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Homes Feel Quakes' Bitter Cost : Nights Outdoors Are Cold for 19 Latinos Who Sleep in Fear

Starting Over: Two Families after the Quake: First in an Occasional Series

October 11, 1987|MARY LOU FULTON | Times Staff Writer

The ground got too cold, and the nerve endings got too short.

And that is why Juan Luna and the 18 people who used to sleep in the three bedrooms of his old Whittier home will finally--and with great reluctance--split up and go their separate ways.

It was a traumatic week for him and the four families, who spent a few nights sleeping inside the battered house, but most of the week under a fragile, makeshift tent in the front yard. Like perhaps 10,000 others in the Los Angeles Basin, they lived outdoors. Embarrassed by his plight, Luna took the tent down every morning and started from scratch again in the evening.

The Luna house, about a block from the earthquake-ravaged Whittier Uptown business district, was left cracked and unstable by the temblors. Most of the people who live there are Spanish-speaking immigrants who distrust the home and will not sleep inside until the damage inflicted by los terremotos can be repaired.

Early last week, Luna worked diligently, improvising a tent. He made the ceiling from a couple of floral-print bedspreads and walls from sheets and a pair of worn red velvet curtains. The floor was carpet scraps, blankets and pillows and it was all held up by clothesline strung to the house and a towering avocado tree.

On the other side of the sidewalk, Patricia Ruiz built a smaller tent out of a blue velvet bedspread and broom handles. She and her husband, Rojelio, would sleep there with a radio by their side.

Later, Luna and the others curled up for the night on the cold ground with not enough blankets to go around. After the 6.1 temblor of Oct. 1, temperatures soared above 100 degrees and the nights were tolerable. But the heat wave broke, and the five children and 14 adults shivered as their blankets grew moist in the morning dew.

Most of those who share the house are not related. Luna, 33, a native of Mexico who has lived in Whittier for 11 years, is half-owner of the home and rents space to the others.

Luna, who works as a night cashier at a local gas station, is the spark plug of the household, always making light of their situation.

"Sure, I worry about the house and about property values. But that's secondary," he said in a reflective moment in his chaotic week. "Why put more suffering upon ourselves by worrying about it? We still have our lives."

He plans to apply for federal loans and grants to rebuild the house. He does not know how much that will cost. "I'm happy here in Whittier. I don't want to leave," he said with his characteristic wide smile.

Among his tenants are Maria Celia Fuentes, 50, and her 23-year-old son, Juan Ernesto, who lived outside for two months after the 7.5 earthquake that struck Guatemala in 1976.

"On the radio, they're saying there will be one more strong one," Celia Fuentes said. "As long as there's even a chance of another one, I'd rather stay outside."

Not Ready to Give Up Job

But the outdoors was starting to get to the Ruizes. After two years in California, Patricia, 24, wants to return to Mexico and to their two daughters, but Rojelio, 26, will not go. His job as a worker in a Whittier garment factory pays $3.50 an hour, and he is not ready to give that up.

During the day, they wandered in and out of the house to use the bathroom and cook. They felt safer inside while it was light because everyone was alert and ready to run in case the earth started shaking again.

But by Wednesday night, Patricia Ruiz, known as Patti around the house, became worried that someone would catch cold. Told of a Red Cross shelter several blocks away at the Whittier Community Center, she and a couple of others walked there to ask for more blankets.

A smiling Red Cross worker at the front desk spoke no Spanish, and they became discouraged. They were directed to another volunteer, whom they also asked for blankets. The shelter manager was incredulous upon learning that so many people were sleeping outside, and tried to persuade them to move to the shelter. But he said the Red Cross could not give them blankets unless they stayed there.

Patti Ruiz looked suspiciously at the rows of more than 100 green cots, then at the ceiling where tiles had fallen after Sunday's 5.5 aftershock. "There's so many people and only two doors," she said.

They left, promising the manager that they would try to talk the others into moving away from the house. "They'll never leave," Patti Ruiz said. "I know they won't."

The next day, Luna went to the shelter and, after talking to another worker, returned with 14 blankets. A worker from Catholic Social Services dropped by with two bags of groceries, telling them that food vouchers would be available in the morning.

In the meantime, city inspectors checked out the single-level, three-bedroom house, with its big porch and white pillars, and told Luna it is unsafe. He told the others they would sleep outside again that night, but everyone would have to leave in the morning.

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