issue 158 - April 1986
THE relief teams have gone from Mexico City even though 37,300 of Its citizens still live in tents and shelters. The explosives have finished demolishing the buildings that the earthquake damaged beyond repair - including among others the National Medical Centre, the pride of Latin American medicine and a teaching centre for young doctors from Peru, Chile and Central America.
At seven in the morning and seven in the evening of the 19th of September 1985, Mexico suffered the worst quake In her history - and probably the fiercest in the world this century. The states of Jalisco, Michoacan, Colima and Guerrero suffered damage, but on nothing like the scale of Mexico City which, with its 18 million Inhabitants, is thought to be the biggest city in the world. From 7.19 p.m. onwards Mexico became a disaster area.
The earthquake, one of the most violent and deadly which has ever been experienced, was felt from Chile up to Texas. Not since San Francisco in 1906 has this part of the world suffered such a cataclysmic impact the brutal break-up of the earth's crust generated a force equivalent to thousands of nuclear bombs.
The centre of the city was devastated; most of the buildings which collapsed had been built within the last 25 years and belonged to government departments, including those of the Ministry of Labour and of Communications and Public Works. That skyscrapers should collapse in a seismic zone shows a serious lack of thought and planning, but that hospitals should fall is nothing less than a crime. Mexico lost its National Medical Centre (a group of 25 buildings), the whole of the Hospital Juarez, the General Hospital with Its maternity unit, and others which are thought to have suffered irreparable damage. In those three minutes many schools and nurseries also came down.
But though the physical damage was enormous, the loss of human life was beyond recovery. More than 20,000 Mexicans were buried alive in the rubble or died afterwards in hospital. The sirens of thousands of ambulances and fire-engines screamed through the city.
Mexicans came to realise what it means to live in a country where few preventive measures are taken; we are defenceless against the forces of Nature; in this part of Latin America there is no monitoring, no network of sensitive detection instruments, no early-warning system for this kind of catastrophe. Mexicans are always vulnerable, and in the case of the earthquake we were doubly exposed: first to the natural phenomenon and second to the poor construction of our buildings. Many of these came down like sand castles; the materials were bad, the weak beams fell to the ground.
Judith García lost her three sons and her husband. 'It wasn't the earthquake that killed my family,' she says, 'it was the corruption'. Gloria Guerrera agrees. She lost her daughter in the Neuvo Leon building, the same one where Placido Domingo lost his relatives. 'How come the Government let us live in Neuvo Leon if our lives were in danger? They repaired it once and it still wasn't right, the contractors didn't fix the bad cement work; they preferred to steal at the cost of thousands of Mexican lives.
Of the 18 million Mexicans in the biggest city in the world, more than 500,000 live practically in the open air, bathed in that cloud of smog which in the last 20 years has reduced visibility from 30 kilometres to just four. There is only 23 per cent of oxygen in an atmosphere which is degraded every day by 6,000 tons of pollutants - 85 per cent of which come from the two and a half million cars which transport only 16 per cent of the population. We choke in 30,000 tons of rubbish each day and the mothers of the capital have ten times as much lead in their blood as those who live in the Mexican provinces.
Fernando Ortíz Monasterio, an architect and ecologist, together with the investigator Julia Carebas, has warned that the children of Mexico City are born with levels of lead in their umbilical cords which amount almost to a poisonous dose. The oil refinery of Azcapotzalco is situated right in the heart of the city; were it to explode it would kill a million people.
The catastrophe of the 19th of September 1985 exposed the rampant corruption in the construction industry and the disregard for normal safety measures. There were supporting columns filled with rubbish and rubble and It was clear that many four-story buildings were grossly overloaded with machinery - as in the case of clandestine clothing factories.
The President of the Republic has urged the population of this broken, tumble-down city with slogans: 'Return to normality'. 'To smile again'. 'It's over now'. 'Mexico is on its feet'.
The reconstruction of the houses has not started, nor will it start. Rents have increased 100 per cent in the city, and many Mexicans live in tents; Tlatelolco, one of the densest housing areas in Latin America, looks like a lost city. Kitchens in the open air, bathrooms of corrugated iron. This is 'normality' for thousands and thousands of poor Mexicans.
Elena Poniatowska is a novelist and journalist who lives in Mexico City.