When a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck central Mexico, toppling buildings and leaving hundreds of people trapped, Mexicans quickly mobilized a mammoth rescue operation involving police, firefighters, soldiers and other professionals bolstered by an army of everyday civilians.
The volunteer workers have come from all walks of life, and they include large numbers of women, underlining social changes in recent years that have seen Mexican women move into roles traditionally restricted to men.
Women did participate in rescue work after the devastating 1985 quake that killed thousands in Mexico City, but only in relatively small numbers. Juana Huitron, the most famous of the female “topos,” as Mexican volunteer searchers were known, has said she faced machismo back then.
Since then, even though women still make up a smaller percentage of the workforce than their male counterparts, they have become leaders in education, business and the arts.
And since the deadly Sept. 19 quake, women are working alongside men digging into rubble to search for possible survivors, leading campaigns to collect food and medicine for those left homeless and comforting relatives of the deceased.
Here are some of their stories:
KAREN PINA: doctor with the Red Cross
From the base of a crushed apartment building, Pina coordinated between searchers, doctors and ambulance teams to arrange medical care for those rescued from the debris pile.
“Not having anything to tell the families of those trapped made me feel helpless,” she said. “I pulled out three people alive, which was worth every ounce of effort spent these days. I cried every time we found someone.”
LIZABETH JAZMÍN LÓPEZ: volunteer
Wearing a hard hat and reflective vest, López joined in the arduous hunt for survivors, shoveling through mounds of rubble the first day after the quake.
“I was 14 years old during the ’85 earthquake. I was a Girl Scout. I volunteered at a donation center, but with fear. In 2017, I have a lot of strength and hope,” López said. “Tragedy makes you value life and as a society. Together we can lift up a country with love and hope.”
FRIDA ISLAS: student
A 22-year-old, Islas was studying when the quake struck, knocking out power in her school’s building. She walked six hours to get home and started aiding the rescue immediately after.
“I help because people need support. I don’t know them,” she said. “I remove debris, bring supplies and give food to scared animals. It saddens me to see the city like this, but the union between Mexicans comforts me. I couldn’t stay at home knowing how the city is right now.”
VERÓNICA AGUILAR: computer sales
Aguilar was in a supermarket when the quake struck and rushed home to her 11-year-old daughter. At first, she stayed home, but then concluded she had to do something. She took her daughter to a collapsed office building to help, and show the girl the importance of helping however possible in the face of tragedy.
“The first days [after the quake] I didn’t leave my house because of fear. But I decided to leave so that my daughter could see what is happening, to make her aware. So that she sees when you can help, you should,” Aguilar said. “Among Mexicans, there is a lot of love. When something bad happens, we know that everyone chips in. ”
MYRNA MOGUL: actress
After the quake, she went to work on a different stage: a collapsed apartment building. She put on a construction hat and began digging through debris helping look for anyone still trapped inside.
“Whether you are a man or woman, you must help as a human being,” she said. “Find people alive or dead but find them so that people can continue with their lives. It doesn’t have to do with gender, age, class or profession. It has to do with your ability as a human to help others.”