Cuban Journalist in Mexico: “My Earthquake of September 19”

By Lazaro de Jesus Gonzalez Alvarez [1]

In a matter of minutes nature showed its incredible destructive force. Foto:

HAVANA TIMES — “There aren’t any words” is a life-saving cliché, when the mark that reality leaves on your spirit takes over our ability to communicate. However, sometimes you need to find the words. No matter how insufficient they might seem to us, they have an irrefutable charm. For centuries, people’s unique way of communicating has resisted the colonizing attempts of iconographic language. Among other reasons is that the nature of the images that are evoked by written language is still partially unknown. In this almost mysterious realm, figures of speech are a little like earthquakes, they are so flighty and unpredictable.

I’m not going to deny it. In the face of the destructive force of the earthquake which hit the center of Mexico on September 19th, my immediate reaction was journalist block. Especially because of two main reasons: 1) There was a lot of pressing things to do on the street and 2) I had (I still have) too many new experiences to process. As the hours began to go by, I started to feel the need to write “something”; but, with unusual premeditation, I decided to let some time go by, so as to calm the passions I was feeling with a “cool head.”

Today, two weeks later, urged on by my disagreement with a large part of the information created about the earthquake, I am going to dig right into telling you about my very personal impressions about this great natural disaster, which has the whole of Mexico and half of the world on tenterhooks. This arbitrary display of anger from Mother Nature, whose rage was anything but maternal, punished the Mexican people again, just 32 years after the super tragic event in 1985, and just 12 days before another powerful and catastrophic earthquake caused massive damage in the country’s southern region. Any cruelty charge would be justified.

The small window of time that I suffered

A high tide of emotions that I discovered. This would maybe be the best way to summarize my feelings about the 19th of September. It’s hard to describe how a soul in torment, afraid and hectic, can move so abruptly between extreme emotions, in a matter of seconds, minutes, hours, days… In such a way that the horde of shock waves pound in your chest, in a strange and explosive manner.

Thousands of people came out to help search for survivors and the dead among the rubble. Foto:

The first thing you feel is fear: “Teacher, the earth is shaking!” I leap out of my chair and before I reach the classroom door, I begin to hear the delayed seismic alarm. “Will I reach the garden safely?” For a few seconds, I hated the crowd who – in slow motion, due to my own haste – were blocking the exit in front of me. I hadn’t recovered and calmed myself down when news about dozens of deaths began to flood in. Life was falling apart.

It’s impossible not to agonize with every cell of your being. Without official media reporting it, common sense already intuitively suggested that a lot of people had died, were dying or would die in the next few hours under the cruel layer of rubble. In the blink of an eye, the most deadly verb was conjugated in my head, without stopping and it even hurt. So much horror. Meanwhile, I should openly feel relieved and thank the Reaper for not choosing me. In the face of a disaster of this kind and size, frankly anyone can increase the list of the venerated on November 2nd (When the Day of the Dead is observed). And this mere insinuation can leave you crying without respite for hours.

Although to tell you the truth, I have never been fearful or one to cry. I prefer to go from mourning something to taking action swiftly. But this time, road traffic cramped my impulses. Greatly. A stampede of cars was taking over the streets and getting out of Mexico City seemed like a leap of faith, no less, or better yet, packed. Even if I walked home, it would still take me hours. I had no other choice but to wait. This tsunami of traffic will die down at some point, that’s what I hoped. Meanwhile, I took up the luxury of being able to get information, leaking through in drips, about the disaster. The majority of people in the capital were left with an electric and communications blackout. Electricity services, cellphones and the Internet all collapsed alongside the capital’s buildings. Just when they were most needed.

Before going on, I must confess an awful coincidence: That morning, like every September 19th, a massive earthquake evacuation drill took place. As we were leaving the I.T. lab, I joked around with a friend: “Can you imagine what would happen if during the drill, which people don’t take very seriously, the earth really does shake?” What a darn coincidence! Two hours later, my “speculation” came true, with a small difference but the impact was immediate. From now onwards, I promise to bite my tongue, just in case.

Floods of solidarity actions (and the government’s ineptitude)

At 6 PM, I ventured out onto the street; It didn’t go as badly as I had imagined it would. Cabs move slowly, but they are moving. The metro is running, quite slowly, but free; although it’s suspiciously empty. It seems that people are afraid to go inside the ground’s furious belly. I already knew from Whatsapp that the old building where I rent an apartment was still standing. However, it’s comforting to see it standing with my own eyes, among the shadows, as there is still a power cut. Reports of theft conducted by criminal opportunists, who never miss an opportunity, advises people to stay in their homes.

A raised fist was a call for silence to try and hear any calls for help among the ruins. Foto:

When 11 PM rolls around, electricity has been restored in my neighborhood so I take to the street with my wife and a friend to lend a hand with whatever needed to be done. The adjoining corner on Peten and Emiliano Zapato streets, where one of the most-talked-about collapses of the Benito Juarez Delegation’s office took place, seemed like a huge ant’s nest. The wave of arms coming and going was striking. Sinuous human chains were formed and became blurred in no time, following anonymous orders, from nothing. Hundreds of water, drink and food parcels move between hands at great speed, before piling up on some corner.

We continued to help here for a couple of hours, greatly infected by the frenzy of a sea of spontaneous help which none of us (three foreigners) had ever experienced. Everyone present there had converted their pain into energy, as if by magic. Sadness into love. United without any kind of discrimination, the atmosphere was filled with humanism everywhere. Streams of anticipation and adrenaline were running through our bodies, with a rare sense of urgency: our neighbors need us now. Our collective agitation bordered on euphoria. I soon picked up on the certain level of “willing disorganization”.

From afar, I could make out two lines of civilians with helmets rummaging through the rubble. But, the police wouldn’t let you pass through to this area anymore. Specialized “mole” brigades, people from the Navy and the Environment Secretariat were dealing with rescue and saving activities as well moving the bodies of those found dead. A raised fist was the password to ask for silence. Listening to signs of human life was right now a matter of life or death. Every time a sea of people opened up into two halves and an ambulance crossed the street in haste, a concert of tears flooded our faces. That night, and for the next few days, this scene played over and over again in the communities that were affected. Thousands of men and women were fighting to snatch dozens of hostages from Death’s clasp. Amidst such misfortune, every small victory caused a great celebration.

In the early morning, there were literally too many of us. The area had been overtaken by personnel and a type of organization that sets the course for so many individuals was sadly missing. I can understand that we are living through a disaster of great proportions; but, hasn’t the government planned its response to events such as this one? Would it be so hard for public authorities to coordinate the action in a perimeter as small as a block? Going beyond this immediate experience, which took place in front of my own eyes, the Mexican State has confirmed its weakness. Its incompetence to efficiently deal with a disaster situation is reflected, globally, in civil society’s mistrust of state management and, especially, the pitiful news show that a lot of people watch.

“Frida Sofia”: a poor reality show

Because I lived a similar experience, I can quite clearly figure out what the level of confusion and disorder reigning at the Enrique Rebsamen School was, a place where the gravity of the tragedy was aggravated with the majority of fatal victims being children. The anxiety that child suffering stirs in us, mobilized many people in situ but also via the media. The chance to rescue some of these children with life made the whole world tremble, to the core. More so now as hundreds of volunteers arrived at the school and this has become an uncontrollable hot bed.

Brigades of experts arrived from several countries to help in the search for survivors. Foto:

Amidst this “battlefield, drenched in blood”, like a father described to a local journalist, September 20th gave life to a rumor which reached out-of-this-world proportions and is the object of heated controversy in the media and Mexican society and press: the Frida Sofia case. I myself spent a night unable to sleep, eaten away by anxiety, waiting for the girl’s “imminent” rescue. Just like the rest of the viewers, which I was angry about the other day when I “mistakingly” found out that I don’t dare to call it a scam for a lack of evidence.

It’s hard to believe that the government would have dared to have orchestrated such a macabre scam and that Televisa co-produced it. Mexican society today isn’t what it was in 1985, when the case of the boy nicknamed Monchito was revealed, who was “apparently” trapped underneath rubble and he captured the country’s attention for weeks, in vain. Today, myths are quickly shot down by the speedy emergence of different information sources, whose dizzying cross challenges the State’s information monopolies. I refuse to believe that the Navy and Televisa were so reckless so as to put their credibility on the line in a game of Russian roulette for public opinion. Nonsense has limits.

I had already listened to different witness accounts about this media hoax from many angles. And, even though the injustice is huge, I am influenced by an unfortunate chain of professional mistakes which have blown up a news story condemned to explode, in a really irresponsible manner. The exact resolve of those to blame for such crazy ideas needs to be deeply investigated by the police (or maybe a social psychologist at times of crisis). However, this isn’t possible right now (beyond the highest-ranking Marine officers’ ineptitude who have spread blatant lies). Anyway, it seems to be more useful to develop “what happened” and focus on the question “how did it happen.” And that’s where Televisa can’t escape a bashing of criticism.

Firstly, the absence of a serious contrast of sources during the entire national coverage of the event seems to be a botch that amateur journalists make, which is inexcusable, which transcends the reporter who is showing her face on camera (who, by the way, did have access to different sources and she didn’t consult them). However, the most blameable thing about this, and I want to stress this, is how we deal with what happened. With its normal yellow sensationalism, Televisa has converted the supposed rescue of a young girl into a reality show and I must stress the ad infinitum of the dramatization of the moment. The event was dressed with all of the ingredients needed for reality TV, “packaged” and sold like a live show. I must remind you that, even before I learned about the lie, at midnight, I told my wife annoyed: “These scumbags are already using other people’s misfortune as merchandise.” I switched off the TV and I haven’t put that channel on again since.

Cloudy future

More than 300 fatalities is too dark of a figure for an earthquake whose primary wave lasted less than a minute. It’s true that Mexico has had worse tragedies. But, every life suddenly separated and violently cut from the family tree by an earthquake is like a small heart attack for a people who are beating in chorus and have a lot of national identity, on a day-to-day basis, (sometimes too much with questionable consequences).

Each survivor brought a breath of hope amid so much pain. Foto:

To tell you the truth, there are other social earthquakes – such as drug trafficking, femicides, domestic abuse, gangs, extreme poverty – which cut short the lives of many innocent people every year and go unnoticed by the majority of citizens. A study would need to be carried out to determine why these people who have poured out onto the streets to help their brothers affected by a natural disaster, couldn’t fight off those everyday social problems with the same valor.

For now, as an “international observer”, I am still waiting to see what will happen to the Mexican people’s solidarity over the coming days. Will it quickly die out or will it continue for enough time? The fate of thousands of people without a home is cast. And a large part of the possibilities to make the next few months less hell-like have fallen on the shoulders of their native brothers. Not only by collecting this generous popular support, but by demanding that the State is transparent and efficient when it comes to administering its resources, during the long rebuilding process. It wouldn’t be a bad idea either, now that I come to think about it, that state and federal governments hold practice drills in response to emergencies. A good dose of coordination and leadership will better connect with this people’s altruistic willingness and solidarity.

New earthquakes will come, we know that. How powerful? It’s a mystery. In fact, this week, anxiety has filled the center of our lives, in the face of the threat of new potential and real earthquakes. Every time the seismic alarm goes off, we bleed with the open wound of September 19th, which will never heal completely. Unfortunately, we have to live with this scar on our memory’s skin. Let’s make misfortune also tremble, from every small place in the country. Let the raised fist knock down our most hardened fears.

[1]Cuban journalist and sociologist, living in Mexico. He is currently studying a PhD in Social Sciences, specializing in Sociology at Mexico College.

One thought on “Cuban Journalist in Mexico: “My Earthquake of September 19”

  • Well worth reading. A revealing account of one’s emotional state in a frightening situation.

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