Young Mexicans at heart of earthquake recovery

By , on September 21, 2017


MEXICO CITY — Oscar Rangel doesn’t own a shovel and is typically sitting at a computer compiling databases at work. But when the magnitude 7.1 quake struck Mexico this week, he was among the first to show up at a building that collapsed near his home, ready to dig for survivors.

In the two days since the devastating quake he and a brigade of other young Mexicans have searched through the rubble with newly acquired construction gear at four destroyed buildings in or near Mexico City.

“More than anything, it’s wanting to help, to do whatever we can, as Mexicans,” said Rangel, 20.

In response to Tuesday’s devastating quake, Mexicans have responded in such large numbers to help with relief efforts that some shelters for victims are turning volunteers away. More often than not, it is young people who are sorting through piles of food donations, donning construction hats, making sandwiches and playing music to rally the spirits of earthquake victims.

Most have no memory of the 1985 earthquake that killed thousands and remains a traumatic memory in the minds of older Mexicans, making Tuesday’s quake a defining moment for a younger generation.

“There are many people helping, but as youth we are realizing that right now all our energy is needed,” said Daniela Flores, 31, director of a refuge centre near a number of collapsed buildings.

Across Mexico City, signs directing people to collection points for canned food, medicine and bottles of water have been taped to countless doors and buildings. Inside, crews of young volunteers form lines to pass new goods arriving by the truckload from one hand to the next, quickly moving the donations to sorting tables. Nearby, others use up loaves of bread by dozens assembling sandwiches that are quickly sent out to victims and aid workers.

The early afternoon quake struck as many of the young volunteers were at work: Rangel was putting together a database for his church. Mariana Malinalli, 26, was teaching her young students. Daniela Espindola, 20, was selling perfume at a mall.

They rushed out of swaying office buildings in panic, called to check on loved ones and made sure their own homes were safe and standing. But soon, many began to feel a different sort of anxiety: Witnessing devastation and wanting somehow to help, though not all exactly knowing how.

Some of the first efforts to organize volunteers appeared on Facebook. Other relief brigades were put together through WhatsApp messaging groups. Some people, like Rangel, arrived at collapsed buildings without any invitation. He couldn’t get through to any of his friends by cellphone but nonetheless ran into them while combing through rubble.

“I haven’t been to my home in two nights because we’ve been here, helping,” he said.

The four collapsed buildings where he and friends from various Christian churches have been helping lift heavy debris include a textile factory where dozens of workers went missing. While sifting through the rubble, Rangel said he could hear people beneath the fallen concrete, a moment that inspired him to keep working in spite of his exhaustion.

“I’m usually in an office most of the day,” Rangel said. “This isn’t anything like that.”

Others are utilizing the skills they’ve developed in their still-young careers: Malinalli sings and plays traditional Colombian and Mexican music on an accordion with an all-female ensemble. Feeling restless, she decided to approach shelters about performing for families that have taken refuge, hoping to provide a momentary distraction.

On Wednesday, displaced children danced as the band played.

“I think it’s important to have these moments of release,” Malinalli said. “Music is very healing.”

Many of the young volunteers have their names, an emergency contact number and their blood type written on their forearms, in case their work as relief volunteers takes them near still-dangerous buildings.

Janet Amairani, 23, a psychology graduate who appeared at a shelter Wednesday to help console victims, said writing her name with a black permanent marker onto her skin was a sobering moment.

“You expose yourself to a lot of things, especially in situations like this,” she said. “Maybe you are taking a risk trying to help, but if you are assisting, then it’s worth it.”