It was just after 8:15 p.m. in the small Italian town where I live. I was working in the editing room when my family’s group chat started chiming with messages. Just below a message about an earthquake drill from the day prior appeared a new message from my daughter-in-law, asking if we were ok. In the messages that followed, my family members began asking the same question, announcing one-by-one that they were safe.
That message heralded the beginning of a tragedy. Like so many Mexicans living abroad, I tried to find information online, but the news about Mexico didn’t change much in those early hours.
My sister, who was at work, said that she couldn't get in touch with anyone at home and asked about her son’s whereabouts. I phoned the house right away and found out there had been an earthquake--a very strong earthquake. I wrote my sister to let her know her house was fine, but her son was not there. Soon, all family members but two had checked in. Their whereabouts were unknown. After an agonizing two-hour wait, the news began to emerge. It was an earthquake long dreaded by those of us who suffered the lethal tremor in 1985 and bore witness to its dire consequences. Finally, the missing family members checked in: They were without electricity and had no way to get in touch with us. My family was fine.
The news began to emerge about a Mexico shaken and crippled. Amidst the tragedy, and in response to silence from the government, light began to shine on the voices and actions of a coordinated, informed civil society helping neighbors and strangers through acts of kindness and generosity. The Mexico that had been buried by our leaders began to flourish.
The youth were present, leading groups of volunteers and using tools usually mocked by an older generation: social media was flooded with tweets, Facebook and Whatsapp messages. Volunteers learned how to verify information amidst the chaos, finding different ways to communicate and share information.
Civil society came together to remove rubble and search for survivors, to collect medicines and food and transport them to the areas in distress. It also came together to confront authorities. Fearful of those highlighting their incompetence, authorities initially sought to evacuate the streets and clear the rubble with heavy machinery, risking the lives of potential survivors. It also sought to seize aid that had been collected. Meanwhile, the media invented soap opera narratives that sought to distract an audience.
People opened their homes, hotels offered free rooms, and collection centers gathered donations throughout the country, establishing ties with affected communities in neglected neighboring states. The earthquake not only brought down buildings, it also broke the structure and foundation of power, already deteriorated by corruption and impunity. It highlighted the country’s obscene economic disparity and the abuse and lack of oversight to which states south of Mexico City are subjected.
The September 19 earthquake came on the heels of another during the night of September 7, which devastated Mexico’s southern states and parts of Central America. Weeks after those events, the devastation is still being assessed, while thousands of families suffer from Hurricane Nate. Authorities have begun to plan reconstruction works under the shadow of opportunism: they’re razing damaged buildings to replace them with brick and cement structures that ignore or disregard cultural identity.
But civil society is still organizing, creating alliances and working with community organizations on projects in which walls and ceilings are just part of a bigger goal of improved health, education and respect for women and children. While the government is anxious to return to “normal,” civil society is working to create a new normal, where impunity is rooted out and corruption is punished. The authorities are trying to rebuild the old status quo; civil society wants to create a 21st-century Mexico.
MEXICO RISES joins civil society in this act of creation, and invites the world to participate.