—One morning last week we were awoken by a disturbing series of explosions. As we shook off our slumber, we saw a column of flame in the pre-dawn darkness. We are not far from the autopista (highway) and I guessed that there was an accident involving some sort of gas or chemical truck. Lots of trucks climb and descend the steep tollroad here, which connects Mexico City with Puebla. We often hear them during the night.
What happened was a little different than I imagined…. A double trailer gas tanker truck descending the mountain lost its brakes. The driver tried to exit the highway and reach safety. Unfortunately he couldn’t slow down enough and the front tanker went off the edge of the road and started on fire. Meanwhile, several electrical poles also came down in the truck’s wake. The driver was unable to escape as the cab and front tanker burst into a charring fireball.
Fortunately, it was early enough that there were no customers at the roadside food stand, nor were there passengers waiting to board the Mexico City bus at the adjacent bus stop. And also fortunately, the driver was able to stop the truck before it rolled into the town’s gas station, which, if it had caught fire, would have caused a huge amount of damage and probably many deaths and injuries in the neighborhood adjacent to the station. Sadly, the driver was killed in the explosion and fire.
As we learned more about the extent of the tragedy, the village breathed a collective sigh of relief, thanked our lucky stars, and took a moment to acknowledge the fragility of life.
Sadly, that was only the first of a series of fire-related incidents, as forest fires (some accidental and some apparently intentional) sprouted around the village. For days we were in a smoky haze, as we watched helplessly while fires burned the gorgeous mountains surrounding the town.
Something I have learned about the culture here is that the people don’t put much trust in the government—or other public institutions. They have learned that they cannot count on the authorities to step-in promptly and effectively in cases like this. But a positive result is that folks are accustomed—and quite able—to take things into their own hands.
A group by the name “Frente Juvenil En Defensa De Tepoztlán” (or Youth Front in Defense of Tepoztlán) put up signs and set up a loudspeaker in the town square and sent out a Facebook call for volunteers and supplies. (I have the honor and pleasure of knowing a few of these committed young adults through the co-counseling class I am currently teaching.)
Soon an area of the square was filed with donated supplies. I stopped down myself and asked what they needed. I learned how to say “spider rake” (rastrillo de aranza) in Spanish and managed to find a hardware store (tlapelería) that still had rakes in stock, bought two, and brought them over to the young adults gathered in the square.
It wasn’t long before the volunteers—both adults and younger folk—headed out to bring supplies to the volunteer firefighters and join them in building firebreaks and putting out stray flames.
I admit, I was quick to belly-ache about the lack of a government response. (When they finally did send help, it was one helicopter that came to drop water on the worst of the quickly-spreading wall of fire.) But then I came to see that maybe it’s a good thing to not depend so much on the government to “take care of things,” and to be forced to step up as a community. It may not look or be as “professional,” but guess what: they got the fires out.
It turns out that Tepoztlán has a long and storied history of defending its lands and community–not only against fire, but against foreign real estate developers, government appropriation, and chain stores (of which there are none here!). So maybe what at first glanced seemed to be a shortcoming or weakness is in fact a lesson.
What do you think? When have you and your family, friends, and neighbors been inspired and motivated to come together in the face of an outside threat or tragedy? What do you think should be the role of a community in defending its people and lands? What do we do when government isn’t “on our side”? Is there a way some of us have become “dependent” on outside forces to protect us or naively expect institutions to act in our own best interest? What would it mean to take on that responsibility ourselves? I’d like to know what you think.