Quake Devastation Makes for Sorrowful Family Reunions

Times Staff Writers

Adriana Arellano left Colima for Los Angeles 14 years ago, unable to come home for visits because, as an illegal immigrant, she would be barred from lawfully reentering the United States. On Thursday, the 38-year-old risked the life she has built with her husband and three children to be at her mother's funeral.

Thirty miles to the south, in the semitropical city of Tecoman, Alfonso Valdovino returned from a job at an isolated ranch to hear catastrophic tidings: His 6-year-old daughter, Yesenia, a cheerful girl who loved to dance, had been crushed to death in Tuesday night's magnitude 7.8 earthquake.

"She was a happy girl," the disbelieving father said as he sat on the bed that his family of four shared, with Yesenia's dolls and plastic tea sets hanging on the wall. "I just don't know what to think now."

In this garden-filled capital of Colima state, as well as in surrounding towns, family and community bonds were reaffirmed in many sorrowful private ceremonies. Under tents set up in rubble-filled streets, relatives and friends sang, prayed, played guitars and placed flowers in front of coffins set in rooms open to the street.

As they gathered, federal and state officials vowed to deliver speedy financial aid to this stricken coastal state. President Vicente Fox pledged the equivalent of about $3.2 million to help thousands of people rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the quake that rattled a broad swath of western Mexico, killing at least 29 people, leveling hundreds of structures and leaving multitudes without homes.

Many people complained that they had yet to receive any official offer of aid -- and criticized some politicians who showed up for photo opportunities at scenes of devastation. But government officials with clipboards and cameras went from house to house assessing the damage. At one temporary shelter, soldiers served a lunch of beans, rice and tortillas to families left homeless by the quake.

The aftermath of the shattering earthquake made for bittersweet reunions.

Wearing a simple, black sweater and sitting near her mother's flower-covered casket, Arellano fought back tears as she surveyed the neighborhood where she grew up but hadn't seen in more than a decade.

"I am happy to be here," said Arellano, one of millions of undocumented Mexicans living and working north of the border. "But it's going to be very difficult to return.... I am scared. I can't sleep."

Her mother, Esthela Gonzalez Larios, 64, died when a neighbor's adobe house fell on her as she was walking to a church outside town. Gonzalez, known throughout her neighborhood as a hard worker who went to extreme lengths to help friends and family, was also a devout Catholic. "She prayed to all the saints," one of her 24 grandchildren said.

Gonzalez planned to visit the church each Tuesday for nine months in the hope that her prayers would lead to one granddaughter's recovery from a stomach ailment. Another daughter, Norma Gabriella Arellano, 42, accompanied her.

The daughter said she ducked into a store just before the earthquake hit while Gonzalez kept walking. The daughter emerged after the earth stopped rumbling, but her mother had disappeared. Norma Arellano frantically searched the block, then ran home in the vain hope that her mother might have made her way back. With growing horror, the family members realized that Gonzalez must be buried under the rubble. It took them two hours to unearth her body.

On Wednesday, President Fox visited the distraught family. When he asked if there was anything he could do, a third daughter, limping from injuries sustained during the quake, pleaded with him to intercede with the U.S. government and allow Adriana to return to her home in Los Angeles after attending her mother's funeral.

A spokesman with the Immigration and Naturalization Service said that he was not aware of any such request from the Mexican government but that it would be unlikely to be granted.

But Adriana Arellano came anyway, flying Wednesday from Los Angeles to Guadalajara with her 14-month-old, U.S.-born daughter on her lap. Her two older boys stayed at home with her husband. Adriana said she still has no idea how she will get back but is certain that she made the right choice.

"For 14 years, I didn't see my mother," she said.

About a mile away, in Villa de Alvarez, the sound of bulldozers clashed with music from the funeral of Socorro Virgen Larios.

Larios, 50, lived with her husband, sister and brother-in-law, along with four of her six children, in a bright-blue house on Calle Guillermo Prieto decorated with a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. All eight were home when the earth heaved the house into pieces, said her niece Teresa Decena, 25. The rest were injured but survived. The street was hit hard by the quake, with four deaths in a three-block area.

More than 100 people attended Larios' funeral, including some neighbors who had buried their own family members the day before. Larios' daughter collapsed into tears during the Thursday afternoon service.

"Mommy, Mommy," she wailed, lunging toward the casket. "I love you."

Such scenes were repeated throughout the battered region. In Tecoman, two children -- including 6-year-old Yesenia -- were among the four confirmed dead in the city of 100,000 south of Colima. Both children were crushed by concrete walls outside their homes.

Yesenia's family had gathered to watch a soap opera in the nearby home of her maternal grandparents when the quake struck. The whole family ran outside, and Yesenia scrambled to a nearby concrete wall where she often played ball. After the shaking stopped, the family noticed that she was missing.

"We couldn't find her, then I had a feeling she was under the rubble," said her mother, Beatriz Delgado, 26, who often took Yesenia on lemon-picking jobs to supplement the family's meager income.

Yesenia was finally discovered beneath the wall, her body crushed and disfigured. The owner of the wall, which surrounds a truck repair station, paid for the coffin. The family is still waiting for help to rebuild their one-room, dirt-floor home, which lost its roof.

A 3-year-old girl, Jacqueline Ruelas, also lost her life in Tecoman, before the eyes of her 8-year-old sister, Erica, and her 6-year-old brother, Edgar. The three had gone out to buy chips. The youngest ran into a grocery store owned by her godparents as the earth shook. Just then, a concrete wall came down on top of her.

"No one has come to help us," said the girl's mother, Lourdes Molina, 27, still disoriented by the tragedy. "The government gave us a free plot to bury her. That was all."

At No. 217 Lerdo de Tejada in the center of Colima, the only sign of life in one devastated house was a kitten that had curled itself into a small basket. In the home's ruined interior courtyard, half-empty Coke bottles and an open package of tortillas lay strewn on a dining table, as if the occupants had stepped away for a few minutes. It was here, neighbors said, that Guillermina Garcia Perez, 34, and one of her five children, Alejandra Elizabeth Macias Garcia, were killed when the roof collapsed.

A neighbor, Jose Agustin Maldanaro Cisneros, 80, pointed with satisfaction to his own roof. "I maintain these well," he said, grinning, as he patted the wooden beams. A small thing, he acknowledged, that may have made the difference between life and death.

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