It was early morning and my bed was shaking. “Lidia,” I groaned, “Get off my bed.” Lidia muttered an answer and it took me a few moments to realize that she was still in her own bed on the other side of the room. We were in an earthquake. It was 7:19 a.m., September 19, 1985 and we were in Mexico City. The earthquake lasted over two minutes, registering 7.8 on the Richter Scale and by the time the earth stopped moving, thousands were dead and the city was in chaos.
I jumped out of bed and turned to the window. I watched as the stucco cracked and fell off the large hotel across the street. Water from the rooftop pool spilled over the sides. Lidia made a run for the door but as she reached the hallway, I grabbed her arm and pulled her back in. We tousled for a few seconds while I yelled for her to get into the bathroom doorway and she screamed that we had to get out. As we held each other and huddled in the bathroom door-frame, Lidia asked me why we were picking this place as our sanctuary. I told her that this was the safest place and to trust me. It’s funny how a small memory can jump up at the moment of need. My beloved teacher James Truitte was from Los Angeles and I remember him telling me where to be in an earthquake. Later during our evacuation from Mexico City, I met an architect who had also taken refuge in her bathroom doorway with another couple – they were the only three survivors in their hotel.
The electricity went out. When the shaking finally stopped, we ventured out of our room to begin the seven-floor descent. We joined the other hotel guests in the pitch black stairwell and used the walls to guide our way down. Once we reached the ground floor, we left the building and gathered in the small parkette that divided the boulevard in front of the hotel. We waited. A heavy silence covered the city. Soon the sound of sirens began to fill the air. From the parkette we looked at the destruction around us. Some of the buildings were piles of rubble, some were missing entire walls. The building next to our hotel had begun to crack in half – with each half leaning in a different direction. One half was leaning towards my room in my hotel. Everyone was in shock – so we waited. After several hours, I ventured back into the hotel and climbed back up the dark stairwell to my room where I changed out of my pajamas. We spent the entire day waiting and watching emergency vehicles speed by.
By nightfall, it was officially determined that we could safely return our rooms. I was in my room when I got hit with a wave of pain. I was pregnant at the time (about two months along). I made my way to the bathroom and there I experienced a spontaneous abortion. The pain was intense and I was covered in sweat. Lidia returned from the parkette to find me lying on the bathroom floor. She wanted to get me to a doctor. I pointed out to Lidia that there were a lot of other people that were in more dire need of medical attention than I was. Their lives were in peril and I was alive. She helped me to my bed and we both went to sleep.
The next morning, I was feeling better even though I was bleeding quite a bit. I convinced Lidia and two other dancers to venture out with me. I wanted to go to the one of the farmer’s markets because we needed food. Having been in Mexico City before, I knew that one market was near our hotel. We walked through the streets and looked at the destruction. It looked like a war zone – only the plumbing remained (including bathtubs) remained of many collapsed buildings – their zig-zag structures standing eerily alone against the sky. At the market I bought us Ritz crackers, peanut butter and fruit. I was the only company member who had pesos on me. We had arrived in Mexico the night before the earthquake and when we were in the airport, the company manager told everyone not to bother exchanging money at the airport because the rates were so bad. He said that he would take care of it for everyone the next morning. I – of course – ignored him and promptly exchanged some cash right there. He told me I was stupid and I retorted that I don’t go into any country without some of the currency on me – good choice now that I look back.
Later that day we went to rehearsal. Yes – in the midst of this disaster – we went to a rehearsal. The director had insisted because although the Mexico City performances were obviously cancelled – the tour was still on and we had other obligations. We were taken to a theatre outside of the downtown area – built on rock and untouched by the earthquake. Mexico City was built over a lake basin so the downtown area is sitting on a less than stable foundation. I had always found this little fact so interesting on earlier visits. All throughout the old part of Mexico City, beautiful old buildings were sinking. Some buildings had sunk so low that the entrances into them were bridges that crossed from the street level directly to the second floor. Many cathedral floors throughout the city were tipped. Quaint then – tragic now. The rehearsal was a dismal affair. It seemed so wrong to be dancing while there was suffering all around us. To add insult to injury, the director informed us that we would be attending a reception that night at the Canadian Embassy. She wasn’t listening to our protests – again – we had obligations – so we were driven back to our hotel and told to quickly change our clothes and return to the bus. At our hotel, things had gotten back to normal somewhat – the electricity was on. Lidia and I took the first elevator up with two other dancers. As I was opening the door to our room, the second quake hit.
It was an incredibly strong aftershock. The lights went out and when the shaking stopped, we again made our way down to the parkette. The one thing that I remember about the aftershock was the sound. It sounded as if the entire city started screaming at the same time. A building crescendo of panic that filled the air. As soon as things calmed down, we were hustled onto the bus and taken driven to the Canadian ambassador’s home which was situated in a safe part of the town. Our group was visibly shaken and that night our director made a decision. She felt that we should continue the tour but she understood the group’s feelings if they did not want to. She asked them to vote on whether to stay or go home. She and I left the room for them to discuss the matter. I was not part of the discussion because as rehearsal mistress, I didn’t feel it was my place to be part of the decision. They voted to go home.
We spent the night at the ambassador’s home camped out on every surface available. The next morning we were taken to the embassy where we waited all day while the embassy staff tried to arrange a flight home. We already had one ticket to Canada for that day – the director’s. Originally the plan was for her to start the tour with us in Mexico City and then go home while we continued touring the rest of the country. The poor woman was injured in the first earthquake and was now hobbling around with a sprained ankle – yet – she decided to stay with the group. The decision had to be made as to whom we should ship out first. She came to me and offered me the ticket. The bleeding from the spontaneous abortion still hadn’t stopped and I had been curled up on a sofa most of the morning. We talked for a few minutes and it was decided to send Jacqueline out first. You never know how you will react in a disaster until you get there. Some people do well and others fall apart. Jacqueline had been crying hysterically non-stop since the first quake. I remember snapping at her while we were sitting in the parkette that first day, “For God’s sake, shut up Jacqueline! You’re alive and our building is standing.” Jacqueline wasn’t the only dancer freaking out but she definitely was the most vocal and the most annoying. Jacqueline was taken to the airport.
The embassy staff managed to get an airplane traveling from Central America to New York to make an unscheduled stop in Mexico City to pick us up. We headed for the airport. The airport was packed and in total chaos, filled with people desperately trying to get out. We traveled as a tight group and made our way to the gate. Along the way, people would grab our arms and shove pieces of paper into our hands. “Call my mother for me, call my brother!” I collected dozens of slips of paper as I moved down towards the gateway. We arrived in New York late that night. Everyone was exhausted. I sat in my room all night and called all the people on my collected slips of paper, telling anxious strangers that their families were alive and fine. We left for Montreal the next morning. While in New York, the costumes had been stolen but none of us really cared at the time.
We arrived in Montreal and were met by the company publicist. We were told to leave our bags on the carts and to gather in one spot. He had arranged a press conference and we were told that we were going to do this whether we wanted to or not. The press conference was a milling madhouse of reporters shoving microphones into our faces and asking for comments. I still remember what I said when asked how was it. “It was dark, it was scary.” They left me alone after that and concentrated on a few of the women who were hysterically crying out their stories – they made good press.
This was supposed to be my last tour with the company. Because of my pregnancy, I was going to leave and Delia was going to take over. Several of the dancers were experiencing post traumatic stress disorder and it was decided that it was better that I remain for a few more weeks. In the weeks following, dancers would break down in tears in the middle of a rehearsal. One of the men left the company. He simply got on a plane and left. The publicist wasn’t helping the situation. He was in his element and this was a great story. He continued to milk it for everything that it was worth. Ongoing follow-up interviews, always with those few women (like Jacqueline) who continued to cry. By the end of the second week, I had had it. I went to his office and asked him to please stop. We had a job to do and these interviews were not helping. He refused. My eyes narrowed. “Let me tell you how this is going to go. You schedule another interview and I am going to trash your office. Every time.” He had a quick discussion with the company director and the company manager. There was one more interview and then the group was left alone.