Growing Up With Earthquakes Commentator Vivianne Schnitzer was in Chile visiting her parents during the February earthquake. Though familiar from her childhood, the disaster was all the more devastating. She reflects on how the destruction has torn the country in two.

Growing Up With Earthquakes

Growing Up With Earthquakes

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A man holding a child passes by a damaged building in Valparaiso, Chile a day after the 8.8-magnitude earthquake rocked the country. Commentator Vivianne Schnitzer reflects on re-experiencing the Chilean earthquakes of her childhood. Felipe Gamboa/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Felipe Gamboa/AFP/Getty Images

A man holding a child passes by a damaged building in Valparaiso, Chile a day after the 8.8-magnitude earthquake rocked the country. Commentator Vivianne Schnitzer reflects on re-experiencing the Chilean earthquakes of her childhood.

Felipe Gamboa/AFP/Getty Images

Vivianne Schnitzer is a writer and Hispanic Communications Coordinator at The University of Michigan.

One of my earliest memories is holding onto my mother in a Santiago pastry shop. There was unbearable noise and cakes were falling from shelves by the dozen, while people ran outside screaming. It was the 1960 earthquake, the biggest in recorded history.

But my mother's earliest memory is far worse — a narrow country road and one horse pulling the wagon that carried her father's corpse. Arturo Echeverria died in Chile's 1939 earthquake. His body was found three days later, in rubble near Concepcion's main square. How did he die? Exactly where? These unanswered questions became my family's secret obsession, and a terrible burden for my grandmother. I hardly ever saw her smile.

My mother, who was just five when her father died, saw her dollhouse and other belongings sold at auction. Suddenly she was a child of poverty. The family moved as refugees to Santiago, where she remembers walking to the pawnshop to get money for the family's meals.

Vivianne Schnitzer is a writer and Hispanic Communications Coordinator at The University of Michigan. hide caption

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My eight-year-old son and I are stranded in Chile now, visiting my parents. The jolt awoke us in the middle of the night. We felt the impossible undulations of solid concrete floors. Then the power was cut off, and there were only barking dogs, darkness, and the voices of my parents asking if we were okay.

This earthquake has reminded me how privileged my family is, here in Santiago's foothill suburbs. There is one earthquake, but two Chiles. Affluent Chile is traumatized by the force of nature, but our lives will not change dramatically. The other Chile is suddenly visible — the homeless widows and orphans, climbing mountains of debris. It is poor Chileans who are looting out of desperation, and some affluent Chileans who are calling the army.

Maybe it is inevitable that every generation of Chileans will live through several earthquakes. Now the privileged, who have escaped the worst, must find meaningful, permanent ways to help those who have suffered the most.