Early in the morning of Sept. 19, 1985, a ferocious earthquake shook Mexico City. For almost two minutes, the wobbly metropolis trembled and jumped, jolted by a movement not felt since a 1957 tremor, which toppled the Angel de la Independencia, one of the city’s most renowned landmarks, from its 120-foot column. In 1985, the golden statue stood aloft, but the consequences of the earthquake were otherwise devastating: Hundreds of buildings collapsed within seconds, including hotels, hospitals, theaters and scores of apartment complexes. Close to a million people were left homeless, living in makeshift camps, in some cases for years on end. More than 12,000 people died, according to some estimates.
On Tuesday, exactly 32 years later, another violent earthquake struck the Mexican capital, a jerk of a tremor that whiplashed the city a few minutes before lunch. Forty buildings buckled, the harrowing scenes broadcast over the Internet like a live version of an apocalyptic movie. By nightfall, Mexico’s government had confirmed more than 200 people dead, with many more buried in the rubble all over Mexico City (the city’s strict building codes prevented a worse outcome). The number of structures that have suffered severe fundamental damage could reach the hundreds. In southern Mexico City, the heartbreak became almost unbearable when authorities confirmed the collapse of the Enrique Rebsamen elementary school, where dozens of children have died and more are missing.
And yet, from within the cloud of unspeakable tragedy, a silver lining has glimmered through. Like in 1985, Mexican solidarity has lifted a country sunk in violence and acrimonious political and social discontent. Scores of volunteers spontaneously joined authorities and first responders, including the Mexican armed forces, to dig through the rubble. People took to the streets to offer water and food, activists quickly established collection centers, and social media worked its virtuous magic, connecting possible volunteers with places where they were needed.
Mexico’s defiant camaraderie in the face of calamity is well-known around the world, not least in the United States. In 2005, in the aftermath of Katrina, the Mexican government sent a 45-vehicle army convoy with 200 men to help out. And help they did, serving 170,000 meals and distributing more than 180,000 tons of supplies to the needy in three weeks of work. Mexico again sent much-needed assistance after Harvey’s devastation of Houston last month, including emergency supplies and a large team of paramedics.
Unfortunately, a few hours into Mexico’s recent tragedy, solidarity has not been reciprocal. The Trump administration’s latest episode of morally reprehensible behavior began 10 days ago, when a different major earthquake hit Mexico, sinking Oaxaca and Chiapas, the country’s poorest regions, into grief and misery. It took President Trump one long week to reach out to Mexican President Enqrique Peña Nieto to offer the most basic of condolences after tweeting a laughable excuse for his diplomatic blunder.
On Tuesday, after the latest earthquake had shaken Mexico City, Trump found the time and energy to pick up his phone and write a short tweet asking God to bless Mexico City. (A few hours later, he seemed more enthused while commenting on the “bad” ratings for the Emmy Awards.)
It wasn’t always like this. In 1985, the Reagan administration moved quickly to publicly express solidarity and fully support its southern neighbor. First lady Nancy Reagan traveled to Mexico’s devastated capital less than a week after the earthquake. There, she walked among the rubble and spoke to rescuers and survivors. ”We stand ready to assist in any way possible,” she said. “We’re all working together.” She carried a check for $1 million in disaster aid and a letter from her husband, in which Reagan expressed his “sympathy and support” to the Mexican people as they struggled “mightily with the tremendous tragedy that has befallen Mexico.”
Toward the end of her stay in Mexico City, Nancy Reagan told reporters the day had proven to be “a very emotional experience. I have tremendous admiration for the Mexican people and what they are doing to help themselves. We are good neighbors and always will be.”
Trump should, for once, follow the words and deeds of Ronald Reagan and prove that, despite his long, unfair and very public confrontation with Mexico and its citizens on both sides of the border, America’s better angels (and perhaps Trump’s own as well) always prevail in the face of unspeakable tragedy. Nativist prejudice should find its limits in sudden human suffering. The alternative would be cruel and, yes, un-American.