Waiting for Luis
The great tragedies Mitch left in its wake were still international news, but the cameras were long gone by the time the smaller tragedy recounted below occurred, three weeks after the hurricane hit. While the setting and circumstances of this individual tragedy--the death of one man as an indirect result of Mitch--are very personal, they are at the same time emblematic of the daily lives of so many rural poor: the grinding needs, the vulnerability and the powerlessness in the face of life's great and small ironies, but also the culture of solidarity, and the quiet unsung dignity in the face of it all. One year later, as the thousands of people who lost the little they had continue to live in conditions that have scarcely improved, envío offers this narrative as part of our commemoration of the anniversary of Mitch. Most of the articles in this issue contribute to an overview of what Mitch revealed; “Waiting for Luis” offers one example at close range.
LookingThursday, 19 November 1998. We are sitting along the northern bank of the swollen Río Coco with fifty other people, watching for the body of our drowned friend, Luis Alberto Espinoza Cruz, or waiting for it to surface.
The sun was burning hot a moment ago, but now in the shadow of a massive overturned guanacaste tree a breeze is carrying the cool November air. Gnats feast on our feet as we wait, leaving small red puncture marks at the ankle.
Vultures glide in circles or swoop and rise above the river. Others sit, hunched over, in trees, silently searching. And we who search are silent, too, and when we do talk the dense wall of solid rock on the other side deadens our voices.
Luis' helper, a boy of 14 who was with him when Luis drowned yesterday afternoon at 3 o'clock, said they'd gone to the river to collect firewood and to fish. Luis, his wife Myra and their three children have been living in a shelter since the hurricane, three weeks ago today. Firewood is the cooking fuel here, and the fish were to have been the family's dinner. First they would cross the river and collect the wood, Luis had decided, then they would fish. They had started across, first walking and then swimming. Some parts are now seven meters deep. Suddenly Luis gasped, “Help!” and the boy tried to rescue him. In his effort to do so, the boy himself nearly drowned. Luckily, two nearby swimmers managed to save him, but Luis sank without another sound.
It was strange; he'd been in the Sandinista Army in the 80s, and had learned how to swim well then, but the boy and the two rescuers all said he went down in a moment.
It had seemed for all of us, for Luis, too, that the moment of crisis—the hurricane—was over. We had adjusted to the disaster: no running water, fallen houses, a shortage of food and the impossibility of leaving Ocotal in any direction for several weeks.
But the crisis is never over for the poor. For the rich, yes, there can be a time of crisis, but for the poor every day is a crisis, punctuated by tragedies. For all that, though, no one was prepared for another tragedy so soon afterward.
The Coco is the longest river in Central America. Its old name is Yare in these parts, but the Miskito people on the Caribbean side of the country, where the river finally flows out to sea, have always called it the Wanki. Though the river flows east, a light westerly wind ruffles the surface and makes it look as if the sluggish current is moving backwards.
It is 100 yards across where we are searching, and opaque. The rising water, that huge current that carried off houses, cows and children in its muddy mess, flattened the banks, extending the beach fourfold, sixfold, tenfold. Now greatly diminished, the river has been dragging itself along its ravaged bed since the hurricane. Clotted brown water marks the end of that disaster.
Lovely trees 70 feet high were wrenched from their sockets in the storm. Now, like this guanacaste, they lie on their sides along the torn-open riverbed with their enormous network of roots clutching upwards, groping for the earth. Any trees that still stand have debris in their uppermost branches. Even so, it is beyond our imaginations to ever believe that the river could have reached such a height.
This is a strange wake. All these people, themselves victims of the flood and in desperate poverty even before the hurricane, searching in this river for the body of “he who in life was Luis Alberto Espinoza Cruz.” And they are by no means the poorest, though many go barefoot and wear the thinnest, most worn-out clothes.
Swimmers, who are the friends, neighbors and family of Luis, take turns diving and poking about in the muddy river bottom. Some say there is an alligator about—not normal here—that was washed down in the hurricane, and the possibility keeps swimmers on the edge. No one has flippers, goggles or a flashlight that works. There's not one motorboat in these parts. Hour after hour—17 have passed now—the swimmers search. Others walk the beach, looking.
The men place a lit candle in a dried gourd and let it float away, believing it will stop over the dead man's body. But the breeze keeps carrying the gourd upstream, where no one even bothers to look.
“It's a gourd from a vine,” explains an old man, “but it has to be a gourd from a tree; that's why it doesn't work.” The younger men no longer believe him. “After 24 hours his body should float,” they say.
Last night, six hours after the tragedy, my husband Julio and I went home to sleep, exhausted. A faithful group stayed on throughout the night, burning car tires in the blackness to keep the mosquitoes away, to stay warm and to ward off the ghost of Luis.
All night long our dreams insisted that Luis was not dead, that his death was only a dream. In the morning, as our minds swam up to consciousness, we knew it was true, and we came one step closer to accepting that he is dead.
The search continues. We are at the river again, watching and waiting. The group of now thirty people is worn out. Some go home, others come and go from their shelters. Others arrive.
The vultures glide upstream, silent specks circling about the river. “Clack clack clack clack!” The now-familiar sound of an army helicopter assaults the silence. It is carrying emergency supplies for the eight hundred direct casualties of the hurricane here in Ocotal. Then silence again.
Julio and I talk with friends and try to console Myra, the pretty, young widow. We have some coffee, and share that, and then we walk downstream as far as the bridge, or what remains of it, our eyes trying to x-ray the muddy water. Cement pillars stick out of the water like great stumps of broken teeth. This is all that is left of that great bridge, 130 meters long, that had spanned the Coco for some fifty years. The letters SO are on one pillar, MO on the next, and ZA on a third. Built by the first Anastasio Somoza, “El Viejo.” Despite the dictator's corruption, it was a good bridge and withstood a lot. “Remember how carefully it was guarded during the revolution?” says Julio. “It could have easily been sabotaged.”
This was the bridge that had connected Managua to Nueva Segovia, our province, and to the towns of Ocotal, Murra, Jícaro, Jalapa, Wiwilí and Quilalí. This is a land crisscrossed by streams and rivers, and so far I have only heard of one bridge, right here in Ocotal, that was left intact after the hurricane.
Last night the army put up a temporary bridge: merely two metal runners so far apart that police had to direct vehicles across so they wouldn't fall into the great gap in the middle. “Crazy!” said the young man who gave us a lift home last night. “And they won't fix it until someone falls in.”
“I saw planks on the shore,” Julio says. They could be going to fill it in. And he was right, they did. And now all day long trucks have been carrying rice, corn and beans south, and bringing junk food north, across the new bridge.
This second day after Luis drowned goes by slowly. The vultures search and search, but neither they nor we find what we are looking for. A raft made of oil drums carries the divers. We walk across the vast new beach, admiring the churned-up stones and branches lying about.
People sit spaced apart, like birds. A small herd of bikes and motorcycles marks the times we live in. Ten years ago everyone would have been on foot.
It seems important to write something about Luis Alberto Espinoza Cruz, about how he lived and died...several times really. His last names, Espinoza and Cruz, mean thorns and cross. We believe that he did not drown, but that his heart stopped beating. In 1990 a pacemaker was put in his chest, and who knows what other ingenious devices, to keep him alive. Luis had been in the army, and in combat a shell from a mortar shattered his insides. It took the doctors in Bulgaria one year to put him back together again, and Luis told great stories about a magician he met in the hospital and the adventures they had had in-between operations.
“With our carnets we could show up at any hospital in Sofia and they'd feed us,” he'd say. He'd been told the pacemaker would last seven years, and eight had passed. There's no revolution here now, no aid from Bulgaria. Where could he have his medical devices serviced in neoliberal Nicaragua? He didn't know, and was too busy making ends meet to think about it much.
In the Veteran's Association he met visiting Basques, who taught him silk- screening and gave the association equipment. With Julio and a third partner, Wilfredo, he'd been making T-shirts and banners for a living.
Could he be caught in branches? Could the current have carried him far away? All eyes strain to see through the glare of the sun, the darkness at night, but nothing.
It's strange to think how the land mines that were planted along the border with Honduras during the war in the 80s have been washed down from the mountains. The hurricane has churned up the past. Before, there were those who knew the general area where those mines had been placed, but now no one knows where they are. Some could be in the streets of the town, but we won't know until someone steps on one.
Saying GoodbyeFriday 20 November. At 4:30 this morning they found Luis. Yesterday Julio and Luis' brother got the grave dug and reported the need for a coffin to Social Security. No coffin till you have the body, they were told. But now we have it. At Luis' mother's house, five or six men unload his body from the blue police pickup, clad in yellow underpants—no one here has swimming trunks.
His face looks calm, if slightly surprised, and his shock of dark brown hair sprouts from his head with energy, just as it did when he was alive. You can't see the scar from throat to navel that was left from all that surgery, at least not from where I stand, in the unpaved street along with the neighbors. They have come in their formal clothes. One in a ragged navy blue skirt, one with a threadbare white shirt, a torn pair of trousers, a worn-out blouse, a jacket with a hole in it. Luis has been brought home, and the men set to work to dress him. They put lime on the black plastic sheet that lines the charcoal-gray coffin, lay him in it and put the coffin in the house, on a table, with a small door in the lid you can open to see his face. He must be buried by 3:00, the doctor has said, so the wake will be short.
Children—with or without parents—flood in with flowers and look at Luis through the little door. A current of life energy and understanding connects all the children there. They are dignified, standing there on feet that have never worn shoes. They mill around in silence for a while, then cluster round the table that holds the remains of Luis.
The women hug Myra—she's just a child!—and fan her with the washcloth women usually carry at their waist or on their shoulder. “I don't want any more of this life,” she says, and shudders. Her body is convulsed by three days of weeping. A red bow holds up her frisky ponytail. Her eyes are flat with crying. Her friends hold her hands and give her valerian tea, for strength.
Luis' mother stays in her small dark room. Older women sit with her on her drooping bed and fan her with washcloths. Some give her advice and some sit in silence, but no one is left alone.
Julio carries Licha, 6, to look at her father one last time and she cries bitterly. But the son, 5, smiles happily when Julio holds him over the coffin. He has missed his papa, and is really pleased to see him. A short time later, the little boy falls down playing, and then he cries and cries and cries.
Most of us have diarrhea from the water, and I look for Julio at the bottom of the garden, thinking perhaps he's in the latrine. But there he is in his faded jeans, sitting on a step among the flowers with little Licha and two others. He listens and nods and smiles as they speak to him. Their hands move in grown-up gestures.
Luis came to haunt them last night. They heard his voice. They covered their heads. As they slap mosquitoes off their legs, their reality pours from their lips and Julio sits and listens to them.
He listens while he scrapes the surface of the earth with a twig, and then he tells them he saw his mother out walking the night she died. Then he listens some more, and this is how he discovers that there's no milk for Myra's baby.
At the corner shop, I buy New Zealand powdered milk, ground oatmeal and sugar, and several women and I make a sweet drink for the guests at the wake. We serve this with the small cornmeal pastry rings called rosquillas.
The men converse in the street. The women and children stay near the coffin until it is loaded onto a pickup at 2:00 in the afternoon. As the procession walks behind the pickup, the crowd grows. The last stop is at the church, where a prayer is said, and by 3:00 Luis is being lowered into a four-foot deep, cement- lined grave. There is a profusion of red flowers.
On the third day he rose, and was buried.
Miranda Collet is a writer, educator and painter from Casa Puertas Pintadas, Ocotal, Nueva Segovia.