Earthquakes Down Walls: Mexico City Reflections

I arrived in Mexico City the week that a total solar eclipse darkened the skies above my home country. Despite getting soaked by thunderstorms the majority of my days in the city, the light never seemed to stop shining brightly during my five weeks there. The bustling city streets and endless traffic may feel overwhelming to many, but between moments of chaos exists a culture as rich as any I have seen. Closing my eyes immediately takes me back: the sweet smells from the esquites pushcarts, the high-pitched notes from the organilleros that turn every city square into a romantic plaza, and the radiant facades and front gates that can make even the shabbiest of homes look regal. But opening my eyes today slaps me with the heartbreak of Tuesday’s disastrous 7.1 earthquake and the sadness I feel for our brothers and sisters there, for the displaced families, and for all those who lost their loved ones. This week, the city is draped in darkness more profound than any eclipse could ever deliver.

Confusion outside of Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez
Confusion outside of Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez

This story actually starts several weeks prior, when an earthquake alarm blasted through the afternoon drizzle. Nothing happened, but the following night I was awoken by that same alarm. As I faded back into my pillow, my bed started shaking as the ceiling lamp swayed violently. While this was a relatively small episode in the city, southern Mexico was struck with a magnitude 8.2 quake that killed dozens.

On Tuesday, as I was preparing my final meal in the borough of Coyoacan before hailing an Uber to the airport, a violent thud shook the house as if the front door was forcefully slammed. The emergency alarm system sounded two seconds later, and at this moment I understood the gravity of the situation; the earthquake beat the alarm, so the epicenter must be close. I exchanged a wide-eyed glance with Diana, my very good friend and host, before hastily walking to the back patio. From there the trees swayed as if someone was trying to shake the leaves off and the screams of neighboring people and pets left a haunting melody in the air. The rest of the day was a surreal dream: power outage and cell towers down…no Uber services…nine kilometer drive that took two hours…the airport like a refugee camp…a terrifying aftershock false alarm…walking over cracked sidewalk and fallen plaster…flight services back online…in my bed in San Diego. Everything happened too quickly to process.

I sit here in San Diego with a guilty conscience after returning home just hours after the event while my friends and their families came together to lend helping hands to all who were affected. For five weeks, I was welcomed with open arms by a community that accepted me as the strange white dude with no hair and an egregious Spanish accent. I wish now more than ever I could reach for those open arms and embrace each one of them during this unspeakable time. Though I am here, my heart and mind are with them, and I cannot help but reflect on this experience.

In my five weeks abroad, natural disasters pounded this region of the world with constant thunder and lightning, record-setting hurricanes, and back-to-back earthquakes that triggered tsunami and volcanic eruption warnings. I couldn’t help but notice that each of these tragic events on the macroscale were mirrored on the personal level. Earthquake alarms rang like wake-up calls to my comfortable lifestyle of California beachside living, reminding me once again how precious this life truly is. On occasion, frustrations of personal growth in a foreign city fumed like Popocatépetl. I fell for a girl whose captivating eyes instilled a calmness more blissful than the eyes of the hurricanes that ripped through the Atlantic. My time in the city came and went like a bolt of lightning, but the thunder will resonate with me forever.

My grandma wrote to me the day after the earthquake. Among her words of heartbreak and condolence, she wrote, “Yin and yang...all part of the life experience.” As evidenced by this recent wave of natural destruction, it can be argued that we are living in an age of imbalance between yin and yang. However, based on personal experiences and the public outpour of post-disaster philanthropic support, I see a resilient city that is capable of restoring balance through unification and love. I see a community prepared for social and environmental progress catalyzed by a new generation of passionate change-makers, perhaps even more than they realize. And I see a future that not only restores balance, but one that rises from the ruins stronger than ever.

The country has many deep-rooted problems, this cannot be denied. But neither can the power of the people, and their unity during a time of disaster and fear should be admired. They are proving what humans are capable of, and a community that comes together during a time of crisis can come together at any time to spark positive change. I see an opportunity for growth to rebuild in a way that can enhance social equity and create a dynamic urban environment more closely aligned with natural systems and sustainable development. The city’s traffic congestion, affordable and environmentally-sound housing, and air pollution mitigation are just several large-scale problems that will need large-scale planning efforts and cooperation, but I am hopeful for them.

My five weeks in Mexico City renewed my soul more than I ever thought possible, and on my final day I saw the city crumble. The guilt I feel today for walking away from a place that provided me with so much personal development will not fade away. With my education and expertise, I hope to return the favor and help redevelop this country for a sustainable future. I will return.

I am not Mexican, but I feel a love for the people that I cannot quite describe. Why is this American Jew so drawn to the country that some of my fellow countrymen fear or despise? Just like the earthquake, I believe that it goes beneath the surface. Mexico has malicious or immoral people like any other country, but this event shows that it is filled with a loving population who are severely misrepresented and mistreated in my country. As my family celebrates the Jewish New Year today, and I am reminded of how my ancestors have been victimized throughout history, rarely feeling accepted outside of their communities and encountering wall after wall in their search for a home. I feel empathy for my neighbors to the south and frustration towards those in the United States who fear them, misjudge them, or want to expel them. After the disaster, Donald Trump tweeted, “God bless the people of Mexico City. We are with you and will be there for you.” At the very least, I am hoping that this earthquake managed to knock his wall down.