Thursday, September 21, 2017

Tales of Popo and Itza

Photo: The Tiffany Curtain Rises, CDMX
Last Thursday would have been the 100th birthday of Amalia Hernandez, who established the legendary Ballet Folklórico de México, which my favorite librarian and I had the privilege of watching in 1989.

In my geography of Latin America class that day, I talked about the dance program, and about the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City, in which we saw it. We climbed many staircases before emerging into this remarkable theater on one of its topmost balconies. We were stunned by the glass curtain, which we learned years later was made by Tiffany. And I learned just now that it was created in 1912 of a million pieces of crystal.

It depicts two of my favorite volcanoes -- Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl -- which would have been visible from the cite of the palace before the city -- and smog -- obstructed the view. The view, I told my students, was unknown to most in Mexico City, because its legendary smog has only lifted fully once in the lifetimes of its older residents, and not at all since that majority of its population was born. In 1985, I said, this brilliant clear view of the famous volcanoes emerged for just a couple of days, when an earthquake shook the city violently, killing thousands and stopping traffic for days.
Image: Inside Mexico
I learned of these volcanoes during the summer of 1989. We spent a few days each in Oaxaca, Mexico City, and Guanajuato, but most of our summer was in the city of Puebla and the ancient town of Cholula on its outskirts, where we were part of a program at UDLA-Puebla, a private university known for its international programs. From that side of the mountains, Popo was on the left, and a bit closer. Sometimes it loomed over the campus, and we could watch the snows at the top advance and retreat week by week, according to the weather.

We learned how to pronounce the Aztec names, and I even spent one night in the village of Yanquitalpan, high on the flanks of the great volcano. Our campus was at 7,000 feet above sea level, and the summit more than 17,000 feet. That stay in the village was perhaps halfway between the two in elevation. We also learned the legend that is illustrated above, a sort of Aztec version of Romeo and Juliet. UPDATE September 28, 2019: a different telling of Popo and Itza, by O. Delgado on Latin Live.

Only later on Thursday did I realize that I was speaking on the anniversary of the 1985 quake -- nearly at the same moment. I learned of this later in the day, of course, when a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck to the south of the city, centered in Rabosa, Puebla State -- 32 days and 6 hours after the one about which we had heard so much.
Map: US Geological Survey
The best reporting I have heard on last week's earthquake aired yesterday as part of The Takeaway on PRI. Todd Zwillich hosted Mexico City Trembles, an in-depth story that included a conversation with a Mexican diplomat. The story puts the most recent tragedy in the context of the devastating September 8, 2017 quake in Oaxaca and the 1985 earthquake.  Listeners learn in detail some of the ways in which the people of Mexico City have become expert in earthquake preparedness and recovery. Most telling: immediately after the buildings collapsed last Thursday, hundreds of people could be seen running towards each one of them.

In the following days, I began to see articles about an eruption of Popocatépetl that was triggered by the Rabosa earthquake. The stories were plausible but not convincing, so I checked the Smithsonian earthquake database. The Popocatépetl page does mention minor recent activities, but they are not extraordinary for this site, and some of them predate the Rabosa quake by several days. At this point volcanologists (an important profession in Mexico and Central America) consider them unrelated.
Photo: Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program
Lagniappe

U.S. government scientists at USGS are the best source I know of information on earthquakes worldwide, because the global seismic network needed to monitor some earthquakes must monitor them all. Volcano monitoring requires locally-installed equipment, so the USGS volcano page is excellent, but limited to volcanoes in U.S. territories. The best global volcano resource I have found is at the Smithsonian, which is located in the United States but is privately funded by the bequest of James Smithson (who never visited the United States).

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