Jiyoon Park

Locking the iron gate behind us, my friend Ignacio and I left the apartment we were renting in El Centro, downtown Mexico City. Hungry, we began walking toward El Mayordomo, a popular breakfast spot, when the ground beneath us began to shake. Like Mexico City’s other 21.3 million residents, my friend and I experienced an earthquake. Buildings bounced, cars slid, people fled. Then, after what seemed an eternity, it was over.

Mexico is no stranger to earthquakes, particularly along the Pacific coast. Although Tuesday’s earthquake caused more damage in rural areas than in the capital, Mexico City has been historically vulnerable to seismic activity. Situated along the Ring of Fire and on top of the precolonial Lake Texcoco, Mexico City has surmounted multiple earthquakes since its founding by the Mexicas in 1325 as Mexico-Tenochtitlan. The most devastating one occurred on Sept. 19, 1985 — an 8.1 on the Richter scale. In a fateful turn of events, history repeated itself 32 years later when the Servicio Sismologico Nacional reported a 7.1 tremor.

That same Tuesday morning, Ignacio and I had walked past Liverpool, a posh department store near El Zocalo, Mexico City’s central plaza, when we heard sirens. Quite literally alarmed, I asked a security guard what was happening. It was “only a drill,” he informed me. Hours later, tragedy struck.

My friend and I are fortunate to have survived unscathed, and I am fortunate that my family is also safe. (He is Chilean; his family lives there and in Miami.) But the impact was devastating. As of this morning, over 300 people have been reported dead and many more injured or missing. Mexico City is virtually paralyzed. Numerous businesses, schools and government offices remain closed while officials inspect the buildings’ structural integrity. Worse, last Tuesday’s calamity occurred after two other earthquakes in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, some of Mexico’s poorest regions.

Despite the term, natural disasters are hardly natural. They are human catastrophes, products of inequitable urban planning, resource mismanagement, government inefficiency and income disparity. When an earthquake decapitated Mexico City’s iconic Angel de la Independencia in 1957, the Mexican state implemented new building codes. Subsequent legislation followed in 1976. Nevertheless, President Miguel de la Madrid, who served from 1982 to 1988, proved largely unresponsive during the 1985 crisis. Unsurprisingly, one of the most affected areas was a housing project named Tlatelolco, where the state had massacred hundreds of student protestors in 1968.

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s events, dozens of commentators have compared 1985 to our current predicament. Last week, the state was unmasked yet again. Investigative journalists like Carmen Aristegui and Denise Dresser helped to expose the hoax of Frida Sofia, a mainstream news story about a trapped schoolgirl. Major networks like Televisa were repeating this false narrative to deflect attention from substantive search and rescue efforts being carried out by civil society.

If the state was inert in 1985, today it is engaging in restitutional excess as the armed forces prevent people from organizing by blocking their access to the rubble. This obstructionism is a feeble attempt to revive their image as national heroes after their complicity with Washington’s violent “War on Drugs.” However, the valiant efforts of organizations like Topos (Moles) continue. When survivors of the 1985 earthquake founded the group, they did so because the state lacked a search and rescue program. Even now that it has one, Topos remains at the forefront of recovery efforts, rivaling the “expertise” of official institutions.

Under these pressures, Mexico’s one-party state continues to unravel. With the exception of the 2000 and 2006 elections, either the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI) or its predecessors have controlled the presidency since 1929. Though the PRI has historically styled itself as the heir of Mexico’s 1910 revolution, which resulted in progressive gains like agrarian reform and labor rights, it has propagated authoritarianism. Yet recent events reflect the promise of a more egalitarian vision.

Amid the tragedy of Tuesday’s earthquake, Mexicans from all socio-economic, racial and religious backgrounds are uniting in recovery efforts. Through social media, civil society is organizing “centros de acopio” (distribution centers) to provide food, supplies and medication to survivors and search and rescue crews. While much work remains to be done, such projects also point toward a more optimistic future: a politics beyond the state, a politics of the people.

Carlos R. Hernández | carlos.hernandez@yale.edu