Julia Zenteno: 14 August 2018


Julia was part of an initiative called Sonidistas Unidos, spontaneously formed by sound engineers and musicians who brought technology to the rescue areas in order to listen for survivors calling for help. She engaged in this activity after she heard people saying they needed sound engineers, so that was how she could be useful. She tells me how it was very clear for her that silence, even more than technology, was the most important element for finding out if someone was alive and calling for help. “The gesture was efficient, I would say, but you would see its efficiency depending on the general organization of the area. In the building of Tlalpan, it was much harder to organize silence than in other places where people were more organized already and attentive to the fists-up gesture and the general activity of the place. I was in one of the places sitting with my sound equipment for hours, and there was never a chance to use it because it was never quiet enough.” Another common friend, witness and volunteer tells me that the disorganization and lack of support by the government were clear to him when, in that same building in Tlalpan, they were trying to listen for signals, and the closest church, just a few blocks away, erupted in fireworks as if nothing was happening, and the government didn’t close the avenues until 6pm in the afternoon instead of closing them all day, as in most places. Nevertheless, the raised fists were respected, and most people did try to stay silent, he says.

Julia continues: “I feel like it took days for us to understand the gesture and days to realize how crucial it was, and I think we have to find ways to explain to people that from the point of view of someone being trapped underground, to hear silence above and know that you can communicate, scream, cry, make noises with a rock or something, that’s what’s going to give you hope. If you’re down there and you’re only hearing this overwhelming noise, you must be terrified knowing nobody’s going to hear you.” As we think together of ways in which this experience can be instructive for future events, she tells me that it is very clear for her that one of the top five capabilities to display in the event of an emergency like this one is the capacity to remain silent, something that we are not used to do, particularly in the city. “We’re not trained to keep quiet, to contain unnecessary speech, even in an everyday life situation. We have to find practical ways to address this problem. There are now documentaries that focus on the political situation, on the lack of response by the authorities, on the emotional and tragic outcomes, but that means forgetting about the practical, immediate issues, and we have to learn from this experience, especially because it’s very possible that it will happen again.” 

As Julia states, the documentaries and videos available a few months after the earthquake focus on the tragedy or its political aspects, the main theme being the incompetence of the government in responding to the catastrophe. As I scan through these documentaries and videos, I realize the original sound has been replaced by background music; they portray the visual but not the auditory experience, they obliterate the sonic experience and make it impossible to recall or access its nature. The intention of these documents in which the original sound has been replaced by dramatic music or political commentaries was to emphasize a different aspect of the situation, one being silenced by the official press: the fact that it was mainly untrained civilians, risking their own safety, that took charge of the rescuing activities and not the official institutions that should have been better and faster in their aid and actions.