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A Writer Remembers The Quake That Rocked Mexico City, And Brought Its People Together


This is FRESH AIR. We're looking back on a year filled with a string of devastating natural disasters, including floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and fires. Over the summer, writer Dagoberto Gilb was fulfilling a dream to live in Mexico City for an extended stay when an earthquake struck.

DAGOBERTO GILB: I am half American, half Mexican. Half my father, half my mother. Neither side of this me came with any background cache. My American father's side was east LA poor, wage workers getting by. My Mexican mother's side was culturally richer with a storybook border crossing into Hollywood. The work became minimum wage and life just being Mexican here. I grew up on the American side with my single mother's beliefs and memories. And like most Mexicanos who came here because they had to, there wasn't a lot of desire to go back. The government thieved and cheated and lied. The church took too much away from the poor and used it to get power from the rich. There were no jobs and nothing much more than dirt to eat and beer to drink.

In the '70s, the Chicano movement rose from young, newly educated Mexican-Americans and held out a more positive, romanticized vision. Not bad cops and drug scams but a sacred, evolved past of high art, sophisticated agriculture, peaceful villages, princes and princesses dancing with feathers of quetzales. Like every Chicano, I dreamed of traveling to motherland Mexico, la tierra materna, to see and know it myself. In college, we met lots of others who'd been there, often with their all-American families. They went to beach resorts and fishing villages, historic indigenous sites and shopped the coolest arts and crafts markets.

Most of us crossed to Tijuana, Juarez, Reynosa, Matamoros and bought the cheapest guitars. I used to joke how I'd been to Mexicali. All Chicanos want to spend time in la capital, Mexico City, where the eagle landed on a nopal and ate a rattlesnake. The city of Moctezuma and Cuauhtemoc, of Cortes and Malinche, of la virgen de Guadalupe. Of the great pyramids of the sun and the moon. Of Frida and Diego and Trotsky's death. The museo that holds the stone Aztec calendar. It wasn't until my children had become adults that I could move there, go beyond the cliched haunts and learn some of its actual life.

In July, I sublet a good-looking apartment on third floor of a seven-story building. By there I mean in Condesa, which is, along with Roma, the youngest of the two hippest neighborhoods in the city. Where the bars and cafes are. Where the nightlife goes till early morning. Trumpets and sopranos are on the streets. Art rules and movie setups and modeling shoots take up large spaces in and around Parque Mexico. I was there to write. On September 9 came an 8.1 earthquake centered off the coast of Oaxaca. I staggered down a marble staircase with no handrails and, like many, waited uncomfortably on the streets for what might be next. Devastating in the south, it was only scary where I was six hours north.

But next came ten days later, on September 19, in a sismo 7.1 that hit closer, near Puebla. It struck more suddenly than the last, with intensity. The alarm sounded on the streets, but this time my building began swaying within seconds. I grabbed a bathroom door frame and hung on for the ride.

Things in the room behind and in front of me began falling. Glass broke and spilled. Plaster dusted the air like snow, and chunks of it fell from above and crumbled around me. The entire structural steel building pitched north, south, east, west. I could see the torque of it on the hinge side of the door. I even had to clear my fingers when it seemed like the space between the door's edge and jamb were going to crush them. I watched for walls to fall. And then it was over. Thirty seconds? I don't know.

Blocks away from my apartment, it was far worse. In Condesa and Roma, buildings collapsed that you surely heard of and saw in news photos. What you couldn't see was the collective spirit that came out of every door. There was sadness and fear in everyone, but it slowed none. People, especially the young, rushed with bottles and jugs of water, shovels, pry bars, plastic buckets, food for workers and pets alike. Too many people gathered to help.

I had come to Mexico to be in its life, and here I was, two fists raised, signaling to all to be silent and still so rescuers could listen for survivors, sometimes as a hundred brown fists, me dirty and sweaty, exclaiming to heaven and all beneath. Done not as an anthem, not a symbol of fight or resolve, and though so near miraculous life and tragic death, not as a prayer. Stopped, hushed, it was only for listening harder, for going on and not giving in.

GROSS: Writer Dagoberto Gilb lives in Austin, Texas. After we take a short break, our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, will remember some of the musicians who died this year. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dagoberto Gilb