20th Anniversary of Mexico City Earthquake
September 19, 2005
Mexico City today marks the 20th anniversary of the horrific earthquake that killed tens of thousands of its inhabitants and left enormous swaths of its downtown in rubble. At exactly 7:19 this morning, the world's second largest city fell silent to remember the dead, disproportionately the poor in a remarkable city of vast poverty and inequality. The Mexico City daily, La Jornada, has an excellent special section today that looks back on the event and its far-reaching political aftermath.
I pause to remember the day for two reasons. First, I started almost a year's stay in Mexico City in June 1986. By then, all of the immediate recovery work was finished, but the physical and social impact of the earthquake was everywhere. While I don't think as much lately about my time there as I used to, I doubt any single experience --college, my first job after college, or graduate school-- was as important to my personal intellectual development as that period in Mexico City.
Somehow, not long after I arrived, I ended up meeting members of a garment-workers union, "Las Costureras del 19 de Septiembre", named for the day the union was born from the rubble of the earthquake. They told me about the appalling conditions at the sweatshops where they were working before the earthquake hit. They told me about their bosses, who paid people to recover safes, equipment, and clothing inventories while co-workers were still trapped under tons of collapsed roofs, floors, and walls. They told me about how their bosses refused to pay them the pay owed for the work in the days and weeks before the earthquake.
I once spent the night sleeping with a large group of workers and their families under a tarp pitched on the sidewalk in front of an abandonded factory. We were there to make sure that the owner did not take away the equipment, which a court had recently awarded to the workers as part of their compensation for labor abuses before and after the earthquake. I can certainly say that it was the only night in my life that I spent with a real and reasonable fear of violence against me. I am also fairly certain that this was not the only such night that the others I was with had passed before or since.
I spent another night with some friends sleeping on the cold dirt floor of a subsistence farm with no electricity and no running water, just a couple of hours bus ride outside Mexico City. The farm was the family home of our friend, Lupe, a young costurera, who lost her job in the earthquake. I knew that dirt floors and a lack of running water and electricity were a common experience for many in Mexico and around the world, but suddenly this was my friend's house. Hello, Lupe! I hope all is well.
But, probably the most important personal experience for me was the time I spent with the members of "Ojos de Lucha." They were three young painters revolutionizing the Mexican muralist tradition, replacing walls with giant canvasses that they called "moveable murals". The three --David Gallegos, Daniel Suárez, and Cassandra Smithies (born in the United States, she called herself a "reverse chicana")-- insisted that their work should always reflect the three c's: conciencia, compromiso, y calidad (awareness or consciousness, commitment, and quality). So much of what I've done with my own work has fallen short of that mark, but not for lack of trying. And when I do feel I come close, I always think of "Ojos de Lucha." Thank you, David, Daniel, and Cassandra!
The second reason I pause to remember the earthquake is that it is hard not to think about the parallels with the ongoing disaster in the Gulf Coast. Both the earthquake and the hurricane exposed poverty and inequality and widespread corruption (that is what you call it in other countries when political supporters and business cronies of elected officials get jobs that they aren't qualified to hold). In Mexico City, the earthquake gave birth to a burst of political activity that contributed in an important way to the democratization process that led, over a decade later, to the electoral overthrow of the PRI. Maybe we will be so lucky here.