This article was originally published by Common Edge as "Letter From Mexico City: An Insidious Memorial to a Still-Unfolding Tragedy."
You wouldn’t think it looking at Mexico City today—a densely populated metropolis, where empty space is hard to come by—but decades earlier, following a devastating earthquake on September 19, 1985, more than 400 buildings collapsed, leaving a collection of open wounds spread over the cityscape.
Exactly thirty-two years later, the anniversary of that disaster was ominously commemorated with an emergency evacuation drill. Then, in one of those odd occurrences in which reality proves to be stranger than fiction, a sudden jolt scarcely two hours after the drill led to what would be yet another of the deadliest earthquakes in the city’s history. Buildings once again collapsed, leaving a rising-by-the-hour death toll that eventually reached 361, as well as swarms of bewildered citizens wandering the streets, frantically attempting to reach their loved ones through the weakened cell phone reception. “We’d just evacuated for the drill,” people said, like a collective mantra. “How could this happen again?”
In late March, barely six months after the tragedy, Mexico City’s then-mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera announced a call for submissions for an architectural project that would serve as a memorial to the victims of the recent earthquake. The budget was set at 60 million MXN pesos—14 million for its construction and 46 million for the expropriation of the site, located on 286 Álvaro Obregón, where 49 people lost their lives inside the six-story office building that collapsed minutes after the quake.
Memorials are usually commissioned and constructed for noble enough reasons. Several examples come to mind that are undoubtedly powerful expressions of human vulnerability and resilience, as well as masterful manifestations of a kind of architecture that can redeem and inspire. However, the case of the proposed memorial for the victims of the September 19th quake would strike anyone who lives here as notably tone-deaf, as the city’s streets are still home to thousands of people whose own residences were tucked between the apartment buildings that collapsed and had to be demolished not long later. In Mexico City, the devastation continues. How can one memorialize a tragedy that is still unfolding?
This is not the first time architecture and public space has been weaponized by authorities to function as propaganda; the erection of memorials has historically allowed governments to sanitize their cities’ public images, and pat themselves on the back for a job well done mitigating disasters and tragedies faced by their constituents. Here, the proposed memorial comes across as particularly outrageous, given the city’s recent history of questionable construction.
As it happens, Mexico City is not exempt from the rampant corruption that assails many a third-world nation. Despite the obvious dangers posed by the area’s constant seismic activity, buildings have continued to be erected under shady circumstances, in a country where a mordida (local slang for “bribe”) can get nearly any signature on a construction permit. The devastating effects of last year’s earthquake, make no mistake, were a direct result of the government’s previous failure to enforce, in some cases, even the most basic of safety regulations, as well as its outrageous lack of anything resembling a sensible action plan for response once tragedy inevitably struck again.
During the post-earthquake state of emergency, in a move so cynical it bordered on the absurd, official government Twitter accounts were used to re-tweet citizens’ calls for donations of basic rescue material and food for victims and volunteers. It is worth questioning, then, how 60 million pesos could be so readily available just months later for the construction of a memorial. The call for submissions was met with understandable outrage from the country’s architecture community, citizens, and the victims of the tragedy. Their outrage, in turn, was initially met with the indifference that has come to be expected of a government that operates with impunity.
The winning proposal was scheduled to be announced on May 4th, but came nineteen days later—despite a previous announcement that had assured the angry public that a decision on a memorial would be postponed until victims and their family members were consulted and properly integrated into the process. To anyone actually following the process, it was a dismaying turn of events. In the end, despite the announcements and counter-announcements, the “winning” concept was released, replete with an array of expected clichés: a generous amount of the obligatory COR-TEN steel, framing an equally obligatory empty space. Beyond tired symbolism, it is unclear what the architects believed their project would add to the city, or how it would benefit those most affected by the disaster.
There was, however, an encouraging development to this story, one that partially silenced cynics (like me) who from the start believed that it would all end with a vast expenditure of public funds and a meaningless, lackluster monument. A citizen-led initiative titled Nuestro Memorial 19S (Spanish for Our Memorial S19) was organized to lend a platform to the disenfranchised victims of the earthquake. Through social media, press conferences, and public protests, they were relentless in their opposition to the memorial, while the government turned a blind eye to the basic needs of the quake victims. Less than a month after announcing the winning proposal, government officials reallocated the 60 million peso budget for the project to the Public Trust Fund for Reconstruction.
Despite its feel-good ending, this dizzying episode is best understood as a cautionary tale that warns citizens to be wary of a government’s motives if it intends to use public funds to memorialize an all-too-recent tragedy. Globally, the current political climate has seen the idea of social resistance take on new urgency, an exhausting exercise that can, at times, seem fruitless. Perhaps the most significant takeaway from this story, then, is that a few organized and persistent citizens can in fact thwart official plans that will not benefit their community, even when facing notoriously corrupt administrations.
Ana Karina Zatarain is a writer based in Mexico City and a former Editor at ArchDaily. She is particularly interested in exploring the ways art, architecture and design can enact meaningful change in society.