That September 19th morning was just like any other day of my elementary school life. My sister and I used to make jokes about the fact that my dad would wake us up at 5:30 to listen the national anthem on the radio, which is the very first thing Mexican stations are required to play before starting their normal programming. We were not sure at that time if it was his desire to help us develop a profound patriotism or just a pretext to make us start a habit of waking up early. And that day was not the exception. Still sleepy and trying to keep our heads straight, we would stand in front of the radio until the anthem was finished. After the ritual, we all started our journey.
Traveling to school every morning was to me some sort of adventure. From the good number of dear memories I have of my father, many of them occurred when were together on our way to school and work. My mom would stay at home with my sister while we were taking the one hour trip to our destinations.
It was 1985, and it had been a good one so far. Everyone was enthusiastic about Mexico holding the soccer world cup championship in 1986. People hadn’t had that looking-forward-to kind of excitement since the 1968 Olympic Games and the Soccer World Cup in 1970.
The eighties were witnessing the rising of a new generation: young, progressive and straight-forward-minded. We were finally being called a developing nation, leaving behind the insulting Third World country label. Television was not the aristocratic privilege of a few it was back in the 60s, and people were eager to witness the new record to be established by broadcasters in the airing of a soccer championship.
At home, things were a little bit different. My dad, who grew up during the last years of the radio golden era, had always preferred it over television. I’m not saying he condemned or forbid watching TV; however, his comments on the advantages of radio over television would leave no room for doubt. “It helps you use your brain, your imagination. TV makes kids stupid” he would say, jokingly.
Hector Martinez had a show in XEW station that started at 5 in the morning. Politics, social issues, music… almost anything would do as a subject. An educated man, Martinez seemed comfortable talking about any of these topics. His original and entertaining comments informed and entertained Dad and me on our everyday journey to downtown Mexico City.
“Today is Thursday, September 19th, 1985. It is 7:15 Mexico City Central Time.” a clear and smooth voice announces as they go to commercials. The last one is a Carnation milk one. It is 7:18 and the silly and repetitive jingle fades away as Héctor Martínez resumes his show. Within seconds, we hear him saying: “[The earth] it’s shaking! It’s shaking!” Shortly after, we lose signal.
At first I don’t realize what he’s talking about. So far in my life, I don’t know how an earth tremor feels like. Dad turns to me, putting his left hand on my chest, instinctively trying to protect me “Everything is OK”,
he repeats twice. His mind seems to be absent. I understand something horrible is going on. The asphalt below trembles, grumbles and crackles like as if an enormous creature was dying under our car.
The Cuauhtémoc Avenue is certainly a long one, but today, it seems to be never-ending. Dad drives with a blank and empty expression I had seen only in war pictures of traumatized soldiers. He doesn’t look like Dad. “I have never seen him like this.” For the first time, I savor the bitter taste of terror: dry, metallic, acrid. I cannot keep my legs from shaking. It’s 7:20 and I can’t believe my father stops at the red light. He is not thinking coherently anymore. I beg “Dad, please don’t stop the car.”
At my right, a 10-story building undulates as a tree being beaten by hurricane wind. Dad reacts and restarts the engine. As we run away from the undulating building, I am already thinking about death.
At 7:21 I start looking at the people around. I notice their expressions of horror. I wonder if this is ever going to end. A thick and dense fog starts clouding everything around the car.
I turn my head toward the right side of the street and see a man in his early thirties, all dressed for work in a white shirt and tie. His facial features are deformed by anguish and pain as he climbs an enormous pile formed by scattered pieces of concrete, twisted structure rods and broken furniture. Hysteric, he tries to dig into the ruins with his bare hands. His stained white shirt, his loosened tie, his expression… They all make me think of him finishing breakfast, kissing his wife and children goodbye. Probably pronouncing a last “I love you”. And then, suddenly, and as he was starting the car, his family disappeared.
A couple blocks ahead, people are coming out from the Ministry of Commerce building. They are trying to cross the street, thus trying to escape the collapsing structure. They run in front of cars, each individual encapsulated in his own instinctive and visceral fear. At this point, I feel like I want to throw up. I am a witnessing the destruction of the
National Lottery building, the Juárez hospital, the brand new Televiteatros theatre… all icons of a city that vanish within seconds behind the cloud of dust formed by their own shattering, as if they were trying to hide their destruction from the eyes of children like me.
At 7:22, it finally stops. With infinite cruelty, the last second of inferno opens our eyes to the horrendous spectacle of destruction. In the ninth year of my life, I am also forced to face what people call the aftermath.
The next day, the idea of going through Cuauhtémoc Avenue once again causes me nausea. I pray it is closed. But it’s not. My mind revives the horror of the previous day and I start trembling and crying. There are people in the street again. But they are not the same people. Ambulances and improvised rescue units dot the new panorama as human chains remove building fragments and pile them up on the sidewalk. However, there are not only concrete and metallic rods; people’s clothes are also mixed up therein, as gruesome reminders of the tragedy. And over all, that smell like rotten flesh combined with alcohol penetrating my nostrils.
I see two rescuers carrying out what seems to be a dark blanket wrapping up something. “Dad, what are they carrying there?” I ask. His lips try to prevent the words from coming out of his mouth as he reluctantly replies: “They carry body parts, son.” A brutal silence followed the answer. “This is what death is,” I think to myself. “This is what it actually is.”