Jesus Jimenez | Longreads | October 2017 | 13 minutes (3,155 words)
September 19 started out as a tranquil, but eerie day in Mexico City. The sun rose at 7:24 a.m. over the Popocatépetl volcano and onto the homes and offices and workplaces of the city’s nearly 8.9 million residents.
That Tuesday morning, commemorations were being held throughout the city. It was the 32nd anniversary of the 8.1 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 5,000 people in Mexico’s capital in 1985, causing 412 buildings to collapse and more than $3 billion in damages. Mexican law states that all schools and public institutions are required to hold earthquake safety drills every September 19. Some places choose to practice their safety drills earlier in the morning to avoid interfering with their work or school days, while others participated in the national earthquake drill scheduled for 11 a.m.
Just after 1 p.m., my uncle Ángel Jiménez was walking to the local market to buy some fresh produce. He pulled out a note on his phone to double-check his grocery list before turning it off to conserve the remainder of its low battery life. As he put his phone away, a peculiar thought popped into his head. If an earthquake ever happened again, I don’t care what happens to me. I’d be OK knowing my wife and two kids are safe.
“It was a one of those crazy thoughts,” Jiménez says. “It was one of those things you feel silly for even allowing it to pop into your head. At the time, I didn’t think of it as a premonition.”
At 1:14 p.m. the supermarket started shaking. Initially the shaking didn’t scare Ángel. Mexico City is in a subduction zone, which means the oceanic Cocos plate is slowly sinking under the continental North American plate, making Mexico prone to earthquakes. On February 5, 2012, a 4.8 magnitude earthquake shook Guerrero, Mexico, 218 miles from the nation’s capital. On May 6, 2013, a 4.1 magnitude earthquake struck Puebla, Mexico, 82 miles southeast of Mexico City. Earlier in the month, on Sept. 7, a deadly 8.1 magnitude earthquake hit offshore Chiapas, Mexico killing at least 90 people and damaging hundreds of homes and buildings.
Although earthquakes don’t happen every day, Ángel and the people of central Mexico are familiar with slight tremors. Ángel is blind, but he doesn’t use a walking stick, nor does he have a service dog. He didn’t think running out of the market would be a wise idea if he couldn’t see where he was going, so Ángel held onto one of the counters. He wanted to take cover under the counter, but his muscled, 5-foot-9-inch frame couldn’t fit. At first Ángel thought something was wrong with the counter, as if something was loose.
“It felt like a light tremor, then there was a sudden jerking pull,” Ángel says. Within a matter of seconds the shaking turned from innocent and forgettable to forceful and historic. It would be hours before Ángel would learn that the shaking came from a 7.1 magnitude earthquake about three miles northeast of Raboso, Mexico, 70 miles southeast of Mexico City.
As the shaking intensified, Ángel had flashbacks to the devastation that occurred 32 years ago. He’d been here before.
* * *
Up north in Dallas, Texas, Jose de Jesús Jiménez, Ángel’s older brother and my father, was sitting on his cream-colored couch watching coverage of the 1985 commemorations in Mexico City while he folded some laundry. When he was finished, Jose de Jesús (who goes by Jesús) put all of his clothes into a basket and walked upstairs to his bedroom. He looked back at the coverage from the staircase. The video of the 1985 earthquake looked different. The images were cleaner with better color and focus—modern. It took a second for Jesús to realize that what he was watching were no longer images from the past, but the present. Mexico City was shaking again.
He immediately called Ángel’s apartment. There was no answer. He tried again, but again there was still no answer. He tried his brother’s cellphone, but the call went straight to voicemail. With each attempted call, every ring only heightened Jesús’ concern. He called his sister, Lolis, in San Luis Potosí, 259 miles northwest of Mexico City and well out of harm’s way. Lolis had managed to get in contact with Ángel’s son, Christian, who said that his mother, Gina, and his sister, Cynthia, were all accounted for and safe. But they couldn’t get a hold of their father, and they didn’t know where he was.
Jesús’ concern turned to worry, then anxiety, then a full on panic. Where is my brother? Is he OK? Is he safe? Panic turned into borderline hysteria.
My mother, Juanita, said she’s never seen her husband so distraught before—not when his father died, nor when his mother died. The earthquake triggered memories of the 1985 earthquake, something that Jesús struggled to put behind him for years. His wife says when they married in 1990, it was not uncommon to wake up to her husband having night terrors set off by memories of the earthquake.
* * *
On the morning of Sept. 19, 1985, Jesús had been sitting down eating a breakfast prepared by his mother: two eggs over-easy with a glass of orange juice. He was about to take a sip of his juice when he suddenly felt nauseous. The night before, he ran into some friends on his way home from class, and joined them for a caguama (a 32-ounce bottle) of Corona. He hadn’t finished the entire beer so he didn’t think he was hungover, but he wondered whether his drinking the night before could account for the nausea.
It was then that he realized his third story apartment was shaking, and what he was experiencing wasn’t a stomachache, but an earthquake. Within a matter of seconds, he saw the exterior walls of his apartment starting to crack. Books slid from the shelves. Framed pictures fell to the ground. He knew it was too late to run downstairs. He grabbed his mother, hugged her, and leaned against an interior wall.
Although it felt longer, the shaking had only lasted a matter of seconds. When he felt the coast was clear, he examined the damages in their home. A wall had cracked wide enough to see outside. He peered through it, and saw that power lines in his neighborhood were down, and neighbors had gathered in the street.
Jesús took his mother by the hand, and they carefully stepped down the spiral staircase in their building. Once they were outside, Jesús couldn’t believe what he saw. His apartment building was now tilted at an angle, leaning against a neighboring building. But he didn’t take much time to stare in awe. He looked for one of his sisters who lived in the same building until he discovered she was safe. Jesús also wanted to find Ángel, but he assumed his brother would be OK. Ángel was a Paralympian, and he was spending the morning at track practice with other blind athletes led by coaches and trainers who were there to assist them. Jesús knew that with the trainers on hand, Ángel would be fine. But now he desperately wanted to find his aging father.
Knowing his mother was safe, Jesús started running. He ran nearly one mile to the closest metro station and hopped on the first train that arrived. Jesús and his father worked in the same office building in downtown Mexico City, where Jesús feared the worst of the damage would occur.
The metro line he rode was above ground, which gave him a chance to see glimpses of the initial destruction. Entire skyscrapers had collapsed. Smoke billowed from buildings. There were fires burning throughout the city caused by gas leaks. The train made it only three stops before service was suspended.
When Jesús stepped off the train, the downtown he had known the day before was no longer there.
“It looked like a war zone,” Jesús says now. “It looked like something out of a movie—like a missile had just hit Mexico City.”
As Jesús walked to his office building, he saw medics carrying bloody bodies. He didn’t know if they were dead or alive, nor did he want to know. Every body he saw heightened his fear of what he might see when he arrived at his office. He wanted to believe his father was fine. He didn’t want to imagine the worst.
When he finally arrived at his office, he saw that several of the building’s glass windows had shattered to the ground below. He was about to go inside when Jesús found his dad sitting on a bench outside the building, nonchalantly chatting with a coworker as if half of the city of Mexico wasn’t lying in ruins.
“Papa! Papa!” Jesús screamed as he sprinted toward his father. “Are you OK? Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” his father calmly told him. “Everything’s fine.”
Jesús took a deep breath for the first time since the earthquake had hit and felt wave of relief. His dad was safe. His family was safe.
The feeling was momentary. Jesús looked down the street from his office building and saw that a building on the corner had collapsed, and another building further down the street had also fallen; there were students in that one.
Jesús and his father looked up at their office building, then back at the ones that no longer stood. They each said a silent prayer. The earthquake had spared them.
* * *
For Ángel the shaking on Tuesday felt like it lasted for an eternity. The shaking was so intense, he knew that if he hadn’t held onto the counter, he would have fallen. He didn’t think he would make it out of the store alive.
The shaking lasted about a minute—a long time for an earthquake considering that the average timespan for an earthquake is about 10 to 30 seconds.
When the shaking finally stopped, Ángel took a moment to compose himself and let go of the counter. People were screaming in the market.
“My son! My son! I need to find my son,” one terrified mother yelled as she ran out.
The owner of the shop was inconsolable. When Ángel realized how frightened everyone was, he refused to let fear set in. Despite his disability, he felt compelled to guide others out of the store.
“Everyone, out!” he ordered. “Stay calm.” Although he had no authority over anyone, he did have experience, and people listened as he reminded them to watch for broken glass and debris.
When everyone was safely out of the market and on the street, Ángel started laughing. None of this had been funny, but he laughed out of nervousness. He didn’t know how else to react. He couldn’t believe this was happening again.
“I didn’t see anything,” Ángel says. “But I felt it. I could hear the ground move. When someone loses their sight, other senses improve. The sound was the worst. I could hear everything falling.”
Turning his phone off didn’t help Ángel save any battery power. His phone was completely dead now, and he had no way of reaching his family. Meanwhile everyone was trying to get in touch with him.
Ángel took the metro to his apartment. What is normally a 15-minute train ride turned into 45 minutes as a fearful and cautious train conductor slowly inched the train along the tracks. In total, it took Ángel an hour and 30 minutes to get home. Ángel was fine, but nobody knew that.
Sitting on the sluggishly moving metro, he recalled the morning of the 1985 earthquake. He and his running team had been practicing timed 400-meter sprints. He remembers there was something about running against the clock that was satisfying and strangely peaceful.
“In that moment, everything felt orderly and in its place,” Ángel says.
Rounding out the second 100-meter segment of one of his sprints, Ángel suddenly felt dizzy, as if his blood pressure had spiked. He felt like he was running in place, and then as if he was jumping in place. He didn’t understand what was happening until one of his coaches yelled, “It’s an earthquake!”
Ángel stopped trying to run and listened to the sound of trees snapping. He says even though there were other runners and coaches there, he had felt alone, but he knew he was safe.
“I was at a track on an open field,” Ángel says. “Unless the ground started separating apart below, I would be fine.”
As he made his way home from track practice that morning, Ángel began to realize the gravity of what had just happened. Sidewalks were completely deformed, shifted, or sunken. Some buildings looked deflated, others were piles of rubble.
Thirty-two years later, the walk home for Ángel wasn’t too different. The damage of the 7.1 magnitude earthquake wasn’t as ruinous as the one in 1985, but he experienced familiar feelings of shock, fear, and hopelessness.
When he finally got home, Ángel returned to a dark apartment lit only by the sun that peered through the windows. The power was out, so he still had no way of contacting his family to let them know he was safe. But within the hour, his son, Christian, arrived to find that his father had been fine all along.
After the earthquake hit, two hours and 30 minutes passed before Ángel got in touch with the rest of his family, who quickly relayed the message that he was safe via texts, Whatsapp, Facebook messages and phone calls. The message made its way from Mexico City to family in San Luis Potosí to family in Dallas—a 1,126 mile-long sigh of relief.
* * *
Jesús and Ángel catch up once a week, normally on Sunday evenings. They usually talk about sports and other current events. They’ll talk about how well the Los Angeles Dodgers (Ángel’s favorite team) are doing, and they’ll talk about the Texas Rangers (Jesús’ favorite).
But on one of their weekly calls a few weeks before the earthquake, wounds that never truly healed took the center of conversation.
They talked about how much life had changed for them after that September day in 1985. At first, the changes were really more like inconveniences. Jesús and Ángel moved halfway between Mexico City and Puebla because their building was deemed unsafe. Their parents temporarily moved to San Luis Potosí, before moving there permanently. Jesús’ office building was also declared insecure, so he and his coworkers were relocated to another office an hour away.
They considered themselves lucky because other people slept in the streets. They were alive; they had somewhere to stay; and all of their family was safe. So many others weren’t as fortunate. Although the Mexican government said more than 5,000 people were killed by the earthquake, Jesús and Ángel believe the death count was significantly higher, refusing to trust a government with a history of corruption and lying. Jesús thinks the death count was around 100,000. Ángel believes it was closer to 200,000. For weeks, Jesús and Ángel say it seemed like they saw body bags and makeshift coffins lining the streets downtown.
The incessant reminder of death and despair left lasting wounds on the Jiménez brothers. Neither could sleep for weeks and even the slightest sudden movement was enough to worry them.
By the spring of 1986, Jesús had left Mexico City. His decision to leave was partly due to fear but also because of concerns for his aging parents’ safety. At the time, Jesús worked for the Mexican government, which had set up resources, including travel and moving expenses, to allow anyone who wanted to relocate to a government office outside of Mexico City. Jesús’ sister, Lolis, already lived in San Luis Potosí, and his brother, Nan, had just started building a house there.
“What are we still doing here?” Jesús asked his mother and father. His parents were easy to convince to leave, but Ángel wouldn’t go so easily. Ángel had a community of other blind people in Mexico City who had become his support group. He didn’t want to leave them, and he was concerned he wouldn’t find the same help and support in San Luis Potosí. And although it seemed like half of Mexico City was destroyed, it was still his home, so Ángel decided to stay.
It hurt Jesús to leave his brother, but he wanted to do what was best for his parents. When Jesús later moved to the U.S. in 1994, he was still concerned for Ángel. Before he moved, he offered his San Luis apartment to Ángel—rent-free.
“I promise you that you won’t have to pay a cent.” Jesús told his younger brother. Ángel told him he would think about it, but he still didn’t want to leave Mexico City. He’s lived there ever since.
Jesús and Ángel are two out of 10 siblings, but the two brothers share a special bond. When they lived together in Mexico City, Jesús often guided Ángel to new places in the city. Although Ángel, who trained for the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona, was fitter and stronger than Jesús, Jesús still tried assist Ángel with his workouts. Although Ángel always refused the help of a service dog or walking stick, he knew he could always count on his older brother.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come get you that day,” Jesús told his brother on their phone call before the earthquake.
“No,” Ángel said. “You had to find Dad. I was fine. I’m sorry, too. I should have left for San Luis with you. Life in the city was hard after the earthquake.”
* * *
As Mexico City begins to rebuild from last month’s earthquake, life will be trying for many residents. According to Ángel, the city looks as if everyone is on vacation. Normally the 6:30 a.m. train he takes to work is so full he has to wait for the next one, but the train has been empty lately. Throughout the city, he says, people are scared, worried and on-edge.
After the 1985 earthquake, a 7.5 magnitude aftershock created more damage, bringing partially damaged buildings to a full collapse and killing hundreds more. Residents are fearful of a similar aftershock occurring.
“After the one in Chiapas, then this one, and now Oaxaca, when will it end?” Ángel says. “It’s like nature is punishing us.”
For all of the fear and uncertainty looming around Mexico City, there is hope. Stories of children found and rescued from collapsed schools, of regular citizens forming assembly lines to remove rubble, and of others cooking and delivering food for the search and rescue workers are lifting spirits.
“That’s how you can characterize us as Latinos—and all mankind for that matter,” Jesús says. “We help each other in times of need. Mexico rebuilt once, and they’ll do it again.”
* * *
Jesus Jimenez is a freelance writer based in Dallas and the managing editor of SUCCESS magazine.