At the center of rock alternativo and the many intersecting indie rock scenes in Mexico City is a type of DIY, punk rock solidarity: if you fall, I will pick you up. Musicians, artists and creators have always lived on the margins, taken a broken reality and transformed it into song.
As a chicana punk, I hear the language of Mexico City in the music of rock alternativo. It is a scene containing multitudes, where you step into a different club and you encounter a different world. Step into Multiforo Alicia, and you are entombed in graffiti murals, heads thrashing, as hundreds of bodies lash out to the screams of skater punk and hardcore. Sit in a backstage booth at La Pata Negra, sipping on absinthe and listening to a long haired, shoe gaze performer sing with the earnestness of Devendra Banhart, but in his own padre way.
On a Monday, you’ll see a guitarist play at La Capilla de los Muertos, then on Wednesday see that musician transform into a keyboardist at the MOOI Collective, alongside thousands of familiar faces. You’ll feel no separation between artist and audience. Instead, you’ll geek out together about all the things that make you weird at home, and seen by everyone else here in this city of millions.
On exceptional occasions this DIY ethic breaks out beyond the music scene and into other aspects of life. This happened in Mexico City on September 19 2017, when a 7.1 magnitude quake struck central Mexico. That day, I watched footage of buildings collapse in Mexico City, and saw that Roma, the epicenter of the rock alternativo scene, was one of the neighborhoods hit the hardest.
Were my friends still alive? For 24 hours, I tried to get through busy phone lines. It was as if the internet did not exist, and Facebook messages and emails remained unanswered.
Almost a year later, those first 24 hours are still etched in the minds of those who survived.
“I was four when the earthquake happened in ’85,” says Arturo Tranquilino, my friend and the lead singer of the grunge band Yokozuna. “I saw buildings crumble on top of people, and one of the things that still haunts me to this day is the sound of the earth breaking apart. It’s a kind of vibration I’ve never heard in any other sound.”
“During the more recent earthquake, I was in a part of southern Mexico City, and when I started to feel the earth moving—that vibration returned—it brought me back to being a kid and feeling that shaking. I ran out of my home screaming and my neighbors were afraid for me. They kept asking me, are you okay, are you okay?” he says.
“I was recording an album at my producer’s house, and all of a sudden we felt this super strong shaking, and we were really scared and we were trapped on the second floor. We couldn’t go down. When we finally got down, the office building right next to us collapsed,” says Alejandra Moreno, the lead singer of the indie rock band Ruido Rosa. “We ran to the building and we weren’t sure if there were people inside. There was construction nearby so they gave us gloves, but we weren’t waiting for gloves because we needed to help—there were people inside.”
For Jorge Gonzalez, one of the co-owners of the club El Imperial, the earthquake brought tragedy to his door. The apartment building directly in front of his club completely collapsed, killing many of his neighbors. “The first 24 hours were chaos. A lot of fear and adrenaline, and we wanted to see how to help.”
Over the next 15 days, Gonzalez converted his club into a relief center. El Imperial became a quiet space where his neighbors, civilians, members of the Red Cross, and government relief workers could grab water, food and rest.
After the earthquake, the Roma neighborhood was shut down for safety reasons. Forty-four buildings were destroyed, with 3,000 residents evacuated from unsafe structural conditions. The neighborhood where artists lived, played and earned their living had indefinitely hit pause.
Against this grim backdrop, the rock alternativo bands of Mexico City began to organize and play underground shows at art collectives to fundraise for the victims of the earthquake. It was a grassroots movement organized in person and across social media. A concert series called Vecinos was started, and the fundraising became a global effort, with Los Angeles, San Francisco and multiple countries in South America getting involved.
When describing the shows he and his friends played in the wake of the earthquake, Arturo said, “We demonstrated we could live in harmony and be organized without the necessity of government. People knew how to help in a way that the police didn’t, and I’ll never forget that. None of us should forget that. If there is something we need to understand as a society, it’s that we don’t need the government, politicians, or laws in order to know how to govern ourselves.”
The Mexico City earthquake proved you don’t need a leader to do the right thing. You will ask: how can I help? And the answer will find you.
Michelle Threadgould is a journalist who lives in Oakland, California, and covers the intersection between arts and culture and social justice. She has written for CNN, Pacific Standard, New York Observer, Remezcla, KQED, Racked, Latino USA and others.