On April 16, 2016, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Ecuador. Close to 700 people died and thousands were left homeless or injured. The coastal port city of Manta was one of the worst affected. My mother and grandmother were born there. When I heard about the disaster, I knew I had to go help my relatives. Despite never having been to Ecuador, I flew alone with a suitcase full of food and clothes to donate. I also took my camera.
I arrived in June and my aunts took me in. There were people living in tents on the street, and many of my family members’ homes were damaged. Nevertheless, everyone helped each other out, offering food or a place to stay. I spent a few weeks taking care of my aunt who lost her house. She was traumatized. I helped her emotionally as she coped.
I felt that photographing one family as they carried on after the tragedy would teach me about the struggles of the collective whole. I didn’t yet know that the process would teach me so much more.
Walking around the city, my lungs heavy with the cloud of ash and dust blowing in the salty air, I found my aunt’s neighborhood, El Mirador. Almost every house left standing had walls missing. In some places, just piles of rubble remained. All that was left of my aunt’s three-story house were a few pieces of orange tile from the kitchen, and the basement garage. I looked in the garage and found a family inside: a man, his sister and her four children. They told me they were my aunt’s neighbors. Their house was destroyed. The garage was their only shelter, aside from a donated tent. I felt compelled to share their story, and I spent the next week documenting them and the rest of their family.
Manusco, the first man I met in this family, introduced me to approximately 30 of his relatives -- sisters, brothers, grandparents and children -- living on the stretch of road across from where their small apartment complex used to be. Most of the houses on the coast are built using a mixture of cement and sand, which crumbled during the quake. No one in the family at the time had enough money to rebuild a house. Some said they were waiting on the government to help them. Others were working and saving money. In the four months since the quake struck, they’d been living in shelters built out of tarps, plywood and tin.
They told me that when the earthquake hit, just before 7 p.m., they were eating dinner. The shaking was slight at first but grew intense in a matter of seconds. All but two of the family members – parents of three children --managed to escape. The couple remained trapped until the next day. By the time their frantic family members could dig them out, the couple had passed away.
The three children are being taken care by an aunt. The rest of the family helps when and how they can. Every day, they gather for dinner together, and on weekends, they continue their old tradition, making ceviche. The government sometimes donates basic foodstuffs like rice, pasta, and milk, but they have no running water. For electricity, they hook wires to street lamps.
And yet, while the earthquake was devastating, those who went through it say it has also made them stronger. This is not to sugarcoat the experience; with aftershocks rattling their makeshift homes almost daily, they live in fear of the possibility of another huge quake. This project, though, aims to showcase their strength. It aims to give a voice to a family who has suffered a tremendous loss, and yet continues to embody the values of loyalty, compassion and faith. I could see many characteristics of my own family in theirs.