Chile earthquake kicks homeless off the street

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.

Juliana Sanhueza, known to all as "La Flaca" (Skinny Woman), is toothless, tough and weather-beaten. She isn’t worried about abandoning her two children; she knows they are safer with her mother, who has been raising them since Juliana lost her last permanent abode two years ago and took up residence on the street, sleeping on the cardboard she collects to sell. Her companion sits under a tree and glowers. Sprawled on the ground at his feet, an unidentified man has collapsed in a stupor, and no one takes any notice.

But the residents of Los Olvidados have not been forgotten entirely. Dr. Lautauro Lopez, a community organizer and physician, has visited the camp several times in the hopes of figuring out some sustainable way to help. “These people lost the street, which was their real home,” he said.

Other advocates have emerged from an unexpected quarter: a the local hip hop artist, indigenous resistance sympathizers and those eternal champions of marginality, the local anarchist book collective.

Representing the rappers is Charley Flowers, self-proclaimed pioneer of hip-hop in the Bio Bio region, whose studied cool contrasts with his demonstrated concern and solidarity. Charlie is a Talcahuano homeboy poet who, according to his MySpace bio, “mixes a black music beat with a political-ecological and social discourse and unflinching criticism of injustice, social and economic inequalities, the Catholic Church, ecological disaster and the ‘dictatorship of the dictatorship’ of the port city.”

Charley shows up with a box of food donated at a concert and destined for the homeless of another community, but that no one came to collect.

He is accompanied by Millaray Castaneda Melinan, a Mapuche woman from Talcahuano who exudes an ancestral Earth Mother aura as she comforts a weeping woman. “The others are treating her like an outcast,” Millaray explains, “since her son, the community’s first spokesman, relocated and took the names of all the charity contacts with him.”

In "La Negra Ester" ("The Dark-Haired Esther") one of Chile’s most beloved plays, the late Roberto Parra, poet and musician, immortalized love and lowlife in the brothels of San Antonio, the next port up the coast from Talcahuano.

If he were to come back to life today to pen the epic of the Great Chilean Earthquake and Tidal Wave of 2010, he wouldn’t have to travel far to find his characters. They are waiting for him here, at Campamento Nº 1 Cerro La Union, where life imitates art.