September 2017 Earthquakes in México: One Year Later

On September 19, 2017, I was at work at my office in the neighborhood of La Roma, in Mexico City. One of my coworkers was having a meeting with our graphic designer and my other coworker and I were huddled over our computers. At 1:14pm, I felt a swaying motion and looked up, locking eyes with our visitor. One of my coworkers yelled, “Está temblando” (It’s an earthquake!) and we all scrambled out from behind our desks. I instinctively grabbed my purse and phone and rushed down toward the stairs behind my coworkers. As I attempted to go down the curved stairway, the swaying motion shifted to a violent vertical heaving and I had to put my hands against the wall to stay upright. I heard a loud crash behind me and proceeded to run down the stairs, jumping over the bicycle our designer had left in the hallway that was now blocking the door and hearing another loud crash, this time of glass breaking, somewhere next to me. When I got out the door, my coworkers motioned to me from behind a car and we all crouched down in the street, using the car as a potential shield for falling debris. Someone began to pray but I was too in shock to even think, still feeling the ground sway back and forth beneath me.

When the swaying mostly stopped, we all stood up and took stock, making sure we and those around us were ok. I remember an older woman next door walking toward us crying and my coworker went to hug her. Our office building was still standing, as were all the buildings we could see, though there was a large cloud of dust forming down the street. Everyone began checking their phones, calling or texting relatives to see if they were ok. Germán called me to see if I was ok and I managed to send a message to my family telling them what had happened and that I was ok before the networks got overloaded and shut down. Not sure what the extent of the earthquake was and unsure what to do, we began to walk towards the cloud of dust. The air began to smell of gas and a passing police officer told those who were lighting up cigarettes to put them out because of gas leaks. About one block from our office the cloud of dust was coming from a collapsed building. We asked around to the crowd of people that had started to form and it appeared that no one had been inside. It was so odd to see two buildings standing on either side and this one just slumped over in between them.

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Police had already started to congregate at this building and when we tried to continue down the street someone stopped us, saying it was closed because of a gas leak. We wandered back to our office, talking to strangers around us to try to fill in the gaps of our knowledge since internet and cell service was down. We got back to our building and checked the damage, the loud crash behind me had been our printer falling and the second one was the glass-front refrigerator of the tortillería next door. We didn’t see any major damage but also didn’t want to stay inside of any building for too long after seeing the building down the block. Cell service was going in and out at this point and one of my coworkers had still not heard from his mom in Xochimilco and the other was worried about how her neighborhood had fared in the notoriously shaky center of the city, where the earthquake of 1985, fatefully on the same day, had hit hard. So we decided to split up and make our way back to our respective neighborhoods.

The metro was closed which is how I normally got home so I decided to walk to the metrobus. I was able to board the bus with many other people and we started down the street, only to be stopped behind another bus a minute later where we waited, slowly advancing until we reached the next stop and were told that the metrobus was thereby closed. We all got out and joined the crowd of people walking down Insurgentes, one of the main arteries of Mexico City, eerily absent of cars with pedestrians and bikers forming a sort of solemn parade.

A few blocks later we were detoured away from Insurgentes due to a gas leak so I started walking down side streets more or less parallel to Insurgentes, trying to get south. I saw many broken windows and even hospitals evacuating their patients. At this point cars were passing by but they were going slower than I was on foot so I kept walking. Whenever I got service I would check my messages and Google Maps to make sure I was walking in the right direction. Germán had decided to stay a little while longer in Polanco since the traffic leaving there, normally very heavy, was surely intense. He ended up getting a ride from a coworker to Del Valle, most of the way home for him, but I was already passing by when he was just leaving Polanco so I went on alone. I walked and walked until I got to my municipality of Coyoacan, then got on a bus for the equivalent of the last two metro stops then walked some more. I probably walked more than 6 miles that afternoon and arrived home with my feet all chewed up from my shoes that I had not planned to walk in all afternoon. Germán’s mom, a professor at the UNAM, and her TA were at our apartment as the UNAM is right around the corner so they were riding out the “susto” (scare) and the traffic at our house.

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My apartment, built on volcanic rock, was completely fine. Even the pair of tall vases on my table were upright with their flowers still within them. By the time I got home, hours had passed and the power and other services had been restored in my neighborhood. We swapped stories and listened to the news and I began to find out that many had not been nearly so lucky as me. The 7.1 earthquake had its epicenter to the south of the city of Puebla, about 80 miles from Mexico City, and at final count killed 361 people and injured 6,011. Thousands of buildings collapsed or were badly damaged by the quake. All that night we watched the news and saw videos of building after building collapse, many with people trapped inside. Germán’s mom ended up staying with us that night as the city was still in chaos but early the next morning we went with her to her home in Tlalpan and then went to Costco to get emergency supplies to donate to rescue efforts and shelters that were springing up all over. We spent the rest of that day at a supply center next to a collapsed school moving water, food, shovels, medical supples, clothes, etc. in a human chain, loading up cars that were going to the most affected zones: Condesa, Roma, Xochimilco and further south to the mountains of Puebla where it was rumored damages were widespread in the hard to reach communities.

In the following days the relief effort became more organized. There were designated supply centers and an army of cyclists that transported supplies from place to place, avoiding congesting the streets with traffic so that emergency vehicles could pass through. In order to verify where supplies were still needed and what needed to be moved there, giant networks of communication were formed through WhatsApp to identify those needs in real time. In contrast to the response to the 1985 earthquake, the ax1PG8W_460sgovernment had a strong presence in supply centers and rescue sites alike. We all got to know Frida, the yellow lab on the Nay search and rescue team who wore goggles and booties to investigate the rubble, saving 52 people from collapsed buildings. Despite the recent tragedy, there was an incredible outpouring of support and strong sense of community in the city. Although many restaurants and businesses were closed in the days after the earthquake, some restaurants opened to serve free meals to volunteers, and psychiatrists and therapists volunteered their services at supply centers and shelters to help survivors and volunteers deal with the trauma.

Only a few days later, on Saturday, September 23rd, we were woken up to the earthquake alarm and rushed out the house, reliving the fear and anxiety of earlier that week. While in Mexico City this earthquake just brought up our collective trauma, it toppled buildings and caused more casualties in Oaxaca. This 6.1 quake was actually an aftershock of the 8.1 earthquake that hit Oaxaca just weeks before, on September 7th. And while help and international support were pouring into Mexico City, the people of Oaxaca, especially in the Istmo region, were lacking in supplies and aid.

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Istmo de Tehuantepec, Oaxaca (Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oaxaca_Valley)

Supplies kept getting donated however, and now the people of Mexico City did direct some of that to help Oaxaca.  This trio of deadly earthquakes in one month, with aftershocks happening practically every day, inspired international giving, and I had family and friends inquiring how best to support the country in this trying time. That was actually a difficult question to answer, there was of course the Red Cross, the volunteer rescue squads, the government reconstruction, and a wide variety of smaller nonprofits with their own specific mission. Donations to the Red Cross do not go 100% to rescue and relief efforts (which as a nonprofit professional I am very ok with and wish everyone could get over this fear, but that’s a story for another day) so many were looking to donate elsewhere. The volunteer rescue squads were a good cause but they were flooded with donations after the earthquake and it was unsure what they would do with all that money after their supply needs were met. And there were serious concerns with the government that ended up being justified.

Once the immediate aftermath passed and the task turned to the reconstruction of much of the country, the government’s positive force changed to a feet-dragging bureaucratic let down.  It was the government’s responsibility to reconstruct schools but they did so very slowly, many schools did not reopen until December or January, and even then they are learning in temporary structures. Money distributed to families to rebuild their houses did not have any selection criteria and there was little transparency in the process. Especially since the timing of reconstruction coincided with elections, there are suspicions of political cronyism playing a role in this distribution, and even that the government stole some of this money for their campaigns. In Mexico City, there are more than just suspicions of embezzlement, there are three cases of municipal governments not complying with their reconstruction promises and information on amounts of money destined for reconstruction has suspiciously gone missing from the public record. And it was not the case at all that this money was no longer needed for reconstruction, there are still communities, especially in the harder-to-reach areas, that have not been attended to since the earthquake. But even within Mexico City, Xochimilco, a municipality to the south that was hit hard, was without power and water for months.

However, where the government has failed, the nonprofit sector has stepped in. Now, one year later, the money that was donated to funds has been distributed to deserving projects and reconstruction is underway throughout the country. I want to highlight here a couple of amazing funds or projects that I’ve learned about that deserve support and recognition.

Fondo Semillas

Semillas is a feminist organization that aims to improve women’s lives in Mexico. Obviously their reconstruction efforts have this women-led focus, supporting projects directed by women called “Women Rebuilding their Communities“. There are 25 projects that were selected from the many more that applied and the geographic range, though focused on Oaxaca, is all over central and south Mexico. You can like them on Facebook to hear more about the projects which started this July and if you feel inspired to support their efforts you can donate here.

Fondo Levantemos México

This fund has sprung up from the organization Ambulante, an organization that produces documentaries, organizes documentary film festivals and promotes the next generation of documentary film making through training. At the helm of the organization are Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, who fundraised after the earthquake and decided to create a Fund within Ambulante called Levantemos México. The projects are split between those organized by established nonprofits with history in the area and new groups that sprung up after the earthquake to help their community rebuild and recover. Many of the projects focus on rebuilding houses, either distributing typical construction supplies or rebuilding using traditional but forgotten building techniques like reinforced adobe that are actually very earthquake resistant. However, there are also projects that focus on rebuilding the social network in communities or that are trying to reenergize the local economy, especially for the Istmo region where interestingly, many of Mexico’s chips are made. There’s a full breakdown of the 45 projects funded by Levantemos Mexico here showing what they’re working on. And while most of their Facebook is focused on their documentaries, they’re also putting up news on Levantemos México now and again if you want to stay in the loop.

Isla Urbana

One of Levantemos Mexico’s funded projects is headed by my favorite nonprofit in Mexico, Isla Urbana. Isla Urbana’s mission is to increase access to a clean, reliable and affordable water source for Mexicans through rainwater harvesting. In the period after the earthquake when Xochimilco didn’t have power and water, the streets were still badly damaged, which made trucking in water difficult. Isla Urbana had actually been contracted there to install rainwater harvesting systems years before and the people that had those systems were the only ones in their neighborhood that had water. They ended up sharing with their neighbors and called up the municipality to see why more couldn’t be installed. Isla Urbana came in, supported with donations from all over the world, and installed 350 disaster relief systems in houses in San Gregorio, the neighborhood in Xochimilco that was most affected. They’re continuing this work with support from Levantemos México but they are always installing systems throughout Mexico City and beyond to provide a water source for those who do not have one. If you would like to support their work of providing water to the most vulnerable and improving the resiliency of communities, especially after natural disasters like the earthquake, you can donate here or get to know more by following them on Facebook.

Today will be an emotional day for many Mexicans (and people living here, like me), one when we remember the horror of feeling the ground shake beneath us and seeing buildings collapse to the ground, but we will also remember the camaraderie and fellowship of those days afterwards when everyone worked together to help out those in need. In these times of political division and environmental catastrophes, I hope we can hold on to that feeling to face the challenges ahead.

 

Puebla Beer Fest

I really love good beer. Although living in Mexico can be exciting beer-wise because the craft beer scene here is just starting to blossom, it’s also a little harder to find a good selection at your local store. So when an ad for Puebla Beer Fest popped up on Facebook (good job Facebook advertisers), I knew I had to go. I had also never been to Puebla (outside of the bus station) so it was a great opportunity to kill two birds with one stone so to speak. So we bought our tickets to the festival, booked an Airbnb and head out on Saturday morning. It’s only about a two hour drive from Mexico City so totally manageable for a weekend trip. When we got to Puebla we went to our Airbnb, a pleasant roof terrace apartment that was above the main house with a separate entrance. We should’ve been able to see the volcano clearly from the terrace but the air pollution in Puebla (along with the traffic) has worsened in recent years to make it almost on par with CDMX, much to the dismay of the poblanos. Besides the limited visibility, the day was beautiful and sunny so we decided to walk to the beer fest. Puebla has two main tourist areas, the downtown area and a newly built-up area featuring a giant ferris wheel (la Estrella de Puebla) and a mall , Angelópolis. This area was also where the Beer Fest was and very close to our Airbnb. Despite the short distance, this area of Puebla is definitely not designed for walking. There was a river between us and the Estrella so we had to walk around to where there was a bridge for the main road and navigate the dusty sides of the road with the sun beating down on us as cars zoomed by. As soon as we got closeer though a pedestrian walkway lined with trees and shaded picnic tables led us toward the Estrella.

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We had heard that the ferris wheel is really slow so we decided to skip going for a ride and just took a few touristy pictures before heading into the beer fest which was right in front in an open grassy area. There were lots and lots of white pointed tents with an area in the middle with a stage for music. Our first stop of the day was at Cervecería Calavera, a CDMX brewery. I had tried their American Pale Ale before which was quite tasty so this time I opted for their Breakfast IPA, Morning Star, which was appropriate because I hadn’t eaten much of a breakfast. I had never heard of a Breakfast IPA before and it made me think of a thick bready sort of beer but that was definitely not the case, it was an IPA light on the hops but with the sort of refreshingly floral taste that you get with IPAs. After our liquid breakfast we went searching for a solid one, intrigued by a handout we had gotten at the entrance for a choripan stand. Choripan is a Argentinian chorizo sandwich which you can heap high with chimichurri – yum. Before we found the choripan however, we found Eurosalchicas, selling German and Polish sausage sandwiches and beer. Despite being an almost vegetarian, I do love a good Eastern European sausage so we decided to split one and picked a Polish beer to accompany it. We chatted awhile with the proprietor of the stand, who was also Polish, about my Polish ancestry and how the only words in Polish I know are pierogi and kielbasa, which also happen to be delicious foods. He thought I should go to Poland to visit my roots which I have always wanted to do, Nick and Ally, let’s go! Apparently he goes to lots of events in Mexico City and is opening a restaurant soon so we’ll see if we meet again! I did really enjoy the polish beer and thought about putting it into Untappd but as the label was entirely in Polish I had no idea where to start.

We tried a Pale Ale from Cervecería Cholula which was also quite tasty before finding the choripan place we were originally looking for. Since half of a sausage was not a sufficient meal for Germán we got a choripan which they topped with provolone cheese and was probably one of the yummiest I’ve had (though to be fair the only time I eat choripan normally is before the Puma’s soccer games outside of the stadium so I may not be the best judge). They had also created their own beer for this event and were donating the proceeds to rebuilding someone’s house that had fallen in the earthquake so we were happy to help (I love chelas con causa). We passed through a few more stands, trying to pick beers with lower alcohol percentages as the first two we had had were about 7% and we needed to pace ourselves for the rest of the afternoon. We tried a new wheat beer from Bocanegra, one of the only commercial microbreweries in Mexico. It hasn’t been publicly released yet so it was fun to get a sneak peak.  As we were strolling past more stands, I heard someone yell out in English, “Hey I like your shirt!” I was wearing a New Belgium Shift t-shirt since it seemed appropriate to wear a beer shirt to the beer fest plus I miss CO craft beer. Turns out the brewer at Three Dog Brewing is a fellow gringo who lived in Colorado for a bit when New Belgium was much smaller. And totally fitting for a fellow New Belgium fan, he had a sour beer!! It was the first Mexican sour beer I’ve tried and it was delicious! Their brewery is in Cholula, right outside of Puebla and are still a pretty small set up but sell their beer at Jazzatlan, a jazz club/brew club. When we get around to visiting Cholula we’ll definitely check it out. The brewer and his Mexican wife (the reverse of Germán and I) were super pleasant and what they lack in branding/design they make up in passion for brewing. Later, as we sat in the Cucapa space, the main sponsor for the event and a big microbrewery for Mexico, the sun sank and we got some relief from the hot sun.

We made it to two of my favorite places as the night set in. Utopia Microcervecería is based in Oaxaca and is a new brewery started by two friends. You can tell that one of them is a designer because their logo/branding is on point. After a whole afternoon of drinking beer, their Pura Frescura Australian Sparkling Ale (what does that even mean??) was refreshingly delicious. I feel like they have big things coming their way so I’ll be keeping my eye out for them.

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Lupulosa

Finally, we passed by Cerveza Insurgentes, a Tijuana brewery that makes probably my favorite Mexican beer, La Lupulosa. Lúpulo means hops in Spanish and this IPA delivers on all the hoppy goodness that I love so much. They were also the only brewery that had schwag which I consider a totally necessary part of any insert whatever food or product is being featured fest. After making the rounds of the whole festival we decided to call it a day and instead of heading downtown to go get more drinks and food, we decided to see Lady Bird at the movie theater right there then headed to our Airbnb to rest after a day of beer and sun.

Our plan for Sunday was to wander around downtown and see what there was to see then head back to Mexico City in the evening. We went downtown for breakfast and went into El Mural de los Poblanos on recommendation of our Uber driver but we found the atmosphere quite stuffy and pretentious so when they told us they were no longer serving breakfast (we had slept in a little bit that morning) we left to try something else. There was a small cute place down the street that turned out to be really nice and we both got a Puebla breakfast with tortillas, refried beans and eggs smothered in poblano mole. Then we went to the Zócalo, the main plaza surrounded by the cathedral and other colonial style buildings. I happen to love the feeling of all Mexican plazas but this one was especially nice with the colorful ornate buildings surrounding it.

The site I was most excited for in Puebla was the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, the oldest public library in the Americas located inside of the Casa de la Cultura. It was a little confusing to find it and we stumbled upon a folk dance performance at the entrance of the Casa de la Cultura but at the top of the stairs in a corner of the central courtyard is the ornately carved wood entrance to the library. It is remarkably well preserved and reminded me of some of the old libraries in Spain (not surprisingly). The whole place smells like there’s incense burning but its just the strong scent of all the old old books. The music for the dance performance downstairs sort of dampened the library experience but it was still amazing to see.

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Germán insisted we go to see El Señor de las Maravillas, where people come daily to worship. It was a little while outside of the main central area and the church had actually been damaged in the earthquake. The small viewing area was packed with people and in typical Latin American fashion the Señor was a sculpture complete with fake hair and real clothes, something I always find kind of creepy.

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On the way back towards downtown we stopped to buy some typical Puebla sweets (jamonillo and cremas, both incredibly sweet soft bars made with pine nuts, walnuts or other things and milk) as Germán’s mom had specifically requested some. Close by is Los Sapos which turned out to be my favorite area of Puebla with cobbled streets and brick stalls on either side filled with art and handicrafts.

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Puebla is the home of talavera, the typical colorful Mexican tiles so of course we had to get a mirror lined with talavera for our living room and a magnet for our fridge. Our final stop in Puebla was a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Zócalo called Azotea del Royalty. Although the name is fancy the roof deck has a great feel to it and the craft beer and food options ranging from tapas to entrees were not as expensive as you might think from the name and location. I’m glad we randomly popped in for a quick bite before leaving, I would recommend it to anyone visiting.

With that we wrapped up our weekend in Puebla and returned home a little bit later than we were planning to catch the tail end of the Oscar’s (go México for representing so well btw). Overall I really liked Puebla. Before we went I hadn’t really had super high hopes as you don’t normally hear people rave about visiting there but it is a very pretty city that is the birthplace of some traditional Mexican staples. Next time we head in that direction I need to make it to Cholula, a university town nearby that’s home to the widest pyramid in the world! Until then I’m stretching out my sweets as long as I can possibly manage.