EARTHQUAKE: DISASTER BEFORE DAWN : Immigrants Are Reminded of Disasters in Their Homelands


Bricks, fear and memories sent many of the residents of Los Angeles' crowded immigrant neighborhoods into the streets long before first light Monday. And as the sun finally rose on the uncertain day, many of them remained there.

For thousands of the city's immigrant residents, at least one of the old country's terrors had come to join them in the new. For Armenians, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans and Filipinos the quake brought back visions of friends and relatives buried beneath rubble and of entire villages and neighborhoods that simply ceased to exist.

For Latinos, who comprise the majority of the city's recent immigrants, Monday's disaster revived old and painful memories, as well as familiar ways of making do. In the parking lot of Langer's Delicatessen in the Pico-Union district, Elvira Sec, 40, and her husband, Agustin Alfaro, 33, huddled together under a crocheted blanket. A survivor of the magnitude 8.1 quake that killed 23,000 of their fellow Guatemalans in 1976, Elvira awoke early Monday as their fourth-floor apartment at Westlake Avenue and 8th Street swayed beneath her. "God, don't let this swallow up my bed," she prayed.

Nearby, MacArthur Park was crowded with Central and Latin Americans who also were afraid to return to their apartments. Monday's quake, however, had not prevented Hector del Valle, 36, from making the trek from his home at 53rd and Hoover streets in South-Central. He was busy hawking perfume from a canvas bag to the park's instant refugees. Like Sec and Alfaro, del Valle survived the deadly Guatemala City temblor. So many people died in his neighborhood there, he said, that the dead were buried with backhoes. An eight-story apartment building near his own home there collapsed, and he helped pull bodies from the rubble.

"I pulled out my friends' dead children. That, you never forget," he said. "In Latin America the construction is worse than here. There, an earthquake--well, it's fatal."

Fifteen minutes away, in a hillside neighborhood of Silver Lake, Nicaraguan immigrants--many of whom survived the 1972 quake that killed 6,000 people--had moved out of their apartment buildings and thrown blankets, mattresses and coats on nearby lawns and sidewalks.

"I went through the Managua earthquake and this one was just like that," said Minerva Parra, 29, as she clutched her three small children around her. "I thought I had seen the last of these big quakes when I moved here in 1989," she said. "But Los Angeles has them too."

Neighbors shared her sentiments. "Not again," said Alfredo Salas, 38, shaking his head as pre-dawn aftershocks went through the area.

A few blocks away, Jorge Gonzalez Molina, who left Mexico City after the 8.1 quake that killed 25,000 people in 1985, prepared to leave for his mechanic's job.

"Please don't leave me here," his wife, Magdalena Maria, pleaded. He replied that they needed the money. "But that won't make any difference if we have no place to live," she said. "Stay with me here."

He did.

As the hours wore on, life in some neighborhoods assumed an improvised, though eerie, routine. On a chain-link-enclosed dirt lot in the Pico-Union district, 30 evacuees from a nearby brick tenement camped en masse. Magdalena Rodriguez, a 36-year-old housewife, found a metal mattress frame in the lot; the men in the group gathered firewood and built a fire under the frame. Rodriguez heated pots of milk for the children and water for the adults' coffee. Neighbors barbecued a chicken.

"I was so afraid," Rodriguez said, stirring the milk with one hand, and clutching her 4-year-old boy with the other. "I'll wait out here all day."

At Echo Park lake, more than 100 Latinos, most of them new arrivals, had taken up temporary residence in the city park. Among them was 23-year-old Margarito Acuna, who with his wife Beatriz and young son Margarito Jr., decided not to stay in their apartment in a 1920s-building across the street from the park.

"It's safer here than in the apartment," the Guadalajara-born Acuna said. "My wife was telling me before Christmas, we should think of what to do in case of an earthquake. But you know how these things are, you put things off. 'Yeah, I'll think about it.' But then I don't.

"When the earthquake hit this morning, first time my wife says, 'I told you to think of something. Let's go to the park.'

"I couldn't argue with her."

A mile or so east, in the east Hollywood neighborhood that is home to many of the city's Armenian immigrants, echoes of faraway disasters also could be heard. Shushan Abrayan, 27, stood outside her partially destroyed brick apartment building, stared at the water heaters protruding from one of the floors above, and recalled the 1988 earthquake that took the lives of 25,000 people in her native Armenia. "That was bad, but I've never felt anything like this. It just kept going and going," she said.

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