Photo by Ben Sutherland, licensed under CC BY.

On September 19, 2017, an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale struck central Mexico. It came thirty-two years to the day after the 1985 earthquake that devastated Mexico City and caused an unknown number of deaths that reached into the thousands. The 2017 earthquake, though of lesser magnitude than the one in 1985, shook this megapolis of twenty million people to its core, causing extensive damage, even in the firmer, less damage-prone southern parts of the city. The number of confirmed deaths is still rising as of this writing, but already numbers more than two hundred. Now commonly referred to as #19S, this unsettling event will no doubt have repercussions for years to come.

Much has changed in Mexico City since 1985. Population, traffic, and pollution have all grown denser. Vegan cafes and record stores have taken over the trendier parts of the city; glittering shopping malls and Walmarts have sprung up in others. An awareness of risk and risk preparedness has also become an important feature of everyday life. Insecurity, rooted in drastic levels of economic inequality, the privatization of security services, and ineffective policing and justice systems, has left an omnipresent sense of risk from violent crime. Even as disaster preparedness remodeled Mexico City after 1985, the city came to stand for an embodied sense of expected danger. Gated communities and private security guards divided the landscape, redirected the flow of traffic, and isolated social enclaves. Painted green puntos de reunion or meeting points decorated sidewalks and street corners outside of public buildings and archaeological monuments. Strict new building codes were enacted to better prepare the swelling populace for the next major earthquake. A citywide alarm system was implemented to give a few seconds of advance warning. Every year, on the anniversary of the 1985 quake, the entire city would enact an earthquake drill, training everyone—survivors of the last quake, children who had yet to live through such an experience, and transient visitors—on the proper procedures to follow in the event of an earthquake. On #19S, the city’s inhabitants dutifully carried out the simulation, which had become as much about commemorating the more than ten thousand deaths and widespread destruction of 1985 as it was about preparedness. Just two hours later, the earthquake struck so fast and hard that the alarm system did not even have the chance to sound.

The earthquake itself could not have been predicted or prevented. Yet many chilangos(natives of Mexico City) and residents of other affected cities and towns, including Puebla, were left with a deep and well-founded feeling of injustice. Structural issues of corruption and inequality lie at the heart of this sense of injustice. Several of the buildings that collapsed were built after the implementation of the post-1985 building codes, including at least one that was only a year old, leading to demands for investigations into powerful construction interests and their collusion with the city officials who failed to enforce these codes. A school that collapsed, killing at least nineteen children and six adults, has been accused of operating illegally, with construction and certification “irregularities” as well as false permits. What may have been a clandestine textile factory was said to be plagued with similar irregularities, stymieing rescue efforts in a way that recalled a similar incident in 1985. Indeed, irregularidades became a keyword in the immediate postquake lexicon, exposing the always known but now hypervisible effects of incumplimiento, or laxity of regulation, as tragically inscribed on the urban landscape in piles of rubble and broken bodies.

Tellingly, two-thirds of the deaths on #19S were women. As sociologist Patricio Solís has pointed out, this ratio, too pronounced to be random, signals another of the broader social issues that underpinned the devastation from this natural disaster. Most of the collapsed buildings were residential and, since the earthquake struck at 1:14 p.m. on a weekday, the gendered structure of the labor market in Mexico meant that women, in their own homes or on the job as domestic workers, were predominantly the ones inside these residential buildings. Likewise, the workers in the clandestine textile factory, just as in 1985, were largely female migrants, laboring under unsafe and exploitative conditions.

This unequal distribution of risk is fundamental to the sense of injustice felt by many after the quake. Following Jessica Cooper’s prompt for this Correspondences session, it is worth asking: what would a sense of justice feel like? Scholars hasve shown that what people look for when they seek justice can vary (Wilson 2001; Goodale and Merry 2007; Clarke 2009; Brunnegger and Faulk 2016). Justice can be about preserving memory, establishing a just historical narrative, or inflicting equal suffering on the perpetrators. Justice can serve the state as it performs its power or aims to prevent future injustices. Seeking justice can entail enabling, enhancing, or legitimizing the rule of law, or it can be, as Emile Durkheim (1933) noted, the story society tells itself about itself. Justice can be about changing perceptions of historical events or social groups, or it can seek to reestablish or reaffirm social coherence through the reintegration or rehabilitation of the perpetrators of the injustice(s). With so much being looked for in a sense of justice, how can we ever expect it to feel final and achieved?

I agree with Jessica Greenberg when she argues that justice/injustice is not a binary. Justice of any sort is rarely able to encompass or address the range of causes that underlie the injustice it seeks to remedy. I also agree with Greenberg that the form of justice sought is inextricable from the institutions or channels that enact it. These institutions and channels, precisely in being designed to attend to specific types, aspects, or instances of social violation or perceived injustice, are limited, and the sense of justice they can provide, even when they do, remains partial and incomplete. I argue that it is the inability to attend to the complex and multiple structural factors involved in the injustices for which justice is sought that leaves punctual and specific forms of justice unable to provide an affective—and effective—sense of justice done.

As the dust from #19S begins to settle, Mexicans have already begun to demand justice and to pursue multiple avenues for its enactment, as they did in the wake of the 1985 quake. In this way, natural disasters can serve as catalysts for political action through the injustices they so sharply expose. Undoubtedly, change will result, like the new building codes that emerged after 1985. Yet the lingering sense of incertidumbre, or uncertainty, will remain. The ever-present possibility of another quake is still there. And it is infinitely compounded by the risks that structure everyday life—from regulations that will be violated, from gender inequalities that will continue to push women into un(der)paid or unprotected labor, from the always considerable chance of persons and property being attacked, and from governments that will fail to uphold their responsibilities for the basic welfare of their citizens.

Perhaps the most powerful sense of justice that Mexicans will achieve in the aftermath of #19S is that of the social solidarity that emerged in the hours and days after the quake. Chilangos, most notably young people, poured out in massive numbers to provide aid and rescue to those who were suffering. The sense of shared action and solidarity gave hope to many. Unlike in 1985, this response also included many brigades of women rescuers, whose presence searching for survivors and removing debris highlighted the changes that have come about in gender relations over the past three decades. By contrast, though, reports also abounded of trapped motorists being robbed, of political parties hijacking food and clothing donations and labeling them with propaganda en route to the victims, and, most shocking, of at least one van carrying aid that was allegedly attacked, its contents stolen, and a young volunteer raped. But the outpouring of support among citizens, which created a profound sense of justice through shared action in defiance of the injustices that surrounded it, at least temporarily drowned out the climate of risk and uncertainty that marked #19S.


Brunnegger, Sandra, and Karen Ann Faulk. 2016. A Sense of Justice: Legal Knowledge and Lived Experience in Latin America. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Clarke, Kamari Maxine. 2009. Fictions of Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Challenge of Legal Pluralism in Sub-Saharan Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Durkheim, Émile. 1933. The Division of Labor in Society. Translated by George Simpson. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. Originally published in 1893.

Goodale, Mark, and Sally Engle Merry, eds. 2007. The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law Between the Global and the Local. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, Richard A. 2001. The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State. New York: Cambridge University Press.