External Affairs

‘I Saw Tragedy and Disappointment, but Also Heroes Wielding Shovels After the Mexico Quake’

It took years for the Condesa neighbourhood in Mexico City to recover from the 1985 earthquake. Then on September 19, it was hit again.

Mexican and international rescue teams remove a painting as they search for survivors in a collapsed building after an earthquake, at Roma neighborhood in Mexico City. Credit: Reuters/Carlos Jasso

Mexico: After the first 24 hours of last month’s earthquake in Mexico, I became tired of the drama that was drowning out other voices on social media. The confusion and the exaggeration seemed overwhelming, so on the third day after the quake, I decided to set out and walk the entire Condesa-Roma area to see for myself.

In the Roma district, I saw most of the streets returning to a state of normality. Some buildings were damaged, yes. What did we expect? Some were fenced off because they will most likely have to be demolished. A few streets were closed for the same reason. But in general, things were coming back to normal: most coffee shops and restaurants were open, traffic was light (no surprise there), but overall, the mood on the street did not give the impression that this were a zone of a humanitarian disaster. A great many people will lose their homes, which is tragic, but the destruction was not generalised, nor did the neighbourhood collapse.

I saw well-organised donation/collection centres – almost all of them staffed by people fully aware that it was now time to start directing help to rural areas in other states. I recommended Pushkin Park to whoever wanted to bring something, but there are several easy-to-locate alternatives. In many cases, there were far too many volunteers. Attempts to channel them to more distant locations in other sectors of the city or to different tasks were underway. Some of them looked upset or disappointed. What did they expect?

Credit: Reuters/Rafael Arias

In Condesa, I walked past several collapsed buildings. The atmosphere was different there: overwhelming and tragic; a sober, thick ambience reigned. However, I saw well-organised army, navy and police officers, topos, construction workers, doctors, ambulances and various expertly-trained brigades.

My takeaway from that area is an image of construction workers with beat-up backpacks and visibly worn safety gear, covered in dust, exhausted and straight-faced. Several of them arrived from outside of Mexico City a day before and were still standing. I saw heroes wearing reflective vests, wielding new shovels and impeccable helmets.

Going towards Zona Rosa, I saw well-organised donation collection centres, already focused on addressing help to Morelos and other states. Again, almost all streets were operating normally.

Past Tamaulipas, to the south, I saw snippets of the hipster apocalypse: kids and 30-year-olds with brand-new safety gear, staying alert – thanks to skinny lattes, energy drinks and gluten-free organic food. Almost all of them fixated on their iPhones. Only in this area, I saw collection centres setting aside comfort items for affected pets.

All due respect to their efforts and commitment to society, but it is clear to me that this part of the city does not represent all of Mexico. This area has resources to spare. But a huge population of victims in rural areas and other parts of Mexico City, who largely remained invisible to social media and TV, needed help and support at a steady pace.

Speaking about TV, as I stopped for tacos at a tiny hole in the wall, I witnessed the pathetic spectacle put on by El Canal de las Estrellas’ news anchors reporting that the case of Frida Sofia, girl trapped after quake, had been nothing but fiction – a product of  Mexican television channel Televisa‘s own idiocy. That, however, did not keep journalist Loret de Mola from protesting, en tono de regaño, to an admiral for the blunder of not having corrected the misinformation in due time. The admiral apologised and resigned as a subordinate in the upside-down world that is Mexican television.

Carlos Mondragón is associate professor at the Centro de Estudios de Asia y África (El Colegio de México) in Mexico City and has worked for almost twenty years on socio-environmental issues, indigenous knowledge and climate change in the Pacific Islands.