Lachlan Summers is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of California Santa Cruz.
MEXICO CITY — In the middle of 2018, nine months or so after the city had last shaken with a major earthquake, Elena* lay in bed in her apartment, wide awake for what must be the fourth night in a row. “It was as if I could hear the walls,” she would later tell me, noting that such sleepless nights had become routine since the quake.
That quake was a magnitude 7.1 shake — comparatively moderate for Mexico, but because it was centered on the capital, one of the deadliest. It had frightened Elena but she was fine, as were her friends and family. Her building too was ostensibly unharmed.
And yet, as time passed, cracks began appearing in the walls of her apartment, deep, alarming fissures that wrapped silently around the room. More troubling was that these cracks extended to the apartments above and below — not isolated, superficial damage, but markers that some hidden thing had gone wrong in the building itself. As if its slow disintegration was too loud, Elena got in the habit of leaving her apartment in the middle of the night, driving to the office where she worked, putting her head on her desk and falling asleep until her colleagues arrived.
Elena, by her own admission, is “tocada.” “Tocada” or “tocado” translates as “touched” but is often used to mean “crazy,” like the English phrase “touched in the head.” In her 50s, Elena has lived in Mexico City all her life and has experienced many of the city’s tremors and earthquakes. But during the 40 seconds or so that she lay on the floor that September 19, arms wrapped tightly around her head, something changed in her. Since then, she has been affected by a peculiar range of health issues: She has lost more than 30 pounds, she is plagued by dizzy spells and she suffers long bouts of insomnia. Though years have now passed, she told me that for her, the earthquake never really ended.
I’ve been doing ethnographic research into the fallout of that quake here in Mexico City for the last four years, and I’ve met dozens of people like Elena. They have a wide range of symptoms: insomnia, panic attacks, listlessness, wasting (where certain body parts become weaker and emaciated), loss of appetite, dizziness, diarrhea and behavioral responses, such as being unable to sleep in an empty apartment or sleeping with shoes on or bouts of vertigo. But with every tocado person I’ve met, there is one thing that’s constant: The earthquake made them sick.
People in Mexico City often say the same thing after an earthquake: “Un bolillo pal susto” — “a bread roll for the fright.” It’s a piece of folk wisdom; the idea is that carbohydrates are necessary to reset your body after something scared you. It’s a remedy for what is known throughout Mexico and the Americas as “susto” — “fright sickness.” Acute experiences of shock, like being trapped in a shaking building, can induce chronic negative health outcomes. Getting scared, in other words can make you sick.
While susto is listed as one of the world’s nine “cultural concepts of distress” in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, its broad symptomology makes identifying a cause difficult. Western biomedical models of health, with their firm mind-body dualism, struggle to understand illnesses like susto. Within medical anthropology, a field concerned with how sociocultural factors and political economy shape health, susto is considered a “culture-bound syndrome,” which is to say that it’s an illness that only affects people within that culture. Medical anthropologists have variously interpreted susto as a mode of expressing social distress, a folk name for a universal biomedical affliction or a maladaptive individual psychology that draws upon familiar culture and history. Tocado is similar, perhaps — earthquake-induced post-traumatic stress.
But if we jettison the restrictions of supposedly universal biomedicine, local biologies are opened up to scrutiny, and we are able to consider how bodies develop biological differences through exposure to unique environments. Similarly, this also allows us to consider local geologies and the effects of the Earth as it bears down upon on a city, its buildings and the bodies and minds of its people. There we might find some truth to how Elena explains her affliction: That she is sick because she is stuck in geological time.
“Geological time,” or “deep time,” as Robert MacFarlane describes it in his wonderful book “Underland,” is the vastness of planetary history that “stretches away from the present moment.” While the Scottish geologist James Hutton first described the idea in 1788, the term “deep time” is often attributed to the nature writer John McPhee, who wrote, a couple of hundred years later: “Consider the Earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the king’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.”
And yet, despite the geological timescale ostensibly rendering humans obsolete, the warming climate has brought it into everyday politics. Deep time has become an analytic frame, albeit a contested one; some argue we ought to develop it to overcome short-termism, others that we should not in order to avoid flattening history or inflating the present, and still others that we cannot due to ontological limitations.
In “Annals of the Former World,” McPhee toured America with geologists, marveling at their peculiarities and their fascination with the way the ancient intruded on the present. “Geologists on the whole are inconsistent drivers,” he wrote. “When a roadcut presents itself, they tend to lurch and weave. To them, the roadcut is a portal.”
I continue to be drawn to the physicality of those “portals” or “encounters” with deep time. Throughout my research in Mexico City, especially with people who refer to themselves tocado, I’ve found myself wondering about those imponderable abysses that suddenly open in everyday spaces. An enduring question for me is: Can deep time happen?
Although the valley in which Mexico City sits is (currently) 7,349 feet above sea level, it has spent most of its history underwater. Completely submerged under the sea until the end of the Tertiary Period, the region slowly began to rise around 30 million years ago as the subduction of the Cocos tectonic plate beneath the North American plate caused vertical fractures through the continental crust of what’s currently the piece of land called Mexico. As the plate lifted, magma poured upward through these discontinuities to form the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, an east-west oriented arc about 620 miles long that cut across Mexico from Nayarit to Veracruz.
The Valley of Mexico then was still a valley, not a basin, hemmed by mountains to the west (Sierra de las Cruces), east (Sierra Nevada) and north (Sierra Pachuca), with the river Rio Balsas flowing south to the Pacific Ocean. From the Late Pliocene, around 2 million years ago, those volcanos began erupting, which sealed up the southern reaches of the valley and formed a basin 3,700 square miles in size.
Melting snow on nearby peaks and summer rainfall poured down the mountains, pooling into what eventually became five connected lakes: saltwater in the north, freshwater in the south. Recognizing the security offered by such an environment, the Mexica people arrived in the 14th century and constructed a vast infrastructure of dikes and dams to keep those waters separated; they also developed a floating form of agriculture called “chinampas” and founded the city-state Tenochtitlan.
Two hundred or so years later, when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés saw Tenochtitlan, he described with wonder the immense city “built on a salt lake” that “rises and falls with its tides as does the sea,” and then he set about razing it to the ground. The colonists found the city’s unfamiliar environment so unsettling that they demolished the dikes and dams that managed the lakes, draining the valley and establishing what would become one of the most populous cities in the world on the soft soil of a lakebed.
The Mexican soil scientist Carmen Gutiérrez-Castorena and her colleagues demonstrated in a 2005 study what a truly impossible megacity Mexico City is with a thought experiment: Imagine a rectangular prism of soil whose upper face is one meter by one meter by 70 meters deep, extending down to the deepest point of the clay layer beneath the city. That’s 70 cubic meters of ground, cubic meter by cubic meter. Were this imaginary column put into an oven at 105 degrees Celsius for four days — the method for evaluating a soil’s “gravimetric water content” — after the water had evaporated, we’d find less than seven cubic meters of soil left. And then once the air pockets that had held that now-evaporated water had collapsed, there would be just over half a cubic meter of solid material remaining.
Though the lakes are gone, in other words, the city still floats. Sort of. Most of the rainwater that falls in the area is channeled out of the valley, so the city draws heavily on the aquifer beneath it, causing it to burrow into the empty earth underneath. When Avenue Reforma’s iconic Angel of Independence was erected in 1910, it sat atop nine stairs; as the aquifer under it emptied, the earth around it gave way, and more stairs had to be added so the statue could remain accessible from the street. Today there are 23.
The hollow soil under Mexico City is composed of clay, debris, Mexica ruins and volcanic rock, which causes the surface layers to subside at different rates and locations. Many parts of the city, but especially the eastern margins of Tláhuac and Iztapalapa, sink into the soft earth at a rate of almost a foot a year. When regions with differential rates of subsidence abut one another, they form “grietas,” or fissures. They are especially common in the central and eastern parts of the city, where they split roads down the middle and cut into the foundations of buildings. These grietas fracture violently during earthquakes, while the loose soils elsewhere liquefy, following the ancient waterways and amplifying the seismic waves beyond the tremor that produced them.
The two most significant earthquakes in Mexico City’s history — in 1985 and 2017 and impossibly both on Sept. 19 — caused widespread devastation at the confluence of soft soils, lax legislation, unsteady buildings and the lingering consequences of violent colonialism. While earthquakes emerge from the implacable movements of tectonic plates, the historical decision to drain the lakes created an opening through which the geological could intrude with greater intensity than would otherwise have been possible.
The philosopher Manuel DeLanda, who was born in Mexico City, called cities the “mineralization of humanity.” The exoskeletons of early invertebrates became internal in bones and spines, and then, much later, “human populations began mineralizing again when they developed an urban exoskeleton.” We might imagine all cities as not only a collection of buildings and people, but a geosocial formation, one whose separation from the earth underneath can’t be taken for granted.
Mexico City’s urban exoskeleton, though, reflects the strangeness of the earth on which it sits. Footpaths undulate. Potholes suddenly appear in the street and begin consuming the road. A fissure slyly burrows under a building to do unseen work to its foundations. Like at the Angel of Independence, it’s not uncommon to see new concrete laid down at the entrance to a building because the ground has given way beneath it and cars and people can no longer enter.
The term “concrete,” as the anthropologist Cristián Simonetti wrote, comes from the Latin “concrescence”: “an unfinished gathering of forces and materials.” It’s an appropriately unsteady etymological root for the material re-tethering of a city to its erratic foundation.
In considering a city as a geophysical entity, rather than as something superimposed upon a geological foundation, we might see some continuity between the endless creep of tectonic plates and the muted unraveling of buildings and lives.
If you know where to look, Mexico City is littered with markers of its seismic history. Abandoned buildings sit in conspicuous locations; dead potted plants outside homes suggest an absence of life inside. Many parking lots, especially outside tourist areas, were once buildings.
But there are also signs of ongoing seismic history: geologic time continuing beyond a seismic event. People who call themselves tocado describe a unique attunement to these signs, and how they change. Cracks in a wall, shifts in the Earth’s surface, the angles at which buildings lean — people who are tocado have geological sensors that foreground the indicators of the city’s ongoing collapse.
But such a sense is disorienting: Alongside loss of appetite and wasting, people who are tocado describe themselves becoming suddenly dizzy or faint or having vertigo even when they’re at ground level. Like an earthly seasickness induced by geophysical motion, the kinesthetics of this unstable city can make residents ill.
While cracks silently writhed through Elena and her neighbors’ apartments, I walked with another woman named Ana in Tlalpan, in the city’s south, toward a building she passed each morning on her way to work. When we turned onto the block, she caught my arm and exclaimed, “Ay it gives me vertigo, even from here.”
Ana had told me she suffers from two types of vertigo: One the more common light-headed dizzy feeling induced by being in high buildings, the other a feeling of pressure when she’s near buildings like this one. Both came to affect her only after the 2017 earthquake.
“It makes me dizzy when I’m underneath it,” she told me. “It’s as if I feel it pressing onto me.”
I couldn’t make out what was causing that feeling until we reached the base of the building, and then I felt it too, as if the top of the building and the one next to it were rushing down at us. At ground level, the gap between the two was just a few millimeters; five stories up, I guessed, it was maybe two feet. The buildings weren’t condemned, and they seemed occupied, but they were splayed away from one another, seemingly upright only because of support from the buildings on their other sides.
“Every day I pass it and it looks bigger,” Ana said. “Something underneath must have given way. How long until they come down?”
The Mexico City government’s construction code specifies that a building may only lean 0.43% of its height. I guessed the ones in front of Ana and I were 60 feet tall, which meant they should only lean about three inches. How would a three-inch angle appear from 60 feet below? Would it really be safe if it were only two inches? If it wasn’t yet three inches, how long until it was?
Regulations like these are not terrifically reassuring in Mexico City. Even though architectural codes became much more robust after the 1985 earthquake, they remained open to graft and collusion. People tell stories about architects who came up during that time who ignored the new regulations and had a reputation of constructing unsound buildings, but nevertheless were appointed to powerful roles in governmental bodies charged with verifying the integrity of structures throughout the city.
Because developers still routinely fire architects and engineers who require them to use more durable (and thus more costly) construction materials, a market thrives in Mexico City for what are known locally as “firmones” (“signers”) — architects who can be paid to approve construction blueprints without having verified them. A particularly egregious case involved a school in the south of the city whose owner had built a secret fourth story on an entry wing that immediately collapsed in the 2017 earthquake, killing 19 schoolchildren and seven staff. The architect who had signed off on the building’s integrity was eventually jailed for an almost-geological 208 years.
All across the city, buildings suddenly collapse years or even decades after an earthquake has damaged them. When Gloria, a retired schoolteacher, moved into her building a few years after the 1985 earthquake, she and her neighbors paid for reinforcement beams on the ground floor to fix some slight damage. Reassured, she later told me that she had grown accustomed to the fissures that appeared and spread through the central stairwell, and to chunks of wall suddenly falling to the ground.
After 2017’s earthquake, though, those cracks looked more ominous. After an assessment by the city’s Institute for Construction Security, she and her neighbors were forced out. It turned out that the reinforcements they had installed after the earlier earthquake had weakened the building, and the recent one compounded the damage. The building had been ensnared in deep time all along. As Gloria told me: “It wasn’t just the earthquake. It’s that we were so lucky. It was falling the whole time and we had no idea. The earthquake just aggravated what was always happening there. It was happening all the time, all the time, all the time.”
For buildings in Mexico City, destruction is seldom an absolute condition. Residents, and especially people who are tocado, attune themselves to the cues of ongoing collapse — cracks, gaps, fissures — that populate the gray area between total destruction and slower disintegration. This geophysical sense impels temporal questions: “Is this new?” “How long has it been like that?” “How long do we have left?” “When can we be certain?”
It was those questions that I think another self-described tocada named Fernanda was pondering as she stared absently out a window toward an abandoned building adjacent hers. “Se acerca el dia en el que se cae encima de mi,” she said to me. “The day is coming in which it falls on top of me.” The way she said it — “se acerca el día,” “the day approaches” — was peculiar. She was not doing the approaching. It was the day, the day the building would fall, that was doing the approaching.
Time, in her rendering, was not organized around her position in the world — what might be understood as a temporality oriented around the experience of a central individual. Time, instead, was happening to her. It became apparent as the building next door slowly collapsed. The building — and Fernanda — were still caught in earthquake time.
The presence of this time keeps Elena awake at night. Several months after the earthquake, she told me, she started thinking that the cracks in her building were spreading. So she took a pencil and, “as if it were a growing child,” drew a line across the crack and wrote the day’s date. A few weeks later she noticed it had stuttered beyond her initial mark.
Worried now, she began marking other cracks around her apartment every couple weeks; her neighbors did the same, corroborating that their building was indeed in motion. By the time I visited, the cracks were dated several times. Elena’s fear, I wanted to suggest, didn’t come from the crack alone: Her attention to its speed, its temporality, foregrounded her concern that some ongoing process had taken root within the building itself.
Deep time is often framed as something antithetical to immediacy, something totally separate not only from everyday experience, but also the idea of history itself. But if we are living in a moment in which experiential time, historical time and deep time are colliding, which of these times are being written onto the walls of Mexico City apartments?
The Anthropocene — a concept that, the story goes, Paul Crutzen blurted out spontaneously in Mexico in 2000 — is understood as an epoch in which the effects of human action register at the geological scale. In other words, capitalism and colonialism should be recognized as forces equivalent to tectonic plates. But alongside registering (some) human impacts at the geological scale, the term shows how human history makes the geological present in an everyday sense. In Mexico City, this history has enabled the geological to take up residence in people’s homes alongside them.
If we consider the city a geophysical entity, we can think about being tocado as a uniquely historical form of relating with the Earth. Rather than Elena’s affliction being induced by a traumatic experience and a fear of future earthquake events, she and others fear the processes that were initiated by the earthquake: the grietas, the slumps, the leans, the fissures, the buildings collapsing years later.
In “The Book of Unconformities,” Hugh Raffles describes how time seems to rupture during an earthquake: “Time breaks, it suspends in two senses of the English word: slowing to almost zero and leaving you actually hanging, like particulate spun out of liquid.” People who are tocado in Mexico City live in a similar form of suspension, of human time seeming to have given way to something more capacious. To paraphrase Roberto Bolaño, this time is less a steady current along which residents are borne, and more a lurching sequence of nearby explosions, some perceptible and some imperceptible.
This is a form of seismic time that is not only knowable through a seismic event. It’s a time that begins with an earthquake but continues through ongoing geophysical and political processes. Rather than a pathological individual condition or a culture-bound form of expression, we might see being tocado as an emergent form through which bodies, histories, legislations and earths come into relation. Deep time, in Mexico City, is resolutely present if you are compelled to notice.
Deep time might be a useful frame for contemporary analysis, a temporal literacy that places the long-term ramifications of the present moment into a deeper history. Conversely, such scales also risk subsuming deep time into the present.
Mexico City points toward something more physical, a sense of time that neither collapses the human and the geological nor holds them as irrevocably distinct. In their embodied apprehension of earthly processes, people who are tocado reveal that deep time is not only an analytic problem of scale, but a stranger temporal geometry, where homes are at once sites of security and indifferent geophysical entities. Deep time portals open in the city’s many cracks, slumps and fissures, revealing an inconceivable horizon forever rushing forward.