the lost american Rebuilding Guatemala in the native spirit After The Earthquake: by Gerry Nadel



East West Journal , June1976, Vol. 6 No. 6.

[Reprinted with permision of East West Journal .]


Pan American Flight 501 enters Guatemala from the Yucatan across terrain that is simultaneously among the most spectacular and sinister in the world. The first flatlands become foothills, ripples growing to swells, cresting in great, jagged peaks. Foliage covers the mountains like green fur over the bones of a deadly beast. You can see where the beast had shifted not quite a month ago. The sharp scars of the fault lines are visible even from 39,000 feet, and as the plane descends, you can also see, squashed like anthills underfoot, the homes in which 28,000 people had died.

I share a cab with Nathan Gray, a field director from the Oxfam America headquarters in Boston. Gray has been sent to help organize Oxfam's disaster relief program. Oxfam has been in the country for some years. The organization, formed in England before World War II to fight famine, long ago diversified into Third World development work, and in Guatemala had been running programs in the barrios of the capital city, and deep in the campo, fostering rural cooperatives to increase agricultural yield and shift more economic power into the hands of Indian farmers who, on average, earn less than $100 a year. After February 4, Reggie Norton, an Englishman in charge of Oxfam's Central American projects, started relief work even before the phone lines and telex cables to Oxford had been restored; in a breath-taking overreach, he committed Oxfam to buying the next three months' production of steel from the U.S. Steel subsidiary in El Salvador. As a result, Oxfam was on the way to becoming the largest holder in Guatemala of lamina, the corrugated sheeting used for roofs. It was amassing a larger stockpile than even the government--almost 160,000 sheets, enough to roof 16,000 homes.

Norton and the local Oxfam staff had been selling the lamina at half-price--$3.00 a sheet--rather than give it away. By selling they could make their limited funds go twice as far, and the Guatemalans could feel they were rebuilding their homes on their own, not as a consequence of charity.

Nate Gray has come to Guatemala to see how the lamina sales are going and, more particularly, how to establish a program to ensure that the rebuilt homes would be safe, won't fall down in the next terremoto.

A two-dollar ride in a taxi with a differential that sounds as if it won't last a buck's worth of the distance takes us to the Oxfam office on the fringe of the airport. The office is actually a converted apartment, the decor in a style that could best be described as early Haight-Ashbury. There are sleeping bags and bare mattresses piled around the work tables and typewriters. The Oxfam staffers are living here for the duration. The organization is frugal, if not downright stingy. There's no budget for anything like hotel rooms.

The Oxfam house in Antigua, an hour out of the capital, is a surprise. Abstemious as they are, you wouldn't expect Oxfam people live and work in a place that looks like Don Quixote's castle--with fourteen foot ceilings crossed by dark wooden beams, a floor-to-ceiling fireplace with a chin-high mantle and a conical chimney in the corner. There is a table big enough to hold a Middle Ages feast, and heavy wood chairs grouped around the fire for warmth: except in the height of the afternoon, it is chilly in Guatemala this time of year, a chill that comes from the high elevation, and Oxfam's castle, like most castles, it is cold and drafty. It is especially so now, with the cracks in its walls and tile floors from the terremoto, and the gaping spaces where the red-clay tejas had come off the roof and through which you could see the sky. It is a wounded house, with walls that creak and groan every time a truck goes by, and will certainly fall if another terremoto comes. Already, a chimney has collapsed in one bedroom, and sleeping quarters have been moved to the tin-roofed garage, the Oxfam workers bedding down with the Renault, sleeping under its steady, night-long, headlight stare.

Dust covers everything in the house. Workmen have been repairing the roof, trying to get it whole again before the rainy season comes in May. Their pounding sends plaster dust showering on everything below. We wipe off the dining room table at breakfast, and by lunch, the dust on it is thick enough, and again, to write in.

Mary Walsh sits across from me at dinner. She is a twenty-six-year-old Englishwoman. She lived alone in the Don Quixote house for two weeks before the terremoto, and for almost a week afterward until the others arrived. Now she is playing Snow White to a revolving cast of dwarfs, trying to keep the steady flow of Oxfam specialists fed, housed, and laundered.

Fred Cuny sits next to her. He's a thirty-one-year-old Texan, a Good Ol' Boy, but brainy. In engineering school, he specialized in problems of underdevelopment. His post-graduate-field-work in Nigeria turned into the relief plan after the civil war and he found himself with an international reputation in disaster work. With colleagues, he formed his own company, Intertect of Dallas, and now he spends his life circling the globe; the Mideast, Africa, Asia, the Subcontinent--wherever nature or mankind has done its worst most recently.

Oxfam hired him to head the Guatemalan housing project. He is training local albaniles--builders and masons--in the principles of earthquakes-resistant housing. His star pupil is sitting next to him at dinner--Don Pedro Guites, a master mason, an Indian, with a handshake as hard and rough as a fresh-sawed two-by-four. Fred picked him to be trained as his first trainer, someone to pass on the principles of safe housing to village carpenters and adobe brick makers.

"Con permiso," Don Pedro says, and bows his head in a silent grace over his meal. We eat quietly: pungent guacamole, tortillas, arroz con pollo.

After dinner, the first priority is beer. Nathan, myself, and the rented car are dispatched to the tienda a few blocks away. The store is tiny, but without a square inch of wasted space. One bare bulb lights shelves crammed with everything from canned goods to guitars. Sacks of rice and cornmeal are heaped on the floor next to piles of waterproof leather workboots. These are display cases with shirts and cheap cotton blouses, and, overhead, paper flowers and pinatias hung for sale from the rafter. The tienda is filled with the smell of gasoline: an oil drum sits near the door--fuel is siphoned out of it and funneled into gallon jugs for sale.

We hump four caseloads of beer into the trunk of the Toyota. It is for a meeting at the house that night and by the time we return, tome of the participants have already arrived. The others come soon afterward, one by one or in small groups, until there are more than a dozen clumped in a circle around Fred in front of the fireplace.

They are all CARE fieldworkers, and they have come for advice from Fred Cuny. Nathan calls the meeting "a palace revolution." The CARE people had been following their organization's standard policy, which seems to be "act first, ask questions later." Then one of them met Fred.

We'll call him Chuck to keep him out of trouble with his boss. He had commandeered a military bulldozer and was about to run it through a ruined town, clearing out the rubble, when Fred happened on the scene. Fred suggested it might be a good idea to wait a bit.

Wait for what?! Chuck asked, indignantly. Well, Fred said, in his best Panhandle drawl, there were a couple of problems...like, the folks in the town wanted to salvage everything they could from the wreckage. It would save money when they rebuilt, but there wouldn't be much left to salvage after the 'dozer went through.

Also, Fred said, there was something else. What else?! Chuck wanted to know. Fred explained that there were still some bodies missing. They were no doubt somewhere in the rubble. The villagers had a distinct preference, Fred said, for finding the bodies themselves instead of having a bulldozer turn them up.

Chuck turned white. Then he turned off the bulldozer.

He explained to Fred that he hadn't known about the salvage or the bodies. Why not? Fred asked. Nobody had told him, he said. Hadn't he asked any of the villagers at all. Not at all? No, Chuck admitted. He didn't think it was necessary. He'd had his instructions from headquarters in the capitol. Fred suggested that maybe next time it would be a good idea to ask people what they need before trying to do something for them. To Chuck, it was an epiphany. He also decided it is something his CARE colleagues ought to know about. He arranged the meeting at the Don Quixote house.

All the CARE workers circling the fireplace are wearing jeans, and all of them, except the three women in the group, wear moustaches. Correction--there is one man in the gathering who is barefaced, but he arrived in the country only a few days ago and hasn't been around long enough to catch a case of macho.

Fred begins his lecture. "If you are talking about probabilities," he says, "you know, the fault lines being what they are, where the quakes will recur and what their forces will be like. You can then build houses that will stand up to those forces. You can't make a house that is earthquake-proof, but you can build one strong enough so it won't fall down on the people inside." Fred's recommendations follow six basic principles--low walls, cross bracing, balanced doors and windows, light roofs, sitting parallel to fault lines (using canyons and rivers as geographic guides), and square floor plans to distribute seismic forces equally along all four walls. The concept are simple. The trick is to put them across in a way that the average campesino will understand. Oxfam has been printing comic books to illustrate them, handling them out along with the lamina being sold for new roofs. But Fred's main mission has been training albaniles, the local masons and builders, to pass on the knowledge to others who will then pass it along again, in ever widening circles.

Tonight, he is trying to convince the CARE workers to do the same. All they have been told to do, so far, is build houses. All they will leave behind, if they do so, will be buildings. By teaching instead of building they would leave behind the knowledge which people could then use to help themselves instead of being forced to depend on Yankee technology and Yankee charity.

The government had assigned PVOs (private volunteer organizations) to work in specific areas immediately after the quake, staging what the relief workers call "The Auction," dealing out chunks of the disaster area to the organizations that promised to do the most for them. Some groups were assigned towns they seemed unable to locate on the map: "Wings of Mercy" from Anaheim demanded military helicopters to fly to a town an hour's drive from the capitol on perfectly passable roads, but if "Wings of Mercy" didn't seem to know much about Guatemala, it was only fair: no one working in the country knew anything about them. The Salvation Army had been given Tecpan to rebuild, but didn't arrive in force until nearly three weeks after the terremoto, apparently under the impression that the situation was still in its emergency phase. They swooped in with helicopters, carrying case after case of Delmonte peas, carrots, and sardines--all of which would have made a novel addition to the highland Indian diet, if anyone could have been persuaded to eat the stuff.



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