Remembering the Mexico City Earthquake

The night of the Mexico City quake I couldn't sleep.

It hit while I was at work in the morning. I got a text a few minutes after from my friend "Another earthquake. CDMX."

“Is it bad?” I asked.

"Bad," came the response.

I didn't really fully understand the gravity of the situation until I got home an hour later and started seeing photos and video. I sat on my bed and pulled up live streaming news from Mexico City on my laptop and scrolled through Facebook on my phone. Debris, death counts rolling in, streets I'd walked earlier that year covered in concrete and rubble. My phone kept buzzing, friends texting back that they were ok. It was surreal.

 Photo via Vox

Photo via Vox

I went back to work that night, but it was hard to focus. Everything was normal here; passed apps going around the room, wine glasses clinking together, small talk and polite laughter filling the space all the while my friends were moving rubble with their bear hands, sirens and shouting echoing in the streets.

 The next morning was the same. Friends texting photos. Live feeds of relief efforts. That terrible feeling of anxiety building up, that unique nausea that only comes from not being able to do anything, from sitting still when all you want is to move.  I asked if there was anything I could do. "Pray," they said. And I was praying. But the words of the scriptures echoed in my head, "faith without works is dead." 

I thought back to my first time in Mexico City. We were setting up for an event and someone had stolen a piece of expensive equipment and we were trying to figure out how to replace it in time. I had 300 pesos in my pocket (less than $20USD), I handed it to the organizer, someone who would end up becoming a close friend, "I know it's not a lot, but --" he stopped me and looked me in the eye. "It is enough." 

Maybe I couldn't do a lot here, but there had to be something. I can make tacos, I thought. That's something. I grabbed a note card and wrote FREE TACOS FOR MEXICO at the top, scribbled out a menu, made the event on Facebook, invited a handful of friends and that was that. Expected turnout: twenty people. If nothing else we'll raise maybe a couple hundred bucks and show some love to a country that's special to a lot of us.

 Photo by Walt Burns

Photo by Walt Burns

Almost instantly it started getting shared on Facebook and Instagram. Within a few hours I got a call from Luis at El Come Taco, "What do you need for your event? We want to help." Later that evening I got a message from chef Jaime Fernandez offering to help cook the tacos for the brunch. Then Craftwork Coffee Co. and Alma’s Paletaria got on board to provide drinks. I got messages from others on Instagram saying they were coming and what should they bring. Noel Ortega of Crazy Casa asked what we needed for the set up. And at first, I was thinking, we don’t really need all these stuff, it’s going to be too much. It’s only twenty people, we don’t really need tables and chairs and tents and a 10 foot inflatable photo booth. “Just bring a few chairs,” I said. “I’ll let you know if anything changes.” If you were there, you know that things changed.

 Photo by Walt Burns

Photo by Walt Burns

 By the next day there were already a lot of people interested in the event, and a lot saying they were going via Instagram, facebook and text. It was hard to run the numbers but I was starting to realize that this was going to be bigger than I originally thought. More like 50+ for brunch, at least. That night I went to a Latino Hustle gallery showing and found myself talking with Guillermo Tapia of ArtLuck. “You’re doing the tacos on Sunday, right? What if we made it bigger?” He asked. “I would need a lot of help.”

He had the idea of extending it until the evening, adding an art gallery and silent auction, more tacos, got us a beer sponsor, Soy Capaz would bring the beats, Fabián Alvarado would cook. In essence the event just doubled, no tripled, in size.

 Photo by Walt Burns. Painting by Jesse Hernandez.

Photo by Walt Burns. Painting by Jesse Hernandez.

More people kept hopping on board, everyone brought something to the table that no one else could bring. Artists like Jesse Hernandez donated their work for free to be auctioned for donation. People brought plates, napkins, cups, they brought their friends and family. Everyone who said they were coming, came, and then some. All the volunteers showed up. Everything was set up and ready to go. We had enough food for everybody. We had enough beer for everybody. We had enough chairs for everybody. It couldn’t have gone any better. Well over a hundred people showed up to my house many of them complete strangers, we made hundreds of tacos and together raised $2,300 for relief efforts on the ground in Mexico City and Oaxaca. Friends in Mexico saw the party we were throwing for them and messaged me to tell me how much it meant to them. It was enough.

 Photo by Damian Labarrere

Photo by Damian Labarrere

It felt significant to be back in Mexico City for the one-year anniversary of the quake. The sismic alarm went off at 1:14 PM as a memorial and as a citywide drill. I was in a bookstore when it happened, the clerk came around a few minutes earlier to make sure people were aware of the drill so no one would be scared. Whistles started blowing in the street, “Este es el alarma.” We all calmly walked out into the street. “Alerta sismica. Alerta sismica,” repeated the robotic female voice. It was quieter than I expected. Some people were somber, others filmed it on their phones, others ignored it completely. A weak and awkward applause from people in the street followed the drill. It was anticlimactic. It wasn’t what I expected but in a way it seemed hopeful, the city has recovered so well in one year to the point where a memorial feels inconvenient for some. But as I walked out with everyone I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have felt like that day.

Later that day I was talking with my friends Damian and Kristina about that day, hearing their experiences as we walked the streets rebuilt. Kristina told me she cried during the drill. The memories were still fresh for her. Damian told me about how seconds after the quake people mobilized. Restaurants and business doled out food; people on bikes and motorcycles taped bottled water to their bodies to pass it out in the streets that were inaccessible via car. He pointed out buildings and streets, having a story for each of them. “You would have loved to be here on that day,” he told me. Kristina shook her head, “No, it was horrible.” But I knew what he meant. To see a people band together, to give freely, to help willingly, to sacrifice without weighing the cost, that is the beauty that sprung up instantly out of the rubble that day. I wondered if we could ever experience that outside of crisis or disaster. I believe we can.

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I’m grateful to have been there on the anniversary, to see my friends, that they are well, and to walk the streets of that beloved city, to see it strong, rebuilt, and standing as I always knew she would.