El Salvador / Inequality

The White Flag of Hunger

Friday, July 10, 2020
Carlos Dada

I: Dino

In a past life, Dino Safie was lead singer for Totus Tuus, a Catholic band and ministry that is well known in Charismatic Renewal spaces in Central America. The group set out on tour in Guatemala and southern Mexico at the beginning of March, returning to El Salvador by land on March 12, just as the government had put in place a mandatory quarantine for returning Salvadorans. Officials took the band members to the quarantine facility in Jiquilisco. One of the first facilities in operation, it lacked sanitation measures, masks, toilet paper and more. What it did have was a cluster of mattresses where hundreds of people would sleep tightly packed and restrooms with signs on the doors reading: “OUT OF ORDER.”

Safie began posting on social media about the conditions of those detained in Jiquilisco, asking for food, masks, hand sanitizer, clothing, and medicine for the sick. Toilet paper, too. In short order he became spokesperson for those detained at the Jiquilisco facility and a window into the space at a time when the government refused to report the conditions of thousands of Salvadorans quarantined in the facilities.

In the span of a few days, his social media presence grew exponentially; he went from 200 to 17,000 Twitter followers and from 2,000 to 45,000 on Instagram. Dino Safie became a public figure.

He claims to have received calls from government officials asking him to tone down his criticism. “I told them that if they brought [Treasury Minister] Michelle Sol to Jiquilisco, away from the boutique hotel where she sat taking selfies with her Starbucks, then I would shut down my accounts, go silent, and voluntarily stay two months in Jiquilisco. Of course, that didn’t happen.”

Complaints of overcrowding, uncleanliness, and lack of sanitation protocols led to the shuttering of the Jiquilisco facility. When Safie left, on April 10, he had become the spokesperson for the 2,000 Salvadorans detained in facilities around the country.

“I kept getting messages from facilities and hospitals asking me to report their needs and shortages, but I was also getting donations from outside. There was so much to do that one day I opened a WhatsApp group and announced on social media that anyone who wanted to help me distribute the donations should join the group.” That same day, he recruited 20 volunteers. He christened the makeshift organization Solidaritón—a play on the English word ‘solidarity’ and a suffix denoting something that is big, abundant, or great—and a GoFundMe, where he has received over $60,000. He has also received hundreds of in-kind donations. To date, he says they have distributed more than 3,000 bundles of provisions. 

Dino Safie, right, in a hardware store in Verapaz, San Vicente, where he bought sheets of metal and cement blocks to help build a house for a woman in rural Verapaz. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
Dino Safie, right, in a hardware store in Verapaz, San Vicente, where he bought sheets of metal and cement blocks to help build a house for a woman in rural Verapaz. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

He is not the only one distributing bundles. A staggering number of pictures has surfaced on social media of grassroots efforts to feed the hungry.

The government, too, has staged professional photo-ops of ministers handing out bundles. Behind-the-scenes footage has also circulated online: two ministers carrying relief bundles encircled by a dozen photographers and camera operators capturing the scene from every angle as humbly dressed, smiling people receive a bundle with food from the government. They then give the basket back, smile again, then receive it again, repeating this process until the camera director is satisfied. The administration allotted $15 million for public relations in its 2020 budget that was not reallocated for the emergency.

Safie also takes pictures as he gives out bundles, but his are selfies.

As the government suspended public transportation at the beginning of May, Safie took part of the donation money and rented several microbuses to offer free transportation to medical personnel from home to the hospitals and vice versa. Due to need, he almost immediately expanded the service to the sick in need of vital treatments such as chemotherapy and dialysis, but who lacked access to transportation. He uploaded pictures of nurses in the vans and the sick in the microbuses. Donations multiplied. 

There are now 30 people working for Solidaritón—most of them volunteers, although some have been hired to drive the microbuses. Other employees coordinate the distribution of donations, medical transportation routes or the acquisition of supplies for those who have lost their homes or need new mattresses due to the recent tropical storms. The volunteers handle the desk work , tending to the GoFundMe page, social media, processing relief applications, coordinating and receiving supply shipments, etc. Safie prefers to be on the street. Every day, he takes the bundles of food and clothing to ailing communities around the country. “That’s how the white flags come down,” he says.

Dino is a short young man who always seems cheery. He says he still lives on the proceeds from sites streaming his music, but the degree of fame that he acquired as lead singer for Totus Tuus was childs’ play compared to the exposure he has received during the pandemic. He now also supplements his income by promoting products on social media. His personal brand shines favorably on any product, and he knows it.

I called him in May to learn about his operation. We agreed to meet in his logistics office, a building in a small commercial center next to the San Jorge storefronts. The local shops are closed with the exception of a marketplace whose only client these days, Solidaritón, buys the supplies for its relief bundles.

I met Safie there at noon one day that month. He filled the back of a pickup with baskets and we set off for Ilopango. He told me that Maribel López, a social worker at the mayor’s office and a community organizer in the canton of Changallo, had contacted him a few days prior, with the message that her community was starving and shelterless.

Maribel met us in front of the mayor’s office and across from the flight schools that service the adjoining airport. She and her husband, Santos González, led us downhill along a winding slope. We passed in front of a shooting range, the only point from which the crater lake is visible, before continuing down the street, which was lined along one side with white flags in front of paltry, ailing homes with walls of rusty, loose sheet metal, missing sections of roofing and with plastic bags filling holes. The houses are on the edge of a precipice on one side and a natural rock wall on the other that forms the precipice for the house above.

We stopped at various houses on our way down so that Safie could deliver relief bundles. Just as in most parts of the country, hunger has spread here at a quicker clip than the coronavirus.

A house in Changallo, which had already weathered the rains of 2019, gave in under the weight of Tropical Storm Amanda. Only one section of the walling and the door were left standing. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
A house in Changallo, which had already weathered the rains of 2019, gave in under the weight of Tropical Storm Amanda. Only one section of the walling and the door were left standing. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro


II:  Hunger, Too, a Virus 

I saw the white flags for the first time in mid-April, along Juan Pablo II Avenue in San Salvador, on my first reporting trip outside since the beginning of quarantine. I left home wanting to see, for the first time in my life, the empty city center. The blockade was already in effect, so I had to pass through two police and military checkpoints close to the Legislative Library before making my way to the eerily deserted downtown streets. I saw many white flags outside of the inns—flags that nobody, except those with some form of credentials, like journalists, could pass the checkpoints to see.

The inns are old mansions in the heart of San Salvador that, half a century ago, were run down. They are normally divided into dozens of rooms and repurposed into housing for vegetable and clothing vendors, mechanics, bus drivers, electricians, and others. The windowless rooms go for $3 per day and the larger ones, which have room for three mattresses, for $5. Most of the inns have communal bathrooms.

When I spoke with the hungry in the downtown inns, they asked me if I was from the mayor’s office or a political party, since some employees from the mayor’s office had arrived two days before to make the provision of food conditional on taking down the white flags, claiming that the white flags were part of a plot concocted by the mayor’s political enemies.

The Bukele administration even echoed the message. The white flags, said Pablo Anliker, minister of agriculture, had been planted by the opposition to make the government look bad. “It’s a political low-blow,” he wrote on Twitter. His proof was a thread of messages in which a woman told him that two strangers had placed a white flag out of reach outside of her house. “What kind of people are these? Crooked,” wrote the minister. 

As I would see in the coming days, a simple drive in any part of the city would reveal the flags. Or along the road to Puerto de la Libertad. In Chalatenango, Ahuachapán, Usulután, or San Vicente. On the Golden, Comalpa, or Coastal Highways. In Quezaltepeque, Santa Lucía, Soyapango, Verapaz, La Unión, San Luis Talpa, Los Naranjos, Bajo Lempa, Lourdes Colón, Ayutuxtepeque or Olocuilta. I saw them myself.

And in any of those places, if you stop, you can see that the real opposition, the real virus, is invariably hunger itself, as I have seen in the three months I spent reporting this story. We’re now in July, and the flags continue to flap around the country. The flags will go on for as long as the pandemic, because millions of Salvadorans are hungry.

The hunger is rural, urban, suburban, semi-rural, and coastal, reaching the mountains, volcanoes, ravines, farms, and cantons along dirt roads and paved avenues alike. 

Take the children of Mrs. Gloria García, for example, who lives in a small roadside community in Sonsonate, and who sells used clothing for a living. By May, she had been out of clothing to sell, customers, and public transportation to go to market, for two months. She looks after two grandchildren, yet has no electricity or water, and because she lacks both she didn’t apply to receive the $300 government relief check. But, living behind the highway, nobody had stopped to help except one stranger who gave them a “bag of French bread.” She spent three days, she said, staving off her grandchildren’s hunger with sugar water.

But for every action there is a reaction and, sometimes, that rule even applies in El Salvador. Many Salvadorans have responded to the white flags with solidarity. Soon after posting a picture on social media of the roadside community with its white flags, I received three messages asking me where it was taken and what they need. People then brought them help.

It’s not that responders were previously unaware of the mainstay of hunger in this country, but rather that the flags visibilized the hunger. Knowing abstractly that there is poverty in El Salvador is one thing; seeing the flag and taking action to nourish a stranger is another. The help is a band aid solution, capable of mitigating the famine but not of eradicating hunger. What it can do, though, is change the lives of those, like Dino Safie, who help. That’s why I sought out his organization.

Every day since the start of the quarantine, families in the roadside community Las Seiscientas Uno (The Six-O-One) stand by the highway toward Sonsonate, in the municipality of Colón, La Libertad, asking for food from passersby. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
Every day since the start of the quarantine, families in the roadside community Las Seiscientas Uno (The Six-O-One) stand by the highway toward Sonsonate, in the municipality of Colón, La Libertad, asking for food from passersby. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

On our way to Lake Ilopango, we stopped at a police station known as Changallo. There, we traveled through the neighborhood of the same name until we ran into the Changüite River, which has turned mauve from the combination of water contamination and the sandy sediment. The local community created a soccer field that doubles as a meetingplace. As we parked there, dozens of neighbors emerged from the riverbank in search of a basket of food. 

Living in a place mostly out of reach of cars and outsiders, they see no point in planting white flags outside their houses. Their white flag has a name: Maribel López de González. She called on Dino to come deliver the truckload. There wasn’t enough to go around; there never is.

Safie took a few pictures handing out food, which he posted to social media a few minutes later. Before leaving, Maribel and her husband, Santos González, invited us to the third and final section of Changallo, on the other side of the river. We crossed a small pedestrian bridge and walked along a narrow dirt road until arriving at a plot of land with two mango trees, a rusty barrel sitting outside and a wattle-and-daub house surrounded by a dirt barricade. Outside I saw an old man with a soft, exhausted expression. His name is Felipe Reyes.


III: Ilopango

Felipe Reyes was hungry long before the virus. The shorter count says ten years since he lost his vision. The longer says all 76 years that he has been alive. His is an inherited hunger. He used to travel the streets of Ilopango, he says, pushing a snack cart. He lost his vision little by little until, roughly a decade ago, he could no longer distinguish between a customer and an assailant.

He’s a slight old man who walks with his hands in his pockets. He lives alone, in this village of no more than 40 houses nestled along a thin strip of ground between the Chagüite River and a rock wall some 20 yards high, part of the outer edges of the Ilopango caldera. That is, in a gully, wedged between the possibilities of an overflowing river and a mudslide.

Felipe’s home is a one-room structure with walls made of clay and rods that crumble when squeezed. There is a dirt floor, like almost all houses have in these parts. Inside there are three pairs of pants and four shirts hanging from a clothesline, a Bible, a small hotplate, a charred pan, a bent spoon, an aluminum cup, an old, broken television, an equally useless radio, a stool, and a mattress where he sleeps. On his hotplate, which is his kitchen, there is only salt.

Indispensable words in other homes mean nothing here, because there’s no point in naming things that don’t exist. Words like armchair, dining room, china cabinet, refrigerator, pantry, closet, mop—what good is a mop with a dirt floor?—towel, shower, décor. None of that exists here, though truthfully there is one decoration: an old and beat-up Singer sewing machine, one of those with a pedal, that likewise doesn’t work. His only inheritance. It sits next to the entryway and doubles as a table, rack, ornament. Felipe’s home is decorated.

The mattress he sleeps on is wet and pungent. As I walk through the doorway, my feet sink into the muddy floor. Fungus and spores have taken over the little space available, saturating the air. His home is uninhabitable.

The kitchen inside the home of Felipe Reyes. The only nearby cooking ingredient was a bag of salt. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
The kitchen inside the home of Felipe Reyes. The only nearby cooking ingredient was a bag of salt. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

One night not too long ago, a wave of mud slid down the hill and slipped underneath the doorway. It didn’t happen during Amanda, but rather in a storm two weeks prior and so insignificant that it received no name. With just a little water, the loose earth found its way to his doorway.

“I built this house.” Perhaps a few years ago, he might have said so with some pride. Today, he says it not in a bitter nor dramatic tone, but in one of resignation, grieving yet another loss. Over the following days, he continued to sleep in the pool of mud—after all, where else? “They lent me a shovel and I got rid of all the mud I could, but it’s tough, because I can’t see.” He piled the mud next to the entryway, as if building a trench, in the hopes that the misfortune would form a shield against the next mudbath. “Yeah, right now I sleep soaking wet, because where else?” Where else?

He speaks to me without a mask. Yet I, after spending a month shut in and arriving here wearing gloves, a mask, and with a gallon of hand sanitizer in the car, notice only hours later while reviewing the picture I took on my phone. Here, even the coronavirus seems a foreign object. Lifelong necessities crowd out the picture.

When I ask if he has electricity, he turns on a shaking white light hanging from a cable on the stovetop in the shack that has become a breeding ground for sickness. How does he pay the electricity bill? He doesn’t. This energy-efficient light is the only device consuming electricity. At this rate, the government’s household electricity subsidy owes him money.

The water is communally shared, connecting through a plastic white tube that spits out as a tiny waterfall into a rusty, rotting barrel outside his house serving as a receptacle for rain. The National Administration of Aqueducts and Sewage (ANDA) makes erratic water deliveries and “sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn’t.”

This is the second house that Felipe has lost. From the doorway, he points to the back corner of the plot, which has now been overtaken by vegetation.

“The house was there before.”

“Before what?”

“Before Mitch washed it away. Nothing was left.”

Felipe settled down here at the turn of the century, arriving with his mother from Santiago Texacuangos, the neighboring town to the south of Ilopango. He doesn’t remember, or perhaps want to remember, exactly why they left. “I liked it here because of the lots. I was paying for mine but the landlord, a man named Jesús Navarrete, fell into debt with the bank and they seized the property. The bank owns this land. But why would a bank want these ravines?” He then leans down and runs his lands down his legs to tie his shoes—his only pair, black and ribboned, covered in a layer of dry mud. “The only thing is I don’t have shoes for the rain,” he says.

He has had no income since he abandoned the snack cart and has been alone since his mother’s death. He has no other family. He is registered in the fund for the elderly, which should pay him $50 per month—not enough to meet his basic needs but better than nothing. So far this year, neither Felipe nor any of the other 14 registered seniors in Changallo have seen a cent of that money.

He now lives on selling or swapping mangos, which fall seasonally from the two trees on his patio. That’s how he “pays for” the razor, for example, that he used to shave this morning. When there are no more mangos, the razors, food, and anything else he receives are the net product of solidarity from his neighbors, who also live in dirt floor houses with walls of wattle-and-daub and holey, sheet metal ceilings, but who have good enough vision to collect trash or plastic bottles, sell sand from the river or have a relative who sends them money. These neighbors share their food with him.

But the help from the neighbors has waned as their situation worsened since March, when El Salvador went into quarantine. 

They live mostly off of recyclables and extracting sand from the Chagüite riverbed. But today there is nothing to recycle, let alone a way to get it to a recycling station. Normally, those who dig sand out of the riverbed make piles that truckers pick up and take to construction sites around the country. But the quarantine brought construction to a halt, and Changallo with it. Tucked away in this corner of the country, the elderly Felipe is now hungrier than ever, as the construction of some building he will never see in Santa Elena has stopped. He almost never leaves his rotten, run-down house in Changallo.

Dino Safie asks how he can help Felipe. Maribel and Santos tell him that, some time ago, the Changallo Community Development Association approved the construction of a new house for him. They already had the blueprint, courtesy of Santos: cement floor, cinder block walls, windows, and sheet metal for the ceiling. But the community’s debt burden made it impossible to purchase the materials. Dino said he could donate the materials if the community would take care of the construction. Deal.

That’s when Dino Safie realized that, with the donation money, he could do something more than hand out baskets and transport people: he could build houses.

Felipe Reyes says goodbye to Dino Safie. Thanks to Safie’s initiative, a cinder block house is under construction for Felipe. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
Felipe Reyes says goodbye to Dino Safie. Thanks to Safie’s initiative, a cinder block house is under construction for Felipe. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro


IV: Amanda

By the time the rain fell, El Salvador had already spent two months in quarantine with a paralyzed economy and mired in a deep political crisis. In the poorest households of the impoverished country, almost nobody had seen any income in ten weeks. 

From May 29 to June 1, Tropical Storm Amanda tore through housing from coast to coast, along with ravines, lakes, volcanoes, rivers, and hills. On the coast and in the cities. More than 3,000 houses damaged, many beyond repair. Each was home to a family that was already unprotected.

The rain pelted a country covered in white flags, often makeshift versions: a rag, a shirt, loose fabric, bit of plastic—or anything, but as long as it’s white—tied to a branch, a broom, a tube, a beam, a stick. White objects standing in for a flag, all to say: We’re hungry. I spent days traveling through the country and seeing them everywhere.

In mid-May, I uploaded a few pictures to social media of people waving white rags. A journalist from the United States, who had spent some time in El Salvador during the civil war, wrote to me: “What do those white flags mean? They remind me of the people fleeing Soyapango during the offensive. They meant: don’t shoot. What do they mean now?”

I told him that, at their core, they meant the same: we want to live. But what they need now is food. After the storm, things only worsened.

Between May 29 and June 1, some places accumulated up to 33 inches—roughly half of El Salvador’s annual rainfall. Meteorologists said that Amanda continued on its way, that it passed through Guatemala and arrived a day later at the Gulf of Mexico. But it kept raining here. Thirty people died. 30,000 families were affected.

Dozens of overflowed rivers, mudslides and floods laid bare, yet again, the country’s vulnerability. Five rivers overflowed in the coastal area of the La Libertad department alone.

The storm entered its most intense phase on Saturday night, May 30. On Sunday morning, the damage was severe. Social media flooded with footage of the disaster: cars and houses swept away in San Salvador; streets converted into raftable streams; railings caving to the strength of the currents; human beings clinging to a rope or a post. The dimensions of the disaster were such that, for the first time in two months, there was no talk of coronavirus in El Salvador. Only of Amanda.


V:  Shipwrecked Inland

As they snapped awake a little after 3 in the morning, the three found themselves wet and discovered that the floor had become a pond with a thick, muddy bottom. The bed and two mattresses were soaked and rendered useless. The tiny kitchen and almost all of their clothing, too. The feeble wooden table was the last to give in. Chuy, the youngest of the Obispo family, led the rescue effort of all that was left: a chair and clothing hanging from a line. Nothing else. Their house had sunk.

Tropical Storm Amanda hatched the disaster some 15 kilometers away. From the time it began to rain, the Río Grande flooded with so much water that it swept up trees and washed away riverbeds in its wake. Trunks, branches and massive roots amassed against the Coastal Highway bridge’s vaulted underbelly, yet the river continued to rise as the water surged ahead in its breakneck race to the coast. Blocked by the newly assembled dam under the bridge, the current gained height and crossed the highway like a tsunami. It hardly went out of its way as it leveled the Obispo family’s house. Chuy, his older brother, and their father took refuge in the hen house, built on an elevated strip of the property. 

Jesús Obispo Rivera, 17, lives in the Río Grande community of Tamanique, La Libertad. Tropical Storm Amanda left his family’s house in ruins. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
Jesús Obispo Rivera, 17, lives in the Río Grande community of Tamanique, La Libertad. Tropical Storm Amanda left his family’s house in ruins. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

After spending an hour taking in the loss, Chuy’s dad’s blood pressure dropped precipitously. None of them had eaten anything in over a day. It was raining harder than ever and the currents of the Río Grande were hitting them in waves. Chuy got his hands on a clove of garlic, the only remedy they could afford, and asked the neighbors to help move him to a clinic. His older brother accompanied his father. An hour later, his father stabilized and they brought him back.

The rain continued into the next day, July 1, and war clouds spanned the sky, but the raindrops were thin and incapable of rattling a leaf, as if the clouds were resting from the previous torrential downpour. I found Chuy cleaning the roof of the henhouse that the currents had mercifully spared. He was sweeping away dirt and rocks from the asbestos-tainted guttering with a broom. It’s his family’s temporary home. The day before, he obtained a dry mattress, where the three of them now sleep. “Cramped,” he says.

This community, which shares its name with the river, forms the row of houses right before El Tunco, the most touristy beach in the country which is now closed and on the brink of ruin. The residents of Río Grande, who used to live off of the tourism industry and summer homes, have drawn white flags.

Like many of the kids along this coast, Chuy Obispo is a surfer who claims to be not half bad at it, although it has been two months since he last took to the waves due to the beach closures during the pandemic. He’s 17, but looks 15, and skinny and short with light hair. And it’s with his laid-back, beach-like cadence that he calmly recounts the drama of the past few days. 

The family had been without income for two months by the time Amanda broke them.

“My mom died a year ago. My dad is a bricklayer’s assistant and I also help when there’s work, but since the virus began there’s been none for anyone,” he recounts.

“And what have you been living on this whole time?” I ask.

“Whatever they give us. The mayor, the government, other people. Some people came by today with breakfast. They said they would come back later with lunch. You want to see what happened to the house?”

The house had a brick base up to the waist, with wattle-and-daub walls above that. In place of the windows are black plastic bags and two nicked, rusty bits of sheet metal. There’s one empty window that lets in both breeze and storm. Even if the rain had set in slower, it still would have entered through the window unimpeded. When the test came, the house leaked from all sides. The dad’s bed ended up in the living room, frame and all. A perfectly good bed lost to the storm. The dirt floor is now a swampy pool of mud. They’ve been out of electricity for two months and the well is covered. Living here is no longer possible.

We return to the henhouse. I see the chair they salvaged. It continues to rain. The Obispo family of Río Grande has been hungry for two months and homeless for a day. 

“Why don’t you go to a shelter?”

“We’re worried about the situation right now, about catching the virus.”

Jaime Abarca strikes a punching bag in what is left of his tiny at-home gym in the Río Grande community of Tamanique, La Libertad. Jaime’s home flooded during Tropical Storm Amanda. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
Jaime Abarca strikes a punching bag in what is left of his tiny at-home gym in the Río Grande community of Tamanique, La Libertad. Jaime’s home flooded during Tropical Storm Amanda. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro


VI: Flags Along the Coast

I met up with Salvador Castellanos, a TV journalist known for his work as a Univision correspondent, in La Libertad. He showed me the damage along the coast in Tamanique, home to dozens of neighborhoods and various rivers letting out into the ocean.

On the same afternoon that Chuy lost his home, Castellanos requested help, via Twitter, for the makeshift shelter at the San Alfonso school building. Dozens of newly homeless people needed it all: clothing, food, mattresses. Just hours later, the Ministry of Tourism and others had already reached out offering help, sending it along shortly after.

The response came together better here, along the coast, than elsewhere. The perennial overflowing of the rivers, and the sense of community, allow costeños to react more quickly. Despite the administration’s decision not to involve the Civil Defense System in its pandemic response at a national level, the local network sprang into action amid the storm. Residents and coordinators, including officers from the National Civil Police and local health representatives, met at the school to respond, as they do every year.

When I visited the next day, two police officers were watching over the shelter and volunteers were handing out food to the dozens of storm victims. By then, they were sleeping on mattresses like the one Castellanos received.

“I don’t believe in perpetual handouts, but rather in training and opportunity,” says Castellanos. “But this is an emergency and we need to respond together. He and his family, surfers and devout Christians, started an organization a decade ago called Christian Surfers and built an international network of contacts with the same passions. “It’s tough to preach to an empty stomach,” he says. His network, which facilitates workshops for local residents on surfing, computer science and English, has allowed him to become involved in emergency relief like that for Amanda.

“The storm only worsened the conditions facing many people here. Since the start of the quarantine, hungry people had covered the area in white flags.” Before the storm hit, his network had already distributed some 1,500 relief bundles. But his call-outs on social media also sparked the interest of other do-gooders. 

As my conversation with Chuy, the young surfer, was winding down, an enormous black truck entered the Río Grande community’s tiny dirt road. The entire cargo bed was full of bags of clothing and food. Four young people, all under 30, got out to hand them out. I asked who they were. One of them, Will Álvarez, 28, told me they came from San Salvador on their own account. “In a chat group with my friends I said I wanted to help and they offered to pitch in. In just a little while we collected $400 dollars’ worth of food and more than 100 packs of clothing. We’re going around handing them out. I asked him when they started. “Yesterday,” he said, after seeing the overflowing of the rivers and Salvador Castellanos’s call-out on social media.

They left after handing out the bags. On their way out, they crossed another truck, this one of neighbors from the port, carrying hot meals.

But in El Salvador, need always outweighs the capacity to help. Only one in five working Salvadorans has a job in the formal economy. The rest live off what they can make every day. If they stay home, they don’t eat. They’ve been home for three months now. To make matters worse, the 20 percent of the population that buys from the rest is now going through its darkest hour.

According to Ricardo Castaneda, executive director of the Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies (ICEFI), the current economic crisis unleashed by the pandemic and the storms could lead to the loss of more than 200,000 jobs in the formal labor market. The Salvadoran economy, according to the Central Reserve Bank, is projected to contract between 6.5 and 8.5 percent, in terms of gross domestic product, this year—a drop unseen since the start of the civil war. But those impersonal figures, which tend to exceed the projections, translate into disgraced Salvadorans.

At this moment, says Castaneda, there are 800,000 people at risk of sliding into poverty because, in addition to the crash of the economy and the storm damage, remittances—the main source of income for hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans—have also starkly declined. “It’s the perfect storm,” he says. In perfect storms, whoever has the least tends to lose what they have soonest.

Hunger exists in a miserable ecosystem of ancestral wrongs that are not attributable to the virus—namely inequality, absence of the state, belonging to the lowest rung of social caste. During the pandemic the most needy have reached such a level of desperation that they have begun to shout, and the flags are their call for help. And it has worked.

“When I began seeing the white flags, I thought, ‘damn, people will finally realize, when they travel along the highway, that there are families nearby who are living in dire conditions,’ says Castellanos. “Hunger is nothing new in this country. The flags visibilize it for those who have refused to look at it.”


VII: Let There be Light

I hadn’t been to Verapaz since February of 2001, when a landslide fell from the San Vicente Volcano onto the dozens of homes that had already been destroyed by an earthquake on the 13th. Almost half of the inhabitants of the San Vicente department were affected by the earthquake, with many losing their homes entirely. The towns of Guadalupe, San Cayetano, and Verapaz suffered the greatest damage.

The rocks that blocked roads and covered the crushed roofs of homes that once stood here are gone. However, two decades later, the effects of that earthquake have not yet been overcome.

The temporary homes installed in empty lots owned by the town have become permanent due to bureaucratic inertia and a lack of resources. The process of formalizing these homes became centered around two neighborhoods composed of houses with dirt floors and laminate roofing that, today, have white flags on their doors. In one of these houses, the most rudimentary of all, lives Santos Ventura, a deaf 77-year-old man who has never been offered much in life. 

He was one of the last people to move here, onto a small corner plot on the outskirts of the neighborhood that the municipality offered to those driven out of their homes by the earthquakes. Fifteen years ago, he came to try to start his life anew after doing a sting in prison “for a crime I didn’t commit, they framed me,” he says, and he’s hard enough of hearing to not respond to my question of what he was accused of. He can’t see much either. “I see this dark shadow in front of me.” It’s hard, though, for anyone to see through the humid darkness inside his house, as Santos Ventura has no electricity.

The sheetmetal that makes up the walls of his house is rusted, corroded from the years of use. The same goes for Felipe Reyes’ house, the same with Changallo’s house, and thousands upon thousands of other houses throughout El Salvador. Everything is Santos Ventura’s house is rotting: the wood of the only table (which barely seems able to support any weight), the legs of the sofa under which he hides his ID, which he whips out rapidly as we arrive in case we are government workers coming to give him a gift.

Santos Ventura is 77 years old and lives in the Nuevo Verapaz neighborhood, in the municipality of Verapaz, San Vicente. Santos’s home was built with sheet metal on a plot of land owned by the municipal government. Volunteers from Solitaritón SV came to visit him and brought some basic supplies. They also coordinated the construction of a new home for Santos. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
Santos Ventura is 77 years old and lives in the Nuevo Verapaz neighborhood, in the municipality of Verapaz, San Vicente. Santos’s home was built with sheet metal on a plot of land owned by the municipal government. Volunteers from Solitaritón SV came to visit him and brought some basic supplies. They also coordinated the construction of a new home for Santos. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro

We came to his house after a social worker based in the neighborhood got in contact with Solidaritón. Dino loaded his truck with supplies and we started on our way to San Vicente. Accompanying us is Héctor Silva Hernández, a young politician from the Nuestro Tiempo party who also volunteers for Solidaritón. After examining Santos’s living conditions, Safie begins planning the project with community organizers:

-How many sheets of metal would we need to rebuild the house?

-I estimate about 15 including the roof

-If I buy them, will you build him the house?

-Yes, for sure

-What if we also give him electricity?

The land on which Santos installed himself is owned by the municipal government. The electric company cannot connect his home to the grid, as this would require the permission of the municipality, which does not consider Santos a legal resident.

Dino asks what party the mayor is a member of (Arena). They find a phone number for a local representative, and explain Santos’s situation: he has lived here for 15 years without electricity on land owned by the municipality. The representative’s office hangs up, only to inform us 5 minutes later that Santos will be connected to the grid next Monday. His neighbors pat him on the back. Since Santos is deaf, he can’t hear the conversation. “God sent you these boys today, don Santos,” his neighbors tell him.

I think of other things: Santos has aged in darkness, for 15 years, and was only one call away from getting electricity. Santos has spent all his life very far from being able to make this call.

I also think that, even after having made this call, it is very possible that representative Angulo told these young men whatever they wanted to hear just to get rid of them, or that the mayor just told his party’s representative what he wanted to hear. The representative and the mayor have a chance to change Santos’s life. If they so desire, Santos will have electricity on Monday.

I ask Dino if he sees himself in politics, since social media users have speculated about his true intentions.

-In Solidaritón, there are volunteers that are members of the FMLN, of Nuevas Ideas, and, like Héctor, of Nuestro Tiempo. I ask them all to not use this as a campaign platform, and so far they haven’t. Two parties have already offered me to run for representative, but I have no interest in that. I have discovered that I sincerely love doing this, helping.

I tell him that politics can also be used to help people, as long as politicians are honest, and that he, who posts pictures of himself distributing aid every day, is also, in a way, campaigning.

-Of course, if I wasn’t active on social media I wouldn’t receive as much support. It works in two ways: I show contributors what their money is going towards and I invite the rest to donate. This is what social media is for.

-It also creates celebrities. Influencers, as your generation calls them.

-You can become an influencer by talking about video games or you can become an influencer like this. I’ve discovered in social media a possibility to do something I never would have imagined: obtain help for many people.

Dino has become so well known that the European Union named him a spokesperson for its Global Response to Coronavirus program, and Coca Cola has selected him as one of the main figures of its “Dedicated to Humanity” international campaign.

I ask him what he will do after the pandemic passes. Dino seems to have his future very clear: “I want to turn Solidaritón into an official foundation. In this country there is so much need.”

One afternoon I accompanied him to one of the settlements on the outskirts of San Vicente. This is the capital of a department with the same name, the fourth poorest in the country. Conservative projections indicate that by the end of the year, 55% of vicentinos will live in poverty. This poverty is visible just a few blocks from the center of the capital: dirt roads full of rocks and garbage, homes just like those of Changallo, Verapaz, and Sonsonate, columns made of sticks and walls made of plastic bags and metal sheets, and white flags. San Vicente is surrounded by informal settlements with white flags.

We stop at a small crossing and, soon after, hundreds of neighbors approach us in hopes of receiving a bag with essential supplies. The help Dino transported from San Salvador in the back of a pickup truck is not enough. A decision had to be made: who should receive food and who would have to stay hungry. Dino opted to first give food to women and children, followed by the elderly. However, there still wasn’t enough. “There’s never enough for everyone,” he told me. No. There is never enough.

María Magdalena lives in what is left of a semi-trailer on the outskirts of the urban center of San Vicente. Volunteers from Solidaritón went out, supplies in hand, to meet her. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
María Magdalena lives in what is left of a semi-trailer on the outskirts of the urban center of San Vicente. Volunteers from Solidaritón went out, supplies in hand, to meet her. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro


VIII: At the Margin

Amanda was ruthless in Changallo. The mudslide hit the first line of houses, carrying away three and rendering uninhabitable a dozen more. Luckily, there were no fatalities. 

The mud returned to Felipe Reyes’s old house, which is in the second line of homes heading downhill, but missed his partially-constructed new home that, a few days before, the community had begun to build in another section of the plot with the materials donated from Solidaritón. 

“This whole third section of Changallo is quite vulnerable,” says Maribel López, the social worker from the mayor’s office at the head of the emergency efforts. And yes, this is an area particularly vulnerable to natural disasters in one of the most vulnerable countries.

But its vulnerability no longer comes only from its location next to a volcanic caldera that last erupted just 13 decades ago, or from living in a country along a geographic faultline, the rumblings of which frequently produce earthquakes. Nor from dry spells or pandemics. None of these. Its weakness is the flooding of the river, already contaminated by uphill factories and residential areas. It’s that of storms and mudslides, and of wattle-and-daub homes built on the ledge, and of non-natural disasters: violence, abandonment, marginalization, poverty. The only ones living here are those who have nowhere else to live. 

Before the war, Changallo was a coffee plantation. People began moving there fleeing from war in Morazán and Usulután. “My dad was one of the first to arrive,” Maribel tells me. “A friend brought him to work at the farmhouse, located where the Changallo car lot is now. He was bringing people along from his town, Berlín.”

Maribel belongs to the first generation born and raised in Changallo, along the edge of the Chagüite, back when the river water was clean.

She and her husband, Santos, always involved in community life, decided to formalize their involvement through the Community Development Association (Adesco). “The community owed ANDA about four thousand dollars, so there was a town hall. Santos got involved. I told him not to because they had killed two of the association’s treasurers two years before. They left one of their bodies in the community center.” They killed Gernán Murcia, president of Adesco, in 2015, amid a wave of violence and confrontations between gangs and security forces at the beginning of the Sánchez Cerén administration (2014-19). “Instead of listening to me, Santos got me involved as spokesperson,” says Maribel, who is now a social worker for the mayor.

She is a woman with enough energy and bravado to lead these emergency responses in Changallo. The day after Amanda, she set up two shelters, and, with the help of Adesco, organized the donations coming in from the government, local businesses, foundations, and civic organizations. Her husband, along with the current president of Adesco, Pablo Navarro, led the evacuation of residents caught in the mudslides. They are also coordinating the construction of Felipe’s house.

Maribel López walks with Dino Safie and Héctor Silva along the streets of Changallo, Ilopango. As a social worker with the Ilopango mayor’s office, she coordinates relief for affected families in Changallo. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro 
Maribel López walks with Dino Safie and Héctor Silva along the streets of Changallo, Ilopango. As a social worker with the Ilopango mayor’s office, she coordinates relief for affected families in Changallo. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro 

Adesco imposed a community tax on the sale of sand—between $1 and $2 per truckload—as a way of paying off not only the debt to ANDA, but also funding the construction of the field that has become the community center, the concrete bridge crossing the Chagüite, as well as repairs at the local school.

Amanda forced the community to evacuate 140 families. They lodged them in the school, per the contingency plan, as a temporary shelter. But not everyone could fit, so Maribel improvised: she sent those left out to churches and the community center. And she enlisted help.

I went to see her after Amanda and we walked through the area, making our way to the last house along the western bank of the Chagüite, sitting just before the spot where the river turns to a cascade. It’s a small plot wedged between the hill on one side and the edge on the other, and home to Reynaldo, who works in private security, along with his wife, mother-in-law, four daughters, and three grandchildren. As we arrived, his wife and mother-in-law were boiling water in a pot on a small fire grill situated in the middle of the property. One of them held three bulbs of yuca which, accompanied by tortillas, would serve as lunch for the whole family.

He, his wife, and three of his daughters and grandchildren live in a room with sheet metal walls along with three dogs and another three puppies. The family started here and they all sleep here, one alongside another, across three mattresses. The space serves for work, reproduction, and clothing storage alike. Tired of the promiscuity, his mother-in-law built a room apart, one yard away, with wooden sticks and sheet metal. She sleeps there with her granddaughter, who is pregnant. She’s a thin woman with tiny eyes, white hair, and long, boney arms covered by a thin layer of skin.

“They took my $40 to build me this house,” says the grandmother. “Where was I going to get that money?”

“And where did you get it?”

“I had to borrow to come up with it all.”

The mud stopped just before it could knock the house over, miraculously. When I ask the man why he didn’t take everyone to a shelter, he tells me the little ones are quite mischievous, and he doesn’t want anyone to scold them.

I return two days later and the entire family, including Reynaldo’s mother-in-law, has had to find a shelter because the tail-end of Amanda, which meteorologists dubbed Cristóbal, reached their house. The second storm sent Maribel López and the local Adesco representatives traveling between shelters in a frenzy. It’s impossible to meet all the needs of so many people without the resources to do so. I ask for Felipe Reyes and they tell me he’s on his property. 

His house has become a swamp. I ask him what he’s doing here.

“I sleep over there, in the shelter, but during the day I come back here to watch my stuff.”

“Are you worried they’ll rob something?”

“The sheet metal Dino brought. And my clothing that’s here.”

“Why don’t you take your clothing to the shelter?”

“Because when I get out of the shelter I’ll have a new home and I want to bring it over all at once.”

I look at Don Felipe’s feet and find rubber boots. Somebody made his wish come true. He got another pair of shoes from the donation packages, which he placed next to the hotplate to keep dry.

In the neighboring lot a goat has scaled the branch of a mango tree and is munching a fruit. Another is climbing uphill. Only the goats and the tree were left standing. The house mounted no resistance to the landslide.

Back at the shelter, I ask Maribel if she already has a plan for all the people who have become homeless. She tells me that Dino found a large plot of land a short distance from the school that belongs to a religious group, and that he was negotiating with them to buy it.

Dino confirms it for me that afternoon: “Yes, I’m negotiating the price with them and I think we can build sixty homes for the people living on the other side along the cliff before the whole hill comes sliding down onto them the next time it rains.” Dino wants to build 60 houses in Changallo. When I ask him where he’ll get the money, he points to the same source as everything else: the donations. He needs almost $250,000 for the effort. I don’t know if he’ll get it, but his optimism is contagious. He doesn’t have a cent to build them yet, though he already recruited a group of architects that has started to assemble the blueprints for free. Plus a topographer who already started measuring the land.

In four months, Safie has moved from a quarantined Christian singer to a house developer for displaced people. Not bad, considering the pandemic.

I call Maribel López before finishing this article. Excited, she informs me that Felipe Reyes will walk into his new house this weekend, that it’s almost done.

I then remember the other old man, Santos Ventura. It’s been a month since the visit to Verapaz and the call to Angulo, the deputy, to turn on his lights. I call Silva and ask if they turned them on. “Nobody came. They didn’t give us shit,” he says. They didn’t build the new home either, because the community used the sheet metal to patch up other damage from Amanda.

Old Santos Ventura is still waiting for them to turn on the lights, a white rag hanging outside his house.

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