ECUADOR — We had just slipped on our breathing masks when we saw her. My friend Gustavo, a Quito-based lawyer and I were on our third day in the coastal province of Esmeraldas, providing aid to the victims of the April 16 earthquake in Ecuador and documenting the crisis for an international audience.
We had just arrived in Pedernales, a city so utterly damaged that H1N1 and syphilis rumors threatened a quarantine of the area. The heartbreak was palpable.
As Gustavo and I made our way through the dust, trying to grasp the entirety of the devastation, we saw Maria Marcia Quiñones trying to pull a roof off of a half-destructed peluquería.
We hurried over to help her, dragging the stainless steel plank from atop the rubble, to an only slightly smaller pile of rubble. We asked her, kindly, where she lived and why she needed the roof.
We asked the easy questions first. Where were you when it happened? “I was with my daughter, in my house. We felt the earth moving… We both fell and hit our heads.” She responded. Like everyone else we had spoken to that afternoon, she espoused the same vacuous look when recollecting the 45 nightmarish seconds that had changed her life.
“Gracias a Dios [Thank God], no one died,” She continued. “I have felt a few more movements over the days, but nothing like the first one.”
She began to kick the rubble with her shoes. She was wearing sandals—which seemed dangerous, given all the rusty building pieces—and kept burying her toes into the dust, as if she were trying to latch on for closure, or respite. Or something.
Then we asked her about aid. Is anyone helping? Or, rather, has any of the aid helped YOU? Maria brightened a bit when we asked this. “The government is helping and people from abroad have come. They keep coming and helping.” Then her face darkened again. “But, we need to get out of this nightmare.”
We helped her drag the roof across the street, to where the three-walled leftovers of her home stood. We sat it up against the wall, as she continued speaking about her situation and the current situation of her neighbors and friends.
She told us about the looting and the animosity. Her wrist was sprained, she said, gesturing to a bruise near the inside of her thumb. Quiñones was pushed as she was trying to get clothes for her nephew. “I’m an old lady. I can’t defend myself.”
Our final parting question to Ms. Quiñones was the same question we asked all of the people we spoke with in our efforts, regardless of age, rank or level of devastation. It was the one question that could tell us how we, fortune outsiders, could help: Do you have a message to deliver to the international community?
And, without fail, Maria Marcia Quiñones said the same thing that many of her neighbors had. With a squint to the sun, as if looking off to a future—where her city was restored and her roof was no longer on loan from a local hairdresser—she responded, “Just… help us keep going. We’ve got to keep going. Sigue adelante.”
“Sigue adelante,” we murmured. Yes, we will.
– Nora Harless