Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Earthquake: "It Was Strong, and Terrible"

I believe that this old roof is now gone

I was asleep in my hammock at the beach when last Thursday night's earthquake struck in Southern Mexico, so although the shaking was felt in Yucatán, I missed it. When I heard the news the next day, I sent a text message to my friend Victoria, who is from Juchitán, Oaxaca, one of the hardest-hit areas.

A few hours later I received a reply, stating simply, "it was strong, and terrible," and assuring that she was OK.

I tried calling on Saturday and couldn't get through. She called me Sunday from Mexico City. Still quite shaken, she told me how by chance she had boarded a bus out of Juchitán only hours before the quake hit. When she finally got news that her house had suffered significant damage, with a partial roof collapse and fissured walls, she realized that if she had not left on that bus, she might have been injured or killed. Several dozen in Juchitán are confirmed dead.

I have never mentioned that some of my best stories never get shared in this blog. I have very good friends, like Victoria, who have introduced me to aspects of Mexican life and culture not generally accessible. To blog about some of these experiences, to publicize them, would violate the privacy and the confidence of people who have shared with me and accepted me into their lives. So this friendship and this old house which was passed down to her from her grandmother and mother, are things that are exceptional for me in ways that I have not talked about in this blog.

Vela in Juchitán. We drink a few beers.
There have been wonderful times. In the kitchen of this house we once spent a simple but memorable evening preparing food, talking and sharing a bottle of fine mezcal. On another visit she invited me to a leisurely, old-fashioned comida with her extended family, during which we enjoyed plate after plate of seafood delicacies while enjoying singing and guitar playing, recitations of poetry and conversations long into the evening.

In this house we dress to attend velas, traditional indigenous festivals celebrated in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Victoria, attired in the traditional Zapotec manner, takes my arm, as I, in white guayabera, balance a case of beer, the admittance fee to attend the event, on my other shoulder.

Through Victoria, who has spent her career involved in the music and art communities, I've met some of the premier musicians, singers and artists in Mexico today. I have attended marvelous concerts and hung out backstage. A painter she introduced me to took me to two velas one night in Oaxaca. One was of the "official" sort, where we rubbed shoulders with the governor and other members of the Oaxaca elite. The other, after midnight in a barrio on the outskirts of the city, was hosted by muxes, Oaxaca's "third sex," men who dress as women but in general do not consider themselves either transvestites nor transgender. That uninhibited and raucous party endured until daylight.

The crowd gets into the spirit at a vela in Oaxaca (above and below)

Velas are family events in Juchitán

I have had many additional experiences associated with my dear friend and her old house, and I expect there will be many more. But first, Juchitán and other hard-hit areas have a lot of work to do.

The government and other organizations are mobilizing aid for those left without homes.

I just read that (sadly) demolition has begun on historic buildings in Juchitán centro too damaged to repair, such as the Palacio Municipal and Casa de la Cultura so that reconstruction can begin.

Oaxaca artists Lila Downs, Susana Harp, Alejandra Robles and others have organized a benefit concert for victims of the quake for this Sunday, Sept. 17, in Auditorio Guelaguetza in Oaxaca.

On the phone, Victoria told me that the facade of her house seems to be intact, and that the rest of the damage, according to her nephew, should be reparable. I certainly hope this is the case. Her fine old house resonates with family history and memories and it would be very sad to see it fall to the wrecking crew as well.

I was planning a visit to see Victoria this winter,  and due to circumstances for the moment those plans are on hold. Perhaps I will wait until spring. May is the "month of the velas." If I have learned one thing about Oaxaca, it is about its persistent and enduring spirit. Buildings crumble and people pass away, but the velas will go on.

To read more posts about Oaxaca, click here.

Text and images copyright 2017 by Marc Olson


  1. Glad to hear that your friend Victoria is OK. I flew home from Mexico the day of the earthquake. Although damage in Mexico City was minimal, my friend Alejandro said that it was terrifying. It felt like it was going to be a repeat of the 1985 quake.

  2. It is such a "gift" when we are included in the lives and festivities of our Mexican friends. I treasure each and everyone of those memories as I know you do as well. I'm so so sad at the loss in Juchitan and the rest of Mexico and Guatemala. I was in Mexico City, always staying in the Zona Rosa, from 1974 til the earthquake in 1985. The rebuilt city never looked as good as the old.......sadly.

  3. Wishing you the warmest regards, Victoria! I hope also that your family treasure is reparable. Thanks again for sharing, Marc!

  4. This blog was... how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I have found something that
    helped me. Cheers!


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