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Monday, November 23, 2009

A Photographic Journey of Comunidad Las Cruces

Comunidad Las Cruces is located about thirty minutes from San Salvador. It consists of an estimated 30 families and is an incredibly green, rural marginalised community. In the storms two weeks ago, Las Cruces suffered long-term crop loss, damage to multiple family homes, and the loss of one family, who were killed when their house collapsed atop them.
Las Cruces sits atop land that is almost entirely second-growth forest. This means that older trees and vegetation with strong roots-- which normally stabilise top-soil-- have been cleared for logging or new housing here, in Central America's most densely populated country. El Salvador is the second most deforested place in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti.

Sam and Brian make relief bags to hand out in Las Cruces. Each bag includes items like matches, candles, rice, beans, pasta, toothbrushes, soap, a potable hydration solution akin to Gatorade, and cookies for the kids. Nine of us visited the community on Saturday to bring these basic necessities, and to bear witness to the devastation wrought by four hours of rain and years of incompetent management of the country's wealth.

Emilio, FMLN representative from the local party, addresses families who have come to receive relief packages. We bought the supplies at the grocery store that morning in San Salvador with money donated by many generous folks listed on the right of your screen. Since there are no NGO's that work in this particular community and the ARENA mayor has been accused of corruption, we had to rely on representatives of the other main party, the FMLN, to provide us with their knowledge of the area and connections who could point us to the families in most need. This dynamic demonstrates well the extremely polarized nature of Salvadoran daily life.

One family who received a package, standing in the doorway of their home. The littlest in the family, Abigail, leans on the door and shows us with her fingers that she is 5 years old.

The mayor's office has sent the Ministry of Public Works (MOP) to clear the dirt road that runs through Las Cruces. The road had been flooded with mud. The mayor in this region is from the ARENA party, and is being accused of hoarding relief resources in his office and distributing only to political friends. Disasters are often seen by Salvadoran political parties as a strategic time to win votes for the next election-- a practice that ranges from relief goods distributed in bags with party logos to corruption and aid-hoarding. It was thus a pleasant surprise to see a state organ functioning for the good of the people amidst the crisis.

Observing one of the multiple minor mudslides that happened in the community. The ground juts like giant natural stair-steps down the side of the basin in which Las Cruces lies, with various houses built on each "stair." Here, Maggie and two men from the community inspect the debris and rock that fell from above and took off the corner of the roof of the house below, owned by a man named Luis Alfonso. Had it rained much more that night, Luis' house would have washed away, along with those above his, which have now lost much of their foundation as the loose earth tumbled downhill. In the second photo, Brian and Sam listen to Roberto Alexander as he points out his house above, which now has one corner jutting precariously off the “stair step.” His three children peeked at us from above.

Walking up a pyramid of stairs that leads into the higher sections of this community built almost vertically on lands of constant high risk for disaster. Most marginalized communities in El Salvador are forced to build substandard housing--the only affordable shelter-- on lands that no one with financial resources would want. The best (read: safest) land in the country is sold off to be used to build gated communities and luxury shopping malls that, as Jesuit Dean Brackley says, "look like they dropped out of outer space," given the pervasive poverty in which 65% of residents live. This man totes two bags of relief packages weighing about 10 lbs a piece, and a 10lb jug of drinking water.

This is the one wall left standing of a house that was completely demolished in a landslide. Its cracked pattern resembles delicate china that has been damaged; and indeed, the house tumbled something akin to that under the weight of the rushing earth. The family of four who lived here were buried in their sleep and found at 7:00 the following morning. Their names: the father, Carlos Alberto; the 26 year-old mother, Mirna Guadalupe; daughter Azucena, who just celebrated her 9th birthday; and daughter Guadalupe Lizbeth, 10 months old.

Mirna's wooden bed-turned-coffin. She was unearthed with her arms around little Guadalupe.

The community knows that they live in constant danger. They try to minimize that by building retaining walls to catch mudslides. Here, we see the wall that protected Mirna and Carlos' house. It was made of cinderblocks laid over a skeleton of iron pipes, and the latter provides the majority of the strength in a wall. Unfortunately, iron is very expensive, and though the community put in as much as they could afford, the landslide of water and mud easily wrenched the wall's beams into an awkward zig-zag and rushed on, finally slamming into the Mirna and Carlos' house.

Here, Las Cruces representatives show us the direct cause the family's death. What you see above is a cemetary, and then a sharp drop-off. A local Catholic Church had recently cut into the ground at the cemetary's edge to begin construction of a small retreat house, here at one of the highest points of this vertical community. They told us that the church had sent four men and their equipment to cut into the hill just days before the storm passed through, and they left the ground exposed. Unfortunately, no one among the four was a construction expert, and El Salvador has no zoning laws that require construction to be legally approved and thus reviewed to ensure safe and responsible practices. The way that the ground had been cut created a small basin in which the rain gathered during the four hours of the storm, until the weight of it was too heavy. The water cut a divot in the ground (visible in the photo at the right) and rushed down, smashing through the retaining wall about 100 ft down and then into the home.

Below, Mirna's brother shows us photos he has set up in a 24-hour shrine to the family, with a statue of the Virgin Mary and candles. One photo features Carlos, Mirna, and Azucena after her recent dance recital.

-- Danielle Mackey
(Danielle is a friend of the "friends of Santa Maria" folks living and working in San Salvador. Read more about her time here at

1 comment:

  1. you are a truely gifted writer- seriously everybody check out danielle's blog.

    its nice to see a more personal/human side of the story. and an intentional post. im taking notes.... ;)