In the morning of Thursday 19th September 1985 I was 10 and I was sitting with my younger brother in the back of our family VW Beetle parked outside our primary school in Mexico City.
We were waiting for the shool gates to open (we started at 8am; we always got there earlier). On the same street there was a building with a gigantic Marlboro man cut-out billboard on top. When the earth started shaking around 07:17:47 am, we saw the giant cowboy sway. It looked like it was walking towards us.
Everything happened very quickly. The cowboy did not fall and the street was untouched. Classes were cancelled and when we went to meet one of my sisters at Colonia Roma, we witnessed the devastation. It was like the city had been bombed. The image is still pristine clear in my mind, and so is the smell and the dust, the sound of ambulances and police. We were lucky that day.
In the evening of Tuesday 19th September 2017 at I am sitting at my desk in my office at the University in London, UK.
For some reason (I had Harry Dean Stanton’s passing on my mind), I tweeted as I got ready to go home:
It was 6:51pm London, UK time. 12:51pm Mexico City time.
It translates as ‘How far I am from the soil that’. I left the sentence incomplete on purpose, as if I had been interrupted by something outside my control. I was referencing this song (the tune is a traditional song– do not take all its lyrics literally please!)
Oh, boy. Little did I know.
I took the tube to get home. I had no data on my mobile.
It was until I got home around 8pm UK time that I looked at my Whatsapp notifications. I had 67 messages from family and friends.
Another earthwake had struck central Mexico just past 1:00pm local time; 7:00pm in the UK.
It was very stressful while I was able to locate all my friends and family. Luckily they are all physically well. The moral support of friends, colleagues, family here in the UK and total strangers online and offline has been wonderful and I am sincerely thankful for it.
It’s almost impossible to describe properly what it feels like to be far from home when something like this happens.
I have tried to ‘be’ as much as I can with friends and relatives via Whatsapp, email and old-school telephone calls. I have donated to the Cruz Roja Mexicana, which have always done exemplary work in Mexico.*
However, there is a profound feeling of being useless, of merely witnessing from afar a tragedy and that we can do very little from here to help. I have spent sleepless hours following updates from family and friends and news reports from national and international outlets, sharing petitions like this one, emailing listservs I am a member of, sharing information, encouraging donations to relief organisations.
But all that is very limited, and one cannot really feel nor know what is really like to be there. The fact Mexico City is where I was born and where I lived for more than two decades of my life, and the fact I go there at least once a year and that I have lots of family and friends there means I know the affected places like the palm of my hand. It is heartbreaking to see what has happened, what is happening and be far away.
The volunteer response has been praised internationally, and it proves that it’s been the amazing organised solidarity of Mexican civil society what has made a huge difference in the rescue and relief efforts. I know that if I were in Mexico I would be out there helping out.
Last night I dreamt there had been another earthquake.
I know I am not alone in feeling this.
One cannot live in two places at the same time, nor be everywhere simultaneously. One still feels a sense of responsibility and a whole lot of love for the country where one was born and lived in. Our roots are there. There is the feeling that though a disaster like this brings out amazing solidarity between people, it can feel like it will separate us Mexicans living abroad further from the everyday life or our loved ones. Those who are afar will not have lived through what they are living through. We were not there to offer comfort or direct, physical, real time, real place support. We are not there. They are.
In a different context, for different reasons, in a different time, Julia Kristeva once wrote about her home country as ‘her suffering‘. It’s not just a question of language, but here I am writing this in English, and not Spanish. My international network of friends and colleagues includes Mexicans, and we all share that feeling of double responsibility for the place that we left and the place we now live in. We are torn, we feel torn. It’s the condition of exile or migration.
Once again I would like to say how grateful I am to my UK family and international group of friends, colleagues and Twitter folk who have accompanied us these days. What we experience here is nothing like the pain, anxiety, hurt, stress, frustration, fear and yes, hope, infinite hope that Mexicans in Mexico are experiencing. All we who are afar right now do is offer our material and moral support through the humble and limited means we have at our reach.
At least ten thousand people died in the 1985 earthquake. Lessons were learnt, both locally in Mexico City and nationally in the whole country. This disaster could have been much worse. It does not make the shock and the pain any lesser.
Mexico is a great country of great people. Love and hope have always kept us going, against many odds.
As before, as people there are proving right now as I write this, Mexico will recover, learn, get stronger. This recovery, as before, will take place against many odds, against great sadness and injustice, but propelled by the magnificent solidarity and robust strength and resiliance of its inhabitants.
*Friends in the US should note the Cruz Roja Mexicana is a national society which has autonomy from the American Red Cross. I am a supporter of the Cruz Roja Mexicana- their role in Mexican society has been crucial. There are 190 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world, all different.