The Oscillation of Time
Posted on 21 February, 2018
María Eugenia Garmendia Carbajal
It was just after sunrise… the clock read 7:19 when an earthquake shook Mexico City on September 19, 1985. It took just two minutes for it to destroy several buildings, taking the lives of thousands of people residing or working in the Cuauhtémoc, Venustiano Carranza, Benito Juárez, Gustavo A. Madero, Miguel Hidalgo and Coyoacán areas of the city. . It was an 8.1 magnitude earthquake, the epicenter was located in the Pacific Ocean shore, in the border between the states of Michoacán and Guerrero. The 7.6 aftershock the following evening brought down several buildings that had been structurally damaged.
Those of us who experienced this event outside the area where the shockwaves collided causing the catastrophe did not realize its devastating impact. We ran to take cover under a doorjamb, as our parents had taught us to do, to wait for the earthwquake to die out. Minutes later, we just said, “It was a huge one!”, and wondered if everyone was alright. We went out to work, children went to school, but gradually we realized the scale of destruction. For five hours, the TV signal from Televisa and the other broadcasters was off the air, but radio stations kept transmitting. Anchorman Jacobo Zabludovsky, on XEW Radio, used a car phone to narrate what he saw on the streets. He set off from Paseo de la Reforma: “From Chapultepec towards the Zócalo, I don’t see anything out of the ordinary. Transit is fluid, traffic lights are working in Paseo de la Reforma. This tremor seemed very long to me, but not as powerful as the one that brought down the Angel . I think it treated us gently, as if rocking us in a crib…”.(1)
As he went on, the magnitude of the tragedy became apparent. Within minutes, Nature’s destructive force plunged thousands of families into despair and grief. It was such a tragedy that it paralyzed the administration of President Miguel de la Madrid; faced with the lack of immediate action from the authorities, a fledgling civil society emerged to clear the rubble, rescue lives, provide tools and food, and improvise shelters. Their hands became the symbol of the solidarity of the Mexican people faced with adversity.
32 years later, history repeats itself. On Sepember 19, 2017, at 13:14, Mexico City relieved the tragedy. A 7.1 earthquake, orginating 12 kilometers outside Axochiapan, near the border between the states of Morelos and Puebla, violently shook the capital, especially those areas that had been ravaged in 1985, now adding to them Tlalpan and Xochimilco. Those of us who had lived through the tragedy in 85, were fully aware now of the devastating force of this event. Time became a protagonist again, oscillating between life and death. Fear was reborn, along with the anguish generated by imminent aftershocks, the search for lost relatives, and the very real possibility of encountering total destruction.
After the devastating experience of 85, the governmernt had strengthened civil protection programs; modified the buiding code; created the seismic alert system; established security measures in schools, offices and public spaces, as well as regular evacuation drills. These measures certainly contributed to minimizing the damages caused by the 2017 earthquake. However, several recently constructed buildings collapsed, leading to questions of negligence, lack of supervision by contractors, and/or corruption of public officers who allowed their construction.
These tragic moments in our history were registered in different ways. In 85, mainly through the press, in Zabludovsky’s chronicle, in the tireless work of several journalists, Héctor Martínez Serrano, Pedro Ferriz, Adriana Pérez Cañedo, Carlos Monsiváis, among them, and three years later in Elena Poniatowska’s book Nada, nadie. Las voces del temblor. The news surrounding the 2017 earthquake were carried instead by the media and the social networks.
Both in 1985 and 2017, civil society was the protagonist, pouring immediately into the streets, offering their hands to move stones, to carry water, food, tools. The young of 1985 and the millenials of 2017 brushed aside social, religious and ideological differences, acting in the face of adversity, putting their hearts and their energy into the task of helping and mitigating the grief of a wounded Mexico.
Beyond news stories and chronicles at that time, recognition of civil society’s efforts after the 1985 earthquake was registered as well in the mural Homenaje al rescate heroico de 2,300 personas(A Tribute to the heroic rescue of 2,300 people), painted by José Chávez Morado between 1988 and 1989, during the reconstruction of the Centro Médico Nacional, now known as Centro Médico Nacional Siglo XXI. This is regarded as the only transcendent artistic work representing that tragedy. Chávez Morado was commissioned to paint on the right-hand wall along the stairwell of the main vestibule. He chose to use pink marble slabs, covering a vast surface, with sgrafitto incisions made with emery and chisel, tracing furrows in order to achieve a woodcut-like effect. In this manner, the tragedy was recorded on the wall. The materials employed have allowed it to remain unscathed.
This mural must undoubtedly be regarded as a historic document testifying to a catastrophic event, given renewed relevance by this recent earthquake. What happened in 1985 has happened again; its subject is reinvigorated, to pay tribute to the courage and solidarity of civil society, and to the humane care with which doctors and nurses tended to thousands of injured people. This work is a song of hope, awakening our conscience, calling us to build a new Mexico, rising from the clash of opposites: life/death; rebirth/redeath; justice/injustice; construction/destruction/reconstruction. Concepts in dialogue with each other, made manifest in each of the five scenes depicted in the mural.
Chávez Morado invited a group of excellent artists to collaborate with him. It is a collective mural. He organized three working groups. He made the design and supervised the work; Jorge Best headed the group in charge of enlarging and tracing the design on the wall; Joaquín Gutiérrez led the team responsible for the incision, and Javier Medina’s crew applied the color.
What is more striking in the first scene is a majestic tree, with human figures, names traced on its branches, the symbol of the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (IMSS), and a building model. These elements indicate that the artist began his narrative focusing on the significance of the creation of IMSS, which from its “inception in 1943 marked the beginning of the process of building hospitals thrughout the country, culminating in the 50’s and 60’s with the construction of La Raza Hospital and the Centro Médico Nacional, both by architect Enrique Yáñez”. (2) It was a pioneering institution, charged with providing social security to Mexican employees, workers and peasants, represented in panels alongside the doctor, the nurse and the researcher, symbolizing, like the tree, the strength that sustains the ideal of the medical community. A communitry that saw its hospital destroyed, but drew strength to tend to the victims in spite of the tragedy and the grief.
The names on the branches belong to key figures in Mexican politics, education, and science, as well as in IMSS, such as Ignacio García Téllez, who was Secretary of Governance, dean of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and the first director of IMSS from 1944 to 1946. Benito Coquet Lagunes was IMSS director between 1958 and 1964, and established the basis for workers to receive benefits beyond medical care: he created the “Centro Vacacional Oaxtepec, the Unidad Independencia, the Centro Médico Nacional, the Centros de Seguridad Social para el Bienestar Familiar, and 70 theaters in the country”. (3) The importance of Dr. Ignacio Morones Prieto resides in the campaigns he launched against tiphus, smallpox, goiter, and malaria, erradicating the latter in the state of Nuevo León. He was Health Secretary, created the Centro Médico Nacional, and was director of IMSS from 1965 to 1970. Doctors Bernardo Sepúlveda Gutiérrez, Luis Méndez Hernández, Luis Castelazo Ayala and Federico Gómez Santos are included in this genealogy because of their contributions to several fields of medicine.
The impact of the earthwake is represented by a wide and deep crack in ochre crossing the mural and giving way to the second scene, marked by great agitation and movement: the rescue of 2,300 people. Injured men are pulled from under the rubble, another one is carried by vigorous hands; all are taken to the hospital, where they are tended to by doctors and nurses. The graphic of the earthquake, the date and time, are recorded on the stone, as if to stop time and freeze the scene.
The third scene depicts the moment that civil society went out to the streets and formed human chains to remove the rubble and rescue bodies with their hands moved by solidarity. A moment in which the population was faced with its destroyed city, despairing as they saw their lost possessions. However, faced with this somber prospect, highlighted by a fallen branch apparently consumed by fire, Chávez Morado raises on three huge hands the symbol of our nation: the eagle on a nopal cactus, taken from the first page of the Mendocino Codex, which narrates the story of the foundation of Tenochtitlán by the Mexica in 1325. Perhaps the artist incorporated this symbol to remind us that we come from a warrior race that never yields to tragedy and always rises in the face of adversity.
The following scene joins the previous one by the rebirth of the burnt branch, now flourishing, and the presence of a bird who will go on with its task of spreading life thrugh pollination. The message is clear: there is calm after the storm. Nevertheless, the artist found a way to include, lest it be forgotten, the social indignation generated by the ineptitude of the government after the earthquake, by depicting in the foreground a group of protesters demanding housing, water, electricity, healthcare, work, culture, schools, books, and sports. “On September 27, just a week after the earthquake, the first victims’ mobilization towards Los Pinos took place. Over 30 thousand people marched in silence, with face masks and helmets, the symbols of the rescuers. They demand building plot expropriations, cheap credit, a popular reconstruction program, and the restoration of water and electricity services”. (4) The lack of human care and the indifference witrh which the authorities dealt with the demands of the people who were living in crowded shelters led to their organization, and once “the first stage of this emergency was over, on October 24, around 40 neighborhood organizations formed the Coordinadora Única de Damnificados (CUD)”. (5)
The last section of the mural depicts the reconstruction of the city, the same situation facing the victims in several municipalities in Morelos and Puebla 32 years later, waiting for their houses to be rebuilt after the earthquake of September 19, 2017.
This work by Chávez Morado makes us think about the important role of art in the wake of catastrophic, painful and devastating events that bring despair to humanity, and unsettle societies and economies. The artist depicts the event, recording mistakes and achievements, turning his work into a genuine testimony for posterity, enabling it to be preserved in historical memory.
https://www.obrasweb.mx/construccion/2007/01/01/la-arquitectura-del-imss . Consulted on January 18, 2018.
 Héctor Rivera J., “Benito Coquet rememora su paso por el Seguro Social y el gran proyecto teatral que animó”, Proceso, núm. 2153, December 28, 1991, benito coquet rememora su paso por el seguro social y el … – Proceso. Consulted on October 24, 2017.