Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 236 | Marzo 2001


El Salvador

Santa María Ostuma: The Voice of the Earthquake Victims

In a corner of El Salvador, nine thousand people have been left homeless. What are their hopes? What are they thinking? How do they feel? What are they doing? One thing is for sure: there will only be real reconstruction if they are properly accompanied and their voices allowed to be heard.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

In search of the epicenter of El Salvador’s February 13 earthquake, which, exactly a month after the one on January 13, kicked a country that was already down, envío journeyed to Santa María Ostuma, a municipality in the department of La Paz. Five centuries ago, this same area was the epicenter of the Nonualco tribe’s resistance to the Spanish conquistadors. They fought from the shelter of the caves and ravines that are so characteristic of the area and after which the municipality was named (ostumác literally means "place among caves and ravines"). Genetically speaking, local residents bear little resemblance to the valiant Nonualco people; the legacy has proven to be more cultural than genetic, as shown by the capacity for work of the local residents and authorities and their resilience in the aftermath of the disasters. It would have made their predecessors in this geographical corner of El Salvador proud.
The municipality is made up of seven cantons, which surround the urban center like seven sentinels. The town itself is built on a beautiful hill that provides a formidable view of the caves and ravines on all sides. The two earthquakes reduced the whole area, which has a population of around 9,000, to rubble. The first quake destroyed 1,212 houses and the second brought the total to 2,418, because they were all built of adobe or an adobe-like mixture of mud and cane. The only buildings to survive were a day-care center, the police headquarters and three houses, all of which had the good fortune of being built of cement and concrete.

First things first: Reconstruct the church

Santa María Ostuma was a forgotten municipality until the first earthquake hit. Its name appeared on none of the signposts on the main coastal highway that passes through Zacatecoluca, La Paz’s departmental capital. Nor is it even mentioned on the secondary road that leads to San Pedro Nonualco, the last municipality in the area, five kilometers outside of Santa María Ostuma’s urban center. It is, however, well known to devotees of the Candlemas Virgin, who arrive here on pilgrimage every February 2 to celebrate one of the country’s oldest town festivals. The festival traditionally took place in a church constructed in 1701 and was thus celebrating its 300th anniversary this year. Locals say the church was erected so that the Candlemas Virgin would scare off the "Muslús," an evil monster that lived in a cave formed inside an enormous and ancient ceibo tree that grew on the site. The second earthquake reduced this famous church to dust and rubble. "The first thing people must do is build a new church before the Muslús reappears and occupies the place of our saints," warned Carmencita, a local octogenarian. She feels that the church’s destruction was nothing less than a celestial warning that the inhabitants of Ostuma should change their unjust ways in favor of "works that will provide a beacon in all of these hills, like the brilliant light of the Candlemas."

A miraculous virgin who bathes at night

The people of Ostuma are fiercely devoted to the Candlemas Virgin. When we asked about the traditions behind this devotion we were told the following: "They say that the Virgin would go bathe in the sea, and when she left, nobody could enter the church, no matter how hard they tried. Later they would find her in the same place in the church, but with sand all over her body and dress. On one occasion, they took her to Cojutepeque to put her in the main church there, but after a few days she came back here to her own church all by herself. And each time that they tried to take her there, the same thing happened. Now the whole church has fallen down, but nothing happened to the Virgin. She’s undamaged as you can see for yourself."
Another local added: "The community has a little stream just down the road. All of the streams dry up in summer because, as you can see this zone is dry; even the donkeys get scorched in the March and April sun. But that stream never dries up; it always has water, and that’s because the Virgin has been going to bathe in its waters for many, many years. When there’s a full moon, she can be seen going down to the stream, especially when it’s getting near dawn. And all of us from this town leave her alone out of the respect she deserves, because we know that anyone who dares look at her while she’s bathing will never live to tell the tale." Another inhabitant chimes in: "The Virgin has performed so many miracles for us… Everyone in town remembers or has been told about the young blind girl who came to kneel at the Virgin’s feet and when she opened her eyes she could see the radiant Virgin and everything around her. There was also a woman who was swept away by the force of the Jiboa River during a time of great downpours. When nobody could do anything to save her, the woman called out to the Virgin and suddenly the current threw her back toward the bank, alive."

"An insult to the people"

Santa María Ostuma hit the front pages of the Salvadoran newspapers because of the earthquake emergency. Following the first quake on January 13, its local government and Municipal Emergency Committee decided not to accept the aid that the central government was offering to the municipal governments. It was hardly surprising. The Flores government, after receiving a municipal survey showing that 1,212 houses had been destroyed, called the whole town together to present it with 30,000 colons, enough to reconstruct just 40 houses. The mayor, who had won for the governing ARENA party, called the donation "an insult to the people," while ARENA considered the mayor’s reaction "an affront" by one of its fellow members.

The mayor closed ranks with his work team, and the country learned of the rebelliousness of a whole town that rejected the government’s crumbs. The Emergency Committee later found out that the "insult" was a stratagem thought up by a small group in the municipality itself, people linked to the murkiest powers in the country—including, of course, army officials. The aim was to discredit the municipal authorities and thus pull votes from them in the next elections. The plot involved a former colonel who belonged to the death squads in the 1980s and lost the race as the National Conciliation Party (PCN) mayoral candidate in the last elections. Enraged by the local church’s active participation in the Emergency Committee, he took it upon himself to replace the municipal survey with a false one, helped by other army officers and government officials interested in manipulating the chaotic situation for their own political gain. While the idea was to present the mayor and his team as enemies of the people, it did not take much to reveal such a ham-fisted maneuver; in the end, what was intended as a trap to discredit the Municipal Emergency Committee ended up greatly discrediting the conspirators.

Limited FMLN presence

In a small community like Santa María Ostuma, it is easy to identify movements and intricacies of power that are not revealed on visits for specific purposes. They provide clues to the national political and religious dynamics and the family and friendship relations that allow a fuller understanding of the relationship between local and national power and the aid organizations.

The FMLN has very little presence here, and not because it is a particularly conservative municipality or because the leftist party’s proposals are intrinsically rejected. The weakness has to do with the FMLN’s lack of tact when dealing with the population during the war years. On numerous occasions, mid-level guerrilla leaders forced the inhabitants to help them without explaining the objectives of the actions, let alone the greater objectives of the revolutionary struggle. Some local women still remember being bullied into buying a huge quantity of boots for the fighters, threatened into taking a great risk without ever being given any kind of explanation.

Left and right: blurred edges

Many people have still not forgotten such bad memories. And if you add to those past experiences the clumsy policies of some of today’s local leaders, the political consequences are very serious. In the last municipal elections, the PCN pitted the above-mentioned colonel against the incumbent ARENA mayor, who was running for a second term. The FMLN decided to support the ex-colonel in order to defeat the ARENA candidate, following the maxim that the end justifies the means, although they now try to give it a different spin. In the end, the ARENA candidate won anyway and the FMLN ended up even more discredited. In municipalities such as this, the edges separating left and right are much more blurred than in sociology and political science textbooks. The current ARENA mayor may be termed a right-winger, but he has challenged his own party’s policies and opened the community to popular consultations in the best tradition of the political left.

"I felt compelled to save lives"

Generosity and altruism are the main characteristics of these people who have been battered but not beaten. Another of their traits is distrust of the outside world, but they have the capacity to accept the new when they are sure they are not going to be manipulated. The earthquakes highlighted this generosity and altruism, as demonstrated by the following story told to envío by a local inhabitant:
"When the earthquake hit I thought to myself, I’m going to die here. Then I saw a wall and thought about throwing myself over, but I suddenly saw the wall opening up and the earth under my feet was too. Then I thought, if this is the end of me, Lord have mercy on me. That was January 13. How could I ever imagine that another earthquake was going to come along? While I nearly died in the first one, the second one left me broken-hearted, dumbstruck. I just remember that in the middle of the great reverberations I saw an old woman become trapped when a heap of earth came down on her in a great cloud of dust. I was jolted into action and ran over to her and, together with some other people, I didn’t know who they were, we pulled her out as best we could.

"That act gave me courage and I stuck close to the priest who was running around with a group of men, looking everywhere to pull out people who were shouting from beneath the rubble. We went along the paths rescuing people and I forgot about my own fear. I no longer wanted to die and I wasn’t afraid like when everything was shaking and moving. I felt an inner force, I don’t know where it came from, that impelled me to look for buried people and grab them out from wherever they were so they could live. At that moment I wasn’t thinking why I was doing it, but now I think there was a force encouraging me, as if it was saying, ‘If you’re alive then use your life to save others.’ That’s what I think now, but at the time I only remember running from one place to another, following people’s screams for help. I could only think about saving people’s lives, but don’t ask me why. I just felt impelled, that’s all. About 25 of us went around in a big group, into fields, jumping over walls, searching the rent earth, pulling people out of the rubble and from under the dirt. I’m still in the emergency committee, removing rubble and looking for help to get this town back on its feet; not just to lift up a few, as has always been the case in El Salvador, but to lift up all the people and give them strong houses and dignity."

"My whole life history came down on top of me"

The people from this municipality also know how to place their failures in the long context of disasters that El Salvador has had to endure. The following testimony of one inhabitant of Ostuma provides a good example:
"When I made it through these two earthquakes, my whole life history came down on top of me like a landslide. I remembered with grief and with courage all the things that had happened during my painful childhood. I’m 33 now, but I member the starvation and droughts of my first years of life like a past that hasn’t finished yet. I wasn’t even 7 when the great downpours of Hurricane Fifi fell on us; that’s the first experience I remember starkly. It was in September 1974, and the raging currents swept away a man and woman from almost the same spot where the landslide that blocked up the Río Jiboa during the February 13 earthquake buried two children. I didn’t see the couple, but I heard them, and their bodies were never found. Those winds and torrential rains wiped out the crops and left my dad with no choice but to go off to look for work cutting cane at the sugar mills. He’d come back late at night all filthy and bad-tempered, but we got through it. Sometimes we only ate tortillas and salt, but my father fought to make sure we didn’t die of hunger."
"Then came the war. I was 12 by then. I remember that Father Porfirio Martínez was with us then, and he encouraged us all to lift ourselves up as a people and celebrate life and faith in Christian base communities. He instilled us all with liberating thought, and the peasants from the cantons down below organized. In 1980, a few months before Monsignor Romero was assassinated, the heads of ORDEN had their eyes on all of the people who were being educated in the church. I still remember like it was yesterday when they killed people right before my eyes. They killed one of my uncles in front of me at five in the morning on May 31, 1980. They took him out of the house and tortured him in the yard. When he had no strength left and couldn’t hold himself up, a man lifted my uncle up by his hair and let off a shot. The blood spurted out like when you’ve got water in a bag and you make a hole in it and the water sprays out everywhere. That’s how my uncle’s blood sprayed out and a bit landed on me as well. They later told me that many reached the rank of colonel and then got involved in politics as a candidate for mayor.

"Another long period of time went by, when you had to do things in secret; a time of threats, fear, persecution and disappearances. Those years after Monsignor Romero’s assassination were hard times in all of these hills. I knew that the people from my canton met out in the woods, sneaking out at night and always talking in hushed voices. At the time, nobody involved me in anything, but I knew that the situation was tough; I felt it and smelled it in the air."

"I’m a survivor of all the misfortunes"

"One day I was in the field, playing ball with some kids like we did once or twice a week to pass time. It was late and the army came, so we all ran off, but I tripped on a stone and the soldiers grabbed me and took me off to a military detachment where they recruited me. I was 15 by then. I spent two years there and they tried to instill me with hatred for the communists and the guerrilla fighters. They told me that the guerrillas were the enemy of the homeland and the slaves of international communism. But I couldn’t get that memory of my uncle out of my head. I knew that the people from the army or in the army’s pay had killed him in front of my eyes, and I carried that hatred inside me, no matter how much they tried to brainwash me.

"When I got out I took refuge with the Maryknoll sisters, the same order where several of them had been killed a short time before. Then I made the decision to enroll in the guerrilla; I joined the FPL and spent the rest of the war with them. After the peace accords were signed, I came back here to my town where I work as a carpenter, basically a jack of all trades.

"Recently, the huge storm called Mitch swept away the little orange grove I’d planted about a kilometer outside of town, and now these two earthquakes have come down on me. You haven’t asked me, but I’m in my stride now so I’ll tell you anyway: I’m a true survivor of all the misfortunes that have befallen this country in the last thirty years. Here you see me, with all the will to carry on living, because the more misfortunes that come along, the stronger you get and the more determined to protect your life. Each time you make it through, you tell yourself that you’ve been given the gift of life again. And when you get through these misfortunes, you value life more and you want to put yourself more at the people’s service."

Is the municipality a counterpart?
Do people know how to participate?

To the chaos affecting the municipality in the weeks following the earthquakes is added the absence of any process for creating a clear path to follow and uniting the different forces from the municipality and the central government as well as official aid from foreign countries and from national and international NGOs. The municipality got an aid offer from Valencia in Spain, whose government has called on its Salvadoran counterpart to coordinate in drawing up an Integral Development Plan. Meanwhile, a German organization has offered to sponsor one of the cantons to reconstruct destroyed houses, Caritas International has started on the construction of two hundred houses, and other organizations have also approached the municipality to present their particular offers. The central government has also distributed sheet-metal roofing and wood for building provisional housing that will provide some relief from the effects of the coming rainy season.
All these offers are being made to a town traumatized by the quakes and with a very weak and dependent organizational experience conditioned by a top-down leadership style based on local strong men. Most of the organizations that are offering aid, however, take the population’s participation for granted and are directing their energies toward ensuring that their ideas are imposed over those of the other organizations offering help. The reality is that all these outside actors have cooked up a mish-mash of offers for a counterpart—the municipality—that has no experience with dialogue and doesn’t know how to negotiate. Strictly speaking, there is no counterpart.

Such a scenario leads to a reconstruction process basically understood as housing construction accompanied by some productive and employment programs that will be received by a population related to the donors in a way that reflects the same weaknesses and vertical structures that existed before the quakes. This may only deepen those bad habits and develop a greater degree of dependence and charity mentality among the people. The external aid agencies share all of the existing and developing concepts of local participation and management, but have not yet quite grounded this terminology in the daily life of the people to be benefited. The concepts of citizenry, management, participation and community end up as pipe dreams, while the organizations present proposals divorced from the population’s reality and history.

That destroyed house is like my own life

In losing their houses, the people of Santa María Ostuma lost much more than adobe walls. They have lost part of their history. In a matter of minutes, this generation saw the heritage of several previous generations collapse in front of their eyes. A project centered on building houses will not work unless it establishes links with this trauma because otherwise it will not touch the community’s nerves. Of course receiving support for housing projects from different organizations does help restore part of their lives, but other parts cannot be restored and the funding organizations should at least realize that the most valuable things lost remain outside the scope of any proposal.

One local woman put it this way: "It isn’t easy seeing houses come tumbling down all at once. It’s not at all easy to say the words that my house has fallen down. You see that house lying there and it almost certainly attracts your attention, like the many other houses lying in a heap throughout the town and in all the cantons, and maybe you’re thinking about what you can do to help rebuild my house and so many others like it. But for me, seeing that house lying there is like seeing my own life lying in a heap, along with the lives of my parents and my grandparents. I was born there, and when my father died, he left me that house that he himself had inherited from his father, my grandfather. For me, looking at that house lying there in a heap today is like seeing the walls of my own life sprawled out on the ground, because that house had been standing for 120 years.

"I never left that house from the time I was born to the time I married. My three children were born there and I saw my husband die there. Everything in my life happened there. As you can see, for me there’s something more than just walls and roof tiles lying there. And maybe you and other solidarity people will bring us materials, sheet metal, blocks, cement and wood, and we’d be very grateful to you. But my life, a great part of which came falling down along with that house, can’t just be rebuilt like that, just because a new house goes up.
No, it’s not that easy. A bit of my life has now been reduced to rubble. Maybe my grandchildren, who are just starting to grow, will rebuild their lives in the shadow of the new house that’s put up. And maybe a bit of my life and my family history will be reconstructed with the new house. It may be that a part of my life is lying under the new house, like rubble, or maybe even like a buried seed. Then something of the old house, of my life and that of my parents and grandparents, will also get put up along with the new house that we hope gets built. Let’ s hope that something new and different is born, but something that still preserves a bit of the history, a bit of the spirit of those 120 years that came crashing down."

Accompaniment is the key to the process

Today, the main challenge for aid organizations in municipalities like Santa María Ostuma is to become immersed in the life of the population and from there accompany the people and the municipal authorities so they can assume the management of the reconstruction and development plans. This accompaniment should restore people’s confidence in themselves and in the future and translate that confidence into joint-responsibility organization with full participation by all members of the community and municipality. With that, the municipality will be able to put together a reconstruction and development proposal through its municipal and canton structures. International and national and organizations should incorporate themselves into this process as a means of support, to facilitate the financial, technical and professional resources lacking in the community and the municipality.

Some small initial steps are being taken. The first week of March saw the beginning of the first grassroots consultation process in Santa María Ostuma’s history. Young people prepared and held assemblies in each of the municipality’s cantons and in each neighborhood of its urban center, where they asked people simple questions to help them express how they feel, what they need and the solutions they envision. Such consultations not only aim to collect information on how the population is doing, but are also the start of a process based on involvement and participation by the people themselves. The assemblies bring together all of the community’s sectors—women, men, young people, children—and listen to them. The idea is to start up a much-needed assessment process using this initial input.

Those who gave themselves

Another kind of solidarity also arrived in Santa María Ostuma in the form of a brigade of men and women who had been affected by Hurricane Mitch in the Sula Valley in northern Honduras. They brought with them supplies and clothes they had gathered in the poor neighborhoods of El Progreso and helped remove rubble and encourage the locals through pastoral, festive and cultural activities, and also helped in the consultation activities. They did not offer material aid or houses, but they did dedicate themselves and their lives to the municipality for two weeks. Their presence left no visible marks: rubble was still lying in the same places when they left. But they contributed humanity, solidarity and spirituality, elements that are so lacking in many organizations that contribute so much financial and material resources.

"I lost the son I worked so hard to raise"

There has been a great deal of pain and it will take time to heal. One mother told us the following story:
"I worked so hard to raise my son Alex. He was a sickly child from birth, and maybe that’s why he always stuck close to my side. On February 2, one of his aunts who lives in San Salvador brought him a plastic car big enough for him to sit on, and as Alex was so thin the car bore his weight. That’s when he ventured away from my side. All he wanted to do was ride on his car.

"The big tremor of February 13 came right after 8 in the morning. We were just finishing breakfast when that big shock came and the whole earth started to move and throw us from one side to another. When I felt that first great rocking sensation I ran to where my children were, grabbed them as best I could and rushed out into the back yard, without knowing where we were heading because we were cloaked in a cloud of dust. When we were just leaving the house, Alex broke away from me and ran into the house to find his car. I yelled and yelled when I saw a great adobe wall coming down on him. It fell right down on top of him, making a great noise and raising up more dust. I just stood there shouting like a madwoman. People came to help, all of us white from so much dust. The whole canton was wrapped in a single lament, as if the last judgment had come down upon us. The men started to move the earth and lift up the few adobe blocks that were still in one piece on the floor. When they lifted up the wall, there was my beautiful little son. There he was, dead, hugging his little car, also crushed, which he didn’t want to leave behind. That’s how we found my little son whom it cost me so much to raise."
The pain has indeed been great. As we were leaving, an old woman came up and told us that although the houses had fallen down, life must go on. "My heart still trembles sometimes like one of the tremors, even today. My house was two hundred years old, because in this town all the people live a long time and those of us who lived in the houses that fell down inherited them a long time ago. But what can we do? Our houses have fallen down and that’s that. The whole town has fallen down, but the people are still standing. And even if it’s just a plastic tent, we’ll put something up to get our families back on their feet, particularly the children who are being born and growing up. Let’s hope everyone gets a house, that there’s enough for everyone and that, God willing, all the people in El Salvador have the same luck."

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