“Wait, you’re about to sweep up my life!” Juchitán, Oaxaca reels after massive earthquake

They never saw it coming.

September 7, 2018 was supposed to be just like most other days in the city of Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca, Mexico . It had been gray and raining for two days. Almost 5 inches had fallen in a continuing on and off storm. But in this tropical area, that was not unusual. The temperature during the day was a normal 85º. Hot and muggy, but it would soon cool to the mid 60’s for the evening. Cool enough to sleep.

Vicente Mendez, in his 70’s, worked that day, as he does most days, at his little food cart on Calle Cuauhtémoc. There on the corner, he spent his time serving a quick bite to eat to the regulars of this lower middle class neighborhood. As the day wound down, Vicente closed up his food cart and headed home to wait for the coming of the cool night air and a chance to sleep.

Ramon Luna spent his day in the little shoe shop in front of his house. That’s where he’s made huaraches for years. His parents, both in their 70’s live next door. He seldom strays far, staying close to his business and mom and dad, who he helps care for. Some days he would work all day for just a few pesos, but there was always enough for tortillas and beans and even a slice or two of meat some days.

Geronimo Luis Martinéz is a carpenter, has been for most of his life. He’s married with two kids. On Sundays he goes to the local Baptist church, but the rest of the week finds him making cabinets or woodworking for someone. He’s bi-lingual, speaking fluently the Zapotec of the region. Like many in this area, he built the two bedroom house where he and his family live.

Reina Matus grew up the daughter of a president and privilege. Her father Hector was once the President of Juchitán. She worked in a local pharmacy just across the street from Vicente’s small food cart. On the 7th, she was working the night shift.

The homes and businesses of Calle Cuauhtémoc in Juchitán, Oaxaca, Mexico

Calle Cuauhtémoc, Section 8, Juchitán, Oaxaca

Each of these people are connected by one street in Section 8 of Juchitán, Calle Cuauhtémoc. It’s known locally as Cheguigo, for the nearby river. It’s an area of the city that may never recover from the devastating 8.1 earthquake that tore through the city the night of September 7.

Centered off the coast of Chiapas, the quake demolished large swaths of Juchitán, with almost 80,000 people, the largest city affected. Thousands of homes across the region have been destroyed and even today, more than a month later, bulldozers and heavy equipment are working day and night to clear debris and at least open the streets.

Conversations like rebuilding and starting life anew will be put on hold as residents struggle to find a new place to live, maybe a new job, and a way to pay the bills and put food on the table. In Mexico, there is no FEMA to offer help. The government also can’t spend money that doesn’t exist, like often happens in the US in the face of a crisis. There is no money printing allowed there. That means government aid will be slow in coming if it ever gets there.

Vicente lived just a couple of blocks away from where he keeps his little mobile taco stand. He sits there regularly, every day waiting for hungry folks to stop by, say hello and grab something to eat from him. Vicente makes only a few pesos a day, but it’s enough to supplement his pension and enable him to pay his bills. His house sustained no damage aside from a few cracks in the plaster. He knows he’s one of the lucky ones. How, he asked, could he possibly rebuild his house at his age and with the money he makes.

Ramon lives just a few blocks up the street from Vicente’s corner. The walls of his shoe repair store had stood the test of time, for 100 years. On that night, they met their match, crumbling to the ground as the Class IX violent shaking ruined an otherwise normal night. Trapped, Ramon was in a panic worrying about his parents next door. He was unable to reach them to help them get out to the safety of the street.

September 7, 2017

In the US, if you live where earthquakes are prominent, you’re taught at a young age what to do in a disaster like an earthquake. As I was growing up, we practiced both at home and in school where to hide to protect yourself from falling debris. It was known as “duck and cover.” Here in Mexico, instead of looking for cover inside your house or building, most people head for the nearest door. The theory being if you are outside, you’ve at least got a fighting chance. Better outside than trapped inside a building that just might collapse on you.

That’s where Reina Matus found herself that evening. After what was probably an uneventful day working at the local Section 8 pharmacy, she was trapped inside and alone when the shaking began, unable to get out.

Reina worked two blocks away from where Geronimo the carpenter lived. His kids were safely tucked in bed and he and his wife were watching television when he realized his world was about to be shaken to bits. He called to his kids as the roof above their beds started to collapse.

That’s about when power was lost across the whole area, plunging everyone into total darkness, and panic. Imagine what that must have been like. Unless you had your cell phone in your hand, the disorientation of the shaking, the noise and the darkness would scare even the calmest person. As the town of Juchitán vacated their homes, that’s when it hit them.

It was not only pitch dark outside, it was still raining.

Juchitán is not the only town that went through this harrowing experience. Asunción Ixtaltepec saw more than 70% of the homes in the city destroyed. The library there was literally cracked in half midway up its walls. Unión Hidalgo, about 25 kilometers away has had one man bulldozing homes since September 11. He’s cleared 600 lots so far with another 1000 to go. 

Ixhuatán, more than an hour away is in much the same situation. Homes across the small city are destroyed, but unlike other better connected cities, there will be little, or no help there. San Mateo del Mar is also suffering the effects of the earthquake, but in another way.

Already poor, many parts of San Mateo del Mar, home to the Huave or Ikoot people group, are flooded. To drive through the area is to see buildings with no visible damage. However as of last week, it looked as if most of the homes there were islands in a vast sea of water, flooded by a massive storm surge. Sadly, because there is not more physical damage, it doesn’t look like much state or federal help will be heading their way.

Vicente was able to get outside and join his neighbors on his street. Most of their homes were in relatively good shape. The people that lived on Calle Cuauhtemóc, where Vicente sets up his cart, were not so fortunate.

Ramon lost his entire business. As those 100 year old walls crashed down, all he could do was watch and hope his parents were okay. Once the initial shaking stopped, he was able to reach  them and get them to safety. Thankfully, both he and his parents still have their homes.

The pharmacy where Reina worked was a three story building, in the middle of this mostly residential street. The shaking proved to much for many of these structures across the city, including this one. Reina, trapped in darkness in the relentless shaking died in the pharmacy where she worked as the building pancaked from three, to two floors. She remained there until late the next day when workers finally managed to free her body from the rubble. Vicente Mendez watched it all from his food stand on the corner.

Geronimo was trapped in his house with his wife and two kids. Right before the bedroom roof collapsed, he was able to get the kids to the living room and next to the door. But it was locked and he couldn’t find the key in the dark. He told me the four of them huddled there and prayed, asking for God’s mercy in the darkness they were facing. Once the shaking stopped, he found his key and out they went to join the rest of Juchitan in the wet streets that would now be their new home.

As people got outside to the safety of the streets, that’s when it hit them… they were on their own. There was no power, no cell coverage, no WhatsApp, nothing. There was just debris, darkness, rain and the never ending shaking of the first of what are now more than 4000 aftershocks.

The aftermath

As dawn broke, people saw what had happened. The quake leveled not just many of the homes on Calle Cuauhtémoc, but hundreds of buildings across town. City hall, local markets, banks and entire blocks of homes and businesses were lost.

Power would be out for days, depending on where you lived. As of October 7, one month after the quake, in Ixtaltepec authorities were still working to repair the electrical grid and get what remained of that city back online. City services across the area are running as best as possible. Water is spotty with people needing to depend on donations of bottled water, or drink from water that is trucked in, when it is available.

Teams of volunteers from all walks of life, and from around the world, have showed up to help. Some cook food, others pass out blankets, others clear debris that is taken to nearby growing mountains filled with the bricks and the lives of the victims of the quake.

One woman as they came to clean up the debris from her house was just sitting there, still dazed. She asked the people if she could have another hour with what had become her junk. Because she said, they were about to sweep up her life.

It’s been reported that the government is offering up to $120,000 MXN to people to rebuild their homes. That’s about $7,500 USD, not enough for the materials to build anything much larger than a US garage, if that. But many people, who have built their homes over the years on family land, lack the specific paperwork the government will require. So they will not get the full amount, if anything.

I watched as people triaged their destroyed homes all across the area. First they picked through the rubble, looking for valuables. Then they looked for important papers and pictures, to somehow prove they really did exist. When they found all the really important stuff, the scavenging began. People searched for pots, pans and anything else that survived that could be used later at a “new” house. Then they started removing any windows and doors that could be reused, because every little thing you salvage is one less thing you have to buy.

Vicente never had to leave his home. Ramón, while having to rebuild his business, still has a roof over his, and his parents heads. Geronimo and his wife wonder how they will ever afford to rebuild even as he guards the old doors from his house. The Matus family mourns the loss of their daughter, Reina who died way too young.

Here in Mexico, many people live in a constant state of “Ni Modo”, a land of “Oh Well, what can I do?” While there I certainly heard a lot of that. But I also heard and experienced the resiliency of the Mexican spirit that I’ve come to love in my more than 25 years traveling and working here…

“Juntos lo podemos hacer!  Together we can do it!


I spent a week in this area in early October and criss crossed the area. From Juchitán to San Mateo del Mar to Unión Hidalgo, the scene was the same. Dazed looks from people still trying to come to grips with what happened.

Many towns had hand lettered signs at their entrances pleading with the government to not forget them, to not abandon them. This is when government is supposed to function, when its people are in a crisis. Mexico, and the government of Oaxaca responded quickly. They spread out across the landscape to survey and chart the devastation. Every building in every town and pueblo has been checked, numbered and put in a massive database that tracks which homes have been destroyed or have been condemned.

They’ve moved mountains of debris, provided clean water, relief stations, set up the Red Cross and organized many local grass roots efforts to help. But that is short term in the moment help.

The question many have is about the long term prospect for continued government support as people rebuild. Sadly, based on my conversations with state and local government leaders, I doubt there is going to be much help going forward.

There is a movement in Mexico to push the political parties [PAN, PRD, PRI and Moreno] to forgo the money the government gives them for political purposes. But even if that proposal is successful, the amount will surely be less than $15 million USD. That’s a drop in the bucket when you consider how much money would be needed recover and rebuild after not just the Oaxaca/Chiapas quake, but the Mexico City quake as well.

I will be back in the area in early January, with another shipment of water filters for people. These water filters do double duty. Not only do they give a family a lifetime of safe clean drinking water, they also effectively put money in the family pocketbook since they do not have to buy outside filtered water.

Currently Mexico is the largest per capita consumer of bottled water  in the world at almost double the rate of the United States. In a country where the weekly minimum wage is below $30.00 USD, bottled water puts an incredible strain on family finances. The filters we are providing, both for home and village use, are life savers and can help a family immensely as they recover from the recent quake.

If you want to be part of helping, either by joining me, or by contributing, please contact me via email.

If you’re reading this… Our Mexico needs us!


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