Disaster and Reconstruction From the Eyes of Chilean Women
Nicanor Parra, a Chilean writer known around the world as the creator of anti-poetry said once: “Chilean people are children of toughness; they know only one verb: Apechugar.” Apechugar is a Chilean expression that means “Face the Fade with Dignity”. The inhabitants of a country that during all its history has been shaken by earthquakes – one of them, in 1960, the worst in human history with 9.5 Ritcher – know well that when facing a catastrophe, the only thing to do is to go forward with courage.
On February 27, 2012, it was the second anniversary since an earthquake of 8.8 on the richter scale devastated six regions of Chile. Two years ago,on February 27, 2010, at 3.34 am, the earth shook in a tremor that destroyed homes, collapsed bridges, broken highways and twisted rail lines. Minutes later- without any warning from the government authorities who had been notified of it, a tsunami ravaged villages and people. The disaster, known as 27F, left about 525 dead, 25 people missing, 800,000 homeless, and property damage quantified at 30,000 million dollars. Four thousand schools, 40 hospitals and about 2,000 points of public infrastructure were harshly damaged.
One of the first consequences of the disaster was the evidence of economic and social inequalities where Chileans were living. According to Olga Segovia, Regional Coordinator of the "Cities without Violence, Safe Cities for Women" Program of UNWomen, the earthquake showed "the persistent inequality, expressed in the organization of the territory, and inequities in access to infrastructure and quality urban services, to safely enjoy the city space.” The poorest communities suffered the consequences of the relocation from the disaster zone to new towns, the closure of industries, and the loss of jobs and public services.
Sandra Palestro, a researcher of gender issues, said in her book “Women in Chile: A Necessary History” that women are who have always taken over the crisis, to move the country forward and drive the changes: ”For example, during the last dictatorship, it was women who organized to resist the government while the husbands, fathers, siblings and children, were prisoners or missing. Women in Chile have been the managers of change processes in social and political reconstruction.”
How has the relationship of women with the catastrophe of 27F been during these past two years? How has it impacted them? What are they doing on behalf of reconstruction? Here are some stories that tell us how Chilean women had to “Apechugar” when the rage of the earth came and took over the world as they knew it.
From Ruin to Entrepreneurs
The Bio-bio region, one of the most flourishing of the country, was one of the most affected by the earthquake: Dichato, Concepcion and Talcahuano, located in the coast, were severely damaged and still the citizens are struggling there to rise from the ruins of what once was a thriving land.
In Dichato, people commemorated sadly this February 27, the two years after the tragedy, due to the large number of families still crammed into emergency shelters. One day earlier, on February 26, the Ministry of Housing, Rodrigo Perez Mackenna, announced the delivery of the first 91 new houses for the victims of the earthquake in that town.
Juana Aviles used to rent umbrellas and chairs on the beach. Three months after the earthquake and tsunami, she puts on overalls, gloves and safety shoes to clean the town of her people: "It affected me very much to see my village destroyed, seeing my neighbors who had nothing. The work of removing debris helped me to relieve and to heal the soul a little. Removing debris made me feel I was helping a little to the people. So I felt I was contributing," she says with a shade of concern in her eyes.
During the first days after the disaster, women like Juana worked in pajamas, with not underwear or other clothes to change into. It was hard to deal with hygiene problems and the hard work of removing debris. The aid was slow to arrive. But it came eventually, in the form of sustainable entrepreneurship. The crisis generated development opportunities for the women in Dichato, thanks to the vision and perseverance of a woman from the nearby city of Concepción, Cecilia Vilarroel.
Moved by the devastation the tsunami produced in that town, Cecilia Villaroel, an architect, decided to take to Dichato her ideas about development. After evaluating several options, she decided to start a business initiative and with help from the women in Dichato, she gave birth to the brand Di bags.
Since April 2010 she has worked on the project to produce exclusive handbags and purses from recycled materials, especially laminated paper combining mixed materials such as fabrics and carpets. They were designed under the concept of sustainability and ecology: “The most important factor in this enterprise is the people who work in it; the women involved are the reason and the aim of this initiative,” she says enthusiastically.
Cecilia and the team of women who make the Di bags know that this tragedy gave visibility to the people who suffered, and there is a social and environmental sensitivity in the air; their intention is to provide “a grain of sand” to development, a small step on behalf of reconstruction, to show that it is possible to make things differently.
After two years of work and efforts, and thanks to the support of sponsorship from institutions such as the University of Concepción, Cecilia and the women from Dichato launched a line of accessories. Today, the catalog of Di bags has more than 70 products that can be found in different stores throughout the country, competing with imported products. They have a page on Facebook and are ready to export.
The Personal Earthquake
According to the psychiatric Mabel Cid, the reconstruction involves not only a material but also a spiritual side. Not only is a city devastated. A catastrophe is a challenge to the spiritual strength and resilience of the people living there. Sometimes, it is a challenge for us about our beliefs and assumptions about life.
Treicy Collante lived in Talcahuano, with her husband and two children. For a long time their marriage hadn’t been working: "We didn’t have good communication and episodes of infidelity and verbal and physical abuse were increasingly common." Treicy thought she could not get divorced because that meant "breaking the home"; "I thought I could not leave everything I had built with great effort. For 18 years I struggled to have a house, material security, a roof for my children. I was very attached to my house. "
And then the earthquake came and; her house was reduced to rubble and the tsunami took the rest: "When we saw the water coming, we started to climb for the hill; I saw my house, my life, everything I thought was my security, disappear in two minutes. I wanted to die," she says.
But Treicy didn’t die. Rather, the woman she was, without consciousness of herself, died two days after the disaster: "On March 1st, my family and I were desperate for water. There was no water, no electricity, no gas, not even food." She asked her husband to fetch water but he refused, saying that she always "galled him with stupid things."
Something happened in that moment,"- said Treicy, thoughtfully. -"I stood there in silence and I saw in my mind every insult, every deception and every shot. I saw my house in ruins. I had no reason to stay. Everything that I thought would be forever no longer existed. In silence, I took my purse, my two children and left. I walked until I found an emergency shelter."
Over time, Treicy went to live with a cousin. She found a job even though she had never worked before; she found a house and for the first time in her life, she signed a contract. She relocated and now she lives in Valparaiso: "I am happy now. I have peace. I feel powerful. I'm studying computer science. I had my own personal earthquake and survived. Now I'm in the process of reconstruction,” she says with a grin.
However, the reconstruction process after the earthquake in Chile has not been carried without controversy: There is a big contrast between what government says and what political opposition and independent research say about it. In his public account about the advances of the reconstruction after the 27F, presented on February 24, President Sebastian Piñera said his government has made a “huge effort” to achieve a 68% of restocking in housing, public facilities, health and education buildings; in the case of those who lost their homes, only a 47% of coverage have been completed. The political opposition and the Observatory for Reconstruction of the University of Chile, state according to their own studies, the reconstruction process has achieved just a 10% of the goal expected.
The "Lady" of La Puntilla
Carmen Fritz is a small woman with big brown eyes. She has a limp as a result of the Polio she suffered in her childhood. She has worked all her life as a maid: "I'm a Nanny, and I like my job, I think it is important, I help other women to achieve their purposes, while I take care of the house, cook and accompany their children."
In her neighborhood "La Puntilla", located in the city of Talcahuano, the problem was not the destruction of the houses but the lack of food: "We are far from the sea so the tsunami was not a problem. The damage in our houses was not much, but there was not a can of tuna throughout the city” she says. What the earthquake did not destroy, the tsunami took away or looters stole. For Carmen, the worst were looting and robbery, and the moral decay that some people showed in the most terrible moment of the catastrophe:“ It’s a shame that Chileans could do this to other Chileans. We were all hungry, but especially the poorest. What about the poor stealing from the poor? A disgrace!” she states firmly, with a hint of annoyance in her voice.
Carmen looked through the days and neighbors worried about the lack of food. The leaders in her neighborhood just were complaining, waiting the trucks of government and international aid and they were not organizing people: “I had never gone into public affairs, but the situation was desperate. So I started organizing the women in the neighborhood without caring if the leaders of my community though I was being intrusive.”
Carmen Fritz knocked on every one of the doors of the block in her neighborhood: "I told the neighbors to make a common pot, which each one could bring what they had in their houses: rice, noodles, canned tuna, whatever. We had to eat. There was no gas and we cooked with coal on the street. A neighbor brought a huge pot of 25 liters. We cooked there and then we gave out to each family. "
This practice lasted three weeks, until the government food aid arrived and the situation was normalized. However, the outlook changed completely to Carmen: "I realized that if all people care a little for their neighbor, our problems would be solved faster, and I could contribute to that”. Now, besides her work as a maid, she has her activities as vice president of the community council of the neighborhood; “The other leaders, who considered me intrusive in the beginning, now call me ‘the lady.’ I think people must always be organized and prepared for the good and bad. People together go faster over the problems."
Don’t Miss Women: The Lesson to Learn
For the Ministry of Housing, Rodrigo Perez Mackenna, the evaluation of government work during the two years of reconstruction is positive: “There is much work ahead that is difficult, and I think a guarantee that we can reach the goal is that in similar cases in countries far more developed than ours, the reconstruction has taken much longer," he says.
In contrast with the optimism of Ministry, President Sebastian Piñera admitted that; this year 2012, over 3 thousand people will spend the rainy winter of southern Chile in emergency camps, exposed to cold, flood and under health and safety limited conditions.
Ana Rodriguez, a journalist who covered the tragedy of 27F says: "As soon as everything was in ruins, women were the first to stand up and organize. For two years they have had to support their families and fight the government excuses and delays. "
Deputy for the region of Bio-bio, Clemira Pacheco, thinks the reconstruction process is missing the contribution of women: “The program is failing, because it doesn’t incorporate a gender perspective. It’s a general social program, which has no specific gaze toward women. In that sense, I think we need something more specific that considers the reality of women, for example, in the case of housing."
Pilar Pezoa, from the Observatory of Gender Leadership, says the natural wisdom of women is very useful in these cases; "Women know very well how to organize and what is required in areas affected by disasters to rebuild their lives. Their voices must be heard because they speak of their own needs. It would be wrong not to use their skills and incorporate them in such important stage such as reconstruction." she says.
The earthquake brought disaster, the tsunami devastation; two years later, a lot remains to be done and between government policies and discourses, there is a wide room to take lessons: “The earthquake taught me that ‘I can’: Safety, dignity and support are within my heart and not outside," says Treicy. In “La Puntilla”, Carmen put her life around common goals: ”My life has been tough. I am motivated now to teach people to value themselves, not to stay stuck in the mud but demand their rights." For Cecilia, her lesson to share is: "hope, always hope; it's what remains after all; it’s what never is lost when you lose everything."
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.
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