Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Stars-Spangled Banner

The xiquilite (1) is a small bush, very common in Central America. It´s easy to sow that plant, you only need to spread the xiquilite´s seeds in a field and wait for a couple of days, then you see a small plants sprouting from the soil.  When I lived in El Salvador, in the rainy season I sowed xiquilite in my backyard, just for fun.

For centuries El Salvador had an important industry of Xiquilite. From that bush is possible to get an indigo or añil, a natural blue dye. The ancient Mesoamerican Indians used xiquilite leaf to dye cotton of to made blue ink for ritual or art purposes. When the Spanish colony arrived, they operated a big industry of xiquilite, exported tons of blue dye from Central America to Europe or others parts of the world.

In the 18th century El Salvador had a several farmlands of xiquilite with obrajes (2) for the production of indigo. The impact of that industry was so important that the first book printed in El Salvador was a manual for indigo production, printed in 1741, "El Puntero apuntado con apuntes breves"(3).

In Central America the indigo industry died out in the second part of XIX century. In El Salvador it was replaced by coffee and sugar cane.

In a poetic way, I have a tradition of indigo-blue blood.


When the smoke cleared and the sun lighted up over the Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key saw the structure had survived, the attack of British Navy against the fort was unsuccessful. To prove it, the Star - Spangled Banner was still there, ripped but proud. The flag had survived the bombs and rockets; it was September 14, 1814.

By that time the United States was at war in the post-Napoleonic conflict against England. In that conflict the English army destroyed the US Capitol, burned the White House and demolished government buildings in Washington DC. The capital suffered pillage.

Then the British began an invasion of Baltimore, but first they needed destroy the Fort McHenry, which protected the city port. They started to attack on September 13, they ware convinced that McHenry would be easy prey.

In that day, Francis Scott Key was onboard in one ship of the British navy; he was an attorney and tried to negotiate the release of prisoner of war. Then the attack against McHenry began. Scott Key saw how the British cannon fired again and again, for 25 hours, trying to destroy the wall of the Fort.

But when the dawn began the McHenry had survived all bombs and rockets, and all people in the bay saw a stars-spangled banner wave over the Fort, the Royal Navy was a low on munitions and preferred to withdrawal. 

Scott Key was so impressed with that scene, it inspired him to write a poem about the flag. Three days later, the poem was printed and distributed to all people of Baltimore. A month later the poem was published in all the newspaper across the United States. Finally the poem was sung with the music of “To Anacreon in heaven” and became the US national anthem.

The Star-Spangled Banner was made by Mary Pickersgill and her assistants a few months before the Baltimore Battle; they used a 300 yards of dyed wool and white cotton. She got the materials from Europe under the British blockade. After the battle the flag was protected by George Armistead, who was served as the commander of Fort McHenry. Years later his family gave the flag to Smithsonian Institution. Today the Star-Spangled Banner is display in the Museum of American History in Washington DC.

And of course, for the Americans eyes, the Star-Spangled Banner is a cult object.


2015 was an important year for me, was a year when I moved from El Salvador to the United States. I tried to understand the history of this nation, if the United States is going to be my new homeland, and the homeland of my future family, I need to understand its history; so, for that reason in my first month in United States I visited Washington DC.

In the National Archives and Records Administration, I saw the Constitution, the Declaration Independence and the Bill of Rights. Those documents are placed in an important site of the building. When I visited I saw many people from different states of the Union. They traveled to DC just to visit the museums and see these important documents.

I saw the eyes of the American people, how they appreciate these antique documents, because for them these document are the foundation of their nation. Then I realized the real significance of this country. The United States is an important symbol, a symbol about freedom and democracy, funded by immigrant people who traveled across the earth, searching a good place to live, a new place for better opportunities and pursuit of happiness -people who believe the same thing than I believe- people like me.

When I comprehended that, I recognized myself in those people; they and I have the same idea about this county. Maybe they are born here accidental but in my case, it’s my free decision.

In a shady room inside the National Museum of American History the Star-Spangled Banner is on exhibit, the old flag reposes in a special environmentally-controlled chamber. I saw it there and I was a very impressed, because I knew the history about the flag and its importance for United States history. But I never prepared myself for one of the most interesting discoveries in the Star-Spangled Banner: When the science specialist worked with the flag, they discovered their blue wood fibers, used in the stars area, were dyed with indigo.

Yes, with indigo, logically produced by the leaf of xiquilite.

In that moment I got an important connection with my past. I had felt an overlap of history with El Salvador and the United States.

I don’t know if Mary Pickersgill used blue thread colored with Salvadorian indigo, but if she bought all the materials from Europe, it was possible to get a thread dye with indigo produced in Central America. Who knows? Maybe that indigo came from El Salvador.

Whatever happened, for me, that exceptional and magical moment, when my two worlds collided, was a crossover.

(1) Indigofera tinctoria
(2) Obraje is a pool for decomposition of leaf of xiquilite.
(3) Puntero is an old job, it’s was a man who get the right point of indigo dye.