MEXICO CITY — On September 19, an earthquake struck Mexico, causing numerous fatalities.
Just how many deaths the earthquake caused depends on the year — cataclysmic tectonic shifts have shaken Mexico City on exactly the same date, twice, so far.
September 19, 2021, is still 9 days away.
On September 19,1985, an earthquake toppled the capital of Mexico City, killing over 5,000 and causing extensive damage throughout the region.
On September 19, 2017, the epicenter of the earthquake was in nearby state of Puebla, killing more than 350 individuals, with over 200 of those deaths still in aftershocks that rippled through parts of Mexico City.
Mexico City rests on the mostly drained lakebed of the prehispanic Venice-like city of Tenochtitlan, which was razed to the ground and rebuilt as the colonial center by the Spanish and their Tlaxcalan allies in 1521. Today, it continues to sink on average of one meter per year, both depleting the water supply and eroding the city’s foundation. Before its post-conquest destruction, the historically grand city was home to Mesoamericans who conceptualized time as cyclical, where repeated historic events still serve as a reminder of Mexico’s enduring indigenous patrimony.
September is to Mexicans what July is to Americans: fireworks, fantastical displays of national colors and flags, and the holiday celebration of the nation’s independence.
At 11p.m. each September 15, the Mexican president steps out on the balcony overlooking Mexico City’s Zócalo and shouts the cry of “¡Viva México!,” commemorating the “El Grito” that Miguel Hidalgo yelled in 1810, to rouse the nation in their fight for independence. The official Independence Day is on September 16, but like many Mexican celebrations, night merges into day and the festivities continue throughout the week.
Last year, in the height of the pandemic, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador still led the nation with the traditional cry of “Long Live Mexico!” Yet for the first time, the century-long cycle of the presidential “¡Viva México!” was shouted to a relatively empty city plaza, where candles were also lit in memory of those lost to Covid-19.
In that ironic remembrance of a revolution that could not be televised, the traditional celebrations were, in fact, primarily intended to be celebrated televised. “We can all participate from our homes” was the 2020 solution offered by López Obrador.
As September 15, 16, and 17 approach, the dates reserved for celebration, remembrance, and mourning blur together.
Mexico now tallies over 265,000 lives lost to Covid, and on Wednesday, September 8, 2021, earthquake aftershocks emanating from Acapulco were felt over 200 miles away in Mexico City, with tremors strong enough to disrupt the city’s transit system.
Videos posted to Twitter show electrical flashes in Mexico City’s high-end Roma Norte district, a phenomenon National Geographic has termed “earthquake lights” and attributes to electrical charges that may be present before, during, and after an earthquake.
On Tuesday, September 7, 2021, the neighboring state of Hidalgo experienced flash flooding that destroyed a local hospital full of primarily Covid-19 patients, leaving 17 people dead and thousands of other homes and buildings destroyed.
The Mexican president used Twitter to address this tragedy, urging Mexicans to take precautions. Rather than starting September with a triumphant “¡Viva México!” the presidential call for Mexicans to keep living came as a warning: “A lot of water has fallen throughout the Valley of Mexico and it will continue to rain. Those who live in low-lying areas, for now, move to shelters or higher parts with family or friends.”
TV Guanajuato lists earthquakes, landslides, flooding, and road damage to the growing inventory of natural disasters Mexicans are facing during just the first week of September. The local Guanajuato station shared with a sense of heaviness, “This was how the first week of this patriotic month was lived.”
Both Guanajuato and Hidalgo states are part of the Central Mexican region, with Mexico City its pulsing heart. As heavy rainfall permeates through the borders of surrounding states, the risk of a repeat earthquake to a city on a sinking lakebed is no longer merely a calendrical superstition this September.
It remains to be seen if Mexico will repeat their 2020 Independence Day celebration marked by atypical sobriety and somberness for a second pandemic year in a row. Yet it seems September is already marred by a growing angst that Mexico’s month of national celebration could be marked by increasing natural disasters, still hopeful that its capital city will not experience a third catastrophic earthquake.
What will be shouted from the Mexico City balcony on the evening of September 15, remains to be heard. What tremors might be sensed by the nation on September 17, remains yet to be felt. But perhaps as Mexicans reach a saturation point for information intake, September 16 will return as the sacrosanct national commemoration, freshly perceived as one through which to channel nearly 18 months of pandemic tensions and to mask the disappointing midpoint of AMLO’s sexenio term — a presidency filled predominantly with unfulfilled promises — perhaps surprisingly so for a politician elected on such a heavily populist platform.
In a nation that uniquely celebrates both death and life with vigor, it seems that Mexico must march into the coming weeks of September, a flag in one hand and a candle in the other.