Juchitán Under the Rubble

March 14, 2018 By 0 Comments

Visiting the city of Juchitán de Zaragoza, the cultural center of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, was a genuine shock to the system. We knew beforehand, of course, that the city had been devastated by the 8.2 earthquake that struck southeast Mexico on September 7, 2017. But numbers like “8.2” and “09/07” are abstract things and, although we felt the earthquake very strongly in the City of Oaxaca as well, neither our experience nor the numbers prepared us for what we saw when we arrived in Juchitán.

On our ride into town, we were greeted by piles of rubble, gravel and sand along the roads. Piles of rubble flanked the entrance to our hotel as well which, by the looks of it, was exceedingly lucky to be standing. The building to the right of it had come down (what’s left of it formed the backdrop to our first video here), the building to the left of the hotel was an empty shell and the next building down – another hotel – had reverted, as well, to its erstwhile status as an empty lot.

Nowhere else had fared any better, we discovered as we began to walk around. The historic city hall, built in 1860, had been condemned to demolition but appears to have been saved through the intervention of the National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH). The market next door is also shuttered and scheduled for a renovation that several we talked to found to be a dubious proposition; thus, the Zócalo has been swallowed up by stalls. The Casa de la Cultura, renovated as recently as a decade ago, is closed. Next to it, the church of San Vicente Ferrer is quite literally a shell of its former self; in front of the church, a car smashed by what appears to be a section of the tower occupies a section of the atrium like an installation of modern art. Six months after the quake, people are still living in tents while students attend classes in fields, teachers’ homes or in rotation among the limited number of classrooms available.

In total, some 85% of the buildings in the city have been affected, in one form or another. As a friend drives us around the  city’s different secciones, or districts, we can believe it. Not surprisingly, government assistance has been slow to arrive. Residents whose homes were damaged are eligible for $15,000 or $30,000 pesos ($850 or $1,700 US) in rebuilding assistance; those whose homes were destroyed are slated to receive $120,000 pesos ($6,850 US). Besides the insufficiency of the amounts (“It’s a joke!” one person tells us), there are other snags: the price of construction materials and labor costs have risen; the census of affected homes was performed by unqualified high-school students and does not yet include homes that survived the first earthquake but came down in the subsequent quakes of September 19 and 24; and, worse of all, the debit cards through which the money is to be distributed were cloned, leading many people to go to the ATMs only to find that their balances eviscerated or, like their homes, disappeared (see our previous video on this here).

The most effective recovery projects, we found, were those that were independent of the government. The citizens’ organization Comité Melendre formed an effective network to help in the recovery process, including programs to provide food assistance purchased from local producers (the “Canasta Básica”) and, in conjunction with the UNAM, to rebuild earthquake-resistant local homes through the use of local materials such as adobe. This is something that couldn’t happen fast enough, as, left and right, homes in the city are being thrown back up with no local housing codes being brought to bear, meaning that, in the next quake, they’re liable to come right back down again. Another collective we visited, Binni Birí (see Spanish video here) began as a spontaneous gathering of children to distribute food aid from other parts of the country; the collective has also been active in a program of providing community ovens to allow local women – many of whom lost their own ovens – to begin to be able to work and earn their livelihood again by selling foodstuffs.

The geography of Juchitán – soft, low-lying ground in a river flood plain – proved its undoing; the city of Salina Cruz, less than an hour away by car and technically closer to the epicenter, was far less damaged. But if lessons aren’t learned from this time, the combination of geography and negligence could lead the next disaster to be even worse.