At some point in a lifetime I would imagine that everyone goes through some kind of event that leaves a lasting mark. Mine was two weeks ago today. 19S is what many people use to refer to the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that rocked Mexico to it’s core on September 19, 2017.
My trip to Mexico was supposed to be completely different than how it turned out although initially it went exactly as planned. My mom, grandma, and aunt had arrived a week before I did. Shortly after their arrival there was an earthquake further down south that I saw start trending on twitter which made me immediately panic for my loved ones. I reached out to family in Mexico who later told me they slept through it, whereas others who were awake (my mom included) didn’t feel a thing.
I arrived in Mexico City on the 13th along with my sister but from there we headed straight to my parents hometown, Ixtapan de la Sal which is about 2 hours south of Mexico City. We were there for the majority of our trip but then on the 19th at around 10am my sister and I headed out to Mexico City where we planned to spend the remainder of our trip for a few days of Instagram-worthy memories. Here’s where I begin to piece together the puzzle of how exactly the timeline went.
10am: We leave for CDMX (Mexico City)
1pm: Due to heavy traffic the trip there took longer than normal. We immediately check into our airbnb upon arrival
1:08pm: I was so taken with our apartment that I took some pics on my phone (hello, Instagram)
1:09pm: I sent a text message to a friend (the last I would send until much later that day)
1:14pm: Earthquake hits
I still have a hard time wrapping my head around how quickly everything changed. The next few moments I remember vividly and yet it was also a blur. I remember taking my shoes off when we got to the apartment so I was barefoot as we were getting settled in. Even since the previous day, our plan upon getting there was to do laundry and then get ready to head out and explore. The apartment we rented had a washer and dryer in the kitchen which I was figuring out how to work. I was having trouble with the washer so I called my sister into the kitchen to help me figure it out. We were both standing there, and I remember I had the detergent in my hand. Suddenly I felt some light shaking. My immediate thought was that it felt like how it feels on the 2nd floor of my old location at work, which is that whenever people walk by you can sort of feel the floor shake. I remember pausing to think about that and asking my sister if she felt that. Almost immediately after asking that, I could start to feel the shaking getting stronger and then bam! That’s when I realized what was actually happening and it scared the shit out of me.
Once I realized that this was not the floor merely shaking because of someone walking by, I actually spoke out the words “It’s an earthquake. We have to get under a door”. Growing up in Arizona, we deal with heat waves and dust storms, nothing nearly as volatile as an earthquake so all I ever knew about earthquakes in the farthest reaches of my mind was that you had to get under a doorframe. So that’s what we did.
At this point I slammed the detergent down on the counter and in those split seconds of uttering those words, the earthquake was full fledged. This is where it becomes a blur. I have no idea how we physically managed to walk from the kitchen to the front door and I vaguely remember grabbing my sister by the hand and pulling her with me. When you see someone you love panic (and with good reason), you instinctively have to be the calm one. For me it was pure survival mode, fight or flight. I had no thoughts in my mind at all other than basic human instinct. One of the things that amazes me looking back on the situation now is that I gave no thought to the rest of my family, my life didn’t flash before my eyes, nothing. My number one focus was helping my sister keep calm (as much as could be) and getting through it together.
Again, some things were a blur while other details are engrained in my mind. Once we got to the doorway I kept telling my sister to breathe and to look at me and that we were going to be ok and that it was almost over. I even remember having this random thought like “This is what it must be like to help someone through a contraction” which is so odd. While standing in the doorway, which felt like forever, I remember the door slamming into my back and arm as the shaking continued and then I would have to force it back to stay open which would make it slam even harder as the building moved with the earthquake. The incessant slamming of the door, all the sirens going off, and the sound of a city about to crumble is probably another detail I’ll never forget.
Another thing I kept thinking was “Where are the neighbors?!”. I felt like we were completely alone which made me start to wonder if my instinct had been wrong to get under the doorway. Should we have tried going downstairs? Should we be huddled up somewhere else? I could not understand why we were so alone in that moment.
When the earthquake finally subsided one of our neighbors finally emerged. She was an older lady and she was by herself. As she was coming out of her apartment I told my sister to wait for me there while I put some shoes on and grabbed my phone. Everything I did from there on out I was shaking, so I struggled to take my shoes out of my bag since we hadn’t unpacked at all. I shook as I walked to the living room to find my phone, and I shook as we were going down the stairs following this new beacon of a neighbor who seemed to know exactly what to do. When we got to the lobby I remember that this big stone chandelier was swinging precariously and I felt like it was going to fall on us at any moment so I made sure we walked as close to the wall as possible to minimize the risk. Another detail was that as we were coming downstairs and in the lobby I immediately noticed some cracks and damage to the building walls.
Once outside it was chaos. Our street was relatively calm at first but everyone was outside, huddle together, probably trying to mentally prepare ourselves for the next terrifying moment. At that point is when I sort of started to lose it a little bit. As luck would have it my phone got zero internet service which meant we had to rely on my sister’s phone to try to relay a message on social media that we were ok (at least physically). Not knowing much about earthquakes, I was also eager to know what magnitude it was because to me it felt pretty fucking strong but nothing was even trending yet on social media at that point.
The next few hours consisted of us trying to calm ourselves down, talking to the old lady who came out with us, following her to a “safe zone” away from buildings, her breaking down suddenly and clutching me in a death grip telling me how scared she was, talking to other neighbors and eventually settling down in front of a little barber shop listening to the radio on someone’s car, insatiable for as much information as we could get. I don’t know how to describe it other than I kept getting the feeling of 9/11. Although I was nowhere near New York when that happened I just remember that feeling of everything stopping, everyday life at a standstill and everyone watching these horrifying things unfold. Even all the people and chaos in the streets and the sense of uncertainty of what would happen next. I don’t smoke but at that point I could have really used a cigarette and would have had one had someone not come by and made our neighbor put theirs out because of a nearby gas leak.
After a few hours of sitting out on the street we were finally given the ok to go back into the building. I had no desire to go back in there but I knew I needed something other than flip flops and I also needed some essentials. During the time outside, we kept trying to think of how we could figure out how far our cousin lived and if it would be feasible to walk there considering that traffic was at a standstill and there was no way in hell I was going into the metro assuming it was even still running. Because of the sheer terror of having to go back into the building we decided to come up with a game plan of exactly what we were going to grab so that we could get out of there as quickly as possible.
Once we grabbed our essentials in what was one of the most nauseating moments of my life, we booked it out of there and decided to wander the streets for a bit to see what was happening in the rest of our neighborhood. We hadn’t eaten since that morning and I thought I was hungry yet at the same time any thought of food made me want to throw up. Even writing this I am feeling queasy. So instead of eating we just bought some cokes since we as Mexicans have always held that coke can help calm an upset stomach and as it turns out it was exactly what we needed. Ever since that day I have to admit that I have developed a little bit of an addiction and have had about 1 coke per day since coming back to the states- a habit I’m trying to kick but at the time it was extremely comforting.
As we were wandering the neighborhood with our backpacks this is where we started to see more and more of how united everyone was becoming. Even earlier in the day, our neighbor bought us water because we had left all our money in the apartment. Another neighbor comforted us and let us use his bathroom and tried to let us use his landline (our calls did not go through). We encountered another couple who let us charge our phones in their car no questions asked. There was also a group of ladies who offered to let us sit with them and also offered us fruit. Throughout the day and any time I experienced something like this I remember telling my sister repeatedly “I’m going to cry” because each and every time I was so touched that a perfect stranger would do any of these things.
Around 6:30 pm as it was starting to get dark we decided to head back to the apartment to try to figure out what we were going to do. My sister had internet intermittently but her battery was low. My phone was completely worthless. The city and no power and no water. Making the conscious decision to go back into the building was again really difficult to do. As soon as we were in we felt dizzy and nauseous and paranoid as hell. Luckily shorty after we went back in the water and power came back and I was finally able to get some wifi going.
By night time we were exhausted. I had been running on adrenaline all day with minimal food and a coke. My body wanted to sleep but my mind was terrified of even closing my eyes and letting my guard down. I was convinced that there would be aftershocks so we came up with another plan. We had our shoes and backpacks ready to go by the door in case something else happened. You know how amputees will often experience ghost limbs? I think we felt ghost earthquakes from there on out.
The next couple days we spent trying to help for the most part. The community effort and feeling of unity was something indescribable and unprecedented. I have never seen Mexico act so quickly and forcefully. Youth took over the city. Business donated food and supplies. When I tell people about my experience down there, this is where I get emotional, when I recount the stories of all the people who helped us as well as at the people we witnessed helping. The experience of the earthquake was powerful, but I think for me it has been the aftermath that has affected me much more. I’m still struggling to put together the pieces even though all our family is ok. The biggest takeaway for me has been unity and being able to contribute. I’ve previously said that when I think about what it means to be Latino, I think of how we collectively talk about ourselves as one, as “mi gente”. Seeing Mexicans come together and take matters into their own hands because they know their government won’t do it for them and seeing the very people who have nothing give everything has been life changing for me. It’s not that I didn’t feel this way before, but living something that intense makes it tangible. I also realized that I’m missing that sense of community around me, not with my friends or co workers but when it comes to my neighbors for example. I don’t know who they are or what they do. I think if if we all took a little more time to get to know those around us then we could begin to rebuild some of the culture that we’ve been missing. These concept is nothing new but sometimes we need a little reminder. As for the earthquake, I feel like it brought me closer to my roots in a deeper level. The whole experience confirmed again that this is mi gente. This is Mexico.