MEXICO CITY — My city is broken, but my people are not.
After the recent 7.1 magnitude earthquake here, I returned to the streets I knew so well in my youth, and I hardly recognized them. Dozens of buildings in the city have collapsed; the rubble is now obscured by a canopy of laborers in blue, red or white helmets. As these rescuers search for victims, some stop and raise their fists, a request for silence. If they think someone might alive under the debris, they listen carefully for any sound. After a few moments they lower their arms, and begin to search again.
Nearby hundreds of people whose loved ones are missing wait behind police tape. It’s 2 a.m., and still they remain. They won’t leave until they know whether their mother, brother or child is dead or alive.
A woman in the crowd named Conchita is worried and angry. Her daughter Karen, an accountant, was working in the fourth floor of a building that crumbled in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood, and she hasn’t received any news about her. As we converse, Conchita talks about her daughter in the present tense. She takes me to an area marked off by police tape and, almost screaming, laments the fact that rescue workers stopped removing rubble there a couple of hours ago, that her daughter’s life depends on them working around the clock. Finally, I hug her and she hugs me back, in tears.
Brian’s house was destroyed by the earthquake. He tells me he and his family are staying in a car for the time being, but he has spent the day helping at several rescue sites. He’s been awake for more than 24 hours, and he’s still full of energy. “I can’t sleep as long as there are people who need help,” he tells me.
Brian’s attitude and drive represent the best of Mexico. Amid this crisis, we have shown an outstanding capacity to work together and respond, and I’m sure this spirit will endure. In July 2018, there will be a presidential election, and this earthquake will still be fresh on voters’ minds.
This will likely be detrimental to President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration. The false information about “Frida Sofia” — a 12-year-old girl said to be buried in the rubble of a collapsed school building, and who was presumed to be on the verge of rescue for hours — and the spreading of those inaccuracies by officials cost the government credibility during a critical time. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, senior officers from the Mexican navy, and even the minister of education, fed this false narrative in an effort to paint the administration as being efficient and compassionate amid a national tragedy.
Frida Sofia never even existed; her story was just more evidence that Mexicans cannot trust the information coming from the Peña Nieto administration. Officials’ tales of a capable and forthcoming administration in the aftermath of the earthquake were as impossible to believe as the stories about the first lady’s purchase of a home from a government contractor, or the failed efforts to locate 43 missing college students from Ayotzinapa.
I was thousands of miles away, in Mexicali, when I heard the news about the earthquake. I turned on the TV and felt a sense of déjà vu. Just as I had when a quake struck Mexico City on September 19, 1985, I saw how people immediately rushed out to rescue their neighbors. The army, Red Cross and the “topos” — those amazing teams who dive into the debris looking for signs of life — would arrive later. The people were first to respond.
Lately I’ve come across many examples of Mexican ingenuity and the nation’s can-do spirit. In Mexicali, I met college students from the Centro de Enseñanza Técnica Y Superior working to make their school one of the top 10 universities in the world (and I am sure they will manage to do it). And every time President Trump insults Mexican immigrants, I remember a neurosurgeon from Baja California, Alfredo Quiñones, who has saved so many lives at the Mayo Clinic and other of the best hospitals in the U.S. And let’s not forget the thousands of Mexican workers cleaning and rebuilding Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Our hearts were crushed by the earthquake, and recovery will take years. But almost every time I’ve spoken with someone in Mexico, I’ve gotten a sense of a renewed optimism in the country. On the streets where I grew up, I noticed an energy verging on elation that I’ve never experienced before.
Even in the darkest times, we know we can move forward together. Just as the public mobilization after the 1985 earthquake gave rise to the country’s first real democratic elections in 2000, the 2017 earthquake has already demonstrated something very clear: We won’t give up.
By Jorge Ramos.
(Sep 27, 2017)