‘Here, the dead are more alive than ever,’ the ad on the radio said. ‘That’s why I love Mexico.’ I was on my way to Tlayacapan, one of Mexico’s pueblos mágicos, a category invented to promote tourism. Tourism is down in this magic village. Located near the epicentre of the earthquake of 19 September, in Morelos state, south-west of the capital, it experienced the worst impact in living memory. There are husks of adobe homes on every street, most of the churches are damaged, and the town hall clock tower fell; the arches where the last scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed are still standing, pocked and scuffed as if after a gun battle. I saw a sign flapping taped to a gate: ‘Careful with the wall.’ A woman was organising a tequio, the old indigenous form of community labour, to make adobe bricks. Scrawled in purple all the way across a yellow house, its outbuildings now tidied into piles of rubble, was: ‘Thanks to everyone for your help.’ The state is nowhere to be seen, apparently.
This may be an exaggeration; but in Mexico City, too, friends, neighbours and volunteers stepped in where the authorities failed in the immediate aftermath. There’s a terrible sense of déjà vu, as the magnitude-7.1 quake hit 32 years to the day after the big one in 1985. Up to 40,000 died then, according to some estimates; the official figure was 4000. This time the national total hovers around 400, progress of a sort. Building regulations are supposed to have been tightened up, but they were never especially loose; it’s more a matter of compliance: kickbacks, convergences of political and business interests, falsified inspection certificates, lucrative developments on the unstable clay of the lake bed, all continued to flourish.
It still isn’t clear who qualifies for state funds that aren’t loans, and facts and figures fluctuate. The changing official pronouncements are no more reliable than the rumours. Are 1000 or 400 buildings in the capital at risk of collapse? How many are to be demolished, and what are the rights of owners and tenants? Some residents say they heard on the news that their buildings are to be pulled down; there was no consultation, and they don’t know if they will be allowed to recover their belongings. President Peña Nieto has complained that ‘the least traffic accident on the corner’ gets blamed on corruption, and it’s true that the people of Mexico City are so accustomed to malpractice that their distrust is indiscriminate.
No one bothers with insurance – not even my relatively affluent friends in the gentrified Condesa and Roma neighbourhoods, which were, as in 1985, some of the worst hit. It’s overpriced, and the insurance companies would never pay up, seems the consensus. Private damage assessments are expensive (there’s no telling if or when the promised free surveyors will show up), and then there are the repairs or rebuilding. It’s unaffordable for most. Amid the despair my friends are drinking and laughing a lot.
The Zócalo International Book Fair went ahead, thanks to the heroic resolve of the city culture department, some of whose staff were left homeless. Other events have been cancelled or postponed. White tents filled the giant expanse between the cathedral and the national palace. It was free, attracting a crowd of students and workers to browse the stalls, queue for ice-cream and listen to talks on the violence in Mexico or readings from new novels. Under a stormy bright sky, the atmosphere was strangely cheerful. But in the Roberto Bolaño Forum, during the presentation of the 50th anniversary issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, an uncanny time tunnel opened as we listened, first in modern English and then Spanish, to the tenth-century Old English piece known as ‘The Ruin’: ‘Domes cave, towers like telescopes collapse upon themselves … All promises of sanctuary disband into dust.’