The great painter Salvador Dalí once said, “There is no way I’m going back to Mexico. I can’t stand to be in a country that is more surrealist than my paintings.” And the ‘magical realism’ of my country made itself evident once again today, September 19th; a date that forever looms in the minds of many of us because it has become a constant reminder of the frailty of our lives when confronted with the powerful –and often inexplicable– forces of Nature.
Mexico sits atop powerful tectonic plates and its inhabitants have suffered the effects of their devastating movements since time immemorial. With the advent of modern science men began to better understand the mechanics behind such natural phenomena, and one of the axioms of modern Seismology is that earthquakes are unpredictable, and do not follow regular patterns. And yet this seems to contradict the regularity of tremors during the month of September in the Mexican territory in recent years, which sometimes are followed by the appearance of luminous phenomena which some people interpret as ‘Earth lights’ (read two of our previous articles regarding these here and here).
If someone were to ask me “when have you felt the more scared in your life” I could immediately offer an answer: September 19, 1985. I was eleven years old and getting ready for school inside the bathroom I shared with my two older sisters, when the younger one of my siblings (who was on the other side of the bathroom behind a pair of French doors) suddenly said “está temblando!” (“it is trembling”). At first I thought my sis was pulling my leg but after a few seconds I sensed it too.
And as if to dissipate any question in my mind the tremors kept coming in wave after wave. Getting stronger. And stronger. And stronger.
I can’t tell how long the tremors lasted. They seemed to go on forever, in that moment of visceral terror in which your whole world is literally shaking and nothing feels safe anymore. Long enough at least for me to rush down the stairs and into the kitchen looking for my mom, the only source of comfort and reassurance I could think of. “Mommy mommy it is trembling!” I cried when I found her, and I could see in her eyes she was just as scared as I was and couldn’t hide it –not the kind of thing a child ever wants to see in the face of their parents.
My mom didn’t utter a word; she just held me in her arms, and I remember we just stood there hugging each other with eyes closed until the tremors subsided. Had our home been located near the areas close to ground zero, perhaps that is where some of the makeshift civilian rescue parties would have found our bodies, just as they did with the thousands of victims (how many God only knows, because the government will never tell us) who perished that day. Now that my mom is gone, I keep thinking about that a lot.
You would think a grown man would be able to handle things better, but on September 19, 2017 (the exact 32nd anniversary of the 1985 fatality) I was working on some commission when around noon I felt a certain dizziness, and before I could wonder if it was a true tremor or I just needed a break, all the windows began to rattle in the most horrific way. I skedaddled into the garden dumbfounded (not the smartest move, I know) as I saw all the neighboring houses drunkenly swaying all around me.
The material damages caused by the 2017 earthquake were considerable, and the casualties were numbered in the hundreds, instead of the thousands of 1985. The aftermath was also not as apocalyptic-looking as in that decades-past event –or maybe I was no longer looking at them through the eyes of such an impressionable young kid– but it was nonetheless a stark reminder of how sturdy-looking structures can collapse like a bundle of toothpicks in the blink of an eye.
Back then a few seismologists appeared on TV to remind the public that, despite the appearances, earthquakes remain random chaotic events governed by laws which follow no regular pattern. The 2017 quake was just a ‘fatal coincidence’ and nothing else. Authorities used the event to further press into the populace a culture of preparedness, so every year on the same date, at 12:19 pm the seismological sirens are activated, and a general drill is performed. Many offices and businesses lucky enough to be around a functioning siren do perform the drill but may others do not.
So what are the odds, I ask you, that in 2022 —exactly 5 years after the 2017 quake, and 37 years after the 1985 one– a third major tremor was experienced in several regions of Mexico almost an hour after the annual drill was performed??
In any other place in the world, the odds are infinitesimal*, but in a surrealist country like Mexico… pretty darn good!
This new “anniversary quake” caught me (once more) working in front of my laptop, and although it didn’t felt as strongly as the ones in 2017 or 1985, by now I did the right thing of quickly exiting the house to join all the neighbors gathering around our street. We were all showing the same mixture of nervous bemusement and incredulity in our faces as we were thinking the same thing: “No way, AGAIN?! WTF…”
And again professional seismologists are shown on TV nervously laughing while saying “oh well, he he… one of those things!” Because what the hell else are they going to say. Meanwhile civilians are alleviating their anxiety by producing and sharing funny memes (“In Mexico Seismology is not a branch of science, but of Astrology!” “Earthquakes unpredictable? Hold my cerveza says Mexico,” etc.)
Look, nobody is saying we should go back to the age of superstition and soothsaying through bone throwing and looking for omens in birds in flight –though I’m sure many of my witchy friends would have a thing or two to say on the matter. All I’m saying is that, if 48 years of living in a magical realm as Mexico have taught me anything, is that when it comes to the accuracy of scientific laws (like the ones governing the alleged randomness of seismic activity) Mother Gaia will always have the final word.
In the meantime, it’s time to replenish the supplies of the emergency kit held in every Mexican household: namely Tequila and some pieces of warm ‘bolillo’ bread “para el susto” –a folk remedy used to cure anxiety that should also not work according to modern science… but it does!
(*) Mexican journalist Sergio Sarmiento asked José Luis Matejos (an specialist from the National University’s Physics Institute) and according to him the statistical probability of having three major earthquakes all hitting the same country on the same date is around 1 in 133,225.