Oral History — September 27, 2017, 4:43 pm

After Shock

“The night of the earthquake I was by myself; I lived alone. I thought, like so many Chileans, that it was the end of the world. I thought, above all, about how I had no one to protect.”

On September 7, an 8.1-magnitude earthquake occurred off the southern coast of Mexico. It was followed, less than two weeks later, by a 7.1-magnitude quake that struck Mexico City. The two earthquakes and their aftershocks have killed more than 400 people. Alejandro Zambra is a Chilean writer living in Mexico City. A version of this column originally ran in Qué Pasa, a Chilean newsmagazine, on September 22, 2017. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell and James Yeh.

My grandmother lost nearly her entire family in the 1939 Chillán earthquake. We grew up hearing the story of her mother’s death: they were in the same room but at opposite corners, and there was no chance for an embrace. My grandmother, who was twenty-one at the time, spent hours choking on dirt before her brother managed to rescue her. She survived by a miracle and went on to become the most delightful person in the world, but whenever she told us this story, it ended in a generous bout of weeping.

My grandmother was with us in Santiago when the March 1985 earthquake hit. I was playing foosball with my cousin Rodrigo—I remember I was winning: my white team was beating his blue team. My grandmother swooped us out of the house and into the yard, where she hugged us fiercely. My mother and my sister came out next, and five or ten anxious seconds later, my father emerged. That night I thought: So this is an earthquake.

Later that year, on September 19, came the big earthquake in Mexico. Glued to the TV, we watched the horrible images of Mexico City’s destruction over and over. I asked my father if we could go and help the victims. He laughed and explained to me that Mexico was far away, many hours by plane. I was embarrassed. I was nine years old and apparently had never seen a map. Maybe it was TV or music that had made me assume Mexico was as close to Chile as Peru or Argentina.

Fast-forward to February 2010. The night of the earthquake I was by myself; I lived alone. I thought, like so many Chileans, that it was the end of the world. I thought, above all, about how I had no one to protect. The next day, I searched through the wreckage of my books to find Jorge Teillie’s poem “A Lone Man in a Lonely House,” and I memorized it. I wanted to laugh at myself—at my self-pity, at my sadness—but I couldn’t summon a smile: “A lone man in a lonely house / Has no wish to light a fire / No wish to sleep or stay awake / A lone man in a sick house.”

Now my house is in Mexico City, and I’m less alone than I’ve ever been. I suppose that these two earthquakes in a row have made me less of a foreigner. On September 7, I had my left ear and right hand on my wife Jazmina’s belly; she was nearly seven months pregnant. And on September 19, I had just written the first paragraph of this column. It was going to be a different column, of course: I can’t even remember what it was about.

Yesterday we went out for a while, sometimes helping, other times hindering. We sent text messages, answered emails, made phone calls; that is, as always, we did what we could and felt that it wasn’t much, that it wasn’t enough. But at least at the end of the day we did manage to find two of our best friends, Frank and Jovi, in a square in Colonia Roma. “My knee is doing much better,” said Frank with steadfast optimism, right after he stashed his crutches in the back seat of the car.

When the first earthquake struck, Frank had just had an operation and couldn’t put weight on his left foot. He went down six flights of stairs with Jovi’s help, in underpants and on crutches, and they spent hours in the courtyard in front of the building before deciding to return to their apartment. The building was full of cracks, though according to the engineers still structurally sound. In the second earthquake the whole building nearly collapsed, and getting down from the sixth floor was almost impossible.

“You’re an expert in earthquakes, all Chileans are,” Frank says to me now. I tell him my specialty is Chilean earthquakes; when it comes to Mexican ones, I’m just a beginner. And we smile, as if it weren’t true.

A few years ago, on the main wall of that apartment they won’t return to now, Frank and Jovi hung a gigantic map, six feet by six feet, of Mexico City. But a gigantic map of Mexico City is nearly indecipherable without a magnifying glass and a whole lot of patience. It’s just started to rain; we’re still waiting for aftershocks and we’re all very sad, but I think I want to live here for a long time, until I memorize that map, until I learn it by heart.

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America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

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In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-­year-­old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—­the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-­degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-­one-year-­old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”

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I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

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