Jewish World Review March 13, 2001/ 18 Adar, 5761
"We are asking the Creator for clemency"
SAN VICENTE, El Salvador | The woman looked up from behind the cash register of the
Super(market) Monte Carlo and burst into tears when two Americans asked her about the
earthquake in her town.
"For you it's an adventure,'' she said. "For us it's reality.'' She said it without bitterness or
accusation, but with the resignation that dominates Salvadoran conversations about the tragedy.
"We can withstand what G-d sends, but we are asking G-d for clemency.''
Angela Munos de Ayala, age 69, owns and runs the small store with her husband. They have visas
to the United States, where they want to visit with family in Virginia, "but not now when they need
us here more.''
Some soaps, chips and dry cereal fell off the shelves during the second earthquake, but Angela
considers herself extremely lucky. In this town of San Vicente, and all around the Super Monte
Carlo in the center of the city, hundreds of houses and shops are but memories, shrines of piles of
rough brown stones where an occasional door frame stands sculpted like a doorway to hell.
Only 30 miles east of San Salvador, San Vicente (population 72,000) was one of the cities hit
hardest by the second Salvadoran earthquake in a month. The city rests below the slopes of
Chichontepec Volcano, noted for its double cone silhouette and a summit tourists climb to scan the
panorama of fields and rivers of the Jiboa Valley. The town escaped the ravages of the January
earthquake, but today even the volcano has a huge gash cut deep into its side testifying to the
thundering knifelike power of the second one.
San Vicente was described as having "colonial gentility,'' with graceful architecture fronting quiet
streets. But that was before the noisy din of workmen and heavy trucks that carried away debris,
filling the city with the dissonant cacophony of the wake of disaster.
Young men in army uniforms and camouflage caps, many wearing masks to shield the nose and
mouth from the thick dust of destruction, help the displaced townspeople repair and rebuild walls
and restore rooftops while policemen with guns watch for looters tempted to steal from the
vulnerable. In the central square, an ornamental clock tower of painted white cement tilts to one side
and the hands of the clock are frozen at 8:20, the time the earthquake struck on the morning of Feb.
13. Time stands still on the face of the clock but not on the faces of the people below who struggle
for an existence. Not easy to do.
A thin old woman stops to talk. She is both dignified and needy and says she's going to the market
to see if she can get some food. She does not beg, but she doesn't turn away from a gift of 20
colones (about $2.40). Asked whether her house was destroyed, she says "no,'' adding, "only two
One man with a cell phone is served a hot lunch with his wife and two teen-agers on a small square
in front of the Iglesia El Pilar, a lovely old church built in 1762. The church has survived many
earthquakes, but each one has chipped away at its picturesque facade. The family bows heads in a
prayer before eating the meager meal. They look to be among the prosperous. The father tells a
visitor that he's from the town of Jerusalem, a few miles away. His home was destroyed and several
died in his town.
On a park ground above the city, tiny triangular tents house the homeless. Tattered sheets of blue
plastic serve as roof covers on makeshift hovels to protect the inhabitants from a hot orange sun.
The rainy season is only two months away.
In a mild aftershock, the earth begins to rumble under a visitor's feet as she admires a parrot at
market. The queasy fear that dominates for a lengthy 30 seconds passes. Did I merely imagine the
earth's rumbling? Business goes on as usual. The sellers and customers sense the visitor's unease,
and tell her not to worry, there are lots of aftershocks as the earth "adjusts'' to the quake.
Only an adolescent girl, who looks to be mentally retarded, is upset. She shrieks long after the
rumbling subsides, expressing a fear and trembling. Her mother holds her close, wipes away her
tears, speaking softly, telling her the earthquake has passed, but she is inconsolable. It's as though
her wailing, a solo dirge of despair, encompasses the pain everyone feels, but dares not speak.
A short walk away, down a main street, next to a destroyed building stands a sign, firmly planted on
a building open for business: FUNERALES LA RESURRECCION -- Al Servicio del Pueblo. A
few doors away a handmade sign hangs on a crumbling wall announcing a quake-torn house for
sale. The juxtaposition of tragedy and the grotesque is without irony in San
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02/07/01: Profaning the sacred with the political
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©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate