Mexico’s earthquakes are a chance for cross-border solidarity. How will we respond?

Residents mourn on Sept. 20 for the 11 victims killed in a church in Atzala, Mexico, during the Sept. 19 earthquake. A Catholic bishop in Mexico said the situation was extremely serious, and much aid would be needed. (CNS photo/Imelda Medina, Reuters) Residents mourn on Sept. 20 for the 11 victims killed in a church in Atzala, Mexico, during the Sept. 19 earthquake. A Catholic bishop in Mexico said the situation was extremely serious, and much aid would be needed. (CNS photo/Imelda Medina, Reuters)

The 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico City on Sept. 19 left death and destruction across central Mexico. My family is from Mexico City, the capital and a densely populated region of over 20 million people. My grandfather had surgery over the weekend and got home from the hospital the day before the earthquake. I thank God it did not hit during his surgery. His bed in the hospital is probably occupied once again by one of the earthquake’s victims.

It was scary to watch the news. I imagine it was even scarier to experience it. Still, as far as I know all of my family is accounted for. That will not be the case for many. The earthquake has killed over 240 people, with its final death toll still expected to rise. This quake comes less than a month after another earthquake struck southern Mexico, killing over 90.

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It is not just Mexicans who are reeling. Mexican-Americans like me are feeling the emotional aftershocks of the earthquake. The earthquake feels like yet another crisis tearing at our transnational families. The earthquake was a natural disaster, but the many ways American society fails to value the lives of foreigners, of immigrants, of its own citizens, because of their skin color or their Latino heritage is a disaster of our own making. These dual disasters, of nature and of man, seem to be targeting the same people, composed of the same families but extending across borders.

Mexican-Americans like me are feeling the emotional aftershocks of the earthquake. The earthquake feels like yet another crisis tearing at our transnational families.

I am grateful that President Trump is sending aid and rescue teams to our southern neighbor. This is only returning a favor: Mexico graciously offered aid after Hurricane Harvey, just as it had after Hurricane Katrina. But I wonder how long the president will wait to again demand Mexico pay for a border wall, an insult that would worsen an already strained relationship. A generous American response to the earthquake could represent an alternative model of cooperation, solidarity and respect. If we can bring ourselves to empathize with the suffering of the Mexican people, perhaps we can recommit ourselves to recognizing the dignity of the communities in our midst with links to Mexico. The emergency in Mexico City could be an opportunity for those north of the border to notice the unnatural disasters that afflict the Mexican community in this country as a result of our policy decisions.

An earthquake shakes the emotional foundations of lives with as much ferocity as it shakes the foundation of buildings. Our lives are rooted in physical places. For immigrants who have left the places that once rooted their lives and identity, there is an added sense of upheaval when an earthquake hits. An earthquake makes the ground itself, the home soil that an immigrant longs for, something to fear as well as something to love. This is the particular anguish of the Mexican immigrant, who finds comfort amid a strange and hostile society in a love and nostalgia for their home soil. What to do now that even the soil has betrayed our love and brought death? The earthquake is a tragic metaphor for how realities in Mexico have driven so many of its people away. It feels as if the land itself is out to get you.

The earthquake is a tragic metaphor for how realities in Mexico have driven so many of its people away. It feels as if the land itself is out to get you.

Nobody truly wishes to be an immigrant. My father would certainly have been happier to stay in Mexico. And yet he came here, built a life and raised a family. I am an American. And yet when I watch buildings crumble in Mexico City I know that I am connected to the suffering I see. It is the same gut feeling that tells me that when my fellow citizens call for a wall to stop people like me from coming here, my own belonging is being called into question. Mexican-origin people contribute a great deal to American society. The evidence is all around us. It is in the very food we eat, from apples picked in Washington to dairy cows milked in Vermont to oranges harvested in Florida. Toilets are cleaned, dishes are washed, beds are made, and affluent children are raised by Mexican hands across this country. Though a tragedy, the earthquake is also an opportunity for all Americans to notice the communities that go unseen and unheard. The question is whether Latino life, on both sides of the border, can generate enough empathy to make change happen.

How many millions of people are like me—people from this side of the border who called relatives on the other side this week trying to make sure everyone is O.K.? How many relatives of Americans were trapped underneath the rubble? Recognition by the U.S. government that this country has a personal, familial, connection to Mexico would be a recognition of the dignity and equality of millions of Mexican-Americans. The victims of both the natural and policy disasters are found in the same families. Our empathy for the victims of a natural disaster should translate into empathy for the victims of the disaster we have constructed. But the empathy still feels lacking all around. 

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