My very first reporting trip to Latin America was to cover the aftermath of a natural disaster. Hurricane Fifi had smashed into Honduras in the fall of 1974, and my neighbro Angela Acosta-Wagner had mobilized our community in Lakeland, Florida to collect clothes and toys for her home community of Olanchito.
As the only Spanish-speaking reporter on the The Lakeland Ledger, I was assigned to acompany her on a pre-Christmas journey to the small rural town nestled in a valley among the Honduran mountains. I soon discovered that Acosta-Wagner wanted me on the trip not only to report back to the donating community, but also to avoid government bureaucracy and possible corruption. When officials in the Tegucigalpa airport discovered that she had a foreign reporter in tow, their somewhat belligerent attitude rapidly changed. The donations swept through customs.
A year later during a recession in the newspaper industry, I took a voluntary layoff to travel around Latin America for a year. I started back in Olanchito, where I had met townspeople, and was told that the town had actually improved post-hurricane because of the community organization and effective use of international donations for reconstruction. A neighborhood called "Sal si puedes"—Get Out If You Can—had been entirely rebuilt. It was now called "La Esperanza"—Hope.
In Guatemala, on the next leg of my journey, I met a young man named Rudy. He had the most incredible brown eyes and winning smile. He loved books and music, and tried to convince me that we should go beyond kisses. When I wouldn't, he told me that he had cancer and who knows if he would be alive if we waited? I wasn't yet 30, but I decided to trust my instincts and just travel on. In 1976, a devastating earthquake destroyed much of Guatemala City. I never found out what happened to Rudy. Much later, writing my book Disappeared, about a courageous Guatemalan reporter, I found out that the earthquake that took 24,000 lives had also stimulated citizens to band together and rebuild the country. Disaster had sown the seeds for a strong civil society.
The impact of natural disasters became and informal leitmotif of my 1975 journey. In Managua, I toured a suffocating, depressed city without a center; rubble from an earthquake three years earlier still formed a gaping scar that cut through what used to be downtown. Dictator Anastasio Somoza had squandered international relief money for his own benefit. People were angry, but they were also afraid to talk; one could almost feel the smoldering violence in the oppressive tropical air; the Nicaraguan earthquake exposed the fault lines of the repressive system and led to the Sandinista Revolution.
My experience with natural disasters has shown me that they are catalysts. They provoke social reform or foster corruption. They inspire poems like Chilean Pablo Neruda's Maremoto (Seaquake) and paintings like Colombian Fernando Botero's Terremoto en Popayan (Popayan Earthquake). Scientists investigate disasters and try to anticipate them; psychologists try to understand the trauma they cause. For a short vulnerable moment, the rich can understand what it means to be poor. Disasters mobilize communities, as well as international aid and transnational efforts like Acosta-Wagner's long ago toy and clothes drive. Civil society often works together to make a difference.
That is why in this ReVista issue on natural disasters, it is appropriate that we begin a new feature, "Making a Difference." As DRCLAS director Merilee Grindle so eloquently states in her letter introducing the feature (p.69), we at Harvard and beyond must work together "to turn ideas into realities that make a difference."