Amid Devastation, Mexico City Unites

An AFAR writer recalls scenes of humanity and hope after a 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck the capital.

Amid Devastation, Mexico City Unites

On the Paseo de la Reforma, the Ángel de la Independencia watches over Mexico City.

Photo by Adam Wiseman/Flickr

I put a pot of beans on the stove and turned on the oven to roast some tomatoes. I’d missed my usual weekend prep routine in Mexico City, where my husband and I had moved a year earlier. We’d just been visiting my family in New York, and I hadn’t been ready to leave—for the first time, I was homesick.

Next, I heated a veggie burger for lunch, and set it on my dining room table on a ceramic plate. As soon as I sank into my chair and lowered my fork, the plate started to rattle. So this is what a small earthquake feels like, I thought. It couldn’t have been anything more; an 8.1-magnitude quake had struck Mexico the week before, when I’d been in the States.

The table began vibrating wildly under the plate. I glanced out my window and saw one of the building’s maintenance workers sprinting down the stairs. I took off like a light after him, leaving the oven and stove on and running barefoot out the door without bothering to lock or close it. The rules about standing in a doorway or hiding under a table don’t apply when you live atop an ancient lakebed that shakes like Jell-O when tremors hit. My legs quivered as I surfed the four flights of stairs in our brand new building, the staircase swinging wildly from side to side.

When my heels hit the pavement outside my building’s lobby, the ground steadied. There were hundreds of people on the street, clutching their dogs or babies or their own elbows. Next to me, a woman rocked back and forth, wailing. Someone turned on a car radio and I racked my brain for the Spanish I’d spent the past 11 months learning. I sat down on a curb, next to a family who was huddled together, and wished again that I was back with my own family, in my own country.

A flash of phone service allowed a call from my husband, who told me to go upstairs and turn the oven off as soon as it was safe; he was biking my way. A woman standing under the awning of my building saw that I was trembling and offered to accompany me upstairs. I weighed the danger of bringing a stranger into my apartment, then saw her hands, also trembling. We walked back up the stairs together, and I grabbed a pair of shoes and my veggie burger—for the next two days, my husband would carry the ceramic plate and fork in his backpack.

He and I wandered our neighborhood in a daze; the sun was hot and bright, catching the shards of glass that glittered on pavement. We walked aimlessly until we saw a building, blocks away, that had collapsed like a sheaf of papers. Already, a group of men in hard hats stood atop the building, clearing huge pieces of concrete. Policemen barricaded the area, and a woman screamed at them to let her through; her boyfriend worked inside.

At the next site we walked to, dozens of volunteers hoisted wood beams up the side of the massive pile of debris to ferry orange-vested volunteers to the top. Periodically, they raised fists to ask for silence so they could listen for signs of life. “Watch my bike,” my husband said—he’d had his last one stolen here—as he pushed towards the front to find chains of people passing bottled water up to the men. No one touched the bike.

In the hours after the earthquake in Mexico City on September 19, I saw what it meant to be Mexican. Every single person sprang to action with a force that can only be described as superhuman.

That night, once we’d moved into a hotel, I called my mom to assuage her worries. I told her about the kindness we’d witnessed, and she said, “It sounds like New York after September 11.” I’d been there, on my first week of high school. I stayed with family friends in Brooklyn, without phone contact to my parents and brothers who were blocks away from the towers. I’d seen the way Manhattanites became human in the weeks that followed, holding doors open for one another and offering pats on the back. In the hours after the earthquake in Mexico City on September 19, I saw what it meant to be Mexican. Every single person sprang to action with a force that can only be described as superhuman.

When we first arrived, I doubted the existence of the Mexican hospitality and warmth I’d heard so much about. People in Mexico City were not so different from New Yorkers, pushing their way past without regard to others, waving off panhandlers or brazenly demanding refunds on poor service. This week, I saw those qualities transformed. Teenagers pushed their way to the front lines to form human chains, transporting rubble away from the damaged sites in plastic buckets. Men waved bandanas to conduct traffic on darkened streets. Old women brazenly demanded passerby accept their offers of homemade tacos served from folding tables.

In Roma Norte, the neighborhood where I live and one of the hardest hit, the streets were filled with people on foot and bikes, hauling shovels, plastic buckets, and cardboard boxes of supplies. By the end of the day Wednesday, the volunteers taping and boxing and carting donations from the thousands of impromptu collection centers set up around the city were trying to figure out how to redirect their energy to areas that needed them more.

I kept walking because I didn’t know what else to do. Everywhere I went, there was someone forcing a bottle of Gatorade or a Styrofoam container of soup into my hand. “Take it, you need it,” they’d say, shaking out feet they’d been standing on for hours.

Seeing a sign for an open bathroom, I wandered into a trendy restaurant in Roma right off the Fuente de Cibeles, a town square where neighbors had set up massive tarps and signs denoting where to drop off medical supplies, tools, pet food, milk, sugar, and other sundries. I’d eaten here before, making reservations weeks in advance to show out-of-town visitors the elevated side of Mexico City’s restaurant scene.

A bowtied waiter handed me a cold hibiscus juice. “Oh no, I just need to use the bathroom,” I said. Inside, communal tables were filled with military personnel and volunteers who lowered their dust masks to enjoy a five-star meal.

This week, I saw so many people helping in the way they knew how. Businesses without water hung handwritten signs inviting people to charge their phones or use private WiFi networks. The partners at the architect’s office on my block closed up to canvass the streets, inspecting buildings for damage. Psychologists and lawyers set up stands on street corners offering complimentary services. At 4 a.m. on Wednesday night in the pouring rain, local restaurant owners brewed massive carafes of coffee in their commercial kitchens to carry to the search-and-rescue teams pulling bodies—and survivors—out of the rubble. And on Sunday morning, priests stood on corners near condemned sites, leading families and volunteers in prayer.

“We’re opening our doors to anyone who needs to sit down for a couple of minutes to eat, to talk to other people,” said one of the restaurant’s employees who was standing on the sidewalk, waving people in. “It’s as we say, ‘echar a la mano,’ just giving help to each other,” she said.

I told her I hadn’t done anything to help at all, aside from purchasing a few carafes of water from a deli to drop off at the collection centers. Her reply was striking in its simplicity. “How do you say, in a war, a trinchera?”

A trench, I translated.

“That’s right. I think we all have our trench. That is what we do and where we can help from,” she said. I nodded, slowly. “Now please, sit. Have something to eat.”

>> Next: What You Can Do to Help the Caribbean Now—and Later

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