Elena Poniatowska: Confronting the Worst: Writing and Catastrophe
I’m going to read a testimony from a person who helped during the 1985 earthquake in Mexico. It’s a young boy, about eighteen:
We reached the baseball park in the corner of Qualtemo que Nobrero Mundial Avenues known as Del Capar. I choked up as soon as we arrived. We unloaded our equipment—the formaldehyde, the disinfectant, the spraying hoses, and the tanks. Then I looked at the stadium. It was as if we were in the center of a show, but without an audience. All the seats up there were empty. The actors were all there on the stage, but they were dead. Further back stood three tents covered with spot lights. They displayed signs. The first sign was unidentified bodies, the second identified bodies, and the last one said remains. There were limbs and other body parts in plastic bags that I never wanted to see and thank God I never had to see. These smaller plastic bags were handled with the same care and love and respect given to the bags that contained full bodies. People were coming to identify the remains. As a defense mechanism, I think I started to see myself as a spectator watching a movie. The smell of formaldehyde was very strong.
At the entrance, you could hear the click-clack of the clerks as they typed death certificates. The vans kept arriving with more bundles and more bundles and more bundles, but these bundles were bodies. The first thing we did was to establish a line beyond which no one could go without being fumigated. This is called a sanitary pocket. By the time men, women, and children had been dead for a few days, the process of putrefaction was advanced. We created a layer of plastic and tarp underground to serve as a boundary and as the spot where people would stand and be sprayed. We sprayed the people going in and out—the stretcher bearers, the relatives, the people who brought in the coffins. The doctor in charge ordered, “Start fumigating the corpses. Do it now.” Fortunately, I was not involved in the first spray, not even the second. At the distance of some twenty yards, you could see the plastic bags, the dry ice, and the mounds. But those mounds, fully covered with plastic sheets, were bodies. The power hose was so strong that it blew off the plastic sheet, so I thought, I have to overcome my fear. If I don’t do this right, I could be spraying all the other workers and cause a problem. Death is part of life; I must force myself to look. . . .
Maybe in the beginning, we were afraid of contamination, but we soon realized that those of us with the formaldehyde were the best protected. A small, skinny brown guy appeared—the typical Mexican, who has had to work very hard from birth. . . .
“And the coffins?” he asked. “The boxes. What’s the deal on the coffins?”
He needed three coffins. He wanted to know how much they were. How would he pay for them? The poor bastard.
“Have you identified your family?”
“Yes. They are there. But tell me. How much do those caskets run?”
“No. Coffins are free. We will give them to you right away. Are you here by yourself?”
He was there to take his sister and two nieces, one fourteen and the other nine years old. I was profoundly sorry. I prepared the caskets, a big one and two small ones, and I realized one of them had two nails sticking out, but I said, “Too bad, it doesn’t matter anymore.” Later, we saw how the skinny man stepped on the nail with his sneaker, and since that didn’t work, he got hold of a big board and bent them backward. This simple act restored an old human dimension to the piles of bodies in the stadium, because after four hours I thought that the only real thing was the bacteria. But for the skinny guy, those bodies, even all messed up, were his people, his kin. And his bodies had a right to be in the casket where they wouldn’t be hurt by the nails. . . .
“Can we sprinkle the bodies with limestone?” I asked the skinny little guy. “Can I sprinkle limestone on your relatives?”
“Yes, ” he said.
The fourteen-year-old had to be transferred out of her casket because she was too big for the other one. As I sprinkled her, I thought of Hamlet, when Ophelia, after losing her mind, drowns. Hamlet’s mother places violets on her body and says in her mind, “Look, I’ve come to put flowers on your body, the ones I should have placed on your wedding day.” I had exactly the same sensation.
“Girl, I am sprinkling limestone on you so you are all whitened up. You will not live at all.” A fourteen-year-old girl. “There you go. All white.”
You know, all those mental associations that we have about purity, dignity, and untouched bodies . . . but I could only sprinkle limestone on her, not a single flower, just a little, just a lot, of white dust. And that’s how it went.
I think that in extreme situations, people feel the urge to communicate and to be with others. They suddenly have time for themselves and for others. They attempt a new communication with their fellow men and women by improvising their conduct, because barriers and prejudices have been demolished. In doing so, they acquire new knowledge. In September 1985, after the earthquakes, Mexicans witnessed how Mexico City underwent one of the noblest transfers of power in its history: the power that greatly transcended the commitments of mere solidarity, the transformation of the people into government and of official disorder into civilian order. Individuals who were previously invisible became the constructors of a new democracy.