A Shock To the System
Bell Gale Chevigny
September 19, 2005

When their government turned its back on them, survivors of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake were galvanized into political action. Katrina survivors may take a similar lesson from today's disaster.

Natural disasters often lay bare a society's grim realities and sometimes shock citizens into political action. Twenty years ago today, a catastrophic earthquake in Mexico City shook that society to its foundations.

The quake opened the chasms of class for all to see and highlighted the failures of the PRI, the country's dominant party for nearly 60 years. Striking just after 7am, it spared the middle class but killed hundreds of garment workers in clandestine sweatshops. It devastated the city's center, where two-thirds of the population lived in makeshift housing, and took an estimated 10,000 lives. Toppling public housing and hospitals, the earthquake revealed the shoddy construction allowed by deals with corrupt officials, who had long ignored complaints about dangerous conditions. The government was disastrously slow to respond.

As the eminent Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska showed in Nothing, Nobody: The Voices of the Mexico City Earthquake, locals rose to the occasion. Improvised rescue brigades tunneled tirelessly through the ruins for survivors. Then the army and even bulldozers came out to block their work. For Mexicans the earthquake was a salutary shock. Their government's response to the crisis and the discovery of their own resourcefulness taught them to build a civil society and to criticize, mistrust and ultimately shatter the monolithic control of the PRI. When the PRI conspired last April to discredit the popular mayor of Mexico City, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the people reacted to foil the attempt with what some call the largest demonstration in history.

New Orleans, like Mexico City, was already a dysfunctional city before the crisis, a capital of crime, illiteracy and poverty. While state and local government surely failed the city, the federal branch bears the heaviest responsibility. This administration has neglected the problem of global warming, which increases the intensity of hurricanes; has attacked social services on behalf of its ideological commitment to the private sector; has invested disproportionately in war; and has let New Orleans levees and its safety net fall into ruin. Its policies have only deepened the class and racial divides that Katrina laid bare in New Orleans. Healthy and able-bodied people with means could flee the storm, but no preparations were made to evacuate the city's poor, who are overwhelmingly black, and the sick and disabled.

With Katrina, as with the Mexican earthquake, government at all levels was, for many crucial days, indecisive and lethargic in its response and hostile to citizens who came to the rescue. Buses were sent away empty while people drowned. City dwellers who sought to save themselves were often opposed by local authorities, sometimes at gunpoint.

Before the 1985 earthquake, Mexican garment workers had never complained about their brutal working conditions; they even honored their bosses with birthday parties. But immediately afterwards, the spectacle of a boss trying to rescue his machinery before his workers taught these women fast that they had to depend on themselves. They formed an effective union. Their leap in social awareness was shared by a growing urban movement, which forced the government to meet their demands to restore downtown housing and subsidize housing for 100,000 families.

In the spirit of the Mexican earthquake survivors, an organization with roots in the civil rights movement has set up the People's Hurricane Fund, to be directed and administered by the city evacuees. Community Labor United (CLU), a coalition of community groups that has been active for nine years in New Orleans' hardest-hit neighborhoods, is already helping evacuees in the shelters and is committed to ensuring that the city's citizens participate in shaping the restoration of their city.

Perhaps, like our neighbors to the south, we will be able to retain the lesson of this disaster long enough to shake ourselves free of subservience to a government that turns its back on our needs.

Copyright © 2005, Bell Chevigny

[Bell Gale Chevigny is professor emerita of literature at Purchase College, SUNY. She is a member of the PEN Prison Writing Committee and editor of Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing (Arcade, 1999).]

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Last Modified: October 8, 2005.
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