rights defender Archbishop Oscar Romero, who spoke out against the Salvadoran government, was assassinated in 1980. What resulted was a 12-year civil war between an oppressive government and rebel guerilla army, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.
With routine bombings, massacres and organized disappearances, it is estimated about 75,000 Salvadorans were killed in the war, according to the international organization, the Center for Justice and Accountability.
Cruz was working closely with her church, going to school and dating her future husband, Carlos Cruz.
In the late 1980s, when Carlos was forced to leave the country for Akron with their friend and church pastor, Father Robert Reidy, Magdalena Cruz said she began to question her own place in El Salvador.
Every day that Carlos Cruz was gone, Magdalena Cruz took a treacherous hour-and-a-half bus ride to school and heard bombs exploding around the city as she sat in class. Every night when she came home, Magdalena Cruz said she would call her future husband.
“It was a good opportunity to leave (El Salvador)” Magdalena Cruz said.
Soon before Cruz was scheduled to leave her home for Ohio, she said Carlos Cruz called her and asked her to marry him, and Magdalena Cruz said she happily agreed.
With the remaining months she had left in El Salvador, Cruz said her sisters — both clothing designers — created a wedding dress for her as a final sendoff for her new life.
“(They made the dress) so they felt secure with the wedding,” Cruz said.
For Cruz, the move was initially wrought with loneliness. When she moved to Akron in the early 1990s, she said she only knew Reidy and her future husband.
That changed when they moved to Lorain and were welcomed by the community of Sacred Heart Chapel.
“We’re very blessed because this community adopted us…They are like family. After a few years, we didn’t feel that lonely anymore,” Cruz said.
A few years after the move, Cruz and Reidy started the tradition that she remembered from her childhood — setting up alfombra for Good Friday at Sacred Heart Chapel.
By importing that tradition, Cruz said she wanted to both honor her religion and connect to the home and loved ones she left behind.
“It’s like a connection … (we do it) to unite a community,” Cruz said, adding that the practice brings her Lorain community a little closer to her old life and family in El Salvador.
Connecting to home
Cruz’s desire to connect to her home resonates with a large portion of the Sacred Heart Chapel community, even those who haven’t seen the same levels of war or loss.
“It’s the same feeling for different people. When they (create the rugs) they connect to their country,” Cruz said.
In the days leading up to Good Friday, many members of the church community spent hours on their hands and knees creating the alfombra.
Gloria Morales, who used sawdust to create a rug for a deceased family member last week, said the experience brought her closer to her faith and gave her a “sense of pride” about her Hispanic heritage.
“It’s nice that we brought that culture here … it brings us together like a family,” Morales said.
Next to Morales, Rachel Valez used the tradition to pay tribute to her beloved grandmother, Rosa Torres, who died in January. Valez used colored sawdust on the rug to create a window that her grandmother used to sit by and a cup of coffee, which she said Torres drank every morning.
“It’s indescribable,” Valez said about the opportunity to remember her grandmother through the rugs. “This is our first Easter without her.”
Cruz, who helped Reidy start the tradition at another church in Cleveland this year, reflected on the past 15 years since she made her first alfombra at Sacred Heart. She said she is especially glad that through the rugs, she could give her children an insight into the country they never lived in — the one she had once called home.
“I wanted to introduce them to my culture … they’ve been a part of it since then.”