Remembering ’85’s earthquake

We had an earthquake last Friday. It was the second in a month also blighted by a new strain of influenza and economic recession – but that’s what life’s currently like here in Mexico.

I was in the office when the quake struck, eating lunch (Mexican time – just before 230pm) with Lupita, the office manager. She was about to put a spoonful of sopa de pasta in her mouth when she jolted sideways. We both dropped our cutlery and hurried out into the street (we’re on the ground floor) to the sound of car alarms and car horns. This and the temblor of last month bring the number of quakes that I have lived through to the grand total of two.

Over lunch the following Monday, Lupita and I were telling a colleague who had been absent at the time about Friday’s quake. Lupita, now in her fifties, began talking about what is called by many Mexicans simply "Ochenta y cinco", (’85). That year a magnitude 8.1 earthquake (Friday’s quake was 5.9) struck Mexico City at 7:19 am. At the time, Lupita was a young mother with two twin boys living in the Coyoacan delegation in the south of Mexico City.

"I felt queasy that morning," she remembered over lunch, "and I was putting on my shoes when the house began to shake."

Her husband Jorge appeared in the bedroom doorway with a twin tucked under each arm, and told Lupita to come and stand under the door frame.

"Then I really started to feel queasy," she said.

El temblor passed – it lasted for three minutes – and an aunt rang to advise Lupita to stay home if she was feeling ill. Residents of Mexico City are used to quakes, and when this one was over, Lupita went about her daily business, which on that morning was getting her twins to kindergarten school.

But she couldn’t get out of her street, she remembers, because traffic was at a standstill, so she headed back home and rang the office to tell them that she wasn’t going to make it in on time. There was no answer. Then she and Jorge decided to try and get ahead on the week’s chores and went to the supermarket nearby to do the grocery shopping.

"I remember that the girl at the deli counter was slicing the ham with the machines but staring up at the TV screen with her mouth open," said Lupita.

"I looked over at the screen and saw the rubble of crumbled buildings, and said, ‘Oh No! What’s happened now in India?’"

"No!" the girl at the counter told her.

"That’s Mexico! That’s here in the city!"

"It was then that I started to realize the scale of the damage, " she said.

According to the National University of Colombia "the event caused between three and four billion USD in damage as 412 buildings collapsed and another 3,124 were seriously damaged in the city. While the number is in dispute, the most-often cited number of deaths is about an estimated 10,000 people."

Ulises, my partner, was nine years old when the quake struck and he lived in one of the boroughs that skirted the city. His parents shooed him and his younger brother and sister out of the house (he remembers his mother telling him to let go of his school bag, which was full of books) into the street.

"I remember watching a puddle in the street outside our house, " he told me later Monday evening after I recounted Lupita’s version of events.

"The water jumped right out, and then it jumped right back in again."

For Lupita, the calls rolled in from friends and family later than morning of September 19th. Her aunt, who lived down the street, was heading up a collection of clothes for those people who had been left out of house and home by the quake. There were many people et her aunt’s house, remembers Lupita, and they remained there until the next day, when the city was rocked by an aftershock.

"Everyone was so nervous and worried after that second quake," she recalls, "and my aunt made up a batch of hot-cakes."

"After that, everyone started laughing and joking around," she said.

"My aunt took me aside and admitted to having put some of her tranquilizers in the hotcake mix, to calm everyone down."

Lupita nearly died – laughing at the memory.