BRADENTON — It was around 2 p.m. that the “matazon” began.
The Spanish word for “slaughter” is how Fulmencio Eladio describes what unfolded in his Guatemalan village just over one year ago.
Sitting in his family’s small Bradenton rental home with his wife, Alma and their two children, Christian, 12, and Daylin, 8, Fulmencio scrolled through his phone, showing pictures from June 3, 2018 — the day that changed their lives. A girl covered in burns and wrapped in bandages lying alongside a baby. A close-up of charred feet, covered in a black, melted Styrofoam-like substance. Rescuers dragging dead bodies out from the ash.
Hell came to tiny San Pedro Yepocapa when the aptly named Volcan de Fuego exploded.
Fulmencio has told the story a hundred times, but it’s still impossible for him to find the right words to convey the horror of seeing one of the largest volcanic eruptions on planet Earth in decades, with his family directly in the path of destruction.
“We were stupefied by the beauty. It looked like pyrotechnics,” he said through an interpreter. “The rocks were like missiles that were shooting through the air and just killing people.”
As his father told the story, Christian sat quietly with tears streaming down his face. Daylin stared at the ground. The two Samoset Elementary newcomers are still adjusting to life in America, and the new adults in their life are still trying to comprehend the trauma these children have seen.
June 3, 2018
Samoset ESOL director Nuris Fanning has heard so many harrowing tales from the immigrant children arriving to elementary schools in Manatee County that she began compiling the stories into a book — stories of children traveling across deserts, fleeing coyotes, seeing their mothers or sisters exploited.
But Christian and Daylin’s story stands alone.
“He’s been through so much,” Fanning said of Christian. “He doesn’t have a childhood, you know. It’s so different when I see the other kids here and what he has experienced. There is a sadness within him.”
Until last June, Fulmencio was a Guatemalan coffee farmer. Living at the base of one of Central America’s largest volcanoes, he and his family traded the danger for the fertile soil that produced coffee in abundance.
While the villagers were accustomed to de Fuego, it was impossible to ignore. Unlike global warming, melting ice caps or the extinction of animals in jungles far away, de Fuego carried none of the far-off nature of other environmental threats. It was a living, breathing monolith, with a village of 187 families powerless before its whims, living directly downhill.
Small eruptions were regular, and ash was a constant presence in their village. It would gather on the coffee leaves and fall on Christian’s shoulders as he helped with harvest.
Early in the morning of June 3, de Fuego started spewing more ash than normal.
Many of their neighbors responded like the native Floridians who believe they can ride out every hurricane. But Fulmencio grew up in Mexico, and was more wary of the volcano than those whose ancestors grew up on its slopes. He was worried an eruption was imminent. As the ash intensified, the family joined a small group and headed into the sulfur-stinking woods, hoping they could outrun what whatever came next.
“Why are you leaving? Don’t be silly!” Fulmencio said his neighbors told him.
At 9 a.m. the volcano erupted for the first time, sending rocks and ash nearly three miles into the air. Fulmencio and the men in his group left the women and children behind and rushed back to assess the damage. That meant they had a front-row seat to de Fuego’s second display, the truly devastating one.
At 2 p.m. the volcano erupted a second time, sending a molten river of volcanic material, known as a pyroclastic flow, rushing over 100 mph down the mountainside. Many in the village were still in their homes, assuming the worst was over. Government officials failed to issue evacuation orders until it was too late.
The flow “arrived in communities right when the evacuation alerts were being generated,” said David de Leon, a spokesman for Conred, the country’s disaster management organization.
When the family returned to San Pedro Yepocapa, they couldn’t find their home. It was buried deep beneath the pyroclastic flow and ash, and an official count of the dead smothered by the molten cascade is impossible to determine.
Their house, pets and village were gone. People were missing for weeks, and those who failed to show up again have been assumed to be dead, part of the unofficial death toll.
Christian’s greatest concern was the fate of the woman they called “Abuela.”
Despite the name, she wasn’t their biological grandmother — but Abuela was a constant presence in Christian and Daylin’s life. The children would play in her small store each day after school. She took them to church, gave them Cheetos and chocolate.
“She would always say, ‘Are you guys hungry?’” Christian said. When the family retreated into the woods on June 3, Abuela couldn’t join them. She had a bad leg and would not be able to keep up, so she stayed behind with the others. Christian was scared. He didn’t know if he would see Abuela again, and he asked his cousin to tell her goodbye.
After returning to the village, it soon became obvious that the old woman had not made it out alive. She didn’t have the ability to flee, and no one has seen her in the aftermath.
Abuela’s death seems to stand out in Christian’s mind as the defining aspect of the tragedy, both his parents and teachers say. In the year since the eruption, everything in his life has changed. He lost his home, his friends, his country, but Abuela’s loss is the change he feels most acutely.
Fanning, the ESOL coordinator at Samoset Elementary, said when Christian talks about the eruption, with all the drama of an action movie, his story always drifts back to grief over what happened to Abuela.
“He just knows she is not here with us,” Fanning said.
The family now lives in a small house in central Bradenton. Despite the constant rooster cries and close family quarters, everything about the neighborhood is foreign to Alma, Christian and Daylin.
But Fulmencio’s life has come full circle. This is his second stint in Florida — the first time as a rebellious teenager, and now as a father trying to save his family.
Alma shrinks into the couch with embarrassment and laughs when asked how she and Fulmencio met.
“Es como una telenovela,” she said.
It’s like a soap opera.
In an act of adolescent defiance, a 14-year old Fulmencio walked away from his Mexican home one day in 1990. He headed north and never came back. Life as a man in America was more appealing than boyhood in Mexico, so he cut tobacco in North Carolina, picked oranges in Florida and loved having money.
In 2003, a friend told him about Alma, a nice girl back in his Guatemalan village that Fulmencio may like. The two struck up a long-distance romance, talking on the phone every night.
“We fell in love on the telephone,” he said.
A year into their long-distance romance, Fulmencio boarded a flight to Guatemala. He had never been to the small, rural village on the slopes of a volcano, and it would be the third country he called home.
But the girl on the other end of the phone had charmed him, and the American dream could wait. She slept on the floor of the airport overnight when he was delayed for 24 hours, wondering if he had changed his mind. They met for the first time when he stepped off the plane.
If his life was a telenovela, Act II of Fulmencio’s saga was the perfect setup for the climax of June 3, 2018. He and Alma settled down, had two kids. Despite his outsider status, he became an elected leader in their village. Memories of mansions in Naples and making it in America faded as they poured energy into their coffee farm and children. Life was good. But attentive viewers would notice the menace lurking in the background, foreshadowing the next twist with each belch of ash.
Life in Bradenton
On Christmas Eve 2018, the family boarded a bus station in El Paso, Texas.
They had crossed the border in December, turning themselves over to immigration officials just north of the American-Mexican border. After being held in a detention center, they were released with orders to report to immigration officials. Fulmencio’s sister, an American citizen, lives in Bradenton, so that is where they headed.
The indecipherable orders written in English, instructing them to show up an Immigration and Customs Enforcement and removal operations office in Tampa, sit on the kitchen table.
Alma reported for the first two hearings, got her papers stamped, and is due to report again in August. She worries constantly they will be put on a plane and deported — a journey with none of the romance of Fulmencio’s flight to meet her a lifetime ago.
For the first two weeks at Samoset Elementary, Daylin was inconsolable. She cried every day. Alma and Fulmencio worried that the teachers were beating her. That had happened in Guatemala, and Fulmencio had once run off a teacher who was stealing the children’s food.
Christian misses his friends — especially now that it is zompopos season in Guatemala. Each May hordes of the large winged ants emerge from the ground. The boys would catch them, make them fight, take bets. The zompopos are a delicacy, and Christian and his friends would roast them and eat them with salt.
But not all the change is bad.
Living in the shadow of Volcan de Fuego, Christian coughed constantly. The volcano burped ash every 15 minutes or so, filling Christian’s lungs and keeping him in a sickly state. His parents believed he had a condition, or maybe he was just weak.
But since arriving in Bradenton and no longer breathing in volcanic ash every day, Christian’s cough has cleared up. Daily soccer with other boys at Samoset Elementary has eased the transition to American life.
His parents recognize that de Fuego, the cause of their present struggles, was also to blame for Christian’s ailments. And despite the unknowns, the family is optimistic.
“We’re here, we are alive,” Fulmencio said. “We are overcoming little by little.”