Maria used to have her own restaurant. It was small, she says. Located on the beach. Green plantain empanadas were her specialty among other dishes of the coast, like encocado, a plate of seafood swimming in coconut sauce, or corviche, a deep-fried empanada stuffed with fish. I imagine that her restaurant was tidy inside the quaint walls. Just a few tables and a cover over ahead, she tells me. The way she runs her newest endeavor, her kitchen and restaurant at Proyecto Samán, shows how highly she values service. Clean silverware, fresh ají, a pile of napkins, speedy delivery of fresh empanadas. I imagine that her restaurant on the beach worked the same way. The surfers and tourists and locals would sit down on plastic chairs, wave and smile, call out “Cinco empanadas, porfa!” because one is never enough, and sit back, listening to the soundtrack of the waves.
The empanadas that Maria serves us here at Proyecto Saman are the same she used to serve in her restaurant. Green plantain, no flour. The plantain is pounded to a pulp, turned into dough, maza, and molded perfectly. Inside the empanada is where the secret lies. She has two options, chicken or cheese, although, she says with a smile, she will also make shrimp empanadas if we purchase the shrimp in town and bring them to her.
Volunteers at Proyecto Samán give conflicting reviews as to which empanada is best. The cheese empanada is filled with fresh queso mixed with chopped herbs. Chicken empanadas have shredded meat, stirred into a thick stew, almost like a potato soup. You can smell the empanadas frying through the camp. Proyecto Samán, home to thirty-two families who are rebuilding their lives after the earthquake, has a mission of cultivating new beginnings. The families and community members are encouraged to find new, innovate ways to make money again as they move forward, day by day.
Maria capitalized on her market. The empanadas filled a need that she saw. Every day, there is a group of volunteers who hover in proximity to Maria’s tent between the hours of 11 and 12. Right before lunch, when our stomachs are growling and our projects are stalling, we wait to hear if it’s empanada time. When we see one volunteer walk back towards us, after going to the “bathroom,” with a plate of hot empanadas in hand and a smile on his lips, we know it is time. Speed walking through the dust so as not to appear too desperate, we stroll towards Maria. She greets us with a smile. She knew we would be coming.
She serves empanadas out of the tent that is also her living area and kitchen. Every family has two tents, one for sleeping and personal use inside, the other used as an outside kitchen/living space. She has a large refrigerator, a sink with running water, and a portable stovetop hooked up to the gas tank. There is one plastic table with three chairs for her family and restaurant patrons. On top of the table is a vat of ají. It waits for us, taunting us slightly. We talk about our projects with Maria and her daughter as we wait for the fresh batch. By our feet, toddlers run through the dirt, talking in a language all their own. A family of squawking chickens struts by. It is the perfect descansito, a little break, where I can see that life, livelihood, hope, is here.
Maria is one of the many residents at Proyecto Samán who has started rebuilding her life after the earthquake. Her restaurant on the beach was destroyed on April 16, but after four months living at Samán, she has started serving empanadas again. As more people start visiting the camp to see what’s happening, word of her empanadas spreads further. One of the missions of Proyecto Samán is to unite the residents of the camp with those in Canoa by hosting fairs, festivals, and theater performances. Maria is earning money again by selling each empanada for fifty cents. It is not much. Calculating out what she must make in a day, it hovers between $10 and $20. But it is something.
The act of rebuilding must come in small moments, dedicated tasks, and businesses growing. Donations have stopped arriving. It’s a time of transition for everyone, the time for accepting this new reality and moving forwards. Maria buys the ingredients to make empanadas, cooks them to the best of her ability, and lets the delicious flavor sell itself. Plate by plate, her family rebuilds.
As I learn more about the lives and strength of survivors after a natural disaster, it’s not hard to see how things could go badly. When your home, your business, perhaps the lives of loved ones, are all destroyed, you’re left with this question, “What’s next?” If you have nothing, some would say you have nothing to lose. Perhaps this provides some insight into the stories I read a few months ago about armed thieves stealing trucks of donations or when I try to imagine who the person is who would break into a broken down house the evening of the quake and steal everything inside. After everything is shaken, it’s hard to think in terms of what’s right and wrong. Everything seems difficult. The path out of desolation must seem infinite.
But when I talk to women like Maria, I see her strength in her dedication to this particular task, to making empanadas. She knows it’s a way that she can provide for her family. It’s one of the many ways of rebuilding a livelihood that has crumbled. She is fairly shy as I ask questions, and she doesn’t speak much of the past, but rather chooses to focus on what she’s doing now. She says she’d like to have another restaurant again some day. I sense hope, a future, in her actions. It has only been four months since the earthquake, but she’s not looking behind her, only forward. This is strength. It’s envisioning a time when she’ll be serving up empanadas in a new restaurant, in a new place, with her children playing nearby and her husband working in town, everyone moving along to the sizzle of plantain maza, the clatter of plates on a table, and the clank of coins adding up, day by day.