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.
On a Wednesday in April, armed with my camera, a notebook full of questions and a vague idea about reporting on the area amidst the Coronavirus era, I strolled into Skid Row like a tourist in a foreign country.
It wasn’t all that smooth. I hadn’t yet make connections, I didn’t really know what I was doing, I stayed only a couple of hours — until just before dark — and managed to be the recipient of a couple death threats before then.
But a seed had been planted, too. On that first day, I met both Shorty and Blue, the two individuals I’d develop the closest relationships with, months later.
Something about those first hours lured me in. I started to return every week, then twice a week, then three times.
Day after day, the notebook slid into my backpack for longer stretches. I was no longer reporting all the time, I was just there. Skid Row was good for storytelling, for compelling photography, for a different kind of reporting. But it was also where the excitement was, where new friends were, where my mind expanded. It was, frankly, where I wanted to be.
Eventually I decided to stay the night, just to see what it was like — borrowing an extra tent and camping out on the sidewalk alongside my new community. Those wee hours were difficult in a lot of ways; filled with drama, noise and gunshots. But soon I stayed over again, and again, entranced not just by seeing a new world but by being in it, and discovering so much about life and myself and what’s really important along the way.
To someone who has only abruptly passed through or heard of Skid Row in the broad — overwhelmingly negative — media strokes in which it’s usually painted, this might seem confusing. Isn’t Skid Row the place people arrive when they have nowhere else to go? Isn’t it some place that everyone is trying to get out of, desperate not to be?
My friend Joey, who graciously housed me the rest of the time I was in LA (since then, I’ve spent a couple weeks in North Carolina, a couple weeks in Missouri and am now road tripping east) came along with me on several occasions and experienced the uniqueness of Skid Row for himself.
Still, one night back in Santa Monica, when I just got back from The Row — as its often called locally — he posed the question.
It’s clear this isn’t just a “job” you’ve given yourself, he acknowledged. “You love it there. What makes you love it so much?”
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.