Mexico City: Life After a Devastating Earthquake

Mexico City Street

Earthquakes are sterile. You can only remember them by the year, the magnitude, and the number of deaths.

Mexico City earthquake: September 2017; Magnitude 7.1; 228 deaths and thousands injured; 44 buildings collapsed and over a thousand deemed structurally unsafe. How come no one names massive earthquakes like how the hurricanes are given generic names? As if John or Maria can characterize natural disasters in a memorable way.

Two weeks after the series of devastating earthquakes, Tarene and I arrived in Mexico City with excitement and slight worries. The city was quieter than usual, nonetheless carried on its daily routines. We barely spotted any foreigners as if we were visiting an unexplored territory. Pointing out any gringo on the street oddly became a mini-game for us. Our apartment building was even quieter — newly built but strangely empty. The temperature in our building was constantly a few degrees colder than outside, highlighting the eerie silence even further.

I was worried that another earthquake might strike when we’re asleep. The earthquake survival manual advised not to go anywhere if you’re in bed. Simply put the pillow over your head and neck… and hope for the best? I had restless imaginations of how an earthquake would crush our skulls in our sleep. To prevent rolling myself out of the window in case of an earthquake, I’d purposely sleep away from it. Was I going through a phantom PTSD even though I wasn’t there during the earthquakes…? How did everyone else sleep at night?

For the first week of our stay, we already experienced a variety of apartment problems: power outage, water outage in the middle of a shower, a lack of toilet pressure, intelligent mosquitoes, etc. Every day we dealt with an inconvenience but we laughed it off… at least the building is structurally safe. Aside from utility issues, we each hilariously struggled with making the most basic foods like white rice and oatmeal. Who knew it’d be so hard to perfect cooking oatmeal?

When we stepped outside, Mexico City almost looked no different than before. The morning streets were undisturbed and the rush hour traffic was still as congested as ever. But the aftermath of the earthquakes became more vivid when we took a surprising turn of a corner or walked two blocks from our brunch spots. Evacuated buildings with cracks and broken windows surrounded by caution tapes. Collapsed buildings where we could peek at the once vibrant interior decor. An entire street blocked off with a white flag hanging that read, “No photos please. Respect the victims.” Some affected residents built temporary shelters out of camping equipment, not knowing when they can have a home again. The streets turned into a playground for the children, who were smiling and running around without a hint of despair.

For all that we know, reconstruction is a lengthy struggle in Mexico due to heavy corruption and poor governance. It’s always the people who unite, never the government, my Mexican colleague said. The only reassurance is the cheerful spirit among proud Mexicans, those who hold their clenched fists up high and strong.

By the end of our stay, Mexico City pretty much returned to its normal pace. Loud tourists started pouring into our building right before Day of the Dead, breaking the shortlived tranquility. An interruption I awkwardly appreciated, because the city was waking up from a nightmare.

Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores.

Sing, and don’t cry. 

Daphne K. Lee

Daphne K. Lee

I travel nomadically and word vomit sometimes.