While Spanish Teacher Gabriela Gonzenbach watched a movie with her partner on a Saturday evening, her phone rang incessantly as family members in Manta, Ecuador, attempted to contact her. She finally opened her phone to a barrage of Whatsapp voice messages, learning quickly that a devastating earthquake had struck her native country.
“I was in shock,” Ms. Gonzenbach said. “It was horrible to hear their voices screaming and crying like that. My nephew’s voice was shaking, and he has always been very calm and controlled. No one was prepared for this.”
Ms. Gonzenbach immediately searched online for more information about the situation and continued to ask relatives for updates. By Monday, she’d learned that all members of her family were alive and accounted for.
“I started crying and thanking God,” she said. “It was so difficult to be so far away when something so devastating was happening in my country. I asked myself if I should go to Ecuador, but I knew that my daughter needed me here in Massachusetts.”
Ms. Gonzenbach eventually learned that her sister’s family-run ho-tel had collapsed, killing nine of its employees, and her father had to unbury her niece from a pile of bricks that left her with minor injuries on her body and face. She also learned that the disaster had rendered many of her relatives’ houses uninhabitable, forcing around 30 of her family members to move into her father’s four-bedroom house. Ms. Gonzenbach said her 103-year-old grandmother, who saw her own house being destroyed, is now sharing a bed with her father.
“I talk to my family every night,” Ms. Gonzenbach said. “They are not missing food, water, or shelter, and they are all in company with each other.”
Ms. Gonzenbach identified Manta, composed of large commercial centers and smaller fish-ing villages along the coast, as the most important port of Ecuador. Manta is a town full of humble people, she said, and all of her neighbors there had always been happy to invite others into their homes for a meal or card game.
“When I think about [Manta], I think of the smell of the ocean, the food, and the beach,” she added. “Thinking about my Manta always centers me. It means my home, my family, my culture, and my roots.”
Ms. Gonzenbach said that in the county’s current physical and economic state, no one in her family can find work, so they spend time reading, singing, playing bingo, and eating together as a distraction.
“Listening to my nephews and nieces, I hear their appreciation for life,” Ms. Gonzenbach said. “They are hopeful that they are going to rebound and rebuild. Other people didn’t have that luck, and [my family is] so aware of that. They are very appreciative of what they could have lost.”
Like many Ecuadorians, Ms. Gonzenbach’s relatives have no access to banks and must live off of their immediate savings. Despite the Ecuadorian government providing the country with a three- to six-month grace period from paying bills, Ms. Gonzenbach expressed concern about her family’s ability to maintain their supply of basic necessities if they can’t replenish their savings. The Ecuadorian government hasn’t kept its promise of bringing new jobs to the country, she said, so she believes the people’s best chance of recovery could come from the private sector.
“The people are saying that they don’t want handouts,” Ms. Gonzenbach reported. “They just want jobs and opportunities to get back on their feet. They need structure, organization, and support.”
Ms. Gonzenbach said she herself received support from colleagues and administration almost instantaneously, and many students approached her asking how they could help. She added that while this traumatic experience left her feeling distracted in the classroom, receiving such school-wide support has helped her see that even from miles away, she can help her beloved home country.
“All of the support makes me feel as if I have a family at BB&N,” she said. “I know I’m working at the right place with great human beings who are worried about my country and remember who I am and where I come from. I’ll be eternally thankful.”
Acknowledging that the process of rebuilding her country will take a considerable amount of time, money, and effort, Ms. Gonzenbach still expressed hope for the future of those in Ecuador reconstructing their homes.
“We will pick up the pieces and build a new Manta,” she said.