My partner and I spent two weeks in Mexico City in September, both for work and to explore the city as a potential place to live. It was quite a time to be there. We arrived just after the earthquake in the Oaxaca region brought destruction to Southern Mexico (and shaking buildings in Mexico City, but thankfully without damage).

And then, a few days in, we are working on our dining table as the table starts shaking. At first, we assume it’s just a truck driving by, as we have experienced it several time before. But the trembling becomes stronger and stronger and we realize this isn’t a truck. From there, acting just out of instinct, no time for clear thinking: the sirens go off, we run towards the door, everything is shaking like crazy, we are on the 6th floor making our way down in the staircase, suddenly the light goes out in the staircase and we’re in complete darkness, me pulling my partner down the stairs, it takes long moments to realize that we have a flashlight on my phone, the staircase shaking and swaying from side to side, passing neighbors and barking dogs on our way down (the thought of helping them only crossed my mind later), fire extinguishers falling off the wall, finally out on the street, barefoot, totally safe and yet shaken, literally and emotionally.

While we were fine, many others were not. The earthquake created horrific damage: A lot of building collapsed, killing 370 people (out of which 228 in Mexico City), injuring thousands and making many more homeless.

While this was clearly a human tragedy of enormous scale, what unfolded over the next couple of days left us with a stronger and more beautiful impression of Mexico and its people than would have been possible otherwise.

As someone who studies communities, I have NEVER experienced such a strong sense of community, of solidarity, of support, of true fellowship and caring about each other before as here in Mexico in the days after the earthquake.

A collective way of processing

I have never seen so many volunteers in my life. In the days after the earthquake the streets were filled with people wearing hard hats, carrying shovels and bringing supplies. Help centers started popping up everywhere. All our Mexican friends were looking for ways to contribute. In fact, there were so many volunteers that some places apparently had to turn people down.

A common sight were these human chains, where a group of people lined up one next to the other, to pass down boxes of supplies or rubble from a collapsed building. On several occasions I observed how the chains could have been shorter: the truck could have been driven closer, the supplies could have easily fitted somewhere nearby. But this wasn’t just about efficiency, this was about collectively processing what had happened. And in a weird way, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of meaningful joy in those people. They loved helping, they loved passing down these boxes, it made them feel they were contributing. It made them feel belong.

Mexican hospitality

The people at Cafe Degú were working day and night, serving volunteers and rescue workers.

We were volunteering one day at a cafe run by a friend of a friend, serving free food to rescue workers and volunteers searching for survivors at collapsed buildings nearby. The people owning the cafe had been pretty much been open 24/7 since the earthquake, serving everything they had for free, offering a place to recharge phones, sit down, take a break, use their bathrooms.

There I met a member of an Israeli rescue team that had been sent to support the Mexican search efforts. He told me how he has seen many earthquakes in his career and that usually he has to last a whole day with a sandwich and a bottle of water he carries on him. But Mexico City was very different: he told me how every 30 minutes someone came to ask if he wanted anything to eat or drink: “I’ve never been better taken care of than here”.

Going the extra step

I was impressed how much people were empathizing with the rescue workers and volunteers. We were helping out on Thursday, so two days after the actual earthquake. By this time, many people had worked for 2 days straight and eaten a lot of cheese and ham sandwiches (called “tortas” in Mexico). So the people at our restaurant figured, the volunteers must be sick and tired of eating more tortas and that people needed a change. As a result they became creative with what they had: they started making guacamole and served it on half a paper plate with some chips, they smeared jam onto bread so people could have sugary things, they made soup at night so people could have something warm. That generosity, the improvisational creativity and that sense of true caring about total strangers, I found incredible.

What creates this sense of community?

I have asked several Mexican friends what in their opinion creates this incredible sense of community. Many agree that to some extent, Mexicans are just culturally very social and community driven people. But still, many Mexicans were surprised themselves by the extent of how people stepped up to help. Here are some of the reasons I heard:

  • In Mexico many people assume that the government is corrupt and incompetent, and that one can not rely on them to solve problems. So in moments like these, citizens step up because they know that there is nobody else to solve the problem. We have to rely on each other, because we can’t rely on anyone else.
  • The last massive earthquake (that killed 10’000+ people) was coincidentally on exactly the same day (September 19) in 1985. Many people still have vivid memories of that. That time, the government’s response was apparently really slow and disorganized. Even more a reason to take things into your own hands this time.
  • Experiencing an earthquake of that size, even if personally unharmed, leaves you with quite a shock. A tiny version of PTSD. Collectively helping and supporting each other becomes like therapy, a way to deal with shock.

A special thank you to Pau and the whole crew at Degú for their extraordinary generosity and support!

Also great perspective on the volunteering situation in the New York Times: “Mexico City Volunteers Venture Out in Force to Aid Quake Victims” (September 20 2017)