Walking around Mexico City, it’s not uncommon to stumble upon the scars of the 2017 earthquake—crumbling buildings, or the remnants of them, sometimes covered by black tarps and a white laminate sign that announces they’re in the process of reconstruction. In this way, they are more like open wounds than scars, not just reminders of the pain and devastation of that day, but also unresolved extensions of it.
Today, almost four years after the earthquake, Mexico City finds itself in the middle of another disaster. More than 345,000 people are estimated to have died from Covid-19 in the country (with Mexico City as a major hotspot), and the pandemic has been devastating for education, gender violence, inequality and the economy.
Now, when I see the painful reminders of the 2017 earthquake, I wonder how long the scars of today’s tragedy will last, how long Mexico City will live with these open wounds. I’m also reminded of the unity and collectivism that followed disaster then, and the ways that same unity and collectivism echo into the present.
What I try to remember about the Mexico City earthquake is this: The professors and classmates who called to make sure I was alright; the human assembly lines in parks across the city putting together packages of essential items; the full blood banks; the professional and rag-tag search teams, all with a common mission. The city felt profoundly connected, and though I was an outsider, I also felt connected to it.
This connection was a big reason I wanted to return to Mexico after graduating from college. It felt like there was an invisible thread pulling me back (and, also, a more visible one: my partner, Ricardo).
Mexico City is a city with profound and palpable inequality, even more so during an earthquake or pandemic. This inequality is exacerbated in part by the foreigners who flock to the city for short or longer periods, some who parade the streets maskless, nearly all who contribute to the rapid gentrification of neighborhoods around the city. All foreigners in Mexico City—even those of us here permanently—should be asking ourselves hard questions about ethics and minimizing harm, during the pandemic and beyond.
Of course, experiencing the pandemic in Mexico City is much different than experiencing the earthquake. After the earthquake, city residents found comfort and solidarity gathering in large groups, working toward a common purpose. Now, we search for comfort and find solidarity in different ways, smiling underneath masks at passersby on the sidewalk. Though the means are different, the end is remarkably similar: keeping others safe.
During the earthquake, an army of professional search and rescue teams (and their dogs) identified buildings at risk of collapse, detected gas leaks, and searched for people trapped under the rubble. When I think of their counterparts during this Covid-19 disaster, I think of the brave (and underpaid, under-resourced) medical workers, but also of the contingent of gig workers that pedal around the city with neon orange Rappi packs on their backs, delivering food and medicine, keeping the city on its feet.
In December and January, when social media platforms filled with desperate pleas for leads on where to purchase oxygen tanks and crowdsourced lists of phone numbers and well wishes, I was again reminded of 2017, and the digital collectivism spurred by Verificado 19S, a site launched to verify and centralize information related to the earthquake response.
When I moved back to Mexico City, someone asked me what I had missed most about the metropolis. It’s a question with many answers, but the easiest one is this: the sounds. The echoing of “tamales oaxaqueños, tamales calientitos;” the bell of the garbage truck; the fragments of neighbors’ conversations that make their way through thin apartment walls; the honking of cars in traffic; the birds; the endless looped recording of “se compran colchones, tambores, refrigeradores…”
Sitting in my apartment, it’s easy for me to be naïvely idealistic about these sounds, many of which are sounds of necessity and reminders of the privilege of having the choice to stay at home and keep social distance. In January, during the peak of the virus in Mexico City, these sounds were often drowned out by ambulance sirens—and many days, they still are.
And yet, in the darkest, loneliest moments of the pandemic, these collective echoes of everyday living have reminded me of the life, of the blood and oxygen and energy that pulse through the city, seemingly inextinguishable, even during the most unimaginable of disasters.
Our unity is different than it was after the earthquake. But it’s still there.