The rubble-rouser

The matriarch of a coffee farm sets out to rebuild her home and town after the devastating earthquake in El Salvador.

Published January 24, 2001 5:38PM (EST)

On the morning of Jan. 13, in Santa Tecla, El Salvador, the earth parted its jagged jaws and roared. My mother-in-law was parking her jeep in her carport when it happened. She was returning from a baptism and looking ahead to the afternoon when she heard the bellow and felt the pavement beneath her move. What had been solid became liquid ooze. What had been level rose like molten concrete waves, so that she went up and down but not forward as she ran toward an open space where only sky was at risk of crashing down. Nora, my mother-in-law, is 68, a divorcée with a bad leg. She wore her best church dress as she ran along the ground that had gone vertical in an instant.

Down the street, meanwhile, in a neighborhood of Santa Tecla called Las Colinas, mansions were tumbling from the sky, plunging from their mountain berths in a storm of dust and drama. Whatever was in their path fell prey -- the clustered houses that sat on the mountain's lower face, the children spinning tops in the narrow streets, the idle conversations between neighbors. Before there was time to look up and run, a swath of suburbia was swallowed whole, entombed in a mudslide that stopped six blocks short of Nora's front door. Those who were saved were saved because of luck -- because of an errand that had taken them away from home, because of a traffic jam that had delayed their return, because of a plate of hot tortillas they were delivering to a neighbor. Because of a baptism that had ended on time, not minutes later, when the cathedral would be lying in a smolder.

Central America is a noisy land -- opinionated, self-serving, notoriously dissatisfied with its own design. At least six times, between 1545 and 1798, earthquakes shook El Salvador's capitals to the ground, like so many dogs shaking their coats to remove the wet. Volcanoes blew, turning hillsides into rivers of red lava. Lakes disappeared and new mountains warped up in their place. Revolutions coincided with eruptions of every geophysical confabulation. In the mid-1960s, the earth knocked against itself in the middle of the night, and my husband, 8 years old at the time, yanked his youngest brother from the crib and ran them both to safety on roiling ground. In 1986, a few months after I had returned from my first visit to El Salvador, a massive earthquake toppled the country's capital, leaving countless dead and countless more without homes. It precipitated the rise of the "cardboard for walls and bottle caps for nails" communities that still thrive, all these years later, on the highway's median strips.

It is impossible to stop the land from speaking, impossible to ordain it with a conscience, impossible to teach it: This is a family, this is a child, this is a people's history. It is impossible to understand the stories my husband tells me now about La Gloria, the expanse of land that was a coffee farm before developers turned it into Las Colinas, the latest death trap. "Now that was a farm, Beth," Bill, my husband, tells me while I lie in bed, a fever brimming. "That was one gorgeous place, thick with trees. We'd take our horses up there, and we'd go exploring in the catacomb of natural caves that had wormed in through the earth over time. We always suspected that the caves had been carved by water, by long dried-up underground springs. We'd take our horses deep inside, but we never reached the tunnels' ends."

Now those caves are gone, rumbled to nothing, and so are the houses that sat upon them, and so are the people who called those houses home. Buried 10 feet deep under the quake-induced mudslide are little girls and little boys, multiple generations of single families, newlyweds and widows, lovers and gardeners and maids, none of them properly eulogized, none of them ready to die. All across El Salvador the morning of Jan. 13, the land tucked up and slammed down, engulfing tourists at a waterfall, swiping coffee pickers off slopes, snuffing out secondary roads, snapping the beautiful things into pieces. Every historic, heartening structure gone in one instant: the chapel in the orphanage, the shelter for the elderly infirm, storefronts and offices, the church in which my in-laws were married, where my husband was confirmed. "You walk by the church now," Nora reports when we can get through on the phone, "and you see its altar, its Sacred Heart statue; you see these from the street because, my God, there are no walls."

After the 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck, after hundreds were already suspected dead, Nora went out searching for everyone she loves. She walked up and down the streets, knocking on doors. "Are you OK? Do you need help?" she asked. She found her sisters and her brother: alive. She found her best friends and my husband's best friends and their families: all, miraculously, alive. She found her gardener, ancient Tiburcio, who was -- by fluke -- in the town of Santa Tecla and not out among the coffee trees, and she found Nicha, the maid whom she has known for 60 years. Nora herself was found and embraced, blessed and questioned: "What now? Are you all right? What did you lose?"

And through the chaos of it all, through the powerful tremors that ensued, through paths that he must have made for himself by chopping down grasses and tree limbs with a machete because the roads were newly smothered, inverted, came Tito, the "campesino" who keeps watch over Nora's coffee farm; he came with news. All the homes on Nora's farm were down, he reported -- the huts in which the coffee workers live year-round, the three-room structure in which they make tortillas for the farm, the old brick house that Nora spent last year lovingly restoring so that she could live most of her remaining days in the shade, among the trees. Elsewhere, 40 coffee pickers were lost in one landslide. Entire slopes of coffee trees had been ripped from their roots; farm roads would be impassable for months. But there was, Tito said, a miracle to report on, too: He had found Nicha's grandson alive, found him in the only room of all those farm shacks that had been left standing after the quake, found him sitting there, spared, deep in shock.

Here, in Pennsylvania, where the earth seems more peaceful with itself, we play the roulette wheel of what ifs silently, with ourselves. What if the baptism had run a quarter-hour longer? What if Nora's city home were six blocks west? What if Nora hadn't already finished her coffee-bean harvest and had been out -- as she had been out the week before -- on the steeply angled hills when the earth roared? And what if Nicha's grandson had chosen the wrong room to sit in? And what if Tiburcio hadn't come to the city on a whim? And what if Nora didn't care, the way Nora surely cares, about the 14 campesino families that lost their houses on her farm?

"I am taking out a loan," Nora tells Bill when he gets through to her by phone a few days after the quake. "I am taking out a loan because the first thing that must get done is building all my workers their new homes." Already she has had corrugated metal siding taken to the homeless shelter and banged up, haphazardly, to the wooden joists so that the infirm old won't have to sleep out in the streets. Already she has talked to the nuns at the orphanage, asking what needs to be done -- and how fast. Already she has begun to organize delivery of food to the campesinos in the hills who were trapped by the abrupt collapse of all the roads. Already she is looking beyond all she has lost -- crystal, china, a home she loved, the memorabilia that tied her to the past -- to ask, What can I do here? What must get done?

"That land," one friend writes to me a few days later, when my fever is in full bloom, "isn't fit to live on; it's always crashing." And of course that's true: El Salvador is an unstable place; the land has a mean mind of its own. For as long as there are people there, there will be earthquakes and volcanoes. For as long as there is a building up, there will be a brutal wrecking down.

And yet, for as long as there are people in El Salvador, there will be those like my husband's mother, Nora, living on the skirt of danger, but not succumbing to it. All this week I have been ill, fighting fever and back spasms, fighting the bullet pain of migraines, fighting nausea that has left me dehydrated on the floor. All this week, there's been disorder in my blood. When I close my eyes, I see the mudslide coming. I sit in silence and hear the earth roar. I hold my hands out empty and imagine them digging buried people free. In my fevered dreams, it is this way. When I'm awake, it's this way, too. I cannot liberate myself, we must not liberate ourselves, from that earthquake far away. From a land that speaks and from a people that speaks back. From a Nora and a Tito who dare to reach out and hold on.

By Beth Kephart

A recipient of an NEA grant this year, Beth Kephart is the author of "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage," a 1998 National Book Award finalist. Her new book, "Into the Tangle of Friendship," will be released in the fall.

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