This is a story about unprecedented opportunity in the midst of an unprecedented global catastrophe, and how our collective failure to see it led to the further victimization of a chronically neglected community.
Shorty leaned against the plexiglass window outside the brick building, her wide cheekbones springing toward her eyes and pulling her entire face into a smile.
“Drumroll please,” she crooned, her small, wiry frame a coil of energy.
We were at the Los Angeles Mission in the heart of Skid Row — one of the country’s largest communities of homelessness; a tent city smoldering beneath the wealth of downtown Los Angeles’ soaring high rises. We’d come to the charitable organization in downtown LA, to ask, again, about any mail for Shorty; to keep going through guessed motions even though I had no confidence that one day a government check would show up.
I had arrived here, to Skid Row, in April, curious to see how Coronavirus was affecting a community that in some ways mimics a developing country; where sewage is tossed into the street and water is accessed from fire hydrants.
One of my many adopted projects was this: to try to find out if it was possible to get a CARES Act Coronavirus stimulus check for someone like Shorty — an unhoused woman who is essentially off the grid, lacking income, taxpayer status or a history of government assistance.
Over the two-plus months I spent in the community, even sleeping side-by-side in a tent for a few nights, this would be a process that would take me on a roller coaster through highs and lows; twists and turns that served to both offer unexpected hope and reinforce the very structures of oppression that created such a conundrum.
But in this moment, back at the Mission, Shorty was feeling optimistic.
“Happiness is on the way,” she sang. “Peace and quiet and serenity is ON. THE. WAY!”
When the man working the window indeed produced a government-marked envelope, it felt like a miracle; a victory won against long odds.
But the real miracle, though I didn’t know it then, would come later.
Past the international baggage claim, an unused security area in Houston’s George Bush International airport looked outrageously big — its gaping confines made larger by an impossibly tall ceiling that felt as though clouds could form inside.
I’d been through this airport many times, and now I wondered: had it always been so cavernous?
Without foot traffic to create its normal humming soundtrack, each step seemed to resonate as I walked through this bizarre expanse. The voices of a single employee and a single other traveler bounced off the lofty metal beams and echoed throughout the chamber.
As I walked in their direction, I didn’t bother to get closer than 50 feet away.
“Am I going out this way for connecting flights?” I asked in a normal speaking voice, yelling being completely unnecessary, as I pointed toward automatic doors. My instincts had been dumbed by the lack of the typical stream of moving bodies.
The airport worker answered in the affirmative, and as she did, the only other passenger in this yawning space breezed past me.
“We’re going to terminal C,” she said. “Let’s go.”
We were two commuting strangers, suddenly linked together as human explorers in a dystopian future not unlike scenes from movies about the end-of-the-world.
High up in the hills of La Paz, El Salvador, the ruthless spread of Coronavirus feels, in some ways, distant.
Here, where tamarind trees twist above thick, tropical jungle, there are few televisions from which to pipe in the constant pulse-raising reports. In the villages of this rural department, where roads from the nearest town of Santiago Nonualco become rocky throughways and throughways become narrow dirt paths connecting labyrinths of homes, there have been no confirmed cases. Unlike El Salvador’s cities and towns, here there is no military on the prowl, no checkpoints blocking these dusty, rock-encrusted roads. Masks worn below are rarely seen in the mountainous villages above.
To some degree, life goes on — far from the country’s dense, urban core, where the news of mass arrests, crowded containment centers and rapidly expanding hospitals keep a population on edge.
On March 21, El Salvador’s government implemented a mandatory, 30-day, in-home quarantine, enforced by the military and national police, to attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. Later, president Nayib Bukele extended the mandate an additional 15 days.
These strong government measures were primarily made to avert a major outbreak in the three largest cities, where more than half of Salvadorans reside. In rural areas, people are more spread out, more self-contained and significantly less mobile than many in other parts of the country.
But if the public health threat here feels minimized, the impact of the moment for those who survive off the land and a daily wage feels acutely magnified, cutting off access to the scarce resources available, such as working the fields, selling wares on the streets and buying food.
For individuals who subsist off of mere dollars a day, going nearly a month without income is crushing in and of itself. But for a community based in agriculture, the crisis has struck extra bad timing — planting season. With campos lying dormant and important deadlines cruising past, for many the virus is threatening not just to steal the income of weeks or months, but possibly an entire year.
“It’s gotten really bad,” said Ventura Coruvera Vasquez, who cuts cane and other crops for a living. “Normally we go (to the fields) in camiones, now we would have to use buses and (because of the infection potential), the owner says no to that option.
“So what? We have to wait until next year.”
A ghoulish light descended on the pupuseras as they worked — the TV glare mixing with fluorescent bulbs as it bounced off green walls. But the aroma was practically heavenly.
Scents of charred quesillo and pork fat dripping onto the griddle and oozing through masa cakes floated through the open sidewalk window and out onto the street. That, and the alluring sizzle made me stop in my tracks after first walking past. I spun around and returned.
“Estoy de vuelta,” I’m back, I said, yanking down my blue, medical mask to show my smile. “Por el olor.” Because of that scent.
I ordered a pair of revuelta pupusas to take with me. And I almost felt something I hadn’t in weeks: normal.
With no known cases of COVID-19, El Salvador is nonetheless taking dramatic measures as life fluctuates between feelings of normalcy and the bizarre.
The week started out so innocently.
On Sunday morning, before returning from a short beach weekend at the glorious Playa El Jaguey in eastern El Salvador, I was marveling at the sunrise melting over the island-filled bay and just how alone I was on the long, pristine sandbars.
By Wednesday evening, I felt like I was in a real-life version of Contagion — surrounded by hundreds of strangers at the grocery store as the shelves chaotically emptied, and my Twitter feed began pinging me into a panic.
Soon, I’d be marveling at how alone I was once again, but for wildly different reasons.
In the span of a couple hours, life had changed. I’d gone from scoffing at what I felt was “overblown” reaction to COVID-19 to being an unwilling participant in a full-on quarantine — changing travel plans, committing to lost money and wondering what will happen if I unintentionally overstay my visa here.
Around 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, someone messaged me that the entire country was on lockdown.