Noel René Cisneros: 17 January 2018
Noel is from the north of Mexico and he had already been living in Mexico City for a couple of years before the earthquake. He tells me he was allowed to get into the rescue area because they asked volunteers if someone knew how to use a sledgehammer. “It’s not an easy thing to do; you have to have a certain technique and experience with it. I used to work in construction, so I raised my hand and they let me in. It is also a particularly noisy activity: you’re smashing cement in order to break through floors and architectural layers that can lead to victims.” As I ask him to expand on his experience with noise and listening in those days, he tells me he considers himself a good listener. He remembers the song that was playing on his iPod when the earthquake began (“Malo eres” by La Mala Rodríguez), then he felt the earthquake, took his headphones off and heard the wall of the building next to his tumbling down, and because of the proximity and loudness, he felt the certainty of death: “It was as if you could hear every rock of the building cracking so loudly that you couldn’t tell if it was your building or the one next to you.” He also says he always uses headphones at home: “I know very well that noise can be very invasive, so I was aware of the noise and the contrast with silence when the fists-up gesture became more recurrent. For example, during the activities in the fallen building on the street of Escocia we had electric generators, which are very noisy, so people leading the rescue realized that to have real silence when we were listening for calls of help we had to turn the generators off. So, at night we would see the fists up in the air, and then we were in the dark, except for those with lanterns close to the spot where they were finding people still alive.”
I ask Noel about the speed in which the gesture actually created silence around a specific space, and he describes the mimicking fists as a “fast wave,” spreading from the center to the outside, but there were a few reasons why the gesture was not reaching more of the outside areas. “One of the reasons due to people being immersed completely in an activity, like me using the sledgehammers; it was difficult to realize you had to stop. It was also tiredness; during the early hours, at dawn, everybody was too exhausted to even keep quiet or follow any instructions. You would think people would be quieter when they are tired, but they are not. And outside the perimeter there were people who just didn’t feel part of the situation; they hadn’t even learned the signal after a few days, and they didn’t realize how much of their noise traveled inside the rescue areas, with no buildings standing to block the sound waves.” He also tells me that while he was in the lines passing along rocks outside the areas, and there were no fists up in the air, he would actually shout once in a while, but just to cheer people up: “‘Are you tired yet?’ I would shout. ‘No!’ everyone would reply. That is the only reason I shouted while involved in the work.”
Noel’s experience informs us about the perception of loudness in the atmosphere, both during the earthquake and in a particular rescue area. His perception in the very moment when the building next to his collapsed gives an idea of the auditory saturation and disorientation, the unfamiliar noise and its chaotic quality, as it was impossible to tell which building was collapsing or not. It also speaks of the partial efficacy of the fists-up gesture. As can be read in the other testimonies, the use of the silence gesture appeared more efficient in connection to the general organization and communication of the different rescuing areas.
Other witnesses expressed their need to create more noise, to speak more and louder, as a way to defend themselves against the external noise, as a way to channel anxiety and remain in contact with the ones around them, something that doesn’t seem to only happen in emergency situations. We humans, particularly those living in the big cities, are or have become “noisy animals,” as expressed by the following testimony.