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Earthquake rattles memories of Mexico

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

It was not the “big one,” but big enough.

Last week’s 7.5 magnitude earthquake, with its epicenter in the state of Oaxaca, badly shook Mexico City on Tuesday, killing at least six people in Oaxaca, 300 miles to the Southwest.

Andy Stiny

There were no deaths reported in Mexico City and minimal damage, but buildings swayed, sending many scurrying into the streets. The calamity brought back memories of the 1985 earthquake that killed an estimated 10,000 people in Mexico City, an event I covered as a young TV reporter in California.

I was also there in 1994 when fortuitously, for a journalist, scandals involving the PRI party and president Carlos Salinas de Gortari and PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio’s assassination at a campaign rally in Tijuana, rocked the country. The subsequent president, Ernesto Zedillo, ended up jailing de Gortari and later ushered in a historic democratic changeover to another political party. I wrote a column about it for this newspaper.

But back to September 1985. I awoke on Sept. 20, to the San Francisco Chronicle’s day-after banner headline in all caps: “HUGE QUAKE TOLL-MEXICO DEVASTATION – Big Mexico City Hotels Collapse.

My TV station did not have the resources to compete with the big boys so we couldn’t then jump on a plane, but a week or so later the Mexican tourism board, eager to show the world damage was limited to a small section of the city, flew us down.

Growing up in California, just a few miles from the San Andreas Fault, I was no stranger to earthquakes. I covered the 1983 quakes that destroyed a large part of downtown Coalinga, California, and a quake in Idaho that caused building damage and two fatalities. When the 1989 deadly Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay Area and heavily damaged my old neighborhood in the Marina District, I was living and working in London.

Mexico City is built on a dry lakebed and when an earthquake hits the ground it undulates like a bowl of jello.

Since 1985 Mexico has introduced some of the strongest quake mitigation measures, on a par with California and Japan.

But then, on a downtown tour, we saw high-rises that had pancaked to the ground and crews using heavy equipment were digging through the massive amounts of rubble. The rescue crews shared their rations of milk heated on an outdoor cooker with us.

At Alameda Central, the city’s oldest park and scene of a famous Diego Rivera mural, tents were set up for quake survivors and outdoor movies were shown for the children.

But thinking of the city also brings to mind many wonderful times there, where I visited with friends most recently last year.

I showed my friends the 50-foot, Rivera mural in question: “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” The fresco was painted in the late 1940s and located in the Hotel del Prado. The 1985 quake destroyed the hotel and in an elaborate operation the fresco was moved to its current location, the Museo Mural Diego Rivera, close to the Alameda, where my friends and I saw it.

On the trip last year, we also visited places where I took my late mother Rita, who passed away 12 years ago last week.

We viewed the city’s massive public square, the Zocalo, from the open air, top floor restaurant at the Hotel Majestic. Mom and I had lunch there.

We also went to artist Frida Kahlo’s museum home in Coyacan, now a suburb of the city. I have a photo of my mom outside. She loved Mexico and often spoke of the great times we had there.

When an earthquake like last week’s strikes Mexico, I feel like I have a certain bond with my brothers and sisters in the south, having grown up in earthquake country.

And while I lament their current natural disaster, I prefer to think of what the city and country have given me: art, culture, natural beauty and memories.