Was Monday’s Shake Up a “Temblor” or a “Terremoto”?

Guatemala Earthquake 1976. Rails bent in Gualan. 1976. Figure 42-A, U.S. Geological Survey Professional paper 1002.

My friend Esteban Tweeted me today shortly after the 6.0 magnitude earthquake reported to have taken place offshore Guatemala at 9:40 AM on January 18. He writes: “Was it a temblor or a terremoto?” When I sent him the USGS link that presents the “Earthquake Details,” he tweeted again: “Glad u ok. My parents said it was a bit strong but definitely just a “temblor” where they were. They think “terremoto” and they think 1976.”

It’s an important distinction that is lost somewhere in translation, but more importantly remembered in time,  February 4, 1976 to be exact, when Guatemala had it’s last big earthquake which many remember as “El Terremoto”. To put it in context: the Guatemala Earthquake we had today was 64 miles deep, the Haiti Earthquake was 5 miles deep, causing more damage and affecting a wider area, BuzzyBloggers informs us. “The most massive earthquake that struck Guatemala was in 1976 – a 7.5 magnitude earthquake that shook Guatemala at 3:00 AM, 5 km deep.”

So I call mi abuelita who lived through that earthquake and always talks about it using those same terms.  The first thing she asks me is: ¿Como sintieron el temblor? Hubo temblor o terremoto en Guate? “Did you feel the tremor? Was there a tremor or earthquake in Guate?” I tell her it was classified as an earthquake by the USGS, but that doesn’t matter. “Where there damages?” No, I tell her, none that were reported. ¡Ah, pues fue temblor! I ask her how she makes the distinction and here is what she told me:

‘Temblor’ es cuando tiembla la tierra, ‘terremoto’ es cuando causa mucho daños, como Haití. ‘Temblor’ viene derivado de que tiembla la tierra, pero terremoto causa muchos daños. “A ‘tremor’ is when the earth quakes, an ‘earthquake’ is when it causes much damage, such as Haiti. A ‘tremor’ is derived from the earth trembling, but earthquakes cause damage.” I tell her there is a technical difference. The Spokeseman Review and the USGS inform us that a “tremor is normally associated with movement of magma along with actual earth movement. Whereas earthquake is normally just earth movement.” Only scientists can really tell that technical difference, but in case you’re interested I found the USGS frequently asked questions to be really informative.

But I was curious about mi abuelita’s experience of the 1976 earthquake, one year before I was born, and ingrained in my mind as this looming shadow of a chaotic time before the lights were even turned on in front of my eyelids.
Pues, como fue el Terremoto del ’76 abuelita?

“Allí estaba yo en las fincas. Había regresado de Chiquimula hasta el 3, y el 6 de febrero fue porque era el cumpleaños de tu tío Hugo. ¿Yo estaba en Chiquimula, porque la Lucky se quebrado la clavícula y una día antes habíamos ido a Esquipulas y me puse a pensar que tal si se calle la pared encima de nosotros? Y el otro día paso.

Pero eso fue feo. Bailaba la tierra como se era trompo, pero agarro mas por La  Costa [por Puerto Barrios]. Se hundieron las puertas como se hundieron las casas en las fincas y solo por las ventas pudimos salir. Como a los 8 días volvió temblar igual y estábamos afuera. Yo sentía debajo de mis pies que corría el agua. Estábamos en Yuma. Fue terrible. Cuando hay terremoto se pone frío, ese día que hizo El Terremoto hasta morado se puso el cielo.”

So how was the Earthquake of ’76 Grandma?

“There I was on the farm [United Fruit company banana finca]. I had returned from Chiquimula on the 3rd, and February 6th was when it happened because it was the birthday of your uncle Hugo. I was in Chiquimula, because Lucky had a broken collarbone and a day before we had gone to Esquipulas and I started thinking about what would happen if the wall fell down on us? And the next day it happened.

But it was ugly. The Earth danced like a top, but it took hold more on the coast [of Puerto Barrios]. The doors sank like the houses collapsed on the farm and we could only get out through the windows. Eight days later it began to  tremble again and we were outside. I felt it under my feet like running water. We were in Yuma. It was terrible. When there’s an earthquake it gets cold that day. When The Earthquake happened the sky even turned purple. “

***Note about the picture: I chose the picture from Gualan because that is where mi abuelita’s family is from and the rails in Guatemala always lead back to United Fruit Company where my family worked for many generations.

4 comments on “Was Monday’s Shake Up a “Temblor” or a “Terremoto”?”

  1. This is a lovely, personal and human post. After all we are a part of nature and our experiences of it. The common man’s and woman’s terms about nature and how they experience are intriguing and in many ways more important than any scientific measurement of the impact. They both serve a purpose, but ultimately the real life experience of the events following a nature force is what matters.

    It kind of brings back a memory of a dear, close person to me explaining the need to separate philosophy/science perceptions and real everyday life: “You see. In philosophy the existence of a reality does matter. In real life it doesn’t. For instance think of you hammering down a nail on a fence. Does it matter to you if the nail is in fact real or not? Does it matter if it only exists in your mind? Not really. That is the essence here. Separate real life from science. They both fulfill a need, but should most if the time never be intermixed.”

    I think the denotation “Temblor” and “Terremoto” shed light of how real people distinguish the impact and how to in a strikingly simple way categorize the effect. In many ways they are so direct and simple that I just by hearing them understood what they meant, yet hearing the Richter scale forced me to look up online what that magnitude meant. I am always astonished by the fact of people using simple, real words to describe their experiences that explain more and faster than most scientific scales. A genius way to put it in my mind.

  2. Muy interesante prima,mi amiga en la capital ya me habia contado un poquito del temblor,me dijo que se sintio un poco fuerte pero gracias a Dios no habia causado ningun dano,ella vive en la zona 17 creo que queda en la entrada si vas de izabal para la capital.de todos modos primita keep up the good work!! and thx for keeping us informed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *