‘Con los pobres de la tierra’
With the poor people of the earth I want to share my fate.
Guantanamera, by the Sandpipers
The twin terrors of earthquake and flooding struck the los pobres of southern Mexico in the fall of 1999. This narrowest part of the country, less than two-hundred miles across, a frequent recipient of the wet edges of the Gulf hurricanes and the indelicate dances of the tectonic plates rising out of the Pacific Ocean, received disaster upon disaster starting just before harvest time.
No strangers to calamity, the Zapotec and Chatino native populations in the mountainous state of Oaxaca, already living below subsistence levels, watched their crops destroyed by heavy rains in September. With their mud-brick homes softened by the torrential rains, a 7.4 earthquake on September 30th leveled thousands of them. It was no small neighborhood rumble as is commonly experienced in the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains, but was felt as far away as Mexico City to the north and El Salvador to the south. More rains throughout October further weakened the damaged homes; many succumbed to the shaking of after-shocks. Hillsides gave way to mudslides, dirt roads became rivers, and outhouses were washed away. Single strand telephone wires connecting villages came down, further isolating the desperate Native people of the mountains, and delaying relief efforts.
The monsoon rains were even more devastating in the relative flatlands of the provinces of Chiapas and Tabasco. In upland Chiapas farmers pulled the plugs on dams of flooded irrigation ditches to protect their homes and roads. The resultant wall of water rushing downstream flooding Tabasco province, inundated the capital city of Villahermosa already under six feet of water. One story homes disappeared in the deluge, and the upper story of two-story homes became death-traps as the waters continued to rise. The lowlands in the delta north of the city, extending forty miles to the Gulf of Mexico, remained under eight feet of water for three months. A crocodile swimming upstream found its way to the streets of Villahermosa.
Half a million homeless people overwhelmed shelters and emergency supplies of food, necessitating an international relief effort. Dengue fever, malaria, parasitic and diarrheal diseases, and starvation became endemic. Manos de Ayuda, “Helping Hands,” a Christian relief agency headquartered in the city of Oaxaca joined the effort, building shelter and bringing food and medicine to the people of the devastated communities. Two young men, Edgar and Augustin, developed a deep love for these remote villagers. With medical resources for them intermittent in the best of times, the disasters, while increasing medical needs, had completely cut them off from any hands-on care for over six weeks.
Northwest Medical Teams, a sister organization of Manos de Ayuda, was contacted and agreed to send a medical team. Dan Wood, trained as a paramedic, Dennis Pilger, a Fire Chief with medical experience, Pam, a nurse, and I were rapidly assembled as a team and dispatched to Oaxaca. Our mission was to spend a week giving medical care in cut-off mountain villages and a week in the flooded delta north of Villahermosa. The persistent flood waters of the delta, trapped like water in a bathtub, had cut remote farm communities off from all medical care for the last six weeks.
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In spite of the catastrophic previous six weeks, a festive air awaits as we arrive in Oaxaca on the last weekend of October. It is Dia de Muertos, in southern Mexico, translated as Day of the Dead. More than just a day, the celebration stretches to three days in Oaxaca. Long a regional holiday, it was proclaimed a national holiday in 1960, and has become a national cultural symbol. Rooted in the three-day Catholic tradition of All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints Day, culminating in All Souls Day, like all things religious and pseudo-religious in this part of Mexico, it has become syncretic with the native pagan culture. Exalting previously departed dear ones, venerating death in the process, Dia de Muertos has become a sort of pumped up Halloween with elaborate rituals and pageantry.
The typical rituals involves building little private altars to deceased relatives, surrounding a picture of the loved one with sugar skulls, marigolds, a favorite trinket, and the departed’s favorite food. One of those shrines was placed on a table outside a restaurant we are waiting to enter. A beautiful portrait of an older woman, perhaps the restaurant’s previous owner, the date of her death inscribed on the frame at the bottom, is surrounded by some ghoulish skulls with shiny white teeth worthy of Hollywood, fresh marigolds, and even fresher French Fries adorning a plate with a cheeseburger. Talking to my teammates while waiting for the restaurant’s doors to open, my hand absent-mindedly grazes a French Fry. Fortunately, it is slapped away before anyone notices this cultural faux pas, perhaps sparing me from eating food sacrificed to idols.
Before leaving on the 375 mile trip to Villahermosa, we stay a night in a budget hotel in Oaxaca. Two bottles of drinking water have been placed on the sink.
“How kind of them to supply drinking water,” I muse, as I brush my teeth – with tap water. Two days later as cramps and dysentery set in I have the “Ah-ha” moment about the purpose of the bottled water.
A smoking, oil-spewing transmission in our lead vehicle forces us to overnight half-way to our destination. The garage where we stop for repairs has no mechanic and no tools. It does have the typical Pennzoil girly calendar with a disproportionate ratio of skin to bikini. We suspect a mechanic can’t be too far away. Presently he arrives, but cannot fix the problem. We wind up renting a car for the rest of the journey, a complex endeavor in this third-world section of Mexico.
Starting a day behind schedule in Villahermosa does not faze Don Pedro, our congenial patrón who welcomes us warmly like long lost brothers. Typical of Mexico’s culture of influence, he arranges where we will conduct clinics, secures supplies and transportation for us, and is our guide and protector around Villahermosa. Epitomizing the kindness and generosity of the Mexican people, he treats us to the finest restaurant dinner of the whole trip. He knows no English, Dan is the only one in our group who knows any Spanish, but his warm-hearted manner make it a splendid evening.
Now, seated single file, with heavy bags of medicines and supplies between us in the two narrow flat-bottomed wooden boats, we are headed to the far reaches of the flooded delta with its forgotten people. Seeing the oarsman straddling the gunwales in the stern, confidently poling us along, I trust Don Pedro’s arrangements, even as the boat has no more than two inches clearance above the water line and none of us are wearing life jackets.