After the Quake—Love Takes Root

Working together, Tzu Chi volunteers from abroad and local Mexican volunteers completed ten aid distributions for quake victims. Their efforts rekindled hope and planted seeds of love.

This woman in Xochimilco, her home reduced to rubble, cherishes the gift card that she received at a Tzu Chi distribution.

On September 19, 1985, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake badly damaged Mexico City and resulted in the death of thousands of people. On the morning of that earthquake’s 32nd anniversary in 2017, Mexico conducted an annual nationwide earthquake drill. Who could have predicted that just a couple of hours later, at 1:14 p.m., the real thing would strike again? This time, a magnitude 7.1 temblor hit just 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Mexico City, also resulting in severe devastation.

Just 12 days earlier, on September 7, a magnitude 8.1 quake had struck off the shore of the state of Chiapas. According to the National Earthquake Information Center of the U.S. Geological Survey, more than 40 earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or higher hit Mexico during the 20th century, four of which were stronger than magnitude 8.0.

Why is Mexico so prone to earthquakes? The country sits on top of three tectonic plates: the Pacific Plate, the Cocos Plate, and the North American Plate. Mexico City, the capital, was built on an ancient lake bed, which tends to amplify the damaging effect of earthquakes.

A middle school class in session in a makeshift tent in Zacatepec. More than 12,000 schools were damaged in the three major quakes that struck Mexico in September 2017.


Damage assessment

On September 26, seven days after the September 19 quake, Stephen Huang (黃思賢), director of Tzu Chi global affairs, arrived in Xochimilco, a borough of Mexico City, to assess the damage. He was accompanied by five other volunteers from the United States. According to news reports, six people had been killed in Xochimilco, and more than 700 structures and 28 roads had been damaged. The volunteers met Julia Bonetti, a city official who was on site to coordinate aid efforts in the San Gregorio Atlapulco district. She told the volunteers that San Gregorio Atlapulco has a population of 30,000 with an average monthly income below US$300, and that the earthquake had only served to make the lives of the residents that much more difficult.

The Tzu Chi delegation visited a 170-year-old church, which, though damaged by the quake, remained structurally sound and had continued to serve its congregation. Father Francisco Castellanos appreciated the efforts of the foundation to offer aid to his people. The volunteers were touched when the priest told them that the same blood flowed in their bodies, meaning that people should help each other without regard to religion.

The second Tzu Chi delegation to arrive later used the church as a base to carry out aid work. Volunteers obtained lists of affected families from government and private sources and then visited those families to verify that they were indeed in need of help: This is a standard approach that Tzu Chi volunteers take before distributing aid to recipients, a process to ensure that donations are put to the best use and do the most good. The volunteers also enlisted the help of local people in conducting the home visits.

A few more volunteers from Argentina, Ecuador, and Taiwan later joined in the work. These volunteers could speak Spanish. Over the next two months, the visiting volunteers, with assistance from local people, carried out intensive home visits to quake victims and gradually built bonds with local residents.

One of the areas the volunteers visited was the chinampa area of Xochimilco (chinampa refers to a type of agriculture). Many residents here are poor and live in illegal housing, which makes them ineligible for government help.

Having lost his home to the earthquake, Jaime Pérez, a local farmer, was very depressed until volunteers encouraged him not to lose heart and to join them in serving his own people. With a new-found purpose, he rode his bike every day to help verify the lists of needy families. He said, “Everyone here is a volunteer, and we sincerely want to do something for our community.” 

A street scene in Jojutla, three months after the quake.

There were quite a few quake victims-turned-volunteers like him, including Brenda Narciso, who dragged her baby carriage behind her as she helped visiting Tzu Chi volunteers conduct home visits around the town, and Flora Garcia Galicia, who had suffered from depression after the quake. They all helped make the Tzu Chi aid distributions in Xochimilco possible.

The state of Morelos, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of Xochimilco, was actually the first stop the first Tzu Chi delegation visited to assess damage after arriving in Mexico on September 24. Volunteer Stephen Huang had learned from news reports that the quake had almost leveled Jojutla, in Morelos, where homes and shops spread across dozens of city blocks were severely damaged. Despite warnings that the area was notorious for bad public security and gangs, Huang took his group there to survey the damage. They saw severe devastation everywhere. Collapsed buildings dotted the sorry landscape as frightened and displaced residents sheltered in tents.

What they saw at the scene clearly called for Tzu Chi’s help. Huang believed that arrangements could be made to ensure that the foundation would be able to conduct distributions there safely, so he decided to include the area on the Tzu Chi aid list. 


Two men work in a chinampa garden, an agricultural technique used by Aztecs for hundreds of years.

 First distributions: Tláhuac and Xochimilco

More than a hundred Tzu Chi volunteers from 13 countries arrived in Mexico in early December 2017. The upcoming emergency relief distributions and free medical clinics for quake victims were scheduled to extend from December 7 to the middle of the month.

When the Taiwanese delegation arrived on December 4, city officials and Argentine volunteers Hong Liang-dai (洪良岱) and Wang Pei-wen (王姵文), who had been on site for some time, took them to the disaster areas in the borough of Tláhuac, Mexico City. As soon as they arrived, they distributed claim checks to the families on Tzu Chi distribution rosters.

Though two and a half months had passed since the temblor, damage was still omnipresent. Many people had to use metal bars or lumber to keep their houses from leaning further. In one neighborhood, notices had been posted on almost every building in an entire row of houses, indicating that they were uninhabitable and would be demolished. Even so, people stayed behind, refusing to leave the homes they had worked so hard to build.

At one place, sections of a road had sunk severely, several meters deep in some places. In the midst of the treacherous terrain, a man in green clothes led the team into his home, where walls had been cracked and the foundation around the entrance had been hollowed out to a depth of 80 centimeters (2.6 feet). The man said that he used to own a shop selling air conditioners, but the quake had wrecked everything and stripped him of his livelihood. 

Many Mexican volunteers helped make Tzu Chi’s earthquake relief work in Mexico possible.

Another victim they visited was a 52-year-old woman. The temblor had also turned her world upside down. Her house had been so badly damaged in the quake that she sent her children to live with relatives. Meanwhile, she and her sick, 80-year-old mother went to live with her sister. Staring at her damaged house, propped up with lumber, the woman cried. She longed to return to the time before the quake when her family had been whole and living together.

She said that the city government had promised to pay for the materials to rebuild, but the volunteers learned that the federal government had instead declared that the entire local zone was sitting on a fault line and had advised all families to move away. A local lawyer enlisted the services of a building structural expert to help the residents assess the situation, and a college also sent a team of geological experts to study the zone, but it would take eight months for them to arrive at a conclusion. 

The distribution at Zacatepec was held in a soccer stadium with a capacity of 25,000. The venue was provided by the city government. More than 1,500 families benefited from the distribution.

Whatever the conclusion, rebuilding in the same place would not guarantee that another quake would not wreak havoc again the next time. 

The volunteers later met Xlohemi Isabel. She approached the group and greeted them in English. She told them that she and her sister, who lived in another district, had both received Tzu Chi distribution claim checks. To show her appreciation, she gave them a bag of oranges.

On the day of the distribution in Tláhuac, they saw Isabel again at the distribution venue, this time with her sister at her side. They cried when they each received a gift card and blankets. “I’ve been waiting for this moment, and it’s finally here,” Isabel said. “We’ll always remember your compassion and love.”

Video clips showing Tzu Chi volunteers assessing damage in various disaster areas in Mexico were being shown at the venue, which drove some quake victims to tears. Even so, they smiled and laughed when they took part in group activities led by volunteers.

Cristina Chousal, 70, said that her home had taken such a hard blow from the quake that only the living room was still habitable. She and her 85-year-old husband had been living in that little space. Their life had been rendered difficult by the quake, so despite his age, her husband still had to go out to work as a shoe polisher. “With the gift card you gave us, we can finally buy a few things to brighten our Christmas,” she declared.

The Tláhuac distribution was followed over the next two days by distributions at Xochimilco, where the volunteers mingled with the recipients even better than at the Tláhuac venue.

A couple sitting in their tent in Jojutla hold the gift card and blankets that they received from Tzu Chi.


Xochimilco Mayor Avelino Méndez Rangel was moved to tears by the high spirits at the scene. His administration had been criticized for not doing enough to help quake victims. He had even been chased by some angry people during a damage assessment tour. But all of that was a very far cry from what he was witnessing at the distribution.

“I believe that Xochimilco will rise and stand on its own again,” the mayor said. “Tzu Chi’s aid will help us get through this hard time. Let’s work with our hearts united!”

Many people wiped away tears when local volunteer Tani Foncerrada read a consolation letter from Master Cheng Yen. Marie Angelica, 62, approached the stage and gave Tzu Chi volunteers a bouquet of roses which she had grown herself. She is a pediatrician, and her home and clinic had both been destroyed by the quake. “I’m down but not out,” she said. “I will rebuild.”

She has come to know many people in town during her 40-year practice. After the earthquake, she gave necessities and hot food to others. She also witnessed Tzu Chi volunteers frequenting the disaster zones and doing what they could to help victims. She felt that these volunteers were as fragrant as the roses, bringing hope and warmth to people around them. 


A policewoman hugs a recipient at a distribution in Jojutla. Though her official responsibility at the event was to keep order, she also helped hand out some goods.

Marie Angelica presents a bouquet of roses from her garden to volunteers at a distribution in Xochimilco.

On to Morelos

The volunteers held four distributions for 6,000 families in the state of Morelos: one distribution each in Tlaquiltenango and Zacatepec, and two in Jojutla. Many Mexican volunteers from Mexico City traveled south to Morelos to help with those large distributions. Most notably, Trinidad Jardines took more than ten people with her to help out.

During the distributions, many quake victims warmly expressed their gratitude to Tzu Chi volunteers with smiles, handshakes, and hugs, which were easily understood despite the language barriers.

Tzu Chi volunteers also provided free medical clinics during their trip to Mexico. Ten physicians of Western medicine, four dentists, and several doctors of traditional Chinese medicine worked with physical therapists and nurses to serve patients; these medical professionals were from Taiwan, the United States, and Argentina. They were joined in the free clinics by local medical practitioners.

In a clinic in Jojutla, a male patient complained of a sudden chest pain.
Dr. Lee Yi-kung (李宜恭), head of the emergency department at Dalin Tzu Chi Hospital in Taiwan, determined that he’d had an acute heart attack. An ambulance was immediately called to rush the man to the hospital, where he was saved just in the nick of time. 

A lot of people took advantage of the clinics. Hypertension, diabetes, and kidney disease were among the most common chronic disorders seen at the clinics, although a fair number of patients saw the dentists and had their cavities or toothaches treated. Dentist Liao Jing-xing (廖敬興), from the United States, suspected that the prevalence of dental problems was a result of the local diet that favors sweets. Local dentist Ana San Martin concurred.

Quite a few patients came for shoulder or arm pain. Volunteers in traditional Chinese medicine and physical therapy worked nonstop to serve them.

At Tlaquiltenango, the distribution and free clinic was held in the vast parking lot of a water park. Eloisa Mejia Hernández, a local psychiatrist, pointed out that the quake had traumatized many people, especially those who had lost loved ones. She had seen patients who broke down and cried, or who were emotionally unstable and looked very edgy. She simply listened, allowing her patients to pour out their hurt and sadness, to cry to their hearts’ content, or even to yell and shout. It was better to dump those emotions out instead of bottling them up inside. Only after they had cried it out would she try to comfort them or divert their attention to something other than their trauma. She rarely prescribed medicine for these patients.

One elderly woman told Dr. Hernández that her head and shoulders had been injured when she had tried in the middle of the earthquake to protect her nine-year-old grandson. Luckily, her injuries were not too serious. The doctor listened to her story and by the time the woman was finished, she was already feeling better. Dr. Hernández then gave a cup of milk tea to the woman, who drank it and left the clinic smiling.

At a free clinic in Jojutla, Dr. Pedro Alberto Serrano Vela, a physician of family medicine, said that his beloved niece had perished in the quake, so he had been giving extra care when attending to young patients, such as saying a few extra words of comfort or encouragement. It seemed to help him heal too.

Physicians treat patients in a free clinic with the help of volunteer translators.

The delegation of over a hundred Tzu Chi volunteers completed nine distributions and eight free clinics in Mexico. These events were possible only because many local people actively took part. They helped carry out home visits, work out distribution arrangements, and deal with other matters. Their tireless efforts greatly facilitated Tzu Chi’s aid work in Mexico after the quake.

Local volunteers continued to visit quake victims to identify more families in need of help, even after the Tzu Chi delegation members had left. Based on the results of these visits, the local volunteers, helped by a Tzu Chi delegation from the United States, held another aid distribution for 487 households in Coyoacan, Mexico City, on January 14, 2018. Besides the distribution, two free clinics served over 500 patient visits.

After the last distribution in Jojutla ended, Tzu Chi volunteers thanked police officers for helping to maintain order.






March 2018