Mexico's earthquake, coming after a year-long series of mostly man-made disasters, appears to have strengthened rather than further unraveled the people's faith in their capacity for endurance and common effort, according to numerous interviews here.
"This whole experience has really encouraged me," said volunteer Jose Luis Ramirez this morning as he directed traffic away from the cranes tearing apart the ruins of a shattered government office building. "Mexico can make it after all."
Like people throughout the Colonia Roma, the Mexico City neighborhood most damaged by Thursday's earthquake, Ramirez has been working steadily ever since in the massive volunteer rescue and reconstruction effort that Mexicans are now pointing to as one of their country's finest moments.
The last 12 months have been among the most trying of modern Mexico, with human tragedies and economic crises severely testing the people's fabled stoicism. Following the November gas plant explosion in San Ixhuatepec, where at least 400 people perished, the country has suffered setbacks ranging from lower oil prices and financial pressures from creditors to the tainting of its reputation internationally by reports of drug scandals and electoral frauds.
"I was getting ready to go to work when the building started shaking," recalled Ramirez, 27. He and his neighbors realized that many people remained trapped on the top floors of buildings with shattered staircases and frozen elevators.
"We found some ladders, and other people started tying sheets together," he said. "By the time the Red Cross arrived, we had already gotten about 20 people down. It was really inspiring to see everyone working together so spontaneously, without any official supervision."
"This has shown everyone that the Mexican people have tremendous ability to organize themselves effectively, even if the government doesn't," said Mario Rojas, a Unified Socialist Party activist, as he sat in a bus outside the condemned seven-story building that had been the headquarters of Mexico's largest leftist opposition group.
Rosendo Roldan, a state-employed civil engineer supervising a demolition crew, defended the government's efforts. "The government has done everything it can, but obviously its resources are insufficient," he said today, gesturing at the collection of privately owned cranes, trucks and bulldozers on the streets behind them. "All this was loaned to us absolutely free, and we couldn't do anything without it."
"Me too," interjected a crane operator. "My company donated me along with the machine."
"It doesn't matter to me that I'm not being paid," said Jorge Rosas, 30, an electrician working around the corner with a reconstruction crew. Arriving at work here Thursday morning from his home 20 miles east of the city, Rosas was told by his boss that their civil engineering firm was lending its equipment and work force to the cleanup effort. Today he was helping restore power to a city block without electricity for five days.
"This job is going to take several weeks, but frankly it is a pleasant change from my normal work," he said. "Here I can use my skills to contribute something useful to people."
Strikingly in a city so poor, the mass evacuation of affected districts was not followed by an infiltration of petty thieves. Capt. Mario Huerta Lopez, whose 64 troops from the Army's 25th Armored Regiment were guarding a dozen badly damaged blocks of the Colonia Roma, said he knew of "not one single incident" of attempted looting in his zone. After complaints from residents that the soldiers should be toting shovels instead of rifles, Huerta's regiment yesterday joined the laborious rubble-clearing effort.
Foreign observers have also been impressed by the cooperative cleanup efforts. "If this had happened at home, everyone would have been paralyzed until the authorities arrived and chains of command were established," marveled a West German businessmen. "What amazes me is not just that the people started working together on their own, but that it seems to be happening so efficiently."
The initial mass volunteer effort was flawed, however, by inevitable duplication of efforts in some districts, while possible survivors in collapsed buildings elsewhere were ignored, officials say.
Today, authorities began turning away hundreds of volunteers and concentrating instead on the technical tasks of demolition and the restoration of public services. Much of this work, though, is being carried out by architects, engineers, and other civilian experts who have donated their time. "Every man you see around me is a trained professional, and every one is working for free," Roldan said.
Volunteers without such skills continue to find useful niches. "I'm an insurance salesman," said Genaro Emilio Gonzales, flipping tacos with a spatula at the makeshift stand from which he was feeding a brigade of volunteer electricians. His wife ladled refried beans onto plastic plates. They had hauled the food and stoves in from their home in Tlalpan, eight miles south, one of the many large Mexico City residential districts unaffected by the earthquake.
"She's Lebanese, I'm a Spaniard, but this is our country and we want to do something for it," Gonzales said.
The Gonzaleses also had fed Antonia and Jesus Guillen, who sat two streets away across from the collapsed apartment building where their son, Jesus, a 27-year-old dermatologist, had lived. They had driven Sunday from their home in Tampico, 400 miles northeast of here, and had been standing vigil on the the sidewalk ever since, waiting for rescue workers to find their son's body.
"That couple down the street gave us food, and people came by last night to give us blankets," Antonia said. "We're from the coast," she added, "and we're not used to this cold Mexico City weather."
"At home they say the people in Mexico City are cold, too, but it's not true," Jesus said.