Mexicans Mobilize to Aid Victims of September 19th Earthquake

Shortly after a devastating earthquake hit Mexico on September 19, MSN received several phone calls and emails from friends and supporters concerned about the safety of members of our staff who were meeting in Mexico City on that day.

We are writing to provide an update on what we experienced, witnessed and learned regarding the impact of the earthquake on people in Mexico City, Morelos and Puebla and the courageous response of thousands of volunteers to this tragedy.

The earthquake occurred in the wake of previous tremors in Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco and Veracruz that had shaken Mexico earlier this month and for which post-disaster relief is ongoing.

When the earthquake hit in the afternoon of September 19th, part-time MSN staff person Rodrigo Olvera Briseño and I were in our small office in Colonia Roma Sur, Mexico City which we share with two women’s rights organizations. We were preparing for a meeting with an international brand about progress on corrective action in one of the company’s garment supplier factories in Mexico.

Thankfully, everyone in the office managed to escape without suffering any harm, but the danger continued after we reached the street. Panels of glass from taller buildings crashing around us and the smell of gas from broken pipes forced us to flee the neighbourhood, along with hundreds of our neighbours escaping their damaged apartments and office buildings, some of which had already collapsed or were in danger of collapsing.

Over the next two days, we witnessed thousands of Mexico City residents volunteering their labour and material aid to help rescue the hundreds of people trapped under fallen buildings and providing food and shelter for those who had lost or couldn’t return to their homes.

Our other part-time staff member in Mexico, Lorraine Clewer, was one of those volunteers. She described how people from the Portales neighbourhood formed human chains and frantically passed buckets full of rubble from one person to the next as men with shovels on top of the rubble dug down to find survivors. Kids showed up with sandwiches, sweet bread, coffee and water for the volunteers. Members of the volunteer rescue brigade known as “Los Topos” (Brigada de Rescate los Topos Tlaleloco, or “The Moles”) arrived and tied rope around their waists and went in pairs into the depths of the rubble searching for survivors. Each time a sound was heard, fists were raised and everyone kept silent until either a cheer went up, or people resumed moving buckets.

Sadly, over 300 people lost their lives to date, and more buildings damaged in the earthquake have since collapsed or are scheduled to be pulled down. Many of those who survived have lost their homes and loved ones, and some have lost their small businesses.  It remains to be seen how many will lose jobs.  Others are left without electricity or water. Although the focus of media attention has been on better off neighbourhoods like ours in the centre of the city, poorer neighbourhoods on the outskirts or in neighbouring states have received less attention.  Aid in those places has been mainly provided by neighbours, sometimes with the support of university and high school students from nearby campuses. When government agencies have shown up, people claim that distribution has been politicised.  As a result, people in general have very little trust in what the government is doing regardless of the efficacy of its efforts at this point. 

As many of you know, the tragedy happened on the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 earthquake that devastated Mexico City and killed thousands of people.

One of the disturbing consequences of the 1985 disaster was the discovery of clandestine garment sweatshops in buildings damaged by the earthquake. Women workers were left trapped under the rubble, while the factory owners rescued their materials. It was out of that tragedy that the independent September 19 Garment Workers’ Union was formed.

Thirty-two years later, at least one garment factory collapsed as a result of this year’s earthquake.  Reliable information is not yet available on the number of workers who died as a result of the collapse or on the brands whose products were made in the factory, though it appears they were producing for the domestic market. MSN has been in touch with our colleagues at the Authentic Labour Front (FAT), to which the September 19th Union is affiliated, and are attempting to verify the scant information currently available.

A positive outcome of the 1985 earthquake was the experience of citizens mobilizing and organizing themselves to rescue their fellow citizens who were trapped under the rubble of fallen buildings, a phenomenon that, as mentioned above, was repeated this time around.

The events of the past week are a stark reminder of the precariousness of the lives of the vast majority of Mexican people, but also of their incredible capacity to mobilize, and come together to aid the victims of disasters.

We would like to express our profound feelings of solidarity with all those in Mexico who have endured and continue to endure this latest tragedy. MSN is in regular communication with colleagues and partners in Mexico to assess damage and relief efforts and to monitor the particular impacts on factory workers. There is no doubt that the rebuilding process will take several years.

Lynda Yanz, Coordinator