Lifestyle & Belief

The Chilean city of Valparaiso is prone to natural disasters. It's also where this poet left her heart

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REUTERS/Cristobal Saavedra

Firefighters try to put out a fire at the location where a forest fire burned several neighborhoods in the hills in Valparaiso city, northwest of Santiago, April 13, 2014.

Chilean-American poet and author Marjorie Agosin had a dream about her beloved city of Valparaiso two nights before a massive fire struck there.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

A wildfire started on the hills of Valparaiso on April 12th and soon engulfed seven hills surrounding the city. At least 15 people died in that fire.

"It was very eerie," she says, recalling the morning she heard about the fire.

"A very good friend of mine called me at 7 am and said Butterfly Hill is on fire. I said I knew," she says. Agosin recently published a novel set in Butterfly Hill.

She was born in Maryland near Washington DC, but when she was three months old, her family decided to go back to Chile.

marjorie agosin
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Shefali Kulkarni

Agosin spent her childhood in the beautiful and idyllic city of Valparaiso, which she describes as "a balcony hanging almost at the middle of the Pacific Ocean."

Agosin recalls the colorful houses —purple, oranges, reds — which made Valparaiso a "lyrical" place.

But this beautiful city is also prone to natural disasters and Agosin says people there often turn to poetry for solace.

"When you are in the middle of an earthquake, there’s not much that you can do and often we picked up a book that was nearby and had fallen from a shelf and read. For me and my family, and I think for many people in the country, poetry is like a form of prayer and it calms your soul when you think the world is going to crumble and fall upon your head," she says.

What made the recent fire more painful, Agosin says, is that it affected the lives of the poorer communities. "The homes that were burned were built without any urban planning. They were built on top of very dangerous hills," she says.

She says many of those affected not only lost their homes, but their jobs. "A lot of people had fruit stands or maybe they had a beauty shop inside of a room at the house," she says. "These people are extremely poor, below the poverty level of the country, and maybe the world, and they lost everything."

Although Agosin is based in the US, she says she has "a foot in both worlds." She owns a home near Valparaiso and visits regularly. Her home wasn't damaged, but she worries for her neighbors.

Her great-grandmother and uncle fled to Valparaiso in 1939, when they escaped the Nazis. They were the only ones from her family who survived the Holocaust.

"When I sit down at my home near Valparaiso and watch the lights of the harbor, I always think of my family that arrived there," she says. "I will forever be grateful for the port of Valparaiso."

Agosin says she will find a way to help rebuild the homes there. She's not yet sure how, but says she will find a way.

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