Twenty years ago on Sept. 19 at 7:19 a.m., the earth opened up in Mexico City-Tenochtitlan, taking 85,000 lives. Tlalliyollo, Heart of the Earth, the Mexica called earthquake. Tlalliyollo created a social tremor as the people emerged from the ruins, organizing rescue relief and later for government compensation. Y la tierra no se los trag?. For the earth could not swallow them.
The government told them to stay inside their homes (and the government refused international aid, much like our government waited to accept aid), but people did not swallow that. They dug through Mexico City with their bare hands, as they saved many lives. El pulga, a man called the flea, burrowed through debris. From that era, emerged numerous social movements as the corruptness of the government was revealed: from torture chambers to buildings not up to code. The famed Sept. 19 garment workers union was created after numerous women on the early shift were locked inside buildings, having worked the early shift. Machinery was rescued before the women, some of whom escaped on bolts of material and others who were buried alive and were said to have died of madness.
Of those who survived, emerged the heroes anonimos or anonymous heroes of Mexico as people united and organized. Some returned to their anonymity of everyday life, others continued in their collective work, most of them faceless before the media or historians. While many of these social movements have gone through the normal cycle of life-and-death, the cumulative impact on Mexican civil society remains.
In the United States, Heart of the Sky has swept our lands. Hurakan, the Maker, the Heart of the Sky, in the Mayan creation story, is the origin of the word hurricane. Hurricane is recognized as a Creator being because as a result of its destructive force land was created from the shifting waters. In Louisiana and Mississippi, despite the vast sense of helplessness when our government failed to protect people in the aftermath, people also banded together and united to survive and in the sheer recognition of their humanness. Some of the earliest responses came from tribal governments who dispatched resources and personnel the day the hurricane hit. Among the Mexican and Honduran communities people organized for food and shelter and security of one another. The ants were said to have balled up together and were spotted floating in the waters en bola. What these communities share are communal cultures with centuries-old legacies of working together.
Neither Heart of the Earth nor Heart of the Sky could destroy the very impulse to live, nor the will of life to be. Heart of the Sky has reminded the United States of the interconnectedness of human beings to each other and to the natural world. United Nations officials warn that 17 more Katrinas could transpire if developing nations do not address their policies on emission standards and overdevelopment in costal areas. In the years to come, may we testify to the ability of people to unite and organize and to rebuild their communities.
As the television images clearly showed, African Americans were not simply left to fend for themselves, but it is they who took survival matters into their own hands. Even now, the larger African American community is responding in a way that goes beyond providing critical assistance. There's a moral lesson at work here... just as the earthquake revealed the role of corrupt and inept government, Katrina has revealed a similar problem here. In the great tradition of participatory democracy, may we all also challenge a society that would create the kind of poverty, lack of environmental protections, and misguided development that made so many people vulnerable. And still, the earth did not swallow them.
? Column of the Americas 2005
Patrisia Gonzales is author of The Mud People: Chronicles, Testimonios & Remembrances. She can be reached at: 608-238-3161 or XColumn@aol.com. Our bilingual columns are posted at: http://hometown.aol.com/xcolumn/myhomepage/