A Salvadoran fisherman reappears from the sea

I have not blogged previously about the biggest story which has come out of El Salvador in recent weeks, at least judged by the number of mentions in the worldwide press.   It's not the presidential elections, but the tale of  José Salvador Alvarenga, a Salvadoran fisherman who allegedly survived 14 months at sea after his small fishing boat was caught in a storm off the coast of Mexico.   He washed up on the shores of the Marshall Islands, thousands of miles away, with a tale of surviving off raw fish and turtle blood.   You can read more about this remarkable castaway tale in stories from the Guardian, here and here.

Our friend Carlos Colorado now shares this essay exploring Alvarenga's story and some of the deeper meanings it might have.

  I wish I was a fisherman
Tumblin’ on the seas
Far away from dry land
And its bitter memories

—The Waterboys
“Fisherman’s Blues”

At a surface level, the story of José Salvador Alvarenga is a simple one.  His tiny shark fishing vessel got blown off course by a storm, carried off by ocean currents, and it washed ashore far from where he first set off.  At another level, Alvarenga’s story is the most fantastical, unexpected, and arguably the most multifaceted story in El Salvador this year.  In fact, I have been debating whether Alvargenga’s story is necessarily a Salvadoran story at all, or whether it is simply a universal human story whose subject happens to be Salvadoran.  In fact, Alvarenga’s story is like an onion, with layers of intrigue and interpretation.

First, it is worth recounting the basic plot points.  This is not intended to be an exhaustive report, but simply provide a basis for the analysis that follows.  By all accounts, José Salvador Alvarenga originally hails from a place called Garita Palmera, in coastal western El Salvador.  He had been working as a shark fisher in Chiapas, Mexico.  In November or December 2012, Alvarenga and a younger Mexican man set off on an ill-fated shark fishing expedition on a small, uncovered boat.  A storm blew them off course and the boat’s engine died, leaving the two men at the mercy of ocean currents that carried them deep into the Pacific with nothing to eat except the raw meat from birds and ocean creatures they might catch; and nothing to drink except rainwater if they were lucky, and the blood of birds and turtles and their own urine if they were not.  The younger man was unable to tolerate this diet and succumbed to malnutrition, dying about four months into the trip.  But Alvarenga managed to survive for thirteen months, until, on January 30, 2014, his boat washed ashore at the remote Ebon Atoll in the Marshall Islands, about 6,500 miles from where he originally set off.

And so the first challenge of this story is whether we can get past the incredulity that such a sensational account engenders.  If true, Alvarenga would set the record for the longest time of survival adrift on the ocean.  Some experts raised doubts, noting that Alvarenga did not appear emaciated, sun-burnt or weakened as other survivors who had been lost for significantly shorter lengths of time.  Others pointed to the unlikelihood of being able to survive at all without proper nutrition.  For example, experts noted that, without access to fruits and vegetables, there would not be any natural source of vitamin C and that there is a long history of sailors unprepared for the ravages of long ocean voyages who have fallen victims to scurvy as a result of this dietary deficiency.  Still others pointed out that there is naturally occurring vitamin C in raw fish and other animal meats, and unlike European explorers in other centuries, Alvarenga was not cooking his food so he could have gotten it.  Moreover, what many saw as Alvarenga’s robust physique may actually have been bloating.  Additionally, he apparently started off a much more portly man when he cast off in Chiapas.  Finally, all of the details of his narrative have basically checked out, including the time and place where his trip started, and there was even a search for him and his companion after they first disappeared; the identities verified.

At another level, the story of the Salvadoran castaway resonates because the mythos of the ocean is a powerful draw.  Joseph Campbell said that the ocean is a symbol of the human subconscious, and so all those stories about man versus the sea—be it Homer’s “Odyssey,” or the Bible’s narrative of Jonah and the whale, or “Moby Dick”—signify something deeper than the storyline they narrate.  Of course, José Alvarenga is not a fictional character, and, as we have just analyzed, his story is not exactly a myth.  Still, it is hard not to read this story of heroic survival and not cast it in an epic light.  At a minimum, it is almost certain that José Alvarenga had to overcome more than dietary and biological challenges.  His story has the potential to represent a triumph of the spirit, and this potential explains a lot about the story’s appeal.

At a very superficial level, some in El Salvador have sought to paint José Alvarenga in very shallow strokes, as some sort of nationalistic Salvadoran superman, a symbol of the indomitable Salvadoran spirit.  Even the usually unromantic environmental minister Hernán Rosa Chávez could not resist the metaphor, pointing to José Alvarenga as proof that Salvadorans have untold reserves and arguing that El Salvador could therefore become the first country to find a breakthrough to overcome all its environmental challenges.  To be sure, there is something to be said about the Salvadoran character, which has had to face poverty, war, natural disasters, and a sometimes seemingly endless onslaught of hardships.  El Salvador is a small country, with a Goliath misfortune to contend with.  But, José Alvarenga does not fit the mold of Salvadoran exceptionalism.  He is reportedly suffering from PTSD, experiencing terrible flashbacks and plagued by an unbearable (albeit understandable) fear of the ocean.  In other words, he is not some sort of Salvadoran Hercules.

Another reason for the fascination with the Salvadoran castaway is a dark and morbid allure.  This is the pull that makes us slow down to gawk at a traffic accident, and there are many elements in this story that are deeply disturbing, and therefore engrossing, at a guttural level.  Details such as drinking blood and urine to survive are thoroughly unsettling and make us question whether we would make it and force us to imagine ourselves in José Alvarenga’s place.  One of the fascinating aspects of the story is an undercurrent that has haunted the discussion of the case.  This was something that was never tackled head on in proper news stories, but which invariably reared its head in user comments and message boards beneath the stories.  Many readers irresistibly questioned whether Alvarenga had survived by cannibalizing his less fortunate travel companion.  The rumors may never be put to rest, as this subplot took place in the darkest recesses of this darkest story.  It is reminiscent of a subplot in the AMC zombie series “The Walking Dead,” in which one of the main characters stays alive by throwing another character to the zombies to distract them and secure his getaway.  Although no one was there to see it, everyone reads it in his character and surmises the truth.  We don’t know a lot about José Alvarenga, but some may be looking for clues.

Yet, some of the most haunting comments about this story have been in the Salvadoran press.  One of them that caught my eye was a remark to the effect that José Alvarenga was a lost son of El Salvador whom his motherland never noticed was missing until he basically came back from the dead.  His absence went unnoticed during the entire time he was eking out a subsistence living in Chiapas, Mexico, and during his entire ordeal during the past thirteen months.  As a basic truth, the fact is undeniable and God only knows how many Salvadorans leave their country, never to be seen or heard from again.  El Salvador bleeds people, and many of them never reach their intended destination.  José Alvarenga was one of them—he was heading for the United States, but ended up waylaid in Mexico.  Others are similarly diverted by fortune.  Still others meet unhappy ends at the hands of criminals who prey on the vulnerable bands of refugees, others are maimed in horrific accidents on the freight trains they scamper on to traverse the inhospitable Mexican landmass, and still others die horrible deaths in the final stretch of desert.  As Pope Francis asked about the tens of thousands of Africans who die trying to reach Europe: “has anyone wept” for the undiscovered José Alvarengas?

Here is where Alvarenga’s story becomes distinctly Salvadoran.  He typifies not so much the reappeared as much as the disappeared.  In fact, in the week since his return to El Salvador, there was a story in the Salvadoran press that got no international play, about three other Salvadoran fishermen who went missing off the Salvadoran coast for a few weeks, and similarly resorted to eating raw fish and drinking turtle blood to survive.  Such stories should make us wonder how many people are pushed to the margins of economic desperation and forced to the edge of existence, or even to their demise.  Alvarenga comes from a place, Garita Palmera, that does not even merit a Wikipedia entry.  And the Ebon Atoll where he ended up does not look much different—a poor, sea-swept town clinging to existence beyond the gaze of most of humanity.  As a sobering perspective on such existential write-offs, Alvarenga told his Salvadoran saviors that he met passing ships on the high seas during his ordeal who ignored his pleas.  He said that one ship came so close to his that he thought it was going to destroy his vessel.  Another ship, Alvarenga said, actually sighted him and its crew waved back at him as he frantically signaled them, wearing only a shaggy beard and tattered underwear.

Please ignore the naked half crazed man jumping up and down on that battered little boat in the middle of the ocean.  Tea time will be in half an hour.

Me dicen el desaparecido
 Fantasma que nunca está
 Me dicen el desagradecido
 Pero esa no es la verdad

Yo llevo en el cuerpo un dolor
 Que no me deja respirar
 Llevo en el cuerpo una condena
 Que siempre me echa a caminar

—Manu Chao


Anonymous said…
Although my blog covers Latin American culture, with a special focus on El Salvador (since that's where my husband is from), I didn't blog about the Salvadoran fisherman because I had too many thoughts about it which I hadn't sorted out.

After reading this essay I'm glad I didn't write about it because I couldn't have said it better than you did, Carlos. I'll be pointing my readers over here to read this.

Carlos X. said…
Thank you, Tracy. The one nice thing about having a long drive to work is that it lets you organize your thoughts. :)