It took only a few minutes for the restaurant-and-bar-filled neighborhood Roma Norte to turn into a disaster zone. Shortly after 1 p.m. on Tuesday, September 19, Mexico City relived a national nightmare, experiencing a 7.1-magnitude earthquake 32 years after the deadly quake of 1985. The ground shook, clouds of dust filled the sky, and, for restaurant manager Antonio Luna, everything changed.
Thirty-year-old Luna works at Papa Guapa, located at Avenida Oaxaca 80. The American-inspired diner had just celebrated its second anniversary, serving a menu mostly based on baked potatoes with different toppings. The manager was sitting at one of the tables working on purchase orders when the earthquake hit.
“We only had one table with customers at that time and, luckily, they were seated at the booth close to the exit,” Luna recalls. “I sensed the ground trembling and heard the earthquake alarm, but it wasn’t until the bottles from the bar started falling, and rubble came down from the ceiling that I got really scared.”
The Papa Guapa staff and customers immediately headed out into the street to find shelter. They saw people panicking. The saw others focusing on their cell phones, trying to check in with family and friends.
“Glass was falling from the buildings and apartment floors, dust was everywhere,” Luna says. “After the ground stopped moving, I came back into the restaurant because there was a strong smell of gas, and water was coming out from the kitchen pipes. I closed the water and gas lines, but by then the streets were chaotic.”
Luna had been the manager of the Papa Guapa on Avenida Oaxaca for two years, and he worked closely with the staff and management of the other two restaurants belonging to the company: one at Calle Orizaba and the newest location, in the Del Valle neighborhood.
“I knew we couldn’t continue with the service that day. The restaurant was in bad shape. Dust was falling from the ceiling, the walls were cracked, the plaster form the walls was coming down, showing the broken bricks. I had heard the walls cracking. It was a noise I have never heard. We closed the gas line for the entire building [including the 24 apartments above the restaurant] and vacated it."
Next, he checked in with the other Papa Guapa locations. “I had to walk because the city transportation was at a standstill. We were all afraid of another earthquake hitting again. I went to Orizaba first and then to Del Valle. Everybody was fine. Then I kept walking trying to get home; I finally arrived close to 8 p.m. I was very tired and shocked because all I had seen on the way.”
The next morning, Wednesday, Luna saw the aftermath of the quake firsthand. The office building Álvaro Obregón 286 is only a few blocks away from Papa Guapa. The building collapsed, and so far at least 40 at the site have been counted dead, and 27 were rescued alive. “The mood on the streets was very sad, you could see the fear on people’s faces. The army, the police, and volunteers were coming and going. The sound of the sirens was always there.”
Fortunately for the Papa Guapa team, the staff and their families were safe. But plenty of questions remained. "We didn’t know if another earthquake would come and we were insecure about our jobs; about what will happen to the restaurant," Luna recalls. "Later that day, architect volunteers, and the city’s civil protection staff came in and told us that, on first glance, the building was okay. Still, we hired a professional architect to come in and he did a proper assessment for us. No sugar-coating anything: Two out of the four columns that serve as the foundation of the building were severely damaged, so we needed to take as much as we could and get out.”
After the news, Luna and some of his staff members helped to vacate the restaurant. They had to take as many valuables as possible but, given the state of the place, it wasn’t much. “Our neighbors upstairs had to leave all their belongings,” he says while looking at of what is left of his work space: Only the refrigerators remain, buckets of rubble and broken glasses. “Since we were on the ground floor, it was easy for us to access, but any vibrations or big movements can cause the entire building to come down.”
For those living at the Avenida Oaxaca building, and for thousands of others in the city, the quake has meant displacement. “There were locals and foreigners living here, mostly Americans and French,” says Luna. “Some of the neighbors are currently staying at hotels and are already looking for apartments.”
For Luna and other restaurant workers, 19-S — as news and social media are now referring to the earthquake — is a huge turning point. “Roma Norte, after being a touristed and busy area, is now almost empty. A lot of the servers from the nearby restaurants live on minimum wage and tips are a big part of their income. It has affected everybody in that sense."
Luna will continue to work at Papa Guapa, but not all of his co-workers have had the same fortune. He says that least 70 percent of the Papa Guapa’s staff from Avenida Oaxaca have been relocated to other restaurants, but the remaining 30 percent are now looking for a job.
As a restaurant manager, Luna calls for the need to reinforce city codes regarding the maintenance of the facilities. He hopes restaurant owners see the responsibility of keeping their facilities in the best shape possible.
“For me, the 1985 earthquake was a city tale, something very disconnected from my experience. This has changed me.”