Waking from the Dream
Mexico's Middle Classes after 1968
Louise E. Walker




Civil Society in the Rubble of Tlatelolco, 1985–1988

Early in the morning of 19 September 1985, an earthquake hit Mexico City. The next evening, a second earthquake rocked the capital. The first earthquake measured 8.1 on the Richter scale, the second registered at 7.3. Together, they left approximately 10,000 dead, 50,000 injured and 250,000 homeless. For many, it began as a bombardment of sounds: the shrill shattering of glass; the rumble of crumbling cement as it hit the ground; the deep groan, “a sort of boooooo1 of the earth moving; then, a moment—seconds or minutes, no one is sure—of surreal silence, soon filled by the muffled voices of those trapped beneath the rubble and desperate screams for help.2 On the first day, in less than three minutes, the city center fractured into disarray. Thousands of buildings had fallen or been torn into; the pavement had cracked open; the water distribution system had ruptured; live electrical lines had been pulled from their posts and were left dangling.3 Doomsayers appeared in the city’s streets and meeting places, proclaiming the end of the world.4

The government desperately needed to make contact with residents. Radios broadcast information and instructions; pamphlets circulated throughout the city urging residents to stay in their homes: “Citizen: The priority is to save lives. . . . Allow the rescue workers to do their jobs. Stay at home. . . . Your solidarity is valiant. Read this and pass it along.”5 Official rescue workers did not appear, though, and it fell upon residents to dig through the rubble for their loved ones and neighbors. Public intellectual Elena Poniatowska chronicled the aftermath of the scene: “Around the ruins, enormous chains of people of all ages begin to form. The debris and broken concrete are passed from hand to hand in buckets, pots and pans, all sorts of kitchenware, any container at all. The spectacle of a single arm stretching for the air among the masonry and iron rods seems intolerable.”6 That first night, without electricity, darkness fell upon the downtown, and danger lurked. Ravaged buildings teetered, threatening to fall with the smallest aftershock. Bands of looters roamed the streets, and relief workers distributing blankets and milk armed themselves.7

Tens of thousands of victims (damnificados) soon organized a social movement of unprecedented scale in Mexico City’s history.8 They demanded help with the rescue work and a say in how the city would be rebuilt. Middle-class residents occupied key leadership positions in the victims movement, and they filled the rank and file, alongside the working classes and the urban poor. Cross-class mobilization was a defining element of the movement, but class tensions and competing interests nonetheless generated conflict. Where there had existed a vibrant political culture of protest in the working-class and poor neighborhoods before the disaster, middle-class protest after the earthquake marked a significant shift. For the first time since the late 1960s, large numbers of middle-class residents took to the streets to demand change.

The politicization of middle-class residents after the earthquake was connected to the wider economic crisis of the 1980s. Among the many issues that emerged, debates over urban property rights were center stage for the middle classes. Middle-class homeowners struggled to defend their access to housing as the government attempted to dismantle the midcentury public-housing apparatus and restructure the urban housing market along neoliberal lines. The earthquake acted as a catalyst for middle-class discontent—it provoked, increased, and sped it up.

Economic models shape the built environment, and midcentury state-led development had left its mark on the capital city in the form of large-scale public housing projects, public hospitals, and public schools. One of the most emblematic of such projects was the Tlatelolco apartment complex. Often referred to as a city within the city, on the eve of the earthquake the complex consisted of 102 buildings, with over 12,000 apartments housing approximately 100,000 residents—the largest of its kind in Latin America. It had its own commercial venues, schools, sporting centers, cultural centers, and medical clinics. In total, it covered over 750,000 square meters. Built by the government between 1962 and 1965 to house the middle classes, these apartment high-rises symbolized the growth of this class in postrevolutionary Mexico. Many of its residents were government bureaucrats, lawyers, university professors, and other professionals.9 But Tatelolco was one of the areas hardest hit by the earthquake. And soon it became a nucleus of political activism.

When Tlatelolco residents took to the streets after the earthquake, they were struggling to protect a middle-class world that had already come under threat from the austerity measures and the broader shift from state-led development to neoliberalism. The administration of Miguel de la Madrid kept a close eye on the protest in Tlatelolco; government spies reported copiously on activities there, using informants and through direct eavesdropping, and internal government discussions after the earthquake focused disproportionately on Tlatelolco. From the perspective of the de la Madrid administration, throngs of middle-class residents protesting in the city streets threatened the government’s legitimacy and its ability to continue to restructure the economy. While the 1986 UNAM student movement did not significantly alter the administration’s economic plans, the earthquake and its aftermath galvanized middle-class residents, turning them into a formidable force in urban politics. The victims movement demanded, and received, a seat at the political decision-making table. Damnificados gained an unprecedented say in how the city would be rebuilt. In unexpected ways, however, middle-class and working-class victims both facilitated and blocked neoliberal restructuring of the urban economy.

Tlatelolco, Mexico City, 19 September 1985

Tlatelolco quickly emerged as a symbol—to the country and the world—of the devastation. The Nuevo León building, fifteen stories tall, had toppled and lay on its side (see Figure 13). Within half an hour, hundreds of survivors in the apartment complex organized a rescue effort. Thin young men squeezed through narrow passages, following voices to enclaves of open space; many lost their lives trying to save others. Doctors and nurses who lived in the complex set up makeshift medical stations. In the first hours of the disaster, residents asked one another if the emergency services had been called, because they did not hear the wail of ambulance sirens. There were no signs of official rescue workers as residents dug through the rubble, directed traffic, organized food distribution, made lists of the survivors, and counted the dead. As the day progressed, residents from other areas of the city sent food and blankets. Volunteers worked for hours—ten, twelve, or more—without food or rest.

Signs and hand-written notes appeared on buildings that were still standing; some were personal messages left by family and friends desperate to locate their loved ones; others called upon residents to organize and demand a more systematic rescue effort. Many residents accused the government of shirking its responsibility. In the days after the earthquake, they took to the streets to demand that the government help those still alive under the debris. Men, women, and children wore placards:

“Mr. President and functionaries of [Mexico City], help us”

“Our parents are trapped”

“My wife is trapped, I need help”10

FIGURE 13. The fallen Nuevo León building. From Image 21, Mexico City, 1985, US Geological Survey Photographic Library.

Rescue workers in Tlatelolco complained that the government was actually impeding their work. They told NBC news that they could hear voices calling from under the fallen buildings, but that the machinery sent from the United States was sitting in a customs warehouse.11 The government’s handling of the disaster frustrated foreign rescue brigades. An Israeli team complained: “Up to now we haven’t had a chance to use our air cushion that can lift up to 50 tons of concrete. . . . We’re waiting to be coordinated. We’re under the authority of Dr Aries, but we haven’t seen her. Do you know who Dr Aries is?”12

Little organization and a lack of information characterized the work: the city did not provide rescuers with blueprints of the buildings or maps of the area. While initial chaos might be expected in such an event, the incapacity of the government to organize the workers likely cost countless lives. A professor of architecture and a volunteer described the situation:

Even after two or three days everyone was working chaotically, without any system. The desperation to save loved ones led to great inefficiency. I believe that the lack of coordination and organization made it impossible to save a great many people. There was even a lack of communication between soldiers and their captains. It’s not for nothing that most countries have offices to deal with emergencies and people trained for such events.13

The Prevention of Disasters Office had been closed the year before, in a round of budget cuts related to the austerity measures agreed upon by the government and the IMF. In 1981 this office, as part of the Ministry of Human Settlements and Public Works (Secretaría de Astentamientos Humanos y Obras Públicas, or SAHOP), had published a short document on the impact of strong earthquakes on Mexico City. It anticipated, nearly point by point, what actually happened on 19 September. It also offered recommendations for avoiding such a tragedy—none had been followed. Instead, the government liquidated the office in 1984. As this became known after the earthquake, indignation erupted.14

The official emergency plan, “DN-3,” became an infamously well-kept secret. No one knew what it contained or what the plans were for a disaster of this magnitude. Residents, political parties, and leftist organizations demanded that the government make public the plan, so that they might have a document against which to evaluate the actions of the military and police.15 While soldiers had flooded into the capital city only hours after the disaster, they arrived bearing weapons instead of shovels and picks; instead of helping dig for survivors, they cordoned off the area and tried to prevent residents and volunteers from continuing their work.16 At best, residents regarded the police, military, and state officials as onlookers; at worst, they viewed them as bullies and thieves who sought to benefit from the tragedy.17 Residents in the Colima building in Tlatelolco, for example, reported soldiers stealing valuable goods from abandoned apartments.18 At certain points, city officials tried to force eviction of residents in Tlatelolco, stealing electronics and threatening them with physical disappearance (desaparición física).19

Scandals surrounded the government’s initial handling of the disaster. Rumors spread that President Miguel de la Madrid had refused to accept foreign aid in an attempt to present a “good image of the state” to the international community, an illusory vision of a self-sufficient Mexican state able to handle the disaster.20 Making matters worse, when they did accept aid, authorities initially used some of it to make its foreign debt payments.21 Victims resented the government’s preoccupation with its international image; but with Mexico scheduled to host the 1986 World Cup, the government needed to assure the international community and FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) that the event would proceed as planned. Indeed, it was rumored that one of de la Madrid’s first telephone calls on the morning of 19 September was to the football association. Victims complained that state officials worried more about the World Cup than it did about them: “Bravo Mr. President, we have the World Cup, but no housing for the victims!” proclaimed one handmade sign at a sit-in in front of Televisa headquarters (Mexico’s largest television network).22 An expression of their anger and frustration is shown in Figure 14.

As national and international aid poured into Mexico, victims accused the government of corruption and demanded more transparent distribution of the donations. They claimed that the government was siphoning the aid to PRI sycophants and members of the élite. It was reported that cheese sent by the Swiss government as part of an aid package—the highly coveted Swiss cheese—was being sold in Polanco, one of Mexico City’s most exclusive neighborhoods, which was not located in the disaster zone.23 Messages on banners at a protest on 27 September capture victims’ gratitude to those who helped, coupled with fury at the government:

“Mexican brothers, thank you”

“The children demand the foreign aid”

“Where is the national and international aid?”

“The national and international aid is for the victims, not for government offices”24

FIGURE 14. We don’t want goals, we want beans! From Promotora Democrática de Comunicadores Gráficos, “¡No queremos goles, queremos frijoles!,” Calaveras, November 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 20, AGN.

The rage of victims was not, then, limited to the turmoil that a natural disaster of such a scale would be expected to cause. Governments are frequently taken by surprise by disasters, which inevitably generates frustration. In the first few days following the Mexico City earthquake, however, residents expressed fury at the corruption of the state apparatus and the disrespect they accused the president of showing them. The wells of discontent went deep, and one of the victims’ oft-repeated demands was for an intangible dignity (dignidad). Any nostalgia residents of Tlatelolco might have felt for the golden era of the Mexican Miracle disappeared as the corruption of the old model lay exposed on the city’s streets.

The Nuevo León building was but one symbol of the corruption that had underlain the Mexican Miracle.25 The physical manifestation of the Miracle—the housing, schools, and hospitals built by the state—had collapsed. Several other failures became evident in the rubble. The PRI’s mismanagement of the rescue effort demonstrated the incapacity of the party to respond to the needs of its citizens. And the lack of respect with which the president and other leading politicians treated the victims was a moral failure that would have deep reverberations in the city’s political landscape.

“To the Chamber of Deputies!”

Faced with official recalcitrance, residents decided to take action. Hundreds gathered in Tlatelolco’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas to analyze the situation, and leaders argued that it was imperative to put pressure on the authorities.26 Banners went up around the city. At first, they simply begged for help digging and asked for shelter; quickly, though, the extent of their demands grew. Residents organized protests, calling upon citizens to come together: “Once again they want to stain Tlatelolco with blood; those who speak of reconstruction have their hands and pockets full! Thursday the 26th, 11:00: To the Chamber of Deputies!”27 Four days after the earthquake, the residents organizations wrote a letter to architect Enrique Ortiz Flores, the head of the National Fund for Popular Housing (Fondo Nacional de Habitación Popular, or Fonhapo), one of the principal government agencies responsible for the complex:

We write to you with strong feelings of pain, rage, impotence and uncertainty. Pain for our dead brothers; rage because this tragedy could have been avoided if the necessary preventative measures had been taken; impotence for not being able to rescue more survivors buried in the rubble; and uncertainty for the present and the future of our housing complex.

We are Tlatelolcas [residents of Tlatelolco]. We are proud to be Tlatelolcas and we will fight for our patrimony and our dignity, with the pain of our dead and the courage it inspires in us to move forward.28

They spoke of Tlatelolco as a site of blood and fire, from the conquest of Mexico in 1521 to the massacre of students on 2 October 1968. Once again, Tlatelolcas were witnessing pain and death.

Three primary demands emerged: first, punishment of those responsible for the shoddy construction and maintenance of the buildings, especially the Nuevo León; second, reconstruction in Tlatelolco, not another part of the city; and third, indefinite suspension of the plan to change the property rights pertaining to the complex.29 The earthquake hit after years of struggle between residents and the state agencies responsible for the complex. Residents had written letters to these agencies, detailing the poor maintenance of many buildings and requesting repairs. This history of struggle in Tlatelolco would prove fundamental to shaping the social movement that emerged after the earthquake.

To begin with, residents demanded an investigation into the collapse of the Nuevo León building. Since at least 1983 the government agencies had refused to repair the building or, when pressured, undertook only the most superficial repairs. “How much,” residents asked, “is the cost of re-cementing the foundation of a building, compared to the lives of those who live in it?”30 For example, by 1979 the Nuevo Leónbuilding was leaning seventy centimeters. This exceeded the maximum allowed by city safety regulations: for a building of its height, the maximum horizontal inclination ought to have been thirty-two centimeters. By early 1982, the inclination was over one hundred centimeters. In March of 1982 repair work reduced the inclination to eighty centimeters.31 One activist recalled that, at one point during the bureaucratic back-and-forth regarding the safety of the Nuevo León building, authorities had “displayed blueprints and sketches, using technical terms far beyond the reach of our understanding, telling us in sum that ‘the Nuevo León is the safest building not [only] in Tlatelolco, but in Mexico City.’32

The attitude of government functionaries exacerbated the frustration of residents. For example, after the earthquake, on 9 October, Guillermo Carrillo Arena, who was minister of urban development and ecology (Secretaría de Desarrollo Urbano y Ecología, or SEDUE) until February 1986, claimed: “We still don’t know why the Nuevo León fell. We must consider that many people modified their apartments and this could have altered the structural integrity of the building. We know who they are and we will proceed against them.”33 His insinuation that residents who might have taken down a wall in their apartment could have altered the structural integrity of the building fueled the anger of Tlatelolcas. Residents appeared on television and described a “collective psychosis of terror”; only a trustworthy inspection of the entire complex—by foreign technicians—could begin to calm the fear of further buildings collapsing.34 Their insistence on foreign technicians demonstrates their profound distrust of the government.

Survivors accused city functionaries of criminal negligence in the construction of many of the fallen buildings. The majority were schools, hospitals, and housing units built by or for the state between 1950 and 1970.35 Corruption in the construction industry had been an open secret. Before a project began, the contractor had to apply for a license and submit the architectural and structural plans. City authorities then filed these but rarely followed up to confirm that specifications had been followed; often contractors used lower-grade materials than those originally proposed. The seven-story Ministry of Labor building that collapsed during the earthquake offers one example of the disregard for safety standards: it had been built on a concrete base designed to hold only three stories.36 Residents complained that no system was in place to check this corruption and that without democratically elected officials, the system was riddled with nepotism and incompetence.37 Until 1997, it was the president who named the mayor of Mexico City, who in turn nominated the local city representatives (delgados) for presidential confirmation.38 These were the public officials responsible for approving building licenses and performing inspections. Residents demanded to know who would be held responsible for the fallen buildings: “If the government itself built many of these buildings, who would judge it?”39

In the weeks following the disaster, residents organized massive protests against the construction industry and the corruption in these government contracts; meanwhile, the government, engineers, and developers closed ranks, claiming that it was impossible to assign blame because so many parties were involved in any given project. A lawyer from one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods complained that the rubble had been removed too quickly: “When should we assign blame? After the rubble has been removed? How can we look for proof of poor construction when there is a garden growing in every vacant lot?”40 Indeed, lucrative demolition contracts had been awarded to powerful building-industry consortiums; these in turn pressured for the demolitions to begin before proper surveys could be performed to evaluate whether demolition was even necessary. Residents in Tlatelolco filed a complaint with the Federal Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República), and an official investigation into the Nuevo León building was opened. However, many of the very men responsible for the construction were charged with spearheading the investigation.41

The second major demand concerned reconstruction. Residents in Tlatelolco—and in many of the affected neighborhoods—insisted that their neighborhood be rebuilt on the same site. Rumors flew around the city about the government’s intentions for the affected areas. Plans to create more green spaces met with anger from residents: “Mr. Mayor, it was a brilliant idea to build gardens in the Roma; how about we build houses in your garden?”42 In Tlatelolco, organizers complained that residents were being pressured to move and that the PRI intended to use the buildings for its own offices. Residents worried that the area would be converted into a center for tourism, complete with casinos, and demanded immediate reconstruction of residential housing.43 Residents did not want to leave; their attachment was emotional and their protests express a strong sense of place: “We are Tlatelolcas, we are proud to be Tlatelolcas, and we want to stay in Tlatelolco.”44 They also had economic motivation to stay, because Tlatelolco was centrally located and well connected to the city’s public transportation. Had residents been forced to move—likely to the outskirts—their cost of living would have increased.45 Residents sent telegrams to the president, trying to move him with personal pleas: “I am a pensioner. Minimal resources. Supporting my family. Asking you respectfully for your intervention. Rebuild Tlatelolco on the same site.”46

The third demand involved a debate over property rights (régimen de propiedad) in the complex. The earthquake occurred in the context of a prolonged battle between residents and the National Fund for Popular Housing (Fonhapo). For several years, Fonhapo had been trying to convert the buildings into condominiums. This violated the spirit of the original contracts, which were meant to be nontransferable and nonnegotiable for ninety-nine years.47 Under these contracts, residents did not own the apartments; they owned certificates of real estate participation with an array of government agencies.48 These agencies were responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the buildings. The proposed shift to condominiums would place the burden of maintenance upon residents.

Although faced with intimidation, campaigns of misinformation, and sometimes blackmail, many residents refused to consider the proposal until Fonhapo undertook the needed repairs. The agency delayed, trying to predicate the repairs on the change in property rights. This bureaucratic wrangling went on for years. In July 1985, only two months before the earthquake, residents of the Nuevo León building had hung a large banner on an outside wall of their building, calling upon Fonhapo to comply with the minimum safety requirements: “Residents of the Nuevo León building are in danger because Fonhapo is not maintaining the control panels.”49 Immediately before the earthquake, the director of Fonhapo had promised concrete replies to residents’ demands by 15 September 1985. On the eighteenth, residents were still awaiting his reply.50 When the earthquake struck on the morning of the nineteenth, it became evident why the agency wanted out.

Tlatelolcas recalled this history with bitterness and wrote in their political newsletters that even if earthquakes were not predictable, it could certainly be predicted that buildings with poor foundations would not fare well in such an event. One resident of the Nuevo León building, Jorge Coo, commented: “In total, FONHAPO saved—saved?—21 million pesos. 472 residents died and over 156 disappeared [their bodies were not found in the debris], who for us are also dead.”51 In the aftermath of the disaster, when the government tried to enforce the shift to condominium status as a condition of reconstruction, rage exploded in Tlatelolco.52 With their letters unanswered and their demands unmet, the nature of the protest changed and Tlatelolcas took to the streets.

All of these demands—punishment for those responsible for the shoddy construction, reconstruction on the same site, and suspension of the plan to change property rights—demonstrate how the government had failed residents. Before the earthquake, government agencies had mismanaged the housing complex. And after the earthquake, it became clear that the complex web of customs, norms of communication, and channels of negotiation between the PRI and the middle classes had broken down; in Tlatelolco (once again) the system that governed the élite realm of the PRI and the middle classes had failed. But Tlatelolco residents resisted the shift to a new system: many rejected the proposal to withdraw government responsibility for the complex. Although they been unsatisfied for years and now faced devastation, residents fought to maintain a welfare state. In fact, they wanted to address the corruption and ineptitude in the PRI’s welfare state, holding it accountable rather than jettisoning it.

In this process, a fourth demand emerged: residents called for a more transparent and democratic mode of politics for the reconstruction process and for urban politics in general. The demands discussed above were, in many ways, about redressing the failures of the past. The insistence upon participation in the decision-making process was a radical proposal for change. Residents wanted to be consulted on every decision regarding reconstruction. They did not channel their demands through the PRI’s standard procedures; instead, they formed organizations outside the party to negotiate the terms of reconstruction directly with city officials. This was a powerful challenge to the PRI’s political structure and legitimacy, and many scholars have described how these residents organizations ushered in a new mode of urban politics.53

Building a Protest Movement

There were several layers of organization within the victims movement. In Tlatelolco most buildings had committees, and there were several complexwide groups, joined together as the Tlatelolco Residents Front (Frente de Residentes de Tlatelolco). At first, residents argued that the tragedy offered the PRI an opportunity to recoup the legitimacy it had lost following the student massacres, economic crises, and corruption scandals that marked the 1970s and early 1980s. Residents worried that opposition political parties would infiltrate their organizations; they asserted that they could express their own demands, without the help of any intermediary.54 However, instead of taking advantage of this opportunity, the PRI mismanaged the disaster. Organizers from an array of political parties appeared on the ground in Tlatelolco in the first few hours after the earthquake, helping with the rescue work. This earned them respect in the eyes of many residents; indeed, some of these political leaders were themselves residents of the complex. On-the-ground legitimacy, combined with their experience in political organizing and access to the necessary equipment (most residents did not own mimeographs or loudspeakers), brought many opposition parties into the protest movement. The parties active in Tlatelolco ranged from the Popular Socialist Party (Partido Popular Socialista, or PPS), which worked within the electoral arena determined by the PRI, to more radical parties such as the Unified Socialist Party of Mexico (Partido Socialista Unificado de México, or PSUM).55

Many of the activist leaders in Tlatelolco were members of these parties and had worked with them on urban issues before the earthquake. Often from the middle classes themselves (many had a degree from the UNAM or the National Polytechnic Institute), leaders of the victims movement were veterans of urban protest. Many of them had participated in the student movement of the 1960s, and after the 1968 massacre some ex–student leaders started organizing in poor and working-class neighborhoods.56 During the 1970s and early 1980s, they had fought increases in rents and evictions. Their tactics included taking buildings by force, illegally occupying them, and sometimes even collecting rent for the landlords. They did this, for example, on the rooftops of Tlatelolco. They also organized homeowners to mobilize for urban services, as well as for education and health care. In the years before the earthquake, they fought the rising cost of living due to inflation and economic instability.57 After the earthquake, these leaders joined forces with those in Tlatelolco who had been involved in the bureaucratic back-and-forth with government agencies; they helped shape a powerful protest culture and transformed the victims movement into an organized force in urban politics.

Their tactics included making banners, printing newsletters, circulating flyers, holding open-air meetings, marching to the presidential residence of Los Pinos, and organizing demonstrations that reclaimed historic sites such as the Angel of Independence monument. They also showed up in the Chamber of Deputies.58 Figure 15 depicts a common political gathering in Tlatelolco. Local artists proposed street theatre and artistic festivals, and though initially received with skepticism by activists, these events became an important channel for protest and release.59 As the weeks passed and their demands were still not addressed, residents’ ideas for protest became more radical, such as a possible hunger strike by housewives, with leftist political parties as observers.60

The PRI claimed that activists did not enjoy majority support in the complex and accused leaders of agitating among residents. It is difficult to determine the degree of support for activist groups in Tlatelolco; they themselves admitted they did not have “overwhelming” support, and they described an ongoing battle against apathy and conformist tendencies.61 Indeed, the fight was scattered and complicated. Many buildings had not been damaged and their residents resisted joining the protests; some building leaders signed agreements with government agencies agreeing to the change to condominium status, only to have these agreements challenged by residents. Accusations of intimidation abounded.62

In mid-October, these Tlatelolco groups united with other organizations to form the Overall Coordinating Committee of Disaster Victims (Coordinadora Única de Damnificados, or CUD). Based in Tlatelolco, many residents from the complex held prominent positions in this umbrella organization that incorporated other neighborhood organizations as well as specific groups, such as garment and hospital workers, whose workplaces had been destroyed.63 Each group continued to work toward its particular goals. The garment workers successfully organized for recognition of their union. And the poorer neighborhoods won a historical expropriation decree in which the government took control of thousands of abandoned or empty lots in the interests of public housing. These groups coordinated their efforts not only to express solidarity with one another but also to apply maximum pressure on government officials.64

FIGURE 15. Political meeting in Tlatelolco. From “Aspecto de los asistentes,” 24 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 7, AGN.

Although residents from all of the affected areas worked together, class tensions emerged between different groups of victims. One leader from Tlatelolco described how the Overall Coordinating Committee had emerged because the media-savvy leaders in Tlatelolco had harnessed the national and international press to further the cause; this leader believed that the mobilization in Tlatelolco had impressed the victims organizations in other neighborhoods.65 In contrast, residents of the poor and working-class Tepito and Morelos neighborhoods resented the media coverage of the disaster, which focused almost exclusively on the luxury Regis Hotel and the middle-class neighborhoods of Roma and Tlatelolco. They claimed the media had forgotten the victims from the marginal classes.66

Cross-class alliances in the Coordinating Committee were often difficult. Some residents of Tlatelolco considered themselves not just middle class but upper-middle class, and they disdained the notion of working alongside residents from lower classes. Residents who lived (as either sublessors or squatters) in the service rooms on the rooftops of the buildings fought to be considered victims and Tlatelolcas.67 Many of the poorer neighborhoods had strong traditions of urban protest that pre-dated the earthquake, which compounded their resentment of Tlatelolco’s emergence as a national and international symbol of the devastation. In turn, Tlatelolcas claimed that their case was unique, owing to its long-documented, bureaucratic history. This distinguished them from the extensive history of urban protest in working-class and poor neighborhoods, and they often identified as middle class with a sense of pride and entitlement.

The initial participation of middle-class residents in the protest movement may be largely attributed to the vehemence with which the earthquake devastated the neighborhood. But as demands expanded from immediate concerns to long-term economic reforms, it became clear that residents worried about Mexico’s changing political economy. The public employees, university professors, and doctors living in Tlatelolco had been among the primary beneficiaries of Mexico’s “miraculous” economic growth at midcentury; they were also the ones threatened with the onset of economic crisis. In her celebrated account of the tremors’ immediate aftermath, Elena Poniatowska calls the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco a battlefield (yet again): “As it was seventeen years before, the Plaza de las Tres Culturas is a battlefield; camping tents have been rigged up where incomplete families share their misfortune with their neighbors. Broken television sets, sewing machines, typewriters, canned goods, tablecloths, sheets, and mattresses form small pyramids.”68 If the pyramids of Giza represent an ancient Egyptian culture of power and glory, these small pyramids of middle-class material goods represented decades of small-scale dreams—to have a modest job, a safe home, and a modicum of prosperity.

One of the Worst Social Situations

The PRI understood that there was much at stake and monitored the protests closely, desperate to counteract any support the natural disaster might have generated for opposition political parties.69 In a meeting with the president, Manuel Camacho Solís, who replaced Carillo Arena as minister of urban development and ecology in February 1986, acknowledged that activists had successfully generated an image of political incapacity, authoritarianism, and abuse on the part of the state, an image linked to symbols such as the 1968 student massacre.70 Nearly six months after the earthquake, he remained worried about the political ramifications in Tlatelolco.

Camacho Solís perceived three main areas of contention: first, the accusations that building representatives had signed illegal contracts with the government regarding the shift to condominium status; second, disagreement over inspections; and third, the attorney general’s investigation into responsibility for the collapse of the Nuevo León building. De la Madrid and Camacho Solís hoped to address the first two issues with a program of democratic reconstruction. This involved defining reconstruction as a service to the community, counteracting the rumors that the government had other uses for the buildings and land, and urging residents to participate in and supervise the program. Camacho Solís also created a high-level technical committee to address disagreements over the inspections, including members of the faculties of architecture and engineering at the UNAM, representatives from the construction industry, and internationally renowned leftist urbanists.71

Regarding the official investigation into responsibility for the Nuevo León building, the president and his top advisors wanted to do the minimum, as quietly as possible, to comply with their duty. In the attorney general’s investigation, they would admit to civil responsibility but not to crime. Camacho Solís and the president worried about political fallout upon the release of the attorney general’s report in May 1986, fearing that activists, especially women, would succeed in converting the issue into a referendum on the PRI’s legitimacy—a referendum they feared they would lose. They sought to prevent the Nuevo León building from becoming a symbol of official corruption and ineptitude. In their internal memos, Camacho Solís suggested to the president that they scapegoat one of the engineers who had made technical mistakes in the repairs to the building’s cement foundations. Beyond that, the official position should be that there were too many entities and people involved to assign blame, including residents who had been unwilling to pay a minimal amount to maintain the foundations.72

The PRI reached out to residents to reestablish on-the-ground legitimacy. Camacho Solís and de la Madrid considered which residents of Tlatelolco would be best suited to represent the government within the complex. Their criteria included neighbors who were generally regarded as honest, without close ties to the government, and who did not look down upon people of lower intellect.73 Their desire for such representatives suggests that they were aware that residents commonly encountered corrupt and arrogant party cronies in their day-to-day dealings with the state. In a similar fashion, PRI functionaries attempted to control the victims movement. One of the reconstruction subcommittees proposed a program called “organized civil solidarity” to give coherent form and content to all levels of social mobilization, to be run through neighborhood and building committees, the city’s boroughs (delegaciones), schools, unions, political parties, universities, businesses, and religious organizations.74 Their vision was bureaucratic, top down and antidemocratic, as illustrated by the organizational charts they conceived—a vision at odds with the grassroots victims movement, which the PRI did not succeed in co-opting.75 The desire of government functionaries to control “civil solidarity” indicates that, from their perspective, they had already lost control of it.

The PRI also used intimidation and repression with the victims movement. Leaders were kidnapped. Tlatelolco was under surveillance, with unmarked Dodge Darts driving through the complex at all hours. And the intelligence agents attempted to discredit leaders by accusing them of drinking and taking drugs in the complex’s parking lots. Leaders were also accused of dealing in arms, thereby laying the groundwork to justify a more widespread, violent repression by the PRI. Indeed, before the movement’s protest marches, government agents routinely spread rumors that the activists were armed.76

Why did Tlatelolco worry the PRI so much? For starters, the government worried about the shift in middle-class protest from writing letters to marching in the streets. In a group interview two months after the earthquake, prominent political organizers in Tlatelolco told how, for the first time since the late 1960s, wide sectors of the middle classes were suffering the government’s policy of coercion. For middle-class residents, the mobilization became, in the words of one activist, “a political school of the highest order.”77 While members of the middle classes might have been involved in urban social movements before the earthquake, it was often as organizers. After the earthquake, throngs of middle-class residents formed the rank and file of a new kind of urban protest movement. Speaking with activists, Camacho Solís admitted that Tlatelolco was the PRI’s priority because of the “escandalosa” middle classes—noisy and troublemaking.78 Residents still penned bureaucratic letters to government agencies, but now they were also marching in the streets and contemplating hunger strikes.

The PRI feared that the economic crisis had generated an explosive atmosphere in which it would be easy to spark what one anonymous government analyst described as “one of the worst social situations.”79 Less than a year after the earthquake, the PRI developed Project “Middle Classes” (Proyecto de “Clases Medias”), designed to regain their support. PRI officials believed the middle classes were demonstrating their “repudiation” of the political system. In the project’s founding document, PRI officials asked themselves: “What is their [the middle classes’] attitude toward the Mexican Revolution, the government, and the PRI?”80

The PRI fretted that the political straying of the middle classes was connected to the economic crisis. Project “Middle Classes” depicts them as particularly sensitive to any changes in their upward mobility or lifestyle. In conditions of economic uncertainty, the document argues, the middle classes are the ones who most quickly and acutely suffer insecurity and anguish, which aggravates levels of “malaise, irritation, [and] social inconformity, and leads to authoritarian attitudes.”81 These “pessimistic” attitudes produce a lack of confidence, indifference, or even frank rejection of official policies and programs. In this context, the PRI considered it of the utmost importance to acquire information on the socioeconomic changes that affect the middle classes:

To what extent has the real quality of life of the middle classes deteriorated? . . . Are they becoming proletarianized? . . . How intense is their malaise in any given moment? What do they perceive to be the causes of their discontent? What are their expectations and fears? . . . And, more than anything: WHAT WILL BE THE LONG TERM EFFECTS OF THESE PHENOMENA ON THE SOCIAL DYNAMICS OF THE MIDDLE CLASSES?82

Project “Middle Classes” would provide a profound diagnostic of the middle classes, but it may have been a case of the serpent eating its own tail: a group of (most likely middle-class) PRI functionaries developed it to identify and better understand the middle classes. The project thus reveals either deep self-understanding—or a deep lack of it. The project would serve as the basis for a series of political, economic, and social actions. As the founding document asked, “What should be their link to the Party in power? What should a government policy for them look like? How could the social communication with the middle classes be improved? What alternatives can be offered them that would change their view of the economic crisis?”83 According to the authors of this document, the rapidly changing economic structure provided the imperative for the project. The PRI foresaw that its economic readjustment program would continue at a rapid pace through the end of the de la Madrid presidency in 1988—and indeed through the end of the century—and anticipated that the accompanying changes in social and political structures would generate “dangerous tensions” among the middle classes.84

The PRI was right to worry. As the victims movement became stronger and better organized, it participated in public discussion about Mexico’s political economy. Demands moved beyond immediate concerns such as rescue work and shelter and beyond urban issues such as housing, property rights, and indemnification payments. Residents clamored for a say in the country’s political economy. As discussed in Chapter 5, residents’ demands included a moratorium on Mexico’s foreign debt payments. Reconstruction raised questions about Mexico’s economic development model, especially as the estimated cost reached $US4 billion, equivalent to 11 percent of the government’s spending budget for 1985.85 With regard to economic planning, a flyer issued by the Mexican Labor Party (Partido Laboral Mexicano, or PLM) argued that “if we do not have the capacity to change while facing a catastrophe of this magnitude, then we do not have the moral capacity to survive as a nation.”86

Competing visions for the future emerged, spawned by a natural disaster and a major economic crisis. After several months of protest, the victims movement successfully altered the established political culture in the capital city: victims won a seat at the negotiating table, where they hammered out, with city and federal politicians, the Pact of Democratic Agreement on Reconstruction (Convenio de Concertación Democrática para la Reconstrucción).

Rebuilding the Nation’s Capital

On 13 May 1986, after escalating confrontation as well as strained negotiations, the PRI and the victims organizations signed the official reconstruction plan. The minister of urban development and ecology, the city government, and the official reconstruction organization, Popular Housing Renovation (Renovación Habitacional Popular), represented the government. The Overall Coordinating Committee of Disaster Victims (CUD) and many of the major victims organizations—but not all—signed the pact. University institutes, technical groups, various business chambers, and an array of foundations and civil associations, all involved in reconstruction, also signed the accord. It was announced to great fanfare at a press conference at which representatives of these diverse organizations pledged their support. At its core, the pact gave victims organizations a say in the reconstruction process, and victims participated in the decision making. It emphasized transparency in the distribution of funds, the need for victims to have safe and affordable shelter, and the importance of maintaining urban cultures and lifestyles. One expert argued that the process of negotiation and consensus building that led to the pact had ushered in a new type of conflict resolution in Mexico, one that emanated from below as well as above.87

What was won and what was lost? In some ways, everyone won something. The pact complemented other agreements between government agencies and specific neighborhoods or groups, and there was a separate decree for reconstruction in Tlatelolco. In Tlatelolco, residents and the government agencies agreed upon which buildings would be demolished and which needed repairs. They set a schedule for reconstruction and established that the government would bear all costs. Agreeing to a new condominium ownership scheme would not be a precondition for reconstruction.88

The PRI, however, also emerged victorious. With the exception of certain buildings in Tlatelolco, most of the housing built in the reconstruction program fell under a new condominium ownership program. Residents would be responsible for all maintenance. After a six-month guarantee against structural deficiencies, tenants—and not government agencies—would be responsible for structural defects.89 The extension of these new terms of ownership to most of the new housing was a major victory for the government; only the most politically mobilized residents in Tlatelolco succeeded in resisting this change. The new terms would be implemented in all other buildings in the complex, and residents received information manuals that purported to teach them how to live under the Regime of Property in Condominium (Régimen de Propiedad en Condomino). These didactic manuals explained how to properly maintain and manage the units. One illustrated manual emphasized that Tlatelolco residents should be respectful of neighbors and not make too much noise. As depicted in Figure 16, it was perfectly clear that in these buildings, residents would be responsible for all maintenance and that everyone would have to pay a monthly fee for upkeep.

It is telling to compare the struggles over property rights in Tlatelolco with a decree in poorer neighborhoods, in which, only weeks after the earthquake, the government expropriated thousands of buildings and empty lots. Buildings would be converted into social housing—renters could purchase their apartments at affordable rates—and the empty lots would be used to construct affordable housing.90 On the surface, the decree seemed to be a major concession by President de la Madrid. De la Madrid seemed to be backsliding on the austerity measures he had committed to with the IMF: the government was getting back into the business of providing housing.

FIGURE 16. Learning how the maintenance fees work. In this cartoon, a resident of Tlatelolco speaks to the building administrator: “I did not use my apartment for four months.” He replies: “Even still, you must pay the maintenance fees.” From “Manual de organización y mantenimiento: Conjunto urbano ‘Presidente Adolfo López Mateos’ Nonoalco-Tlatelolco,” July 1987, MMH,, c. 5, exp. 10, AGN.

The decree sparked outrage among the conservative opposition and many middle-class property owners. Gerardo Garza Sada, president of the Monterrey Chamber of Commerce, roundly condemned the expropriation decree as “vulgar populism and socialism [populachera y estatizante]” and asked the IMF to investigate de la Madrid’s decision.91 middle-class property owners lined up for days to challenge the expropriation of their lots. They claimed that the government was appropriating their children’s patrimony; they also complained about inaccuracy and randomness in the list of expropriated properties. (Some of the properties on the list were single-family homes where the owners lived; others were empty lots of uncertain ownership.)92

In the weeks after the decree, government spies attempted to verify the properties on the list and found a chaos of property arrangements, and no uniform reaction to the decree. One typical building on the expropriation list consisted of twenty-two apartments that were rented by tenants who included a taco vendor, several mechanics, a lonchería (snack bar) owner, a few decorators and painters, a federal employee who worked in the penal system, a chauffeur, an optometrist’s assistant, several secretaries, a pensioner, a carpenter, a plumber, and a few white-collar employees. Although most of the women were housewives, some worked outside of the home; many of the children were university students. The tenants in this building earned various incomes and paid different rents. (In a single building, rents could range from 500 to 15,000 pesos per month, depending on whether some of the apartments were under rent control.)93

Unsurprisingly, there was no consensus on the expropriation decree. In some buildings, after the decree, landlords had moved into a unit in order to establish residence and fight the expropriation; in other buildings, powerful landlords tore down the expropriation notice and declared they would fight the government, threatening renters with eviction if they spoke with government agents. One landlord asked her tenants to sign a document stating that they were not renters but rather that she had “loaned” them use of an apartment (this landlord also moved into her building to establish residence).94 Although many tenants supported expropriation, others preferred to remain tenants in rent-controlled apartments. Likewise, while some property owners rejected the decree, others saw it as an opportunity to get out of a difficult relationship with tenants who had paid the same rent for over fifty years or who claimed ownership of the property through occupation.95

Despite the disparate interests of tenants and landlords, the expropriation decree was generally regarded as a triumph for earthquake victims, and tens of thousands of residents marched in the streets to thank the president. Former tenants became property owners. Many of their subsequent demands centered on questions raised by the decree, including its possible amplification, the bureaucratic process of this transition, and the pace of reconstruction. At the signing of the pact, one activist described how “those of us who had been condemned to real estate slavery could now own our own homes.”96

Several urban studies experts, however, point to negative long-term implications of the expropriation victory, which exposed tenants of previously rent-controlled units to the open real estate market. Sociologist Diane Davis describes how, when they acquired property titles, tenants lost the protection of rent control, which had kept the rent artificially low for several decades. In this way, the seemingly populist concession to poorer residents in the city center allowed the de la Madrid administration to break the grip of rent control and probably paved the way for other uses of downtown property, a goal previous administrations had worked toward without success.97 Real estate developers had pushed for this shift in land tenure, which they hoped would start a gradual process of boosting land values in the city center.98 Some developers also considered alternatives that might have been worse—at least for them. One developer, interviewed by Expansión shortly after the expropriation decree, argued that losing rental property in the city center was better than expanding rent control there.99 Thus, the expropriation became a medium-term victory for private real estate developers.100

At the heart of these debates over reconstruction lay competing visions for urban life and, more broadly, for the future of Mexico’s political economy. Miguel de la Madrid’s expropriation decree may have seemed like a populist, “big state” idea, but it actually expressed a neoliberal desire to reorder the urban property market. Yet tenants celebrated the decree as a shift back toward the PRI’s populism. At the same time, middle-class residents fought the privatization of their condominiums and the loss of a social safety net they had grown accustomed to during the boom decades. No doubt, they did not want the corrupt and inadequate welfare state that had failed to maintain their apartments buildings, schools, and hospitals. But they did want a democratic welfare state that would be responsible for their day-to-day shelter and safety, one that was accountable to its citizens. The everyday battle lines of broader economic change, then, were not always clear. As a moment of disaster capitalism, the earthquake catalyzed competing visions for Mexico’s future and encouraged all sides to fortify their positions.101

What was lost? Residents mobilized successfully for housing, reconstruction, and urban services, and the victims movement raised questions about urban democracy and economic planning. Nevertheless, instead of granting Mexico City’s residents the right to elect their mayor, the government established an elected Representative Assembly (Asamblea de Representantes) that had no legislative power. And on the economic front, Mexico did not lead Latin America to defy international creditors.

But just as some victories might have been illusory, it would be rash to say that the call for greater democracy and a different political economy failed. The most profound reverberation of the earthquake may be that it created opportunities. Residents used the natural disaster to debate political economic questions, and they brought a wider array of citizens into the discussion.

A Middle-class Civil Society?

Taking stock of these political successes and failures also involves reckoning with the legacy of the earthquake victims movement. One common interpretation credits the movement with the beginnings of democracy in Mexico. As discussed in the previous chapter, de la Madrid’s economic policies had alienated many populist-leaning PRI politicians, and by 1986 populist PRI politicians had been expelled from the party. The booted populists mounted an independent electoral campaign for the 1988 presidential elections, with Cuahtémoc Cárdenas as their candidate.102 Popular interpretations of the earthquake and its aftermath draw direct lines between the earthquake victims movement and this electoral challenge, by which the movement began to channel its influence into the Cárdenas campaign.

While there is no precise date on which the Overall Coordinating Committee of Disaster Victims dissolved, it had largely achieved its goal when earthquake victims began to receive their new homes and the reconstruction programs neared completion.103 However, as earthquake victims gained their housing, others in need emerged. Some were earthquake victims who had fled the city, but many were urban residents who had needed housing before the earthquake—who were, in a sense, permanent victims. They approached the committee and neighborhood organizations for help. Just when some organizers thought they had won the battle, another fight began.104 After much deliberation, in 1987 a group of organizers from the Coordinating Committee formed the Assembly of Barrios (Asamblea de Barrios) to address the concerns of the urban poor and the general problem of housing in Mexico City.

The Coordinating Committee and the Assembly of Barrios threw their support behind the Cárdenas’s presidential campaign: “The narrative that we began to invent was that 1985 was the outburst of citizen participation, the breaking of all the mechanisms of control in the city, and that 1988 was its political expression,” explained activist Marco Rascón. “You could not explain 1988 without 1985.”105 The activists in the Coordinating Committee and Assembly of Barrios embraced this interpretation (“Nos abrogamos esa representación,” in Rascón’s words) and brought it to the Cardenista movement.106 Because the Cárdenas campaign and the controversial 1988 elections are generally regarded as the beginnings of Mexico’s transition to democracy, these activists created an influential origins story for electoral democracy in Mexico.

When the PRI’s candidate, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, successfully claimed the presidency, he initiated a series of electoral reforms to gain credibility after the fraudulent 1988 elections. Perhaps most significantly, in 1990 Salinas created the Federal Electoral Institute (Instituto Federal Electoral, or IFE), a permanent body to oversee elections. The IFE was initially under the control of the Ministry of the Interior, but several political crises in 1994 sparked further reform. The outbreak of the Zapatista rebellion in the state of Chiapas in January, followed by the assassination of the PRI’s presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, in March, led to another electoral reform: the IFE was granted an important degree of autonomy, with six “citizen councilors” elected by the Chamber of Deputies (although the minister of the interior still served as president of IFE).107 Confronted with a broad threat to the PRI’s legitimacy from the Zapatistas and dealing with discord and disarray within the party following the assassination—as well as widespread speculation that high-level PRI politicians had ordered the hit—the Salinas administration likely implemented the further electoral reform to assuage detractors and ensure stable elections and peaceful transfer of power for the 1994 presidential elections.108

Electoral reform gathered momentum under Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, Salinas’s successor and the last president of the PRI dynasty (from 1994 to 2000). Zedillo passed an election law in 1996 that gave the IFE more meaningful autonomy—it was no longer under the control of the Ministry of the Interior. And the Federal District’s electoral law was reformed so that residents of Mexico City gained the right to elect their mayor.109 These reforms led to a growing confidence in the electoral system among Mexican voters, and the results were dramatic.110 In 1997 there were mayoral elections in Mexico City; residents elected Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. Also in 1997, the PRI lost its majority in the Chamber of Deputies. And, for the first time in many decades, the 2000 presidential elections were meaningfully contested: the middle classes, and many others, went to the booths to vote against the PRI.111 The candidate of the conservative National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, or PAN), Vicente Fox, won approximately 43 percent of the vote; 37 percent went to the PRI; and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, or PRD), which had emerged from the coalition group that sponsored Cárdenas’s 1988 campaign, came in third with 17 percent.112 Zedillo quickly acknowledged Fox’s victory, ending the PRI’s long rule. Although the PAN became the first opposition party to benefit from the electoral reforms at the presidential level, much of the grassroots impetus for change came from the political left, from Cárdenas’s 1988 campaign, and from the earthquake victims movement—in broad terms, from a dynamic civil society.113

The concept of civil society is crucial to the origins story of Mexican democracy. The narrative is not only about top-down electoral reform but also about political pressure emanating from diffuse sources below. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the shocks, some of Mexico’s most prominent public intellectuals described the earthquake victims movement as nothing less that the spontaneous “birth of civil society.” Carlos Monsiváis, perhaps the best-known proponent of this interpretation, articulated a few weeks after the earthquake: “What was most alive in Mexico City was the presence of a new social actor whose more appropriate name is ‘civil society.’114 In Monsiváis’s analysis, the term “civil society” signaled autonomous (from the one-party state), day-to-day participation in urban politics and political discourse.115 Individuals, groups, and communities engaged in new political practices, what Monsiváis described as a learning process for “citizens in the making.”116

Civil society became a popular concept among other scholars and activists working in Mexico and Latin America in the years after the earthquake.117 Definitions vary, and the concept has been embraced by both the political Left and Right, but some consensus exists among social scientists that “civil society” refers to a terrain and a target of politics with a degree of autonomy from the state and the market.118 Tentatively defined and not idealized, civil society became a central concept in the literature on democratization in Latin America.119

Yet, oddly, the middle classes are virtually absent from narratives about civil society, which focus almost exclusively on the poor and working classes. For example, while mobilization of Tlatelolco residents after the earthquake was center stage for the PRI, it is sidelined in analyses of the victims movement. In sociologist Susan Eckstein’s study of the earthquake in the Centro neighborhood, for example, the middle-class participants and leaders of the CUD function as a foil for the poor and working-class residents of the Centro. Poor residents, Eckstein argues, saw the committee “as primarily a middle-class organization whose concerns differed from theirs.”120 While this may well have been the case, and helps to tease out nuances in the political strategies of poorer residents, the interpretation leads to a one-dimensional vision of middle-class political culture, as Eckstein describes it: “The middle-class damnificados [victims] who dominated the CUD lived in high-rise condominium apartments. Many of them had property title problems and no strong commitment to their place of residence. By contrast, the people of El Centro were tenants in rent-controlled buildings and had strong ties to their community.”121 However, the repeated invocations of Tlatelolco as an emotional and historically charged site (“we are Tlatelolcas, we are proud to be Tlatelolcas and we want to stay in Tlatelolco”) underscore the strong sense of place that pervaded middle-class demands.

Although the middle classes are absent from narratives about civil society, Tlatelolco residents and others were very present in the social movement. This raises a deceptively simple question: Why have scholars avoided serious consideration of the role of the middle classes in the victims movement? The answer may lie in two related phenomena: the people whom scholars want to study and the stories that scholars want to tell. These phenomena are dangerously close to what one academic referred to as “the shadowy area of speculation about the psychological predispositions of scholars.”122 Some scholars, however, explicitly discuss the personal and political motivations that influence their work—and admit they sometimes study poor people’s social movements in search of an inspiring movement for social change.123 Certainly, the victims movement is inspiring, and it did mark a new form of politics and political negotiation in Mexico City. Residents altered power relations in the capital city; many previously excluded residents—poor and middle class—became important participants in the political negotiations over reconstruction. But emphasizing the political successes of the poor and marginalized can distort our understanding of recent history. It can overstate their power. And it flattens the historical experiences of the nurses, dentists, university professors, shopkeepers, and office workers who lived in Tlatelolco.

This contradictory presence and absence of the middle classes has shaped the history of the earthquake. In fact, this contradiction is at the center of postrevolutionary Mexican history and historiography. The middle classes are not only present but they constitute the premier vantage point from which to examine the economic and political turmoil of the late twentieth century. Although they are conspicuously absent from the scholarly and popular writing about this history, their experiences are key to understanding the transition from state-led development and one-party rule to neoliberalism and electoral democracy. Tlatelolco residents, small business owners, stock market investors, real estate developers, indebted consumers, unemployed airline pilots, conservative parents, and radical students were all protagonists in Mexico’s recent history of economic and political change.

Blasting Open the Continuum of History

Natural disasters are much more than physical events that suddenly erupt, wreak havoc, and recede. They are historical events in which scientific, religious, and political forces etch meaning into society’s imaginary. Earthquakes happen, and they have real consequences for real people. Then they are studied by seismologists, managed by governments, defined by intellectuals, remarked upon by religious leaders, narrated by writers, and invoked by different social groups to advance an agenda.124

The Mexico City earthquake offers a glimpse into historical processes.125 When it sheared open the fault lines of the city, it threw a system into shock and exposed intricate power relations; it was, to borrow Walter Benjamin’s words, “enough to blast open the continuum of history.”126 From the debris, the history of the disaster—the discursive event, the story we remember—emerged. Members of poor and working-class neighborhood organizations, together with scholars interested in the history of these movements, cast the earthquake as catalyst in poor and working-class political mobilization. For others, it signified the birth of a Mexican civil society or became the start of an origins story about democracy. As the earthquake has been invoked to tell particular stories—to transform the natural disaster into a discursive event—one story, about the rising fury and newfound force of the middle classes, has been largely overlooked.

This middle-class story, though, is lodged in both the Ministry of the Interior intelligence reports and the presidential archives. In these documents another story of the earthquake, another discursive event emerges. Residents of Tlatelolco experienced the incapacity, and even unwillingness, of the PRI to resolve their problems. The PRI perceived the antipathy of the middle classes with anxiety and dread. In fact, the party saw the unraveling of its official Institutional Revolutionary project within its archetypal social group, the middle classes.

The earthquake proved a formidable test for the one-party state and its institutions. The PRI had failed specific groups many times before, but on 19 September 1985, its failure lay exposed on the streets of the nation’s capital, undeniable to even the most casual observer. What might have remained, on the eve of the earthquake, of the midcentury alliance between the PRI and the middle classes had vanished. In June 1986, at the opening ceremonies of the World Cup in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium, as President Miguel de la Madrid stepped out to greet the crowd, the entire stadium—over 110,000 middle- and upper-class fans—lustily booed their president in front of the whole world.127


1. Serna and Coordinadora Única de Damnificados (henceforth CUD), ¡Aquí nos quedaremos!, 33.

2. This description of the sounds draws from the testimonial literature and firsthand accounts of the event. See, for example, Aguilar Zinser, Morales, and Peña, Aún tiembla; Núñez de la Peña and Orozco, El terremoto; Poniatowska, Nothing, Nobody; Serna and CUD, ¡Aquí nos quedaremos!

3. “Información del DDF [Departamento del Distrito Federal],” 19 September 1985, MMH,, c. 1, AGN.

4. Raúl Macín A., “Una lectura del apocalipsis,” Los Universitarios, December 1985, MMH,, c. 7, exp. 11, AGN.

5. “Ciudadano,” 22 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 6, AGN.

6. Poniatowska, Nothing, Nobody, 11.

7. “Situación que prevalece en la Col. Morelos y zonas aledañas, respecto al movimiento telúrico ocurrido hoy,” 19 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 5, AGN; and “Situación que prevalece con motivo de los movimientos telúricos,” 23 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 6, AGN.

8. “Victim” is a translation of the Spanish word damnificado, which is used to refer to the earthquake victims. But it is an imperfect translation, because the Spanish word does not imply victimization as its English equivalent does. Residents who joined the protest movement were not victimized but empowered.

9. Cantú Chapa, Tlatelolco.

10. “Por medio de la presente,” 24 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 7, AGN.

11. “Entrevista realizada por el corresponsal en México,” 25 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 7, AGN.

12. Quoted in Poniatowska, Nothing, Nobody, 73–77.

13. “Tras el porqué del por qué,” Obras, November 1985, MMH,, c. 1, exp. 3, AGN.

14. “Ciudad de México: Vulnerabilidad y alto riesgo,” Punto Crítico, December 1985, MMH,, c. 2, exp. 6, AGN.

15. “Información del frente nacional contra la represión,” 25 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 7, AGN.

16. Gustavo Suárez, “Movimiento del sistema,” Insurgencia Popular, October 1985, MMH,, c. 2, exp. 17, AGN.

17. “Información del Frente Nacional contra la Represión,” 25 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 7, AGN.

18. “Actividades de militantes del PMT,” 26 September 1985, DFS, 009-031- 003, legajo 8, AGN.

19. “Arbitrario desalojo en el Churubusco,” El Tlatelolco, 18 September 1986, MMH,, c. 4, exp. 11, AGN.

20. “Al pueblo de México,” 1 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 10, AGN.

21. Davis, “Reverberations,” 269.

22. “Situación que prevalece con motivo de los movimientos telúricos,” 15 December 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 32, AGN.

23. Aguilar Zinser, Morales, and Peña, Aún tiembla, 33.

24. “Los manifestantes que se dirigen a la residencia oficial de los Pinos,” 27 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 8, AGN.

25. In Tlatelolco alone, 43 of the 102 buildings were completely destroyed. Davis, “Reverberations,” 268.

26. “Situación que prevalece con motivo de los movimientos telúricos,” 23 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 6, AGN.

27. “¡De nuevo quieren manchar Tlatelolco!,” 22 September 1985, DFS, 009- 031-003, legajo 6, AGN.

28. “Al dirigirnos a usted,” 23 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 8, AGN.

29. “Situación que prevalece con motivo de los movimientos telúricos,” 23 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 6, AGN; “Al dirigirnos a usted,” 23 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 8, AGN; Frente de Residentes de Tlatelolco, “Como es de su conocimiento,” 7 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 11, AGN.

30. “Al dirigirnos a usted,” 23 September 1985, DFS 009-031-003, legajo 8, AGN.

31. “Tlatelolco: A la hora de los sismos,” Punto Crítico, December 1985, MMH,, c. 2, exp. 6, AGN.

32. Poniatowska, Nothing, Nobody, 255.

33. Coo, “Después de la caída,” 43. Note that in 1983 the SAHOP was renamed SEDUE; these were the federal entities in charge of urban planning. On the politics of urban planning, see Garza, Una década de planeación; and Ward, Mexico City, esp. 159–186.

34. “Extracto de información,” 22 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 6, AGN.

35. Davis, “Reverberations”; CEPAL, “Daños causados.”

36. “El terremoto: Heroísmo y corrupción,” Contenido, December 1985, MMH,, c. 1, exp. 7, AGN.

37. And this system persisted after the earthquake. For example, a journalist living in the disaster zone called authorities to schedule a structural inspection of his home to ascertain whether it needed repairs. When the inspector arrived, the journalist recognized him as one of the city’s press liaison officials; the journalist had attended many press briefings delivered by this supposed technician. The technician / press liaison officer explained that there were not enough trained personnel to conduct the inspections. Countless such examples intensified the conflict between residents and the government, as residents realized that the government had not altered its ways even after the effects of corruption had made themselves so devastatingly manifest. “Se han detectado anomalías en las supervisiones de las construcciones afectadas por los sismos,” 7 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 11, AGN.

38. On Mexico City’s political structure, see Davis, Urban Leviathan; and Ward, Mexico City.

39. Gustavo Suárez, “Movimiento del sistema,” Insurgencia Popular, October 1985, MMH,, c. 2, exp. 17, AGN.

40. “El terremoto: Heroísmo y corrupción,” Contenido, December 1985, MMH,, c. 1, exp. 7, AGN.

41. Núñez de la Peña and Orozco, El terremoto, 124.

42. “Mitin-plantón silencioso de la unión de vecinos y damnificados ‘19 de septiembre,’” 8 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 12, AGN.

43. “Asamblea plenaria del PRS en el DF,” 28 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 9, AGN.

44. Frente de Residentes de Tlatelolco, “Como es de su conocimiento,” 7 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 11, AGN.

45. “Asamblea informativa en la Plaza de las Tres Culturas,” 3 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 10, AGN.

46. “Textos de telegramas que se enviarán mañana,” 23 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 19, AGN.

47. “Tlatelolco: A la hora de los sismos,” Punto Crítico, December 1985, MMH,, c. 2, exp. 6.

48. For more on this, see Coo, “Después de la caída,” 44–54.

49. El Tlatelolco, 6 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 11, AGN.

50. “Al dirigirnos a usted,” 23 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 8, AGN.

51. Coo, “Después de la caída,” 50 (italics added).

52. “Al dirigirnos a usted,” 23 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 8, AGN.

53. See, for example, Eckstein, “Poor People versus the State and Capital,” 345.

54. “Situación que prevalece en ayuda a los damnificados en Tlatelolco por parte del PSUM y el PRT,” 26 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 8, AGN.

55. Frente de Residentes de Tlatelolco, “Como es de su conocimiento,” 7 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-03, legajo 11, AGN; “Situación que prevalece con motivo de los movimientos telúricos,” 23 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 6, AGN. Barry Carr describes the PPS as the “loyal left.” For more on the history of leftist political parties in Mexico, see, for example, Carr, Marxism and Communism.

56. “Alas 12:45 hs. del día de hoy,” 24 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 7, AGN.

57. “Antecedentes de los principales líderes y militantes en las colonias populares,” October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 22, AGN.

58. “Frente de residentes de Tlatelolco,” 18 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 17, AGN.

59. Serna and CUD, ¡Aquí nos quedaremos!, 45.

60. “Frente de residentes de Tlatelolco,” 18 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 17, AGN.

61. “Un año después, hay que reforzar el trabajo organizativo,” El Tlatelolco, 18 September 1986, MMH,, c. 4, exp. 11, AGN.

62. “Situación que prevalece en la unidad Nonoalco-Tlatelolco,” 18 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 17, AGN. This had also been a problem before the earthquake. An article in the July–August issue of a Tlatelolco newsletter, Unidad Urbana, reveals that many residents challenged the legality of the contracts switching the building to condominium status that the building leaders had signed with government agencies. Unidad Urbana, July–August 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 31, AGN.

63. Of the many instances of corruption exposed by the earthquake, the discovery of sweatshops of garment workers in the city center was among the most notorious. In the immediate aftermath, the police and military helped factory owners rescue the sewing machines, while seamstresses lay buried alive underneath the rubble. Davis, “Reverberations,” 267–269.

64. The victims movement worked with other social organizations. While student groups from the city’s universities and preparatorias participated in the rescue work and political mobilization, they were not a dominant force in the victims movement. One activist complained about how some student organizations had declared themselves leaders of the movement. See Serna and CUD, ¡Aquí nos quedaremos!, 73. More commonly, the victims movement worked with religious organizations, which because of their international reach were well equipped to collect and distribute aid. In pamphlets distributed throughout the city, the archdiocese urged everyone to help in the rescue efforts. It supported the victims and their organizations and urged the authorities to respond quickly and competently to their demands. In Tlatelolco, many of the activists were atheists who had a casual, respectful relationship with the archdiocese, the Jesuits, and other prominent religious organizations. Priests inspired by liberation theology contributed to the grassroots movement, and religious organizations often provided meeting places. However, just as some activists expressed concern at working closely with the Catholic Church, it, too, was reticent to work with prominent members of the Communist Party. Further, the Church hesitated to enter into formal relations with the victims organizations because of a constitutional ban on its political activity. See Serna and CUD, ¡Aquí nos quedaremos!, 48–50, 77–80; Mensaje guadalupano a los damnificados del Valle de México, December 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 32, AGN; and “Coordinadora única de damnificados,” 23 December 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 33, AGN.

65. Serna and CUD, ¡Aquí nos quedaremos!, 72–75. It also did not hurt that the world-renowned opera singer Plácido Domingo had family who lived in the Nuevo León building and was on the ground in Tlatelolco in the aftermath.

66. “Situación que prevalece con motivo de los movimientos telúricos,” 23 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 6, AGN; “Asamblea informativa del STUNAM,” 24 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 7, AGN.

67. Serna and CUD, ¡Aquí nos quedaremos!, 49, 72–75.

68. Poniatowska, Nothing, Nobody, 11.

69. “Extracto de información,” 22 September 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 6, AGN.

70. “Estrategia política en Tlatelolco,” 5 March 1986, MMH, c. 161, exp. 5, AGN.

71. Ibid.

72. “Edificio Nuevo León,” May 1986, MMH, c. 162, exp. 2, AGN; “Edificio Nuevo León,” 9 September 1986, MMH, c. 162, exp. 4, AGN.

73. “Movimientos internos,” 5 March 1986, MMH, c. 161, exp. 5, AGN.

74. Subcomité de movilización social para la defensa civil Comité de Reconstrucción del Área Metropolitana, “Conclusiones,” 1986, MMH,, c. 4, exp. 5, AGN.

75. “¿Qué pueden hacer Las Brigadas Juveniles de Solidaridad Social?,” October 1985, MMH,, c. 4, exp. 5, AGN.

76. “Coordinadora de Tlatelolco,” 20 November 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 28, AGN; DFS, “Datos de los principales dirigentes,” 25 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 20, AGN; “Conferencia de prensa del Dr. Cuauhtémoc Abarca Chávez,” 16 November 1985, DFS, 009-0310-003, legajo 26, AGN.

77. “Entrevista con cinco dirigentes de Tlatelolco,” El Tlatelolco Semanal, 18 December 1985, MMH,, c. 6, exp. 4, AGN.

78. Serna and CUD, ¡Aquí nos quedaremos!, 95.

79. “Informe de la dinámica post-sísmica macrosismos del 19 y 20 septiembre 1985,” MMH,, c. 5, exp. 4, DDF, AGN.

80. “Proyecto de ‘Clases Medias,’” August 1986, MMH, c. 215, exp. 5, AGN.

81. Ibid.

82. Ibid. (capitalization in original).

83. Ibid.

84. Ibid.

85. CEPAL, “Daños causados.”

86. Partido Laboral Mexicano, Reconstruir y salvar vidas es la prioridad, 1 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 11, AGN.

87. Eckstein, “Poor People versus the State,” 343.

88. “¡Por fin!,” El Tlatelolco, 13 March 1986, MMH,, c. 6, exp. 3, AGN.

89. “Hoy te cumple,” [ca. 1986], MMH,, c. 9, exp. 3, DDF, AGN.

90. Although the cost of purchasing the new housing was pegged to the minimum wage, it did constitute a significant increase in monthly housing expenses for many families in the poorer neighborhoods. Eckstein, “Poor People versus the State,” 339.

91. Quoted in Monsiváis, Entrada libre, 109 (no citation given).

92. “Expropiaciones,” 17 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 16, AGN.

93. Ibid.; “Expropiaciones,” 17 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 21, AGN.

94. These examples and many others can be found in the files “Expropiaciones,” “Expropiación de predios,” and “Predios que aparecen . . . ,” all collected in 17 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 16, AGN.

95. “Expropiaciones,” 17 October 1985, DFS, 009-031-003, legajo 16, AGN.

96. “Convenio de concertación democrática para la reconstrucción,” 13 May 1986, MMH,, c. 5, exp. 11, AGN.

97. Davis, “Reverberations,” 272.

98. Ibid.

99. “Ante la expropiación, ¿quién quiere construir?,” Expansión, 11 December 1985.

100. Davis describes how the effects of this began to be seen twenty years after the earthquake. Davis, “Reverberations,” 272.

101. For an analysis of how natural (and other) disasters have been manipulated to advance the interests of big capital, see Klein, Shock Doctrine.

102. Carr, Marxism and Communism, 302; Bruhn, Taking on Goliath.

103. Serna and CUD, ¡Aquí nos quedaremos!, 150–153.

104. Ibid., 139.

105. Ibid., 147 (italics added).

106. Ibid.

107. Gómez Tagle, “Public Institutions and Electoral Transparency,” 89–91. In-depth analysis of the electoral reforms is beyond scope of this book. See, for example, the essays in Middlebrook, Dilemmas of Political Change in Mexico.

108. Middlebrook, “Mexico’s Democratic Transitions,” 15–17. Julia Preston and Sam Dillon describe how speculation about Colosio’s assassination harmed the PRI’s public image: “To the public the assassination was a sign that the ruling party, consumed with ambitions and jealousies that Salinas had stirred, was destroying itself.” Despite rumors about a plot, after a six-year investigation the special prosecutor concluded that the gunman had acted alone. Preston and Dillon, Opening Mexico, 231–232.

109. Gómez Tagle, “Public Institutions and Electoral Transparency,” 91–95.

110. Buendía, “Changing Mexican Voter,” 118–119, table 4.3.

111. Gilbert, Mexico’s Middle Class, 84–92.

112. Crespo, “Party Competition in Mexico.”

113. Middlebrook, “Mexico’s Democratic Transistions,” 11–13; Olvera, “Civil Society in Mexico,” 412–19.

114. Carlos Monsiváis, “Organizaciones populares y resistencia a su acción,” Proceso, 9 November 1985.

115. Monsiváis, Entrada libre, 11.

116. Ibid., 13. Monsiváis’s interpretation was widely accepted; for example, Elena Poniatowska also referred to the birth of a civil society. However, many contested the supposed “newness” of civil society. After all, if civil society was “born” after the 1985 earthquake, the implication is that the PRI was an all-encompassing Leviathan before then; such a characterization would not only be ahistorical, as demonstrated by the political struggles analyzed in this book, but also politically troubling insofar as it erases the history of political struggle. Many scholars have traced links between the earthquake protests and previous forms of urban protest, demonstrating that the so-called civil society did not emerge phoenixlike from the rubble but instead drew upon a long history of urban protest. For example, Ligia Tavera-Fenollosa, among others, argues that civil society existed before the earthquake and that it was by drawing upon an established ideology of protest that the victims movement acquired its strength. While helpful in illuminating the history of urban protest in poor and working-class areas, these studies do not explain middle-class protest. Poniatowska, Nothing, Nobody, 310; Tavera Fenollosa, “Social Movements and Civil Society.”

117. Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, writing in the early 1990s, describe how “phrases involving the resurrection, reemergence, rebirth, reconstruction, or renaissance of civil society are heard repeatedly today.” Cohen and Arato connect the popularity of the concept to, among other things, an antistatism that emerged at the beginning of the 1980s. Cohen and Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory, 29. Most scholarship on the Mexico City earthquake belongs to an abundant literature on civil society and social movements in Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s. Because there is little historical scholarship on the 1970s and 1980s, most of the scholarly analysis of the earthquake, and social movements more broadly, has been undertaken by sociologists, political scientists, and anthropologists. The body of literature that I refer to includes: Alvarez, Dagnino, and Escobar, Cultures of Politics / Politics of Cultures; Alvarez and Escobar, The Making of Social Movements in Latin America; Cohen and Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory; Eckstein, Power and Popular Protest; Foweraker and Craig, Popular Movements and Political Change in Mexico; Haber, Power from Experience; Tavera-Fenollosa, “Social Movements and Civil Society”; and several contemporaneous publications by public intellectuals and activists in Mexico about the earthquake.

118. Cohen and Arato offer a working definition of the concept: “We understand ‘civil society’ as a sphere of social interaction between economy and state, composed above all of the intimate sphere (especially the family), the sphere of associations (especially voluntary associations), social movements, and forms of public communication. Modern civil society is created through forms of self-constitution and self-mobilization. It is institutionalized and generalized through laws, and especially subjective rights, that stabilize social differentiation. While the self-creative and institutionalized dimensions can exist separately, in the long term both independent action and institutionalization are necessary for the reproduction of civil society.” Cohen and Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory, ix.

119. Alvarez, Dagnino, and Escobar, Cultures of Politics / Politics of Cultures, 17. Most scholars resist idealizing the term, emphasizing that civil society can be undemocratic, racist, sexist, and exclusionary, and that while autonomy is a central element, there are often important links between civil society, the state, and the market.

120. Eckstein, “Poor People versus the State and Capital,” 338.

121. Ibid., 338 n.8.

122. Hellman, “The Study of New Social Movements,” 56.

123. For example, Paul Haber describes his decision to study the urban poor and social movements in Mexico: “We want to live differently. For many of us, this has meant pursuing a socialist ideal, a democratic socialism. . . . Social movements are attractive in part because they very clearly proclaim that there is something terribly wrong about how we are living and that something can and should be done about it.” Haber, Power from Experience, vii.

124. Another reason for the lack of scholarly interest in the middle classes could be connected to the wariness which scholars, and in particular political philosophers, have expressed concerning the classical conflation of bourgeois political subjectivity and civil society. For instance, Cohen and Arato carefully disaggregate the bourgeois subject from philosophical definitions of both the public sphere and civil society. It seems that this disaggregation is necessary before any articulation of a contemporary theory of civil society can be outlined. The absence of the middle classes in analyses of recent Latin American political movements could be an unintended consequence of this discomfort with the bourgeois subject of classical political philosophy. Cohen and Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory, esp. chaps. 2 and 3. In contrast to more positive accounts, Sergio Zermeño argues that the economic displacements of the 1970s and 1980s generated a proliferation of the excluded, without necessarily sparking the emergence of a popular subject. Instead, he suggests that the political mobilizations of these decades empowered—if they empowered any group—the middle classes, not the popular classes. Zermeño, “Crisis, Neoliberalism, and Disorder,” 168–169. Notably, Zermeño, one of Mexico’s leading sociologists, is one of very few skeptical voices. Indeed, in 2008 I attended a series of events at the UNAM commemorating the 1968 student movement; here, too, Zermeño stood almost alone in his skepticism about the legacy of 1968.

125. Here I am drawing on Grégory Quenet’s history of earthquakes as historical events in ancien régime France. Discussing the 1 November 1755 earthquake in Lisbon, Quenet points out that while this was the first earthquake to have a Europe-wide effect, it was not the biggest or most damaging natural disaster in modern history. He suggests that it was Voltaire’s subsequent writings that transformed the Lisbon earthquake into a European event. Quenet, Tremblements de terre, 9.

126. Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 262.

127. I did not set out to begin and end this book with sporting events. But the 1968 Olympic games and the 1986 World Cup serve as appropriate bookends, and the two events encapsulate some of the themes of this study. The PRI managed to pull off the Olympic spectacle without much controversy only weeks after massacring hundreds of students in the streets of the capital city. By contrast, in 1986 Miguel de la Madrid was rejected—condemned, even—by middle-class Mexicans at the opening ceremony of the World Cup. A lot had changed in the intervening eighteen years. Nearly two decades of widespread discontent, malaise, and mobilization had reconfigured the political culture of the middle classes and the PRI. Another contrast: at the opening ceremonies of the 1970 World Cup, also in Azteca Stadium, President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz was booed. The 1970 chiflado (booing) expressed the trauma of state-sponsored terror; the 1986 chiflado expressed the trauma of economic terror.