The two places I have spent the most time outside of the mainland United States are the U.S. Virgin Islands and Mexico City. Between Hurricane Irma and the earthquake that struck Mexico, it has been a dark past few weeks for two places with a special fondness in my heart. No one I know was hurt or has suffered damages they don’t have the means to repair, but it is jarring nonetheless, especially from a powerless distance.
I first went to the Virgin Islands as a nine-year-old, and as that was my first venture out of the Midwest, the islands always loomed large in the mind of a kid plagued with wanderlust. Most of my return journeys date to my college and grad school years, when I could enjoy a lot of sun and rum and enjoy some rare moments to completely unwind. The natural beauty was stunning, the colonial architecture of Charlotte Amalie had its charms, and thanks to the generosity of others, I could live like a king for a short while.
As the trips went on, I became more aware of the islands’ social reality. Aside from the beaches, the Virgin Islands are one of those forgotten relics of America’s colonial phase, perpetually broke and flailing about. When I went back there shortly after I finished my semester-long stint in Mexico as an undergrad, large parts of it struck me as more like Mexico than anything American. These people will live without power for several months as they struggle to clear brush from the precarious roads clinging to hillsides, and have heaps of junk to clear and little place to put it. My experiences in trail maintenance in the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John assure me that the hillsides, stripped bare by Irma, will return to their past verdant selves in little time. Less safe are the towering flamboyant trees, the roadside barbecue stand in Cruz Bay, Duffy’s Love Shack, and the homes so many of the island’s poverty-stricken permanent residents, who won’t even have many tourists to sell to in the coming months. There will be much work to do.
Thanks to a cleaner flow of information from Mexico City’s diverse media environment, I’ve had a more intimate portrait of the damage in the city I called home for a semester during my junior year of college, and had visited twice before. Over the past week, I’ve spent some time every day reading up on accounts of the recovery efforts in Mexico City, or CDMX, as we seem to abbreviate it these days. Some of the pictures are especially striking: signs demanding silence as rescuers listen for signs of life beneath the rubble, Paseo de la Reforma converted into a pedestrian highway as the city comes to a halt, people of all classes consoling each other in the streets.
Earthquakes loom over CDMX, and a catastrophic 1985 quake still haunts those old enough to remember it. The university I attended had its previous campus demolished by an earlier tremor; while the new one was well-built and up in the mountains on solid ground, it was hard not to take stock of the evacuation directions posted next to the door of every classroom. (If you’re stuck in a building, I learned, the safest place to be is standing in the door frame.) Nothing major hit during my time there, but I did feel a slight tremor one day, a low-scale quake accentuated by the fact that I was walking across a less-than-stable pedestrian bridge at the time. The unstable soil just adds to that sense that CDMX is a city on the edge of every churning force in that nation, all of life and the risk of death all wrapped up in one manic burst of semi-ordered chaos.
Earthquakes are a particular risk in Mexico City since much of the center of the metropolis sits on the unstable bed of Lake Texcoco, which the Spaniards drained after their conquest of the Valley of Mexico. The building I lived in would have been a beachfront condo in Aztec days, barely on solid ground. Polanco, the ritzy district I’d wander over to on lazy weekend afternoons, was on the lakebed, but on somewhat more stable ground than the city center and built to a high enough code that it suffered little damage. Less fortunate was La Condesa, the hip district of nightlife and young people where a number of my fellow students from abroad made their temporary homes. Here, numerous apartments toppled, as they did in neighboring Roma Norte. The Parque España, once home to late-night dalliances amid the bushes, was reborn as a temporary aid station. And no collapse gripped national attention quite like the damage to the Enrique Rébsamen school, where at least 20 bodies have been pulled from the rubble.
We are still learning the scope of the damage further south, where towns tucked away in the mountains of Morelos, Puebla, the State of Mexico, Oaxaca, and Guerrerro live in a different world from the well-connected capital. Some of these towns to the south suffered damage in a separate quake just a week and a half earlier, and the long, slow process of digging them out may take much longer. A family friend in Cuernavaca, over a mountain range to the south of Mexico City, sent a message detailing his family’s nonstop efforts to help those they can, bringing meals to the newly homeless and collecting goods for an eventual journey using his larger vehicle out to the outlying villages in need of help.
The rescue and recovery efforts bring our some of the most heartening displays of human solidarity. Brigades of people (many of them young) poured out all their energy as volunteers, swiftly organizing into rescue operations and digging into collapsed buildings, even amid the terror of potential aftershocks. This quake had the eerie coincidence of hitting on the 32nd anniversary of the disastrous 1985 quake, and while the young people have no memory of that disaster, they seemed to know what to do. Even social media, which deserves so much of the negative press it’s received recently, has emerged as an essential method for coordinating a rapid response to the crisis. The unity and upsurge in Mexican national pride has been a sight to behold, even from afar.
The 85 quake was a seminal moment in Mexican history, not only for the disaster it brought but also as the catalyst for the formation of a genuine civil society. People recognized the rottenness of their government, responded immediately to create some good, and the energy that emerged from that outburst of civic activity played no small part in spurring along Mexico’s democratization in the 1990s. Now, 32 years later, that dream has soured: the opposition parties have lost their sheen, and the longtime ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is nearing the end of a return turn to power that was just as corrupt and sad as in its late authoritarian days. In an Economista column today, Rubén Aguilar Valenzuela, the ex-Jesuit/leftist revolutionary/spokesman for a conservative president from whom I took a class in Mexico, looked at the upsurge with hope: perhaps a new generation will now find the power to take control of its own destiny.
“Why does this only happen in these circumstances, and not in others?” Aguilar asks of the outpouring of civic unity and genuine heroism. “What needs to happen for us to express this capacity in everyday life?” Questions worth asking anywhere, whether in Mexico or in the hurricane-ravaged southern United States, or even in a corner of Minnesota where we have little capacity to comprehend the destructive power that both nature and humanity have the power to inflict. In a better world, it wouldn’t take a crisis to spur people to recognize the immediacy of community, but we live in the world we have. With terror and sadness or just plain anomie looming in so many lives, the least we can do is take these moments and use them to remind ourselves of the goodness that can also exist within the human spirit. Hope can yet spring from the ruins.