By Kathryn Lawler
South America Coordinator, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
The earthquake and tsunami that struck Chile on February 27, 2010, highlighted deep social inequalities in a country often considered a Latin American development success story. Land tenancy issues and the lack of affordable housing and dignified work threaten to prolong the stay of approximately 50,000 displaced families living in “temporary” camps of wooden emergency houses with no heat or running water. As a community worker in one of the camps stated, “the history of temporary, emergency camps in Chile shows that people end up living there long-term because they have no where else to go.”
Such precarious living conditions are a recent memory for Villa Cordillera, a low-income community in Santiago that organized a remarkable campaign to collect food and clothing for earthquake and tsunami survivors. Less than four years ago, this community was living in Campamento Peñalolén, a shanty-town built over a landfill in Santiago. In their case, however, the cause of these precarious living conditions was not a natural disaster but rather chronic and structural poverty. Through a government relocation and low interest mortgage program, 365 families moved to Villa Cordillera in 2006 after 7 years in the camp. But life continues to be tough. Residents struggle to make ends meet with minimum wage jobs as garbage collectors, housekeepers, construction workers, and market vendors. Their own resource scarcity, however, did not keep them from sharing abundantly.
Villa Cordillera’s campaign to help earthquake survivors was the inspiration of Soledad Puebla, Director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chile (IELCH)’s El Sembrador Community and Day Care Center who says: “We could not just stand there with our arms crossed watching the news reports about the hardship of our brothers and sisters in the south. We had to step up and act in solidarity as others did for us when we were in a similar situation.” From their community office, part of which still operates out of the emergency plywood structure from Campamento Peñalolén, Soledad, neighborhood leaders, parents and staff from the day care center amassed the community’s donations. They walked through the streets with bullhorns, knocked on doors and left boxes to collect donations at local schools. The campaign closed on May 1 with a street festival of dance, music and community celebration. Soledad, her husband Tulio, and other communities leaders soon set off on the three hundred mile journey south in a large truck filled with the donated clothing, food, cleaning supplies, toys, and nylon covering for the emergency housing. Soledad recalls: “When we got to the camps we cried because we remembered our
own history. We urged camp leaders never to underestimate what they can do when they unite around a common cause. And what better way to remind ourselves of that message than the success of our community mobilization for this campaign!”