Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 42 / 19 October 2017
 

Angels of solidarity

Guest Opinion


A man steps into the rubble following a powerful earthquake last month in Mexico City. Photo: Courtesy NYT
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Despite living in San Francisco for 14 years, where talk of the "next big one" is never far from anyone's lips, nothing could have prepared me for the magnitude 7.1 earthquake that struck Mexico City (where I have been living since June 2016) on September 19. I was at home in the La Condesa neighborhood, napping in the early afternoon, when the building began to shake violently in all directions like a gallon of paint clamped in a mixing machine. I awoke to see a large framed portrait of Franz Kafka on the wall swinging 45 degrees back and forth. I bolted upright in bed, my heart going from a resting pulse to a terrified pulse in seconds. And then, before I had time to put my shoes on, the shaking stopped. I had miraculously slept through most of the quake. Little did I know, my experience at home alone in my apartment was just the beginning of the bizarre mix of sadness, fear, and solidarity that I would experience in the following days.

Only 12 days earlier, a magnitude 8.1 earthquake centered off of Mexico's southern coast killed nearly 100 people and damaged 41,000 homes. I was also at home when that quake occurred, but because it was centered far away from Mexico City, we had about a one-minute warning (unlike the September 19 quake, where people had no warning). My neighbors and I ran outside, the ground still trembling beneath our feet. In the hours after the quake, videos of the city's iconic Angel of Independence statue were shared on social media, the Angel seemingly about to take flight from its majestic pedestal.

Because the earlier quake was centered far from Mexico City, we were spared from significant damage. Perhaps tragically, it also had the effect of luring the city into a false sense of security. The first quake was bad, but I think most people, myself included, just assumed Mexico City had been spared from the far worse damage and loss of life that occurred in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. The odds of experiencing two major, devastating earthquakes within two weeks seemed remote. Yet that is exactly what happened.

In the minutes after the September 19 quake, I called my mom to let her know I was safe. At that point, most people still had no idea how bad it was. I simply assumed it was an aftershock of the first quake. Then I noticed a long crack running the length of a wall in my apartment, about 30 feet long, splintering off vertically and diagonally, growing larger as it reached the corners. My heart began beating faster again, and I walked down the four flights of stairs outside. I ran into a neighbor on the way down, and she showed me even larger cracks in the corner of her apartment. I came outside to people running in a panic in every direction. The sounds of sirens and helicopters, and people screaming, became louder and louder. I slowly began to walk toward Calle Amsterdam, one of the most beautiful streets in the whole city.

As I turned a corner, just two blocks from my apartment, the enormity of the disaster suddenly and horrifically became apparent. A large apartment building looked like a massive bomb had struck it. Huge shards of concrete jutted into the air as dust and smoke billowed from the debris. And somehow, amazingly, hundreds of mostly young people had already begun to form human chains to remove the rubble, sometimes handfuls at a time. This was literally hours before any government assistance arrived. I don't know how they did it. I felt utterly helpless in that moment and was overcome with shock. But somehow they knew exactly what to do. The everyday people of Mexico who risked life and limb to rescue their fellow human beings are the true angels of independence.

I learned a few days later that another apartment building on Calle Amsterdam – a gorgeous art deco building built in 1930 with an antiques shop in the front – was also totally destroyed. In a harrowing twist of fate, just three days before the earthquake, I had stopped by to get a tour of the building from its charming and flamboyant young owner, Juan, who survived (but a domestic worker in the building, Maria Ortiz Ramirez, did not). The September 19 earthquake would end up taking the lives of 326 people and reducing 45 buildings in Mexico City to rubble.

After the devastating earthquake that struck Mexico in 1985, the famous gay Mexican writer, Carlos Monsivais, asked: "Where do we live and in whom do we place our security?" The question of who we trust to help us in a time of crisis is fundamental to our sense of belonging. Like so many others, I left my heart in San Francisco. But my heart is also now here. Despite the cracks in my walls and despite (or because of) all the racist xenophobia from President Donald Trump, I feel safe here. I feel a sense of solidarity with the people here. I will never forget the terremotos (earthquakes) of September 2017. And I will forever hold in my heart the solidaridad of the Mexican people.

Que viva Mexico y que viva San Francisco.

 

David Waggoner is a former president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club.

 






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