Photo by Pedro Valtierra
By Sergio Silva-Castañeda
I have a scar above my right eyebrow. It’s the product of a childhood accident at home that really didn’t have any serious consequences except for keeping me from my Sunday morning soccer routine. I would certainly have forgotten the whole matter if it weren’t for the fact that I sometimes glimpse the scar in the mirror and other times someone asks how I got the scar.
Something similar happened with the 1985 earthquake in Mexico, where I’m from. I didn’t have any direct loss other than a changed routine. However, the earthquake has become another scar that often appears in the face of appropriate mirrors or when someone asks me if I experienced the earthquake— “el temblor.” Mexicans just use the words “el temblor.” Despite the fact that Mexico City experiences hundreds of seismic movements each year, the 1985 earthquake remains the “temblor.”
It was a Thursday and, just like always, I was getting ready to go to school. I was nine. I only remember that I was looking for something in the pantry when things began to move around by themselves. I looked toward the upper shelves of the pantry and discovered that the entire pantry was shaking. It was 7:19 on the morning of September 19, 1985, the first time I had felt an earthquake, a tremor, those things that people had told me about, that happened very often in Mexico, in the city where I was raised, but I had thought were just some stories that adults made up to scare the kids. We were all waiting to see what would happen. When the earth finally stopped moving, my mother said something that was terribly prophetic: “[The tremor] was very hard and long; it’s going to provoke landslides and fires.”
What happened next was an avalanche. In spite of her prophecy, my mother decided that I had to go to school. When I got there, the scene was one of chaos: worried parents, my classmates crying and a million rumors flying around. My mother, sister and I went back home much earlier than usual in a city without traffic lights and only sporadic telephone service. We spent hours watching Channel 13 to find out what was happening in the rest of the city. The interminable lists of people who wanted to let their out-of-town relatives know they were okay made even more of an impact on me than the television images. We ate some cold food since it was dangerous to use the stove. All the family in the city—and when I say family, I mean it in the very extended Mexican sense—got in touch: everyone was safe.
During those hours in front of the television, several names became engraved in my mind, forming a part of the scar: Hotel Regis, the Súper Leche, Edificio Nuevo León, Multifamiliar Juárez. Some other names stuck in my mind right next to all my childhood heroes: La Pulga (“The Flea, an improvised rescue worker who was said to have saved more than ten lives during the earthquake), tenor Placido Domingo (whose relatives were living in the wrecked Edificio Nuevo León in Tlatelolco), Sociedad Civil (“Civil Society”—I never quite understood who this lady was, but I heard her name mentioned a lot). The images, the stories and the activities of the adults all around me who were preparing to help in one way or another constituted one of the most important lessons in my life. New words enriched my vocabulary, as well as that of all the other children of my generation: Richter Scale, Mercally scale, epicenter, trepidatory, oscillatory, misfortune, fragility, solidarity. Some months, several demolitions and thousands of funerals afterwards, the city and, with it, my life were slowly getting back to a daily routine. The refugee camps would be the last reminder of what had happened, but these camps too began to blend in with the landscape and their complaints and needs merged bit by bit with the city’s other social problems. Like a leitmotiv of the later democratic struggles, Civil Society—which turned out not to be a lady, after all—would become the antagonist of the city’s old entrenched power structures. Structures that showed their first cracks in 1968, but really started to collapse on September 19, 1985.
In the years to come, whenever a tremblor surprised me in some public place, I would remember three slogans that we had to repeat in primary school (to be certain, after the 1985 temblor): Don’t run. Don’t shour. Don’t push. Whenever I enter an unfamiliar room, my first reaction is to observe the lamps and figure out whether their movement might be a reliable indicator of telluride movement. Since then, doorframes are not mere pieces of wood that mark an entranceway, but potential points of refuge. And nothing about this makes my life especially different from those of people who have not lived through similar disasters. They are simply signs of a scar that I carry with me, just like the one above my right eyebrow.
Sergio Silva-Castañeda is a doctoral student in Harvard’s History Department and a David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Graduate Student Associate.