At 1:14 in the afternoon of September 19, 2017, an earthquake struck Mexico City. At the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, one of the three sculptures that depicted the virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, located at the top of the front façade, fell down. It was Hope. Far from symbolizing a bad omen, this event demonstrated to the world one of the true values of the citizens of Mexico City—solidarity. Hundreds of thousands responded first at the collapsed buildings and helped in the many tasks unfulfilled by the government. Rescuers were mixed with common people, firemen with office clerks, and soldiers with construction workers.

Perhaps the most similar civil action was 32 years ago, on the exact same date, September 19, which Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes declared as the day when “Civil society realized it had its own powers.” Tragedy reminds us we have each other to trust. Unfortunately for me, I was only seven years old at the time, so most of what I know about that disaster came to me in recent years through documentaries recalling acts of kindness and heroism. Maybe my intention to help people these days was seeded by those tales of pure altruism.

The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral appears normal except perhaps for some scaffolds atop the clock tower. The scaffolding was there for the repair of a sculpture depicting the virtue of Hope. The sculpture was knocked down in the September 19 earthquake.

Living in the darkness of individualism, we sometimes forget those values and only expect problems to fade away or be solved by someone else. For me, living far away from Mexico for six years gave me plenty of time to meditate on the reality of my home place. Immigrants understand the feeling of being separated from their native culture. In the distance, we start to cultivate a special interest in our own roots, and we also want to find a way to demonstrate this love. I do believe I have taken the best values from Mexico and Canada. Ancient Mexicans believed it was important to honor their own words, and they demonstrated this through their actions. In Canada I have picked up the importance of respecting other people’s ideas because that is the main answer to solving conflicts. Now I’m proud to call both places home.

About my hometown, Mexico City, many people wonder how come a huge city could be erected on top of a lake. I really have no answer to that, but it is the reality. When the Aztecs (or old Mexicans as I like to call them) arrived on an islet in Lake Texcoco nearly 500 years ago, they never imagined the city that would be there one day. They venerated nature and believed that everything should be in balance. Against all odds they engineered a system to construct buildings on top of the water. Sadly, nowadays almost everything they achieved is only a myth, with the exception of Xochimilco’s canals, where its chinampas (artificial islands used for agriculture) struggle to survive aggressive urban expansion.

The reality of the earthquake is a reminder of our heritage: that we are living on top of a lake, and that we should acknowledge what we have done to our environment. In his first novel, La región más transparente (Where the Air Is Clear), the same Carlos Fuentes wrote of the beauty that Mexico City once displayed to every visitor when meeting the ancient city for the first time. Most of the rivers feeding the lake are now in pipelines, not to mention their pollution as well. So what happened in this earthquake must be taken seriously, and the best way to honor the memory of the victims is to give our best to improve society and to create a spirit of generosity that my grandparents once told me existed in the streets.

This is not my first time volunteering. I did some teaching and counselling 12 years ago. At that point of my life, I was struggling through a heavy depression. I quit my former job and somehow ended up in a center where most of the residents were kids aged ten or younger who were receiving chemotherapy. Those I had the luck to tutor were survivors who, contrary to my first expectations, were full of strength. I’m very thankful for that experience because they taught me more than anything I could share with them. Their will to hold on to life was remarkable.

Rodrigo Pérez Lozada was born in 1979 in Mexico City, where he now lives as a free-lance artist. He was among the first volunteers to help in the disaster zone after the September 19 quake. He later joined Tzu Chi volunteers in making home visits to and conducting aid distributions for quake survivors.

My entire experience with the Tzu Chi Foundation is now part of my life. It’s the first time I have been deeply involved in a humanitarian relief project. My curiosity took me to see what a Buddhist foundation was doing in a remote disaster area like San Gregorio, Xochimilco. As days passed by, Tzu Chi volunteers—Yihan, Joyce, and Tim—became like friends. Their enthusiasm made me recognize the big picture of their plan to reach those in need. I’m glad that I decided to work with Tzu Chi volunteers to provide relief to disaster victims. Helping Tzu Chi was the best way to focus my energy on helping other people.

Just a week before meeting Tzu Chi, I was carrying rubble from the earthquake, and I became sick because of the dust in the air. Even with that, I felt determined to help people outdoors in the disaster area because I figured that the population in a town like San Gregorio would be vulnerable after the catastrophe. Time proved that I was not wrong. Nevertheless, it soon got very clear that this work—I will use the word “work” here because I took it seriously—was beyond my ego and demanded my total honesty. Was I willing to help until the end of the process?

Even when I was a boy in Mexico City, before the earthquake, Xochimilco remained a total enigma for me. Residents there fiercely protect their traditions and beliefs, and the custom of locals saluting each other in the streets yet exists. Helping in San Gregorio was a real challenge. I was as much a foreigner to them as were the Taiwanese, with the exception of the language. The first big challenge was to gain their trust. To my surprise, people were charmed by the peaceful approach of the Tzu Chi volunteers, who thus gained their trust and mine as well.

Rodrigo Pérez Lozada shows photos that he took when he worked to help quake victims.

Seemingly endless cases kept coming in, but as I mentioned before, there was an urgency in honoring the memory of the victims. That was where my energy came from. If I couldn’t save lives from the rubble, maybe I could help the volunteers to cheer up the lives of survivors. So every time I passed by places where I knew people had lost their lives, I tried to remember them and do my best. Hopefully their surviving relatives would receive aid.

There was something else: I couldn’t go back to my daily routine ignoring what others were struggling through. After the earthquake, local residents were traumatized. Once you approached them, sometimes they only needed to purge that fear, or just describe their experiences during the catastrophe. After the first days, I remembered how much I enjoyed speaking to strangers in the street. Maybe it was an ideal position for me: learning while you listen, understanding while you enter into their lives as a friend.

Among the many lessons I’ve learned was the love for all people expressed by the Tzu Chi volunteers, and most important their spirit of service. Here lies the biggest cultural impact on me: We as volunteers serve people, find what they need, and fulfill them with everything we have—our hearts. This work doesn’t have lunch breaks, and we can’t just check out. We Mexicans should have this in mind all the time: One should continue to be a Tzu Chi volunteer even after taking off one’s golden uniform vest. A good example of this attitude was shown to me by the medical teams, superintendents, and all kinds of specialists who greeted people with humility, as if they had all the time in the world for each person.

On the first day of the aid distribution at Xochimilco, I probably felt the distress, tiredness, frustration, and sorrow all come together. It was after I had talked to the third or fourth person in the entrance area that Master Cheng Yen’s words found an echo as I explained to a man about the mere act of giving without asking anything in return. Suddenly I felt all the burden of that time, visiting San Gregorio almost every day for over two months, looking after people in need, seeing the heavy damage in their houses, hearing the stories about their lost ones or injured relatives, and witnessing so much destruction all around. Everything came at the same time, and I felt so frustrated at not being able to help more people.

For me, continuing to volunteer after the earthquake is the least I can do as a citizen. I understand I cannot pass by human misery and just ignore it. Every person can help others if they clearly understand the purpose of doing good. There’s a lot of gratitude around, and I prefer to keep the positive memories of my experiences after the quake. I only ask my fellow Taiwanese and Mexican friends to not forget what we went through together. Most importantly, let us all never lose hope. The statue representing Hope will probably be repaired, the same as my city. We just need to stand together from now on.

A volunteer prays for deceased victims beside a damaged church


May 2018