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Born Amongst the Dead: Meeting the Children of Mexico City's Tragic 1985 Earthquake

"I was once told that the Earth was so angry I was born, that it chose to kill people. Others have called me a murderer and said that other people's blood runs through my veins."

af Luis Cobelo
22 september 2015, 5:49am

Uriel del Angel's hospital bracelet.

This article originally appeared on VICE Mexico

Every year, on the 19th of September, the people of Mexico remember the same things: the smell of death, the damage and the chaos that followed the earthquake that devastated the country on that day in 1985.

It was 7:17AM when a tremor with a moment magnitude of 8.0 shook the foundations of Mexico City which, at the time, housed 10 million people. Many were still in bed, others were commuting and children were getting ready for school. The city was only waking up when the earthquake took it by surprise.

By presidential order, Mexico was off limits a few days. It's said that the government initially wanted to block any international aid convoys in order to prevent the world from knowing the full scale of the disaster. The government's biggest concern at the time seemed to be that FIFA would want to cancel the World Cup, which the country was supposed to host the following year.

The number of trained rescue staff on site was not enough to handle the tragedy, and that drove locals to organise their own rescue teams who did their best to save those trapped under the rubble. Still, by the time foreign rescue teams arrived, thousands of people were already dead.

But what about those who were being born at the same time? As the city was being plunged into chaos and misinformation, some families were welcoming newborn children into the world.

This past weekend, the people who were born on the day of the Mexico City earthquake celebrated their 30th birthday. We talked to some of them and their parents about being born amongst the dead.

Photographed at the corner of Yucatan and Insurgentes, where a building destroyed by the earthquake used to stand.

Daniela and Jimena Garfias

"Our mum was set to give birth a few weeks later but we came early," said the twins Jimena and Daniela Garfias. Only one minute separated their birth: Daniela was born at 6:28PM and Jimena at 6:29PM

Their mother, Alicia, recalls: "They weren't supposed to be born until the first week of October but the earthquake changed everything. That morning, I was alone in our apartment on the seventh floor of a building in the Azcapotzalco area. The earthquake didn't feel as strong up there as it did in other areas. I was unable to contact my husband, who had taken our other son to school though. A few hours later, the anxiety induced contractions and my water broke.

Alone, I made it down the stairs to look for someone who could take me to Santa Monica Hospital, near my home. My husband showed up at that very moment and we got someone to drive us. It took us two hours to get to the hospital even though it was just around the corner. On the way, I realised the city was a mess. People were just running around screaming. When we got to there, the hospital was running out of available staff – some of them had been unable to make it to work or were busy looking for their relatives. The nurse that took care of me was crying because she didn't know if her parents – who lived downtown – were alive. To this day, I don't know whether her parents survived or not."

"At one point, the hospital had a power failure. Hours later, my doctor arrived and I was taken into the surgery room. The power came and went. It seemed like an uninvited dream. Daniela was born healthy but Jimena was frail. That night she was very delicate but later she recovered. The whole situation was very sad. It took me five years to get over it and to finally start celebrating their birthdays. I feel blessed because a lot of mothers lost their children on the same day I got mine. I always tell the girls they have to do their best in life because they are alive for a reason."

Jesus' portrait was taken outside Mexico City's General Hospital where he was rescued after three days in the rubble with 52 other babies. Unfortunately, 98 children were found dead on the same site.

Jesus Chucho Garcia Lopez

Jesus was born at 6:25AM. His mother, Manuela, recalls that the nurses took her baby to clean him. Then the earthquake happened. "The building collapsed and everybody started running for their lives. A piece of ceiling fell on my left hand and leg and made me lose a thumb. I was rescued at 3PM and taken to another hospital. "I had no idea what had happened to my baby. I thought he was dead," she said.

Three days later, Jesus was rescued but he was badly wounded. A stream of acid, which probably came from a pipe, burned his left ear and arm and a piece of concrete hit his head, leaving it almost flat. During the following months, he had to undergo two dangerous surgeries. He stayed alive but the trauma left him with epileptic seizures for life.

It wasn't until December that Manuela found out Jesus was alive. "The one thing that saved my life was that I never lost the bracelet with my mother's name. They never removed it from my wrist," he says. Manuela was still recovering and let some friends take care of the baby. In February 1986, Manuela was finally able to be with her child.

I asked her about Jesus's father. "We never heard anything from him after that day. We don't know whether he lived or died. He just disappeared".

Rosa's portrait was taken where the famous Hotel Regis stood before the earthquake.

Rosa Garcia

Rosa was born at 12:30PM at the Spanish Hospital. Her mother, María de Lourdes, remembers that the emergency rooms were full and she couldn't get the attention she needed. She had to share the surgery room with dozens of wounded people. When Rosa was born, the doctors took her to another room where she stayed for several hours while her mother was alone. María de Lourdes saw people running desperately from one place to another but her daughter was nowhere to be found. Eventually, she and her husband found their daughter.

Rosa says: "It makes me sad that such a tragedy took place on same day I was born. It might sound selfish but every time the earth shakes, I feel a rush of adrenaline, I'm not afraid however. I've always felt different. People call me 'Earthquake Girl' because I'm very moody and sullen, and maybe it's because I was isolated for a long time after I was born. I'm also very strict, difficult, chaotic and a perfectionist. My birthday is always marked by earthquake drills. It's unpleasant but I'm okay with it. I tell myself the earthquake happened because I was born. I know it sounds weird but that's the way it is. Lots of people were mourning their loved ones but my parents, despite the fear, were celebrating."

"I was once told that the Earth was so angry I was born, that it chose to kill people. Others have called me a murderer and said that other people's blood runs through my veins. The truth is that one of the things I'm good at is advising people who have suffered emotional damage – like abortions or physical abuse. I have this ability to help others and give them peace. I have a premise: If you are not going to do something well, don't even try."

Jesus's picture was taken in Garibaldi Square, where the San Camilito building used to stand. It was here that he was found, inside his dead mother. Twenty four of his relatives died during the earthquake.

Jesus Francisco Flores Medina (The Earthquake Boy)

Jesus has one of the most dramatic stories of the earthquake. "I was born among the dead," is how Jesus always begins his tale. The building where his entire family used to live collapsed and is now the famous Plaza Garibaldi.

Twenty four of his family members were trapped inside the building and they all died, including his mother, Martha Cruz Medina, who was seven and a half months pregnant. Jesus's grandmother, Brenda, had gone out a few minutes before 7AM to buy food for breakfast when the quake began. She ran home to her building but it had already collapsed. Over the next few days, she would come back hoping that the rescue squad had found any of her sons, daughters, nephews or brothers who had been buried under the squalor.

On the fourth day, Brenda found the body of her daughter Martha in the rubble. The rescue team was already gone, so Brenda approached her and felt something moving in her daughter's belly. Without thinking twice, and confident that what she was doing was for the best, she took a razor and cut the belly of her daughter, took out the baby – barely alive – and put him in a shoe box. She delivered the child to the nearest Red Cross station and they transferred him to a nearby hospital where he was put in an incubator until he recovered.

Jesus's life hasn't gotten any easier since that day. Brenda, overwhelmed by the death of her family and the difficult economic situation she was facing, tried to commit suicide several times – mostly by slitting her wrists but without success. She even tried to throw herself onto the subway tracks while holding Jesus. Even the newspapers published a picture of her and the child. People began calling him "The Earthquake Boy".

His life took a 180 degree turn when Presidential candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari found out about him and offered his help. Jesus's loyalty to the political party of Gortari turned into devotion and he now works for them. "Many doors were closed for me but others were opened. Sure, my childhood was rather deprived but now I can say that it was worth surviving, thanks to my mother who kept me alive in her dead body and my grandmother who generously helped me come into this world. God is great", he says.

Paulina's picture was taken where 600,000 seamstresses, working in terrible sweatshop conditions died, when a building collapsed.

Paulina Guzman

Paulina was born at 8 AM in México Hospital.

"My mum started having contractions early in the morning and was told to go to the hospital immediately. That's where she felt the earthquake. The radio was blasting news about the damage. They said the Chihuahua building in Tlatelolco – where her parents lived – had collapsed, but actually it was the Nuevo Leon building. She was so upset that her water broke. She finally calmed down after finding out that it wasn't her parent's building that fell apart. My brother didn't go to daycare that day, which is good because it collapsed and killed almost everyone inside. A friend of my mum was found holding her two sons in the rubble."

Saul (left) and Uriel (right) didn't know each other prior to this shoot. They got on like best friends after a few minutes of being introduced to each other.

SAUL GONZALEZ QUIÑONES AND URIEL DEL ANGEL

Uriel's parents lived downtown. That morning, his father took his mother to the hospital after she felt the first signs of labour. He left her in the bedroom, came back home to take a shower and that was when he felt the earthquake. He dressed as fast as he could and went straight to the hospital. It took him four hours to walk there.

"I was supposed to be born in the morning but because of the earthquake, I had to wait until the afternoon. My father was happy because I was about to come to this world but when he saw all the dead and wounded people, he didn't know how to react. It was shocking. The following days, my parents attended several funerals holding me in their arms. People congratulated them while mourning the loss of their own loved ones. For me, the 19th of September a day of joy. My friends always remember my birthday and call me. I don't like the fact that many people remember that date for the tragedy, but what can I do? It's my birthday and it makes me happy," says Uriel.

Saul was born at 10AM in Montes de Oca Sanatorium. He was supposed to be delivered at 7PM but the doctors couldn't come on time to help his mother, Rosaura. "The nurses ended up helping my mother give birth," he recalls.

For Saul, being born on that particular day "is special because that way everybody remembers my birthday. My life has been different. Everybody calls me 'Earthquake Boy' and when the earth shakes, people say it's because I'm mad as fuck. It's nice that people remember my birthday despite it being such a tragic date and it's something that's going to stick with me until the day I die".

Cesar's picture was taken at the exact spot where the building block, Nuevo Leon, in Tlatelolco, collapsed. More than 300 people died in there.

Cesar Lopez Fuentes

Cesar was born at 8:13 AM. For him, there's nothing strange about being born on that day. "I commemorate the day with respect for the ones that fell – it's a day that marks the conscience of the city before and after – but it's also my birthday and that's a reason to celebrate."

I asked Diego, Cesar's 8-year-old son, if he knows that there was a terrible earthquake in the city on the day his father was born. His face lit up with pride. I told him he would not be here if it wasn't for his father. Cesar says many people died on that date and although it is a happy day for them, for others it's sad, concluding: "It's part of life, son."

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