Eighty-six-year-old Enriqueta sat on the edge of her queen size bed, which is covered with a Winnie the Pooh blanket. A shelf of children’s books is next to her, yet she doesn’t read because there were no schools where she grew up, but she’s not in the library to read. She and her husband, Eugenio, sleep here in the library of our community center in La Esperanza.
Tropical Storm Amanda, the biggest storm to hit El Salvador since Hurricane Mitch in 1998, dumped an estimated 30 inches of rain at the beginning of June. Enriqueta and Eugenio’s bahareque home (made of bamboo and mud) sits on the flank of a hill that is prone to avalanches along the north side of La Esperanza. The hill didn’t slide, but water cascaded off it and onto the couple’s roof, which was badly damaged. So we gave them shelter in the library, and our small Christian base community organized meals for them while we assess the situation.
It’s not just a question of rebuilding the roof, for homes should never have been built on the hill in the first place. Yet this is common in El Salvador, where so many natural disasters are not “natural” at all. They are human-made. In Santo Tomás, a mudslide buried a family of seven alive while they slept, and more than a thousand families throughout El Salvador lost their homes, many of which were built too close to rivers or on dangerous slopes.
Part of Enriqueta’s face caught the rising sun; the other half remained in shadows. It was 7 a.m. and three plates filled with beans, scrambled eggs, cream, plantains, and two tortillas sat on a plastic table. Maria, from the base community, had just brought the breakfasts. Enriqueta rose from the bed, hobbled to a chair and sat down. I sat down across from her. The empty chair to her side was for Eugenio. Enriqueta unfolded a napkin and covered his plate to keep the flies off. He had gotten up earlier to go to care for their animals at their damaged home, a quarter mile from the library.
I dug into my breakfast because I wanted to speak with the municipal representative of La Esperanza as soon as possible about the situation. Normally, Enriqueta would have waited to eat with her husband, but she said he wouldn’t be back until nine, so she joined me. Over breakfast, Enriqueta told me that she had been frightened to sleep in their house even before the roof gave in. “The heavy rains made me think of the hill falling on top of us,” she said and then referred to visions of mud burying them with every downpour. I appreciated her sharing, and she continued with a history that touched me.
She and Eugenio are from San Vicente, about 10 miles east of La Esperanza. His family had a small coffee plantation, and the couple worked a piece of land there. “It was a beautiful spot, and our five children were born and raised there, but I lost two in childbirth,” she said. “When the war broke out, we had to leave. There was no time to take anything.”
They went to live with the daughter who had married and was living in San Salvador, but her husband, a pastor, didn’t like the Catholic Church and made it uncomfortable for the couple, so they returned to the coffee plantation. Their other family members were now managing the land. Visiting was nice, but it was no longer home.
The couple bought a house near Paraiso Osorio, but it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1986, so they moved in with their son and family in La Esperanza, but the house was crowded and the son eventually left the house to his mother and father and moved his family to Santa Ana.
In La Esperanza, Enriqueta always feared the hill falling, and so the couple spent rainy seasons in Santa Ana with their son, and then migrated back to La Esperanza in the dry season. This rainy season they didn’t go to Santa Ana because Enriqueta’s hip and leg were hurting her badly. “We felt like wet birds without a roof over our heads,” she said and looked up at the library’s roof. “But it’s dry here, and safe. I slept so well last night.” Her eyes beamed.
I’ll never forget that breakfast. Enriqueta reminded me how we’ve all lost things that are irretrievable, and how so many people are uprooted by war and “natural disasters.” Nonetheless, her charity revealed what is always possible — a warm meal together and the joy of sharing.
Photos by Rick Dixon