With Death Comes Life: A Mayan Take on Katrina
Patrisia Gonzales, Eastern Group Publications, September 27th 2005
Twenty years ago on Sept. 19 at 7:19 a.m., the earth opened up in Mexico City—Tenochtitlan, taking 85,000 lives. Mexicans called the earthquake Tlalliyollo, or Heart of the Earth. Tlalliyollo also created a social tremor as people emerged from the ruins and organized rescue relief. The Mexican government refused international aid, much like the U.S. government following Hurricane Katrina, and told people to stay inside their homes – but people did not accept that. They dug through Mexico City with their bare hands, and saved many lives. El pulga, a man known as “the flea,” burrowed through the debris. Numerous social movements emerged in that era as the government’s corruption was revealed: from torture chambers to buildings that were not up to code. The famed Sept. 19 garment workers’ union was created after women were locked inside buildings, having worked the early shift. Machinery was rescued before the women, some of whom escaped and some of whom were buried alive and said to have died of madness. Among the survivors emerged the anonymous heroes of Mexico. Some returned to the anonymity of everyday life, while others continued in their collective work, many never to be recognized by the media or historians. While many of these social movements have gone through the normal cycle of life-and-death, their cumulative impact on Mexican civil society remains. In the United States, Heart of the Sky has swept our lands. Hurakan, the Maker, the Heart of the Sky, in the Mayan creation story, is the origin of the word hurricane. Hurricane is recognized as a Creator because, as a result of its destructive force, land is created from the shifting waters. In Louisiana and Mississippi, despite the vast sense of helplessness when our government failed to protect people in the hurricane’s aftermath, people also banded together and united to survive. Some of the earliest responses came from tribal governments who dispatched resources and personnel the day the hurricane hit. Among the Mexican and Honduran communities, people organized for food and shelter and rescue services for one another. These communities share communal cultures with centuries-old legacies of working together. Neither Heart of the Earth nor Heart of the Sky could destroy people’s survival instinct. Heart of the Sky has reminded the United States of the interconnectedness of human beings to each other and to the natural world. United Nations officials warn that 17 more Katrinas could transpire if developing nations do not address their policies on emission standards and overdevelopment in costal areas. As the television images clearly showed, African Americans were not simply left to fend for themselves, but had to take their survival into their own hands. Even now, the larger African American community is responding in a way that goes beyond providing critical assistance. There’s a moral lesson at work here: just as the earthquake revealed the role of corrupt and inept government, Katrina has revealed a similar problem here. In the great tradition of participatory democracy, may we challenge a society that would create the kind of poverty, lack of environmental protections, and misguided development that made so many people vulnerable.
Patrisia Gonzales is author of The Mud People: Chronicles, Testimonios & Remembrances, which chronicles social movements and indigenous knowledge in Mexico.