Coming of Age on September 19

For Mexico City dwellers of my generation (chilangos or, as we prefer to call ourselves, DeFeños, even though this is now anachronistic, since the City is no longer called the Federal District) September 19 is full of symbolism and hope. It is the day of our first earthquake, the one that in 1985 transformed our political and social awareness. Yesterday we witnessed a second major earthquake in our City, against all odds hitting exactly 32 years after the first one.

Image of Tlateloco square in 1985, the site where the 1968 student movement was cut short on October 2, 1968 (http://www.sopitas.com/523983-30-datos-sobre-el-sismo-del-19-de-septiembre-de-1985/)

If you remember Rockdrigo, the Rock Rupestre singer who wrote the memorable Metro Balderas song, or listened to Alex Lora’s TRI in El Agora, you are part of my generation. That day we woke up to realize, facing a disaster of epic proportions, that our government was not just authoritarian, ineffective and corrupt (we already knew that), but scared and exhausted. The images of the President walking around the rubble that day displayed to everyone that the Emperor had no clothes. We finally had “common knowledge”, a critical component for collective mobilization: we knew that everybody knew the truth.

During the first hours and days we could not fully understand what had happened to our beloved city. The metropolis ceased to function as we knew it, but an organic order emerged to replace the vacuum of the public authorities that were completely surpassed by the catastrophe. Volunteers directed traffic at the intersections. Makeshift ambulances were improvised, with young men waving red flags shouting “¡paso!”, taking the wounded to the hospitals. Rescue crews emerged (including the legendary Topos, or gophers), the heroic individuals of nimble bodies who risked their lives in the rubble, digging out hundreds of survivors. Civil society and human solidarity at its best.

Virtually everyone who was not a damnificado (a survivor) became a volunteer. Mothers prepared food and donated clothes and blankets. Able bodied men worked without rest in the rubble around the city. Students got organized, established shelters, usually without asking their university authorities for any permission. Universities -public and private alike- became Centros de Acopio, clearinghouses for those seeking supplies, tools, water, medicine, information, or place for families to go to when searching for their loved ones. The same thing is happening again all over Mexico City. Yesterday people immediately started human chains in the sites of collapsed buildings, helping to move rubble away as quickly as possible. Neighbors opened their doors offering food, water, and embrace and perhaps some comfort. WIFI passwords were removed throughout the City. We now have all these advantages brought by technology, but the solidarity and compassion we learned three decades ago.

Young people should realize that in an era before the internet, in the universities we would work on producing long lists of people, either of those missing, of those registered in hospitals and clinics or of the bodies identified in the makeshift morgue established at the baseball stadium of the Diablos Rojos, the team of Mexico City (the stadium was owned by the IMSS, the National Social Security Health system). The government had no capacity to know where to find or look for people, but civil society figured it out. Telephone land lines were intensely used in order to link people who needed something with those who could offer it (a crane was needed in one area of the city, while someone else offered building equipment from his company, we helped to match them). Today all of this is happening through social media (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Whattsapp and Google sites). Back in 1985 crews would coordinate from the university every morning, well organized and disciplined, to bring supplies or help in the rescue work. It was exhilarating and empowering. We had taken over our city.

Everything changed that day. A few weeks after the first earthquake, in the demonstration commemorating the massacre of students from October 2, 1968, hundreds of thousands of us took to the streets, our streets, fearless. I can still feel my body shuddering when I remember how at some point during the march the crowd stopped shouting the slogans “¡2 de Octubre, No se olvida!” “¡El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido!”. We entered the zocalo, the main square of Mexico City, in silence. The center of power since the Aztecs belonged to us, and we kept on occupying it, most memorably in the mobilizations in the aftermath of the 1988 electoral fraud. I might be wrong, but I believe the legendary leaders of the Mexican opposition, Heberto Castillo and Rosario Ibarra de Piedra spoke inspiring speeches that day. Democratization had started in earnest, although it would take us 15 more years to defeat the “perfect dictatorship” of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).

The vanguard of the demonstrations in those years was a mix of displaced unionized workers (like the Ruta 100 bus drivers joined by the Movimiento Urbano Popular), mothers of the desaparecidos missing from the years of the dirty war in the 1970s, student leaders, former guerrillas, leftist intellectuals, and always, at the forefront, the damnificados. We demanded housing and public services in solidarity with the thousands who had lost everything with the earthquake, or with the damnificados de siempre, urban dwellers that had never been offered public services, because they had always lived marginalized in the slums of the City, abandoned by the state, in what Guillermo O’Donnell has called the “gray zones”.

We do not know the magnitude of the loss of life and the destruction from yesterday’s earthquake. But preliminary reports suggest that instead of having buildings collapsing by the hundreds, this time figures are in the dozens. And deaths, although climbing, seem to be in the hundreds, not the tens of thousands. This time the government cannot hide death figures because technologies have empowered citizens to verify the information, and share it with each other. And Mexico is now a democracy, where citizens will scrutinize every government action or inaction.

I imagine young men and women, who like us 32 years ago, are now coming of age and becoming aware of the power they have for change, helping others less fortunate. The political change our generation engaged in that 19th of September of 1985 brought democracy. But we did not achieve the structural change we sought for the conditions of inequality, exclusion and deprivation that still prevail in Mexico. I hope the young men and women out in the streets of Mexico today can do a better job than what we did. I am still hopeful, when I see the images of volunteers singing as they dig in the rubble and embrace each other in the streets of my beloved City.