The Front

Requiem for a City: Mexico’s Impending Earthquake

“There will be a Mexico when this is finished. But if they only clean up the physical mess, then we are doomed.”

by

For days, the sirens never stopped. The ambulances came screaming down the Paseo de la Reforma, the sound preceded by cars packed with young men waving red flags, honking horns, demanding passage. The ambulances went by in a rush. And then more came from the other direction, cutting across town on Insurgentes, grinding gears at the intersection. In the ambulances you could see doctors, nurses, tubes, bottles, a dusty face with an open mouth and urgent eyes. And then they were gone, heading for one of the hospitals in the great injured city of Mexico.

“Somos los chingados,” a man named Victor Presa said to me, standing in the crowd in the Plaza of the Three Cultures in the district called Tlatelolco. We are the fucked. Presa, 41, a tinsmith, didn’t know if his wife and three children were alive or dead. He lived with them in the 13-story Nuevo Leon building of the Nonoalco-Tlatelolco housing complex (one of 96 buildings erected in the ’60s to make up the largest public housing development in the country). When the terremoto hit at 7:19 on the morning of September 19, Victor Presa was coming home with friends. “We were up all of the night. Yes. I don’t have work, you understand? Still, no excuse. I was out, yes, we were drinking, yes … ”

The residents of Nuevo Leon had been complaining for eight months to the project’s officials about the dampness of the concrete, seepage of water, unrepaired fractures, the feeling of instability. The housing bureaucrats ignored them. And at 7:19 a.m., when Victor Presa was still almost a mile from home and thick with pulque, the building seemed to rise up, swayed left, then right, then left again, and all 13 stories went over, reeling down, slab upon slab, concrete powdering upon impact, pipes and drains crumpling, steel rods twisting like chicken wire. Within the gigantic mass, smashed among beds and stoves, sinks and bathtubs, among couches and cribs, bookcases and tables and lamps, ground into fibrous pulp with the morning’s freshly purchased bread, boxes of breakfast cereal, pots of coffee, platters of eggs, bacon, tortillas, there were more than a thousand men, women, and children.

***

“Somos los chingados,” said Victor Presa, sore-eyed, his hands bloody, voice cracked, smoking a cigarette, staring at the ruins, as a small army of firemen, soldiers, and residents clawed at the rubble. A woman kept calling for a lost child: Ro-baiiiiiiir-to, Ro­baaaaaiiiii-irrrr-to. The scene seemed almost unreal; surely some director would now yell “cut” and everyone would relax, the calls to the dead and dying would cease, the special effects men would examine their masterpiece. But this was real all right, and Victor Presa stared at the building, summoning whatever strength he had left to join the others who had been smashed by what was being called El Gran Chingon. The Big Fucker.

“This was all we needed,” said an exhausted, hawk-nosed 24-year-old doctor named Raul Tirado. “Things were bad enough. Now this, the catastrofe. Pobre Mexico … poor Mexico.”

Before the catastrophe was the Crisis, always discussed here with a capital C, a combination of factors that were at once political, economic, social. The $6 billion foreign debt. The incredible $30 million a day that leaves Mexico just to pay the vigorish to the banks, never denting the debt itself. The accelerating slide of the peso (for years, 12.5 pesos were pegged to the dollar; last week you could get 405). The collapse of the price of petroleum. All these were intertwined with a wide-ranging cynicism; a loss of faith in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that has ruled Mexico without interruption since 1929; contempt for the obesity of the state, where almost four million Mexicans are employed by federal, state, and local governments out of a total work force of about 20 million; despair at the monstrous growth of Mexico City and its transformation into a smog-choked, soul-killing crime-ridden purgatory; fatalism about the daily, hourly arrival of more and more and more children; and above and below everything, touching every level of the national life, persisting in the face of exposure in the press and President Miguel de la Madrid’s oratory about “moral renovation”: the rotting stench of corruption.

“There will be a Mexico when this is finished,” said Dr. Tirado. “But if they only clean up the physical mess, then we are doomed.”

So the cranes will soon arrive to remove the top four floors of Continental Hotel on the corner of Reforma and Insurgentes, but neither the building nor Mexico will be easily healed. In 1957, when an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale rolled through the city, killing 51 people, the Continental was a year old, a proud new member of the Hilton chain, with a blue-green mosaic mural rising from street level to the roof. That quake split the mural and fractured the building, but repairs were made and business went on. There were only 3.5 million people in Mexico City that year, and the city brimmed with optimism. But Hilton’s name was long ago removed from the building, and the mural torn away, and when I walked around the corner to Calle Roma to look at the aging weather-stained edifice from the rear, the top floors seemed to have been mashed by some gigantic fist. Business there will not go on. Not after El Gran Chingon. Across the street from the Continental there’s a statue of Cuauhtehmoc, the valiant Aztec prince who fought Cortez after Montezuma had failed; Cuauhtehmoc survived 1957 and survived September 19. But his pollution-blackened face now seemed sadder than ever.

“There’ll be nothing there next year,” said a 31-year-old insurance executive named Maria Delgado, staring at the Continental. “Who would build there again? Who would grant insurance? Who would build in many other parts of the city?”

Walking the city in the days after the quake, much of the damage did seem permanent. On the corner of Hamburgo and Dinamarca, a gallery called the Central Cultural de Jose Guadalupe Posada had been compacted from five floors into two; the art work had been removed, the building cordoned off behind a string of sad dusty pennants, but it didn’t matter now: there was nothing left to steal. Across the street, rescue workers combed the rubble of an apartment building: cops, soldiers, doctors in Red Cross vests, university students, men with flat brown Indian faces, all lifting broken concrete, smashed furniture, calling for sounds of life, hearing nothing. Such groups would soon be familiar all over the ruined parts of the city, and they helped compile the statistics of disaster: nearly 5000 dead, another 150,000 hurt, an estimated 2000 trapped in the rubble, dead or alive. Some bureaucrats, afraid of permanently losing tourist business, rushed to minimize the effects of El Gran Chingon; Mexico is a large city, they said (it sprawls over 890 square miles); only 0.1 per cent of its buildings were destroyed. And that was true.

But you couldn’t minimize what happened to the people who’d been directly affected. On Calle Liverpool, a blue moving van from Romero’s Mudanzas was parked in front of Shakey’s Pizza y Polio, loading furniture from a damaged apartment house; in middle-­class areas, moving vans were part of the scenery, like salvage boats after a shipwreck. A few doors down, the tan cement skin had peeled off the facade of another apartment house, revealing cheap porous concrete blocks underneath. On Calle Landres, two buildings to the right of the Benjamin Franklin Llbrary tilted to the side like drunks in a doonvay; cops warned pedestrians not to smoke because there was gas in the air. At the corner of Landres and Berlin, tinted windows had been blown out of a building, its walls sagged, the street was piled with broken glass and rubble; but in one window you could see the back of a spice rack, its jars neat, orderly, domestic, suggesting life in a place where nobody would ever live again.

The contrasts from one block to another, one building to the next, seemed baffling. Why did this house survive and that one collapse? Of the more than 450 colonial-era buildings listed with the Mexican equivalent of the landmarks commission, not one had been destroyed. But more than 100 new government-owned buildings had fallen, including three major hospitals and many ministries; hundreds of others (including many schools) were mortally wounded. Fate bad never seemed more capricious. But every Mexican I spoke to offered the same basic explanation and it had nothing to do with God, faith, subsoil erosion, fault lines, the Cocos Plate, or the superiority of the 19th century to the 20th. Their answer was simple: corruption.

“Today, more than ever, it has been shown that corruption is a very bad builder,” said the Committee of 100, a group formed last March to combat the environmental disasters of Mexico (its members include writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Octavio Paz, artists Rufino Tamayo and Jose Luis Cuevas). “It is no casual thing that the historic center of the city, made to last, has survived the two tremors …”

Senator Antonio Martinez Baez, a professor emeritus of the National Autonomous University, said that corruption was widespread in the building industry, particularly in the 1970s, when Mexico was booming with oil money. Martinez Baez said the corruption involved more than government bureaucrats, who looked the other way when shoddy materials were used; it included contractors, engineers, building owners and their intermediaries, usually hustling lawyers.

“They should not be allowed to clear these areas until a thorough examination has taken place,” said an engineer named Rafael Avellanor. “Concrete, steel, everything must be tested, measured against the original specifications. And then the guilty should be jailed for murder.”

Corruption is, of course, one of the oldest, saddest Mexican stories; didn’t Montezuma first offer Cortez a bribe to go away? But corruption doesn’t explain everything. If the earthquake toppled many modern buildings, if it seemed a horrible act of architectural criticism to enrubble the Stalinoid fortresses of the permanent bureaucracy, well, El Gran Chingon also rolled into Tepito.

And while the camera crews faithfully assembled each day at the Children’s Hospital, at the Medical Center, at the Juarez housing project, where dramas of rescue and redemption were played out with touching regularity; while cameras for three hours followed Nancy Reagan in her yellow jacket and professionally concerned mask; while journalists sought out Placido Domingo, bearded and dusty in the ruins of Tlatelolco, working alongside ordinary citizens, searching for four of his lost relatives “until the last stone is lifted”; while cameras at the airport recorded the arrival of volunteers and aid from 43 countries; while all of that was happening, almost nobody went to Tepito.

***

There seems always to have been a Tepito in Mexico City; it’s perhaps the city’s oldest slum, maker of thieves and prizefighters and entertainers. For most of this century, the Tepito poor have crowded into tiny dollar-a-month, one-room flats in vecindades (apartment houses assembled around damp central courtyards, described in detail by Oscar Lewis in The Children of Sanchez). They built houses for themselves too, of scraps of wood, homemade brick, parts of cars, discarded advertising signs. Boys from Tepito became toreros and football players; they went to the great gym called Baños de Jordan and fought their way onto page one of Esto or Ovaciones, the city’s daily sports papers; at least one, Raton Macias, became a champion of the world. Some became musicians and worked in Plaza Garibaldi, not far away, singing, playing horn or guitar for lovers, tourists, and each other in the Tenampa Club or the Guadalajara del Noche; some became cops; a few went on to become lawyers, doctors, teachers; many ended up a dozen blocks away in the notorious Black Palace of Lecumberri, the city’s major prison, until it was torn down a few years ago.

The women of Tepito had harder lives. They married young, bore children young, suffered young, died young. Most were faithful to the code of machismo, imposed upon them by the men; those who violated the code often ended up in the pages of Alarma, a weekly crime journal that specializes in the mutilated bodies of the dead. Too many became prostitutes, working in the three famous callejones, or alleys behind the Merced marketplace, alleys so narrow that men stood with their backs against the rough walls while the women sat on stools and performed for a dollar. They started there when young, las putas de Tepito, and many ended up back in the callejones when old. Along the way, perhaps, there were stops in the houses and cribs of Calle de Esperanza (now lost to reform), or if they were pretty enough, smart enough, tough enough, they’d move up to the dance halls on San Juan de Letran, or the more expensive whore houses beyond the Zona Rosa, where the politicians and generals arrived each night with their sleazy cuadrillas. They might hook up with a married man and be installed in a casa chica. Some went off to the border towns. But they were always men and women “de Tepito,” a phrase said with the tough pride of someone from Red Hook or the Lower East Side.

And now, a few days after the earthquake, Tepito was gone. In the cerrada of Gonzales Ortega, all of the houses were destroyed. Vecindades were in rubble along Brasil Street, on Rayon, Jesus Carranza, Tenochtitlan, Fray Bernadina de Las Casas, Florida, and Las Cardidad, all the way to the Avenida del Trabajo. This had always been a barrio whose true god was noise. A mixture of blasting radios, shouts, laughter, rumors, deals, quarrels, jokes, screaming children, imploring mothers, furious husbands. You could hear young men playing trumpet in the afternoons. You could hear lovers careening into melodrama, while dealers hawked contraband radios, hot jewelry, used clothes, drugs.

Now Tepito was silent except for one lone radio somewhere, playing a tinny mariachi tune. A drunk of uncertain age, grizzled and dirty, sat on a pile of broken brick, talking intensely to himself. A tinsmith poked at the ruins of his shop, a small boy beside him looking grave. An old man who had run a small antique record store trembled as he looked at his smashed collection. “I have great treasures here. Jorge Negrete. Carlos Gardel. Lara. Infante. Treasures. Of the old style. Ahora … ”

Ahora. Now. Now the men, women, children, and dogs of Tepito had moved by the thousands to the open spaces around the Avenida del Trabajo. They had improvised tents. They’d formed teams to search for water. Old women had set up charcoal mounds to boil water and cook. Together, they consoled each other, fed each other, cursed at politicians, cops, fate, God. They passed along news: the Bahia movie house was wrecked (“Ay, chico, where will we go now to get fleas?”) and on San Juan de Letran all six stories above the Super Leche cafeteria had collapsed, killing many people having breakfast (“Cuatey the coffee killed more …”) and more than one hundred government buildings had been wrecked, including the Superior Court, with all the city’s criminal records (“There is a God …”). They joked, as most jokesters do, because they are serious men.

“We want to go home,” said a white-haired wood finisher named Jesus Torres. “But we have nowhere to go … ”

He was standing with a crowd of men among the tents. Someone said that the government estimated the homeless at 35,000. Torres said, “That means there must be one hundred thousand on the street.”

A young man named Eloy Mercado arrived with a copy of Esto. A story in one of the back pages said that Kid Azteca was among the missing. When I first came to Mexico in 1956, to go to school on the GI Bill, Kid Azteca had been fighting since the 1920s. He had been the Mexican welterweight champion for 17 years, an elegant boxer, good puncher, and in his forties he kept having one six­-round fight a year to extend his record as the longest-lasting Mexican fighter in history. Now he and his two sisters were missing in Tepito, perhaps dead. Jesus Torres shook his head: “He’s not dead.” An old man leaned in, his face dusty, teeth stained with tobacco, smelling like vinegar. “You know how to find Kid A’tec’? Go in the street and start to count to 10. Then he’ll get up …” He and Torres laughed, two men as old as the lost Kid Azteca who had managed to remain true to their origins. Somos de Tepito, hombre

So to experience Mexico after the earthquake, you had to go to Tepito too. You had to go to the corner of Orizaba and Coahuila, where seven bodies were spread across the sidewalk, packed in plastic bags of ice, waiting for hours for ambulances too busy with the living. You had to smell the sweet corrupt odor that began to drift from collapsed buildings. You had to hear the sirens: always the sirens.

You could also see Mexico after the earthquake in the baseball park of the Social Security administration, where more bodies lay under blue plastic tents, waiting for identification. In other times, a team called the Red Devils played here. Now a somber line of men and women waited patiently for admission, searching for their dead, while bureaucrats in the third base dugout compiled their mournful lists. The corpses were photographed and fingerprinted and those that were not identified were wrapped in plastic bags and taken away.

Some were taken to the Cemetery of San Lorenzo Tezanco, and this too was Mexico in the autumn of 1985. Those who bad lost their names along with their lives were given numbers: Cuerpo 127, Cuerpo 128. About 20 gravediggers chopped at the weed-tangled earth. More people came to look at the bodies, and many brought flowers. The unidentified were buried in a common grave. Presiding over this rude democracy was a white-haired, white-bearded priest named Ignacio Ortega Aguilar, who gave the blessings and offered the prayers. On the fifth day after the earthquake be told a reporter: “With this tragedy God bas placed all of us in the same condition. In only a few minutes, while the earth shook, God permitted us to understand who he is and who we are. Today we know that we are owners of nothing.”

And to know Mexico after the earthquake, you had to listen to the sound of rage. There was rage in Colonia Roma, because some cops were demanding a 500 peso mordida to allow residents past barriers with cars or moving vans; rage at unconfirmed stories of cops who had looted wrecked apartments or pried wedding bands off the fingers of the dead; rage at flower sellers who tripled their prices outside cemeteries; rage at tienda owners who doubled and tripled the price of food, and at men who sold water among the almost two million who had none at all; rage at the makers of coffins, who jacked up their prices (some donated free coffins, too). In Colonia Roma I saw a man who had rescued hundreds of books from the ruins of his apartment sitting among them on the sidewalk.

“The rest has no value,” he said, his voice trembling, angry. “Only these. These I love.” He touched the books, some of them in expensive leather bindings. “But when my brother-in-law came to help me take them away, the police said he would have to pay 1000 pesos. I insisted no! I asked for a supervisor. Nothing! So I will stay here. I hope it doesn’t rain. But I’m prepared to die here before paying them anything.”

One morning I walked to Calle Versalles, where I’d lived in a friend’s apartment with my wife and daughters one winter in the ‘6os. The street was blocked at both ends by rifle-toting soldiers, while rescue workers chopped at the ruins of the old Hotel Versalles. Mattresses jutted from the rubble at odd angles. Men used plastic buckets to pass along the broken brick, plaster, concrete to waiting trucks. The house where we had lived was intact, with a lone broken window on the third floor. But the Versalles, across the street, was gone, along with the building beside it and another one at the corner. I showed a New York press card to a soldier who shrugged and passed me through the lines. The smell was then richer, loamier, the sweet sickening smell of putrefaction,

Suddenly everything stopped. Workers, soldiers, firemen called for silence. A body had been found. A middle-aged woman. Her jaw was hanging loose, hair and face bone-white from broken plaster, tongue swollen, eyes like stone. Her pale blue nightgown had fallen open. A man in a yellow hardhat reached down and covered her naked breasts. Mexico.

***

Nothing had prepared me for Avenida Juarez. In the old days, this was one of the city’s great streets, a busy hustling thoroughfare. Turning into it from the Reforma, the Hotel Regis was on the left, along with a movie house, a pharmacy, the huge Salinas y Rocha department store. On the right was the Del Prado hotel, with one of Diego Rivera’s finest murals inside. Past the Del Prado was a mixture of shops, both elegant and tacky, silver stalls, handicraft shops, book stores, restaurants. In the distance, there was the great green space of the Alameda park, with its baroque red shoeshine stands, and the Palacio of the Bellas Artes beyond. In the 1950s, I went out with a woman named Lourdes who worked on this street, and for years afterwards I thought that one form of heaven would consist of the Avenida Juarez on a Saturday afternoon, with a new book or a newspaper in hand and a shine on my shoes and a nap in the grass of the Alameda park.

On this day, the old avenue was a shambles. It was as if some brutal general, bored with the tedium of a firefight, had called in an airstrike. The Salinas y Rocha store was now a giant shell, blackened by fire. Across the street, the Del Prado was closed (a Mexican reporter told me the Rivera mural was intact) and so were all the shops and restaurants. Three huge buildings leaned at a precarious angle. The street was packed with soldiers, sailors, doctors, nurses, reporters, and all attention was on the Regis.

The old hotel lay in a huge jagged mound; all 367 rooms had been destroyed. And I thought about the novel of Mexico City written by Carlos Fuentes in the 1950s, called (in English) Where the Air Is Clear. This was another city when he wrote his book, but Fuentes had premonitions of its ferocious future. One of his major characters was a revolutionary gone bad, an industrialist named Federico Robles.

But not he, he moued straight toward what he saw coming: business. 
the spot which will remain the center of style and wealth
in the capital: the ‘Don Quixote’ cabaret of the Hotel Regis …  

They were still at the Hotel Regis when I was there in the ’50s, the models for Federico Robles eating with Fuentes’s other great character, Artemio Cruz, laughing and drinking with all the other “robolutionaries” who came to power with President Miguel Aleman in ’46. They sat in booths or at small dark tables, heavy-lidded men dressed in silk suits and English shoes, graduated at last from tequila and mezcal and pulque to good Scotch whiskey, while their chauffeurs parked outside and the blond girls waited in the casas chicas on Rio Tiber. They were the men who made the present horror: the choked decaying capital, the failing banks, the greedy cement companies, the porous hotels. They invented Acapulco (with Aleman their leader), added Zihuatenejo, Cancun, Ixtapa, providing oil and shelter for the pampered bodies of the north. They were men who were all appetite. They ate the forests, they swallowed the rivers, they sucked up water from beneath the surface of the city and the regurgitated cement. In the end, under presidents Echeverria and Lopez Portillo, they ate Mexico.

But even in the ’50s, when they still could be seen at the Hotel Regis, there were some who sensed what was coming. In Fuentes’s novel, a journalist named Ixca Cienfuegos says:

“There’s nothing indispensable in Mexico, Rodrigo. Sooner or later, a secret, anonymous force inundates it and transforms it all. It’s a force that’s older than all memory, as reduced and concentrated as a grain of powder; it’s the origin. All the rest is a masquerade …”

In a way, that secret anonymous force arrived at 7:19 on the morning of September 19, fierce and primeval. And now the Regis, along with so much else, was destroyed. Most of the men from the Don Quixote bar are gone too, dead and buried, the profits of old crimes passed on to their children; they stand now only as examples to the hard new hustlers of Mexico. There will never be statues of these men on the Paseo de la Reforma, but there are monuments to them all over the city: mounds of broken concrete and plaster, common graves in Tezonco.

And while many of the dead remained unburied in the week after the earthquakes, jammed among the slabs of the fallen buildings, everyone talked about the future. Mexico will never be the same again: the phrase was repeated over and over again in the newspapers. There were calls from the left and right for investigation of the corruption that led to the faulty construction of so many new buildings; there were demands that Mexico decentralize the government, sending many ministries to other cities; there were suggestions that the ruined sites be converted into parks, to allow some green open spaces for Mexico City to cleanse its lungs. Some insisted that Mexico would have to postpone its payments on foreign debt until after reconstruction.

And there were a few published reminders of another eartliquake, far to the south, that had led to the eventual overthrow of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. That 1972 earthquake killed thousands too. And when the generosity of the world sent money, supplies, medicine, clothes to Managua, Somoza and his gang stole it. The great fear of some Mexicans is that the same massive robbery will happen here, that the endemic, systemic corruption will absorb most, if not all, of the money that should be spent on the people of Tepito and Colonia Roma, on the survivors of Tlatelolco and the Juarez housing project and all the other ruined places of the city. If that happens, Mexico will not require agents of the Evil Empire to provoke the long-feared all-consuming revolution. ♦

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 11, 2020

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