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The two-tone wail of our alarma sísmica, the modem-sized box screwed to the wall in my restaurant, Cicatriz, in Mexico City, that alerts us to tremors, always causes a momentary fright. The detector is there by law — it was a package deal with the smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. It usually goes off a few times a week, blinking to life during the micro earth disturbances that are common here. The alarm sounds and the staff and I stop what we are doing, glance wide-eyed at each other, stare at the hanging globe lamps to detect any swaying, and, generally, go back to business.
When a 7.1 earthquake struck on September 19 — 32 years after the 1985 quake that devastated Mexico City and killed thousands — Cicatriz was closed. We are closed every Tuesday, so I can’t be sure our little alarm went off, but the city-wide alarms, pegged to intersection street lamps, certainly did. My boyfriend and I were sitting at the table at his house when I started to feel a slight rumbling. “Is that a truck going by? The metro?” I thought. Then we heard the alarm.
He grabbed the dog and we sprinted, pinballing down the stairs and making our way out onto the street. It was hard to walk. The asphalt moved like rough sea waves. I looked up at the building in front of us, which was swaying so dramatically I thought it might topple, and we scrambled to a block with lower buildings and that was away from the nest of criss-crossing electrical lines. Dogs raced through the streets, neighbors screamed, and we felt the crush of buildings collapsing. There was dust in the air from a home that had fallen three blocks away. The metro, electricity, internet, and gas lines were out. We would learn later that the death toll has reached well over 300. It took 24 hours to learn that our friends and family were safe.
Cicatriz, too, was fine. But Colonia Juárez, where the restaurant is located, was one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, next to Roma and Condesa. Every other block or so has a collapsed building, or one with major structural damage, the impact zones cordoned off with tape. The media has focused on the gory wreckage of completely destroyed buildings; the less-visible structural damage of buildings that are beyond repair and will need to be dismantled will take months to assess. Thousands of people have been displaced by the quake; those with no homes are staying with family, friends, or in makeshift tent-communities in parks and closed-off streets, with whatever belongings they were able to grab during the chaos.
My brother Jake, who is my business partner, and I decided to open Cicatriz the day after the earthquake. It was less a business decision and more a rote motion — the restaurant is only seven months old and it’s where we spend nearly all of our waking hours. We came to the restaurant to regroup, to assess damage (nothing more than a couple broken bottles), and to figure out how we could help.
A couple of employees showed up Wednesday morning; more were out in the field at rescue sites and centros de acopio, which provide basic services and goods to those in need. We gathered dry goods from the restaurant, cans of tuna and tomato, peanut butter, sugar, salt, flour, and whatever cooked food we had on hand, and brought it to a donation center.
The quake was a call to action. It seemed as though the entire city stopped what it was doing to rush to fallen buildings and to volunteer, dig, organize, cook, lift, console, help, assess, support, direct, and solve the immediate needs of the crisis. Volunteers stood shoulder to shoulder, shuttling donations to the needy and whisking rubble away. I have never seen such a concerted effort of strangers helping strangers, joined in rescue. From what I’ve seen, this effort is almost entirely civilian; the government and its aide organizations seem to be absent.
An eerie quiet descended on the city the following week that remains today. Though the immediate danger has passed, you can still turn a corner and walk back into total destruction. Stress permeates the air. People aren’t sleeping, and they carry the weight of tragedy on their faces. As a neighborhood restaurant, most of our clients live close by, sometimes visiting two or three times a day, so we want to be open as a site of reunion, to provide a snip of normalcy in an unstable time.
We buy customers cups of coffee and extra mezcal. We listen.
Not surprisingly, the specter of tragedy dominates the conversation. Our regulars Chris and Paola lived one block from Cicatriz, and during the earthquake, their seven-story building’s facade had fallen to reveal the interiors of the apartments: It looked as though it might crumble at any moment. A few days after the earthquake, the police permitted a 30-minute clearance for renters like them to run in and grab as many things as possible out of their damaged homes. A few regulars, friends, our manager Julz, and I went with them, and we carried out their essentials, but Chris and Paola will have to find a new place to live.
Walking to the market last week to shop for the restaurant, I noticed a huge crack running through the base of a building, signifying major structural damage. A worker hunched on the ground, spreading paste over the rupture with a spackling knife — a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.
In a city that already struggles with providing basic services to over 20 million residents, the instability is now more pronounced. Though there’s a profound sadness hanging over the city, the heroic efforts and Chilango solidarity are inspiring. The outpouring of assistance reflects the durability of a truly great city and its residents, both native and adopted. The true test, however, will be how the city and federal governments respond to the more long-term needs of its citizens (especially with housing), how they help pueblos in Oaxaca and Chiapas that fared far worse than the capital, and what steps they take toward preventing future disasters, nationwide.
In the meanwhile, at Cicatriz, we are trying our best to offer the same service we did before the earthquake. After so much destruction, loss, and trauma, it’s a relief for our neighbors — and for us — to be able to see a glimpse of the way things were, the way things will hopefully be again.
We’re here, a tiny bubble of routine amid the disaster, in the indestructible megapolis we call home. Can I get you a cup of coffee?