Dispatches from CDMX: The Aftermath

In this final dispatch, our Mexico City correspondent wonders about the permanent changes the earthquake has brought, and whether tourism is even ethical.

It was a few minutes to midnight, and we were getting ready to toast my friend Benji’s birthday.

I’d previously had a mezcal at the apartment, but for some reason the cuba I was nursing was hitting me harder than I anticipated. “Altitude,” I thought, until I realized everyone was running for the doors. I grabbed Tanya’s arm. Running through the marble portico of the famous cantina “La Covadonga” felt akin to running in a funhouse or a ship.

Once we found ourselves in the middle of the street, amid stalled taxis and our fellow patrons, the ground rippled and undulated under us like, as so many have accurately described, a giant bowl of gelatin. The streetlights bowed towards the street, and in the east, lights arced across the sky. After several prolonged minutes, it finally subsided, and people searched desperately for cigarettes and lighters as our knees continued to shake. We sat in the Plaza Río de Janeiro for hours, fighting off mosquitos, waiting for the power and the all-clear while reports of tremendous damage trickled in from the Pacific Coast.  

Though the earthquake on Sept. 7 had produced little damage in CDMX, it left more than just rattled nerves. With the specter of 1985 still very real for millions of chilangos and a little over a week before that disaster’s anniversary, it was hard for it not to feel like harbinger of something to come.

Like so many trips to Mexico City, this had been intended as a pleasurable first exposure for  friends, for them to fall in love with it as I had almost 20 years ago. I had been so affected by those two weeks so long ago that I would soon move here for a year with one of my best friends. In the last few months of that year, México would save my life by way of an emergency operation. No one I had ever brought here had ever left without wanting immediately to return.

Likewise, I hoped it would be when the first shift had left and my mother had flown down to join me — her first time back in the country in more than 30 years, although she had never once been to the capital. Her first morning would get off to adrenaline-filled start, as the simulacro marking the 32nd anniversary of the devastating 1985 earthquake went off at 11 a.m. There had been talk of its postponement in deference to the recent earthquake in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Tabasco, so when the siren went off it seemed like some sort of ill-timed joke. Regardless, my friends, my mother in her stocking feet, and I flew down the stairs into the street below. The dreaded shaking never came and, eventually, people tried to laugh it off.  A mother holding her baby in the stairwell nervously reminded us, “It’s just a drill.”

For a group of people notoriously late for everything, the simulacro had provided us a jumpstart on our plans. Four of us — my friends Tanya and Anna, my mother, and I — were all ready and waiting by the time the shuttle to San Miguel de Allende arrived at 12:30 p.m. We raced up Avenida Insurgentes, and I struggled to point out the sights to my mom as our driver bobbed and weaved through traffic, but knew we would have time to see them up close after we got back. I referenced the Villa de Guadalupe — the site where the virgin appeared to Juan Diego 500 years ago — in the distance to our right after we had gotten on the Periferico, because that was going to be a must for my deeply religious mom.

The driver sighed and informed us we had a flat, only to notice that all traffic had come to a screeching halt, even though the van had not stopped shaking. Outside, the streetlights, like their contemporaries in Roma Norte the week before, bowed back and forth — but this time like wild metronome needles. It was a little after 1 p.m. on Sep. 19.

The signs and heavy fixtures in the surrounding Indios Verdes swung in time. Next to me, in a cab, a woman held her rosary in her outstretched hands, sobbing hysterically. My mother’s eyes met mine, and I tried to assure her that everything was going to be fine, but I knew deep down inside this one was worse. We waited, nervously chattering. I looked up at the ramp above and to our immediate right for signs that it was listing in any way. The traffic started to move, and I quickly tried to remember how many bridges lay between us and our destination; the Mexicable, secure, but now frozen over the highway 50 miles ahead. Tanya searched Twitter for updates, and everyone checked their phones for news on social media, but for almost 40 minutes it was radio-silent.

When helping out with recovery efforts, volunteers write their information on their arms — just in case. (Stephen Torres)

Then the updates started trickling in. First, it was Instagram. Trajineras getting tossed on waves in the normally languid canals of Xochimilco, people running out of buildings only seconds before they collapsed completely. A panorama from the Torre Mayor looked almost exactly like a similar panorama taken from Lorne Greene’s office building in the 1974 schlock-buster Earthquake. It seemed unreal. People starting posting on Facebook saying they were safe, but texts were spotty and calls impossible. Tanya’s roommate Gaby left a recording as she ran out of her nine-story office building in tears, “T, our street is destroyed.” My mother automatically flashed back to the woman with her baby, and her face fell. A couple from Texas tried to offer some niceties, but the remainder of our trip was largely in silence. We would later learn that both the building and the young mother and her baby had survived.  

After two fitful nights, we went back, but to what was uncertain. Though standing, we wouldn’t know what the structural integrity of the building would be for another 48 hours when the volunteer engineers would come through. Though she wanted to stay, I decided it best to get my mom on the next flight home. At Benito Juárez International, holding me tightly, she promised to return.

Our building survived, and so did my friends’ and family’s. Gaby’s boyfriend worked at Álvaro Obregón 286, but had left a few minutes before one to run errands. I had successfully flown my mother to the safety of Los Angeles. For thousands did not and still do not have these options, nor did their lottery pay out. Their homes are gone or soon will be. Their friends and family members are gone. When the government finally called of the rescue efforts late last week, they were met with the agonizing screams of hundreds of families who demanded to know why they had been strung along only to be met with the reality of crushed remains.  

It’s been a month since two massive earthquakes decimated cities, left hundreds dead, and thousands injured and homeless across several states. Some of what transpired since then I have documented here, but to describe Mexico City as it exists now seems impossible. You walk down the street and everything can seem normal for blocks, but the anxiety is there, just under the surface.

On my last night, I got my hair cut in Colonia Juárez. The traffic, both human and auto, hummed on Insurgentes, but I could see the change in atmosphere, the normally jaded and harried people hustle quickly past buildings like the red-taped Hotel Excalibur or the Edificio Seguros Azteca, which has stood silently abandoned and heavily damaged from the 1985 earthquake, never taken down by the same party that now claims it will delicately remove the thousands of unstable buildings on the brink of collapse.

Still, where are they hustling to? People don’t really want to go home. Cracks in the walls raise doubts as to the validity of placards that designate a building as safe and car alarms, sometimes too close in tone to the sirens, wake you up in a cold sweat.

That night, I walked over to Condesa to say goodbye to a friend. The walk was not as quick as it once was, peppered with the sounds of nightlife. Most of the perimeter around Parque España was still cordoned off. Cafes and bars have begun to re-open, but the patrons stared pensively, looking quiet. Piles of rubble and signs begging for no photographs dot the streets. The late-season rains have caused the deceased to decompose more quickly, and the recovery process is still ongoing. A friend showed up for work, to DJ — but within sight of the body-recovery and support center at Álvaro Obregón 286.

Across the street, the Plaza Condesa, a high-rise, 1900-person concert venue, still stands amid controversy. Its financial backers claim that’s for safety, but those who live around it fear its imminent collapse. And yet, so much of the renaissance of Mexico City in the past decade has been based on tourism and its current status as a hip destination. Many people have wondered whether it is safe or even ethical to visit. For the country to recover, both here and in the states damaged by the preceding earthquake, tourism is essential. One might add, however, so is awareness. Awareness that in a search for a Noche de Muertos festivities resplendent in skulls this November, that some of them were buried prematurely. The Days of the Dead have functioned for hundreds of years as a time of remembrance long before their current cachet. For many, during this period of remembrance, the grief will be very real.

Moving forward, these places will be in states of recovery and reconstruction. Before you come to Mexico, research the current needs of the acopios in the news or on social media in addition to spending your pesos in the artisanal markets and nightclubs. The groups and individuals run the gamut from large scale operations helmed by luminaries to individual action to provide welcome distraction. What that reconstruction and recovery looks like is beginning to emerge.  Like its predecessor in 1985, this earthquake has exposed the inadequacies of the government and brought societal inequalities back into the light. In the acopios, class and color have mixed over the past few weeks, but already, the moneyed are leaving or are looking to leave many of these hip yet seismically unsafe environs.

Water shortages and lack of infrastructure have long plagued the poorer neighbourhoods, but now that plight has been broadcast (for the time being). The public now demands investigations into why buildings were allowed to be shored up post-1985 or simply built inadequately, and wants to know who should be held accountable. Social media provide a transparency inconceivable 32 years ago.

The discussion has come up as to whether if it is even possible to rebuild, worth it, or advisable.  As things are, probably not, but with change and ingenuity perhaps it is. The city’s history from its inception has been cataclysmic, and those who live here know this. That eh earthquakes of Sept. 7 and 19 will haunt capitalanos for decades, in the same way 1985 has is a forgone conclusion, and one that will be faced daily. Confronting things of that magnitude are on the daily in México, however, and Mexicans are not historically shy about taking their destiny in their own hands. Ultimately, in México, the fear seems not to have paralyzed, but galvanized.

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