We were only four and a half months into living in the city. We knew some people, but not many. Part of my instinct immediately after the quake was to stay put. As if anybody really knew where I was…if another one hit, maybe they would have a better chance of knowing where I am? A greater part of me felt compelled to move…walk, anywhere. After a few minutes of initial shock, we headed towards Condesa. The couple of people we could check on were near…our elder friend, who had told us tales of rescuing people as a physician in the 1985 earthquake, our dear dog-sitter who kept multiple dogs at a time in her home, and the family who owned our old apartment building. I sent out messages to my other friends in the south of the city and one other teacher who I knew lived somewhere around the corner from me.
As we walked towards Parque Mexico, we started to get a glimpse of the damages. Power was out everywhere. The liquor store across the street from us reeked of alcohol and bottles had crashed off the shelves throughout. We saw the facade had fallen off of some buildings. “How crazy” I thought, hoping this type of damage might be the worst. With every few steps I took, I soon realized it wasn’t. Glass was shattered from windows high and low, walls caved in, roofs were slumping.
We rounded the corner of Nuevo Leon in the hub of our old neighborhood and were met with a frantic crowd. People with shovels and orange vests walking quickly in line passed by. Prompted by the sight of responders, we turned to the right and could see clearly a building had collapsed in full. Less than 30 minutes since the quake had struck, red yellow tape was strung, and a rescue team was in place. At the time, it seemed this was an organized rescue response–people with the proper attire (helmets, gloves, vests, shovels) seemed to be orchestrating things as if they had practiced this before. Later, we would learn the majority of efforts were led by ordinary citizens trying to rescue their family members, neighbors, and friends. It would take some time before organized governmental response would occur, though the sound of police and ambulance sirens entered the city within the hour.
We walked with more urgency, rounding the corner to Atixclo, our old street. Our dog-sitter had replied she and all dogs got out safely. As we neared our old building, we could see windows busted out and our landlord sticking his head out the window threw us a double thumbs up as if to say “All good here.” It wasn’t all good by any means. He’ll be strapped financially for months as he makes needed repairs and likely cancels his AirBNB rentals (which are so cheap I am convinced they cover only slightly more than the cost of maintaining the apartments themselves). Plus, his family’s apartment was terribly affected with almost all windows busted out. But everyone is alive, and that is good.
Around the corner from our old apartment is where we usually found our old friend. Most days, he stands out on the corner as he people watches and makes new friends with little difficulty. We don’t really know his story…he drinks on the street and lives in his very old family home full of antiques he hopes to sell one day. He used to be a doctor and he grew up in the dormitorios (simple rooms or apartments where many of Mexico’s City’s commuters sleep at night) of Nezahualcóyotl. He taught us the informal and formal histories of Mexico City and quizzed our knowledge each time we reunited. We exchanged English and Spanish colloquial sayings and laughed at the puns together. He loved Mexico City and wanted those who visited to share in its truth. He wasn’t there when we arrived. A couple of women near his building informed us that he wasn’t home, but was confirmed to be fine after the earthquake. Maybe he had left to help others like he had in the 80’s. We will not know, at least for a while, since sadly we ended up leaving the country before we could say goodbye.
As we continued walking, I eventually heard from each person I had contacted that they were okay, but most without power. We headed back to Roma Norte to round the couple of blocks near our apartment. As we walked, we heard people speaking of “Medellin” and how it had fallen, but couldn’t make out what was happening. Mercado Medellin, a staple traditional market in our neighborhood, was just two blocks from us, also on Medellin street. Not much further, we saw the scene of tape and rescuers crowded through the block. In fact, a building had collapsed on the corner of Medellin street and San Luis Potosi, around the corner.
People were injured, missing, dead. The numbers of buildings reported to be collapsed or collapsing continued to grow as did our concern for staying inside. We headed back to the apartment. As we walked, military trucks arrived into the main streets yelling urgently for water and medical supplies. They yelled it didn’t matter if our water was open–they needed anything we could offer. I handed over a liter I had brought with me, hopeful I could replenish before a water outage happened. We got to the apartment, grabbed a couple of changes of clothes and what food we had left in the fridge and headed out. I was able to purchase the last three 12oz bottles of water at the bodega downstairs, which wouldn’t be enough for more than the evening. We arrived to Parque Mexico to eat our makeshift dinner. There, a centro de acopio (collection center) had started to form. Family and friends gathered. Tents popped up and pallets of blankets and pillows formed in the center as people prepared to stay the evening outside.
We sat down a few minutes to give June a break and allow us to think…about what to do. Within a few minutes, people passed by offering us tortas, dog food, milk (milk for our dog), and water. We felt confident we had what we needed for the evening and that others would likely need these items, so politely declined. People were eager for us to take something…they wanted to contribute to all of their neighbors. For the night, we eventually accepted some water since I was fairly concerned that the stores seemed to all be out of water and we didn’t know when another supply would be available. Eventually, private vehicles started to arrive with boxes of supplies…food, medical supplies, water, household items, and clothing. We watched as the first of the fireman lines, or cadenas, formed in the park to unload and pass items into the shelter. As the days continued, June would spend the time tied to one of us as we worked in the lines.
The first night, we eventually returned to our apartment, naively confident our apartment was safe enough since it hadn’t collapsed yet. Still, we were shaken mentally. Sirens and yelling went off through the night and sent my heart racing with any change of pace or volume. Again I found myself tensely checking my phone repeatedly for evidence of escalating aftershocks. My husband sat on the porch most of the night “on watch” for the next quake. I think I slept with one eye open a few minutes at a time. Eventually, around 3am, both exhausted, we crashed into a deep sleep for three full hours. I woke at 6am, eager to know the latest updates. Maybe since it was early morning and people were resting, the internet service was exceptionally strong. I managed to download the first of the news articles I would read. Dozens of children dead in a school in the south of a city and dozens more missing. I didn’t sleep after that.
The next few days continued in an ebb and flow of chaos, organizing, fear, and awe. On the day after the earthquake, I opened the apartment door to head to the park. I was greeted by dozens of volunteers heading down the stairs carrying furniture, papers, and personal items to the entry way of the building. I looked up and saw no less than 10 police men on our rooftop looking down at the apartments. One made eye contact and made his way to our apartment. I asked if we were in danger, to which he asked permission to enter our apartment. After a few minutes (literally) of looking at the surface of our walls, he informed us we were safe in our apartment so long as we didn’t use the gas. However, the neighbors above us were being required to evacuate due to a wall caving in. Still blind to the potential for serious danger, I focused on my plan to get to the park again that day to volunteer.
When we arrived, the amount of volunteers had grown exponentially. A couple of cafes and restaurants regained power and opened for the public. We charged up, updated family and contributed where we could. As the day progressed, more donations came pouring and so did the volunteers. There was no real system on the second day and it was easy to feel in the way, though other times there were urgent calls for volunteers. We eventually took a break to walk around with our friend who hadn’t yet acquainted with the damage that had happened in Roma and Condesa. As we walked, we learned of a major gas leak on Insurgentes, the major cross-street to the right of our apartment. Plus, our corner to several blocks away had been taped off and the area evacuated. We learned that a distinctive multi-story building that had been abandoned for years had a high risk of falling. A man stopped me to interview me on his phone for a radio broadcast…I apologized for my terrible Spanish. We stopped to eat dinner at one of the restaurants in our neighborhood that was open. We processed, said farewell to our friend, and walked “home.”
On the way, crowds surrounding the collapsed site at Medellin stood fiercely with raised fists in the air, a sign requesting silence. The rescuers were listening for life below the rubble. A few moments later, shouting for a “MEDICO” ensued, indicating a body had been found. Up the block, people shouted and shouted. There was no doctor around. I walked quickly further up the block shouting the same “MEDICO! MEDICO” until I ran into a man directing traffic with a megaphone. I asked him to please yell for a doctor and a young doctor came forward to be escorted by motorcycle to the site. Not long after, as we had secured all our belongings from the apartment and were sitting under a bus stop in the rain did the same chain of shouting occur. Fortunately, this time was near a national guard set up and a team was able to respond quickly.
We had gone back and forth on our feelings of being safe and unsafe often since the first earthquake hit a couple weeks prior. I was still seeking proof that we could be safe living there, in our apartment, in the city I had recently accepted as truly home just weeks before. When we arrived to our building, more neighbors were evacuating. We learned two of the apartments above us were now mandated to leave and many of the other neighbors were evacuating too. Our apartment sat at the front of the building, which one of neighbors informed us was not recommended to stay in. We walked upstairs to find a note from Protection Civil informing us that it appeared our apartment did not suffer significant damage, but that ultimately there were risks for staying and it was our choice to take the risk of staying or leaving. The building manager who lived downstairs informed us he was staying, as was one family to the right of our apartment. But, most people had left by now and our manager let us know there were albergues, or shelters/hostels, being set up around the city to house people who didn’t have a place to go.
We got my rolling suitcase, exhausted by having lugged around bags and backpacks for hours on end, packed up our essentials and got out. With the escalating amount of dangers to our building, we didn’t feel safe, but we didn’t know where to go. We planned to return to the park for the night for volunteering, since reasonably we had nowhere to be and helping people seemed to be the only urgent matter. When we made it to the bottom of the stairs, it started down-pouring. I see photos in the news of people in the parks working through that rain…only one of many demonstrations of commitment, selflessness, and community in the aftermath. We had June and our valuables that needed to stay with us and decided we would not go to the park that night. As we sat under the awning of the building with our suitcases and June cuddling with the bunched-up fabric of my husband’s hammock, passerbys offered more assistance to us. We didn’t really need anything, except a home at that point.
A women, Sara, approached us. She asked if we knew directions to Jalapa street. Something I could help with…I pulled out my Google Maps and helped her plan her route to her destination. She expressed she was going to pick up her daughter. Was she okay? Sara explained there was a special workshop happening for children to process trauma from the earthquake that evening. She asked us if we needed help or a place to go…did we live in the building upstairs? We explained the situation and she affirmed the advisory not to return. She also told us of the shelters nearby and shared that many volunteers were eagerly ready to accept guests. Family ties are generally very strong in Mexico and many evacuees had gone to stay with family or close friends. There were far fewer people staying in shelters than what might occur in other places if a similar disaster occurred. Resources were mobilized and people wanted to help. She took my number and later called me with the address. She would call me multiple times after, even after having made it to the states to check on us.
We eventually succumbed to exhaustion of all types. My mind was both spinning and foggy, my legs restless and sore, my heart fluttering and broken. It had become clear we would not feel safe returning here to this apartment. We needed to get rest so that we could think clearly and make the most reasonable plan. With that, we walked towards the shelters. My Spanish was suffering as a result of fatigue, so I knew more or less where to go…not exactly. Along the way, we ran into a group of teenagers who escorted us around the neighborhood and helped us find our way. We arrived to Kinder Condesa, a small kindergarten with multiple volunteers standing outside, unloading a van of supplies. We asked if they had room for us and our dog. After a few minutes of discussion, they affirmed they would be able to take us in with June. They led us back to a classroom that had been cleared out for sleeping space and informed us there was only one other family there that night, next door. About a half dozen volunteers encircled us with supplies, offering everything they could. We gladly accepted some sandwiches, coffee, water, and dog food. A volunteer doctor came into offer us medical help, which we did not need…but he gave June some pets any ways. They provided us a couple of sleeping pads, sheets, and a blanket and helped to make our pallet. It was really incredible. That night, I slept 8.5 hours straight without waking once. Per my Fitbit, it was the best night of sleep I had in weeks…though my body was stiff and realigned from the cement floor in the morning. I felt safe and taken care of. I was incredibly grateful and touched.
The next morning, we made a plan over breakfast. A woman eating with her kids next to us offered for us to stay in her home that night. We declined, knowing a couple of friends had already checked in to potentially offer a place to stay overnight. We really didn’t want to leave the city, but the only way we could feel safe staying would be in a newer apartment in a neighborhood less susceptible to the damage of the quakes. We had already paid rent until November in our current apartment and had exhausted our savings traveling around the country (worth it). Even if we found a nicer apartment in our price range, we would likely need to pay 6-12 months ahead since we were not residents. I was sure there was nothing available on AirBNB in our price range that fit the bill (I peruse it on a weekly basis). We could leave the city, travel elsewhere in the country, but that would be expensive to relocate us all and start over too. The last, and my least favorite option, was to travel home. We could get one way tickets for us three and land safely in the states. We both have families and friends ready to help and eagerly hoping for our return. My husband and I could both work reliably and boost our savings so we could return when we were ready. Plus, we were already planning to visit home in a couple of weeks, so it would be an extended, but temporary stay.
I cried…I cried as I texted June’s dogsitter to tell her we were leaving and could we meet to say goodbye? and I cried packing up our apartment. It was the first time I had cried since the earthquake and I started to realized how blunted I had been through the shock of the experience. I took breaths, trying to remember the greatness of the fact that I was alive and had not experienced the loss so many people were experiencing just outside my door. I tried to focus on appreciating every privilege that I was experiencing being able to choose to leave. Yet, I grappled with leaving a life that I flowed with and a community I fell passionately in love with. I sought acceptance to know that returning to the states was, for now, the right thing to do…but deep inside, I wasn’t sure.
I had met another new friend just a few days before the earthquake. She had texted and eagerly offered for us to stay with her and her husband in their apartment in the south. We finished packing, cleaned the apartment as best as we could with the limited time we had, and ubered to her home for the night. We booked plane tickets for the next day and arranged for my sister-in-law to pick us up in DC…the closest one-way flight which June could accompany us on. It was happening. We were leaving. We spent the night over our first in-home dinner and cocktails with friends…another realization of our building sense of community and belonging just as we said goodbye.
In the morning, we returned to Condesa to turn in our apartment keys and let June say goodbye to her dear dogsitter (auntie). The neighborhood had transformed. It now looked like a military base. Officers, doctors, reporters, all interspersed in the streets. Barricades regulated entry and exit at the collection centers. Tarp shelters received people seeking their loved ones, emergency supplies, or refuge.
It would be a long time until we would enjoy the essence of the city and we wanted to depart on a “good” note. Tortas al Fuego, our neighborhood favorite for tacos al pastor was open. So, in true foodie style, we feasted one last time before heading to the airport. That moment as a family in the city eating tacos in the street with our new friend meant closure and nurtured my commitment that this would not be forever.