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Chile earthquake kicks homeless off the street

Chile's most marginal set up shelters at Camp the Forgotten Ones, in the hills above Talcahuano.

Javiera earthquake homeless
Javiera serves make-believe tea at Camp The Forgotten Ones. (Lezak Shallat/GlobalPost)

TALCAHUANO, Chile — A clearing in a forest opens onto a magnificent view of the Talcahuano Bay. Below cranes untangle the jumble of ships hurled from their moorings into the city’s main market.

The 8.8-seismic jolt and tsunami that hit Chile in February destroyed Poblacion Libertad, a scrappy neighborhood of hard-working poor, squatters and petty criminals. As the waves advanced, dozens of families headed to the hills, landing atop Cerro La Union.

Campamento Los Olvidados (Camp The Forgotten Ones) is now home to a cast of characters, the most marginal of the marginal. They are "allegados," the Chilean term for people who live precariously in the crowded houses of others.

By late April, most had gathered their crates, plastic sheeting and cardboard and headed down again. Now, as the heavy rains of the Chilean winter commence, the final hold-outs struggle to keep dry under their lean-tos.

They hold on to the earthquake as an unexpected opportunity to obtain the government-subsidized permanent housing they could never aspire to before. To qualify, they must open a special bank account with several hundred dollars of their own savings.

Jaime Moya and Teresa Isabel Cerna are the parents of Javiera, a little girl in frilly dress seated on a damp mattress serving make-believe tea. The tsunami destroyed the house they were staying in, but they don’t want to go back there even if they could.

If this were a play, the actors might be identified not by their names, but as archetypes from myth and universal literature: Jaime and Teresa are grave tenders, tending the gates of passage to the underworld.

A government official told the family they could get a one-room wooden emergency shelter if they had land to put it on. But Jaime has misplaced the paper with the man’s name. And neither Jaime nor Teresa makes enough to be able to afford a plot.

Jaime is not overly concerned about the missing paper. The man promised to come back, and Cristian — the designated spokesman of these half-a-dozen families still clinging to the hillside — wrote down the phone number.

Cristian Espinoza Duran the Orator, makes a grand entrance from his tent, sashaying across the clearing like a movie star, his cheeks slathered with face cream, apologizing profusely for not yet finishing his morning toilette. The earthquake has thrust him into a leading role he seems to relish: when donations come, he records them meticulously. When visitors arrive, he reads them an eloquent declaration, which he himself penned, of the community’s plight. His mother, Dona Rosa, sits at his side, beaming with pride.

Joining them are Rosa’s daughters Mariela and Marianela, with seven children between them. Rosa, age 63, says she has a place to go, but she will stay here until her children are given a permanent place of their own.