The "miracle babies" of Mexico City: 25 years later

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The world came to know them as the "miracle babies" of Mexico City, more than a dozen infants pulled from rubble after the devastating 1985 earthquake. With more than 10,000 dead, the newborns — some not rescued until days after the quake — gave hope to a shocked nation.

The still unfolding stories of dramatic rescues in Haiti — of life emerging from the ruins — bring back vivid memories of Mexico City a quarter century ago. The infants embodied a stubborn determination to hold on to life, a symbol of human resiliency amid disaster.

Mexico City's "ninos del sismo," or the "children of the earthquake," turn 25 this September. They seem now to represent not just hope, but proof that, while the scars of the tragedy would forever alter their lives, the people of Mexico City eventually would recover from the devastation.

Some babies escaped physically unscathed by the quake, while others would grapple with lifelong disabilities. Many, their mothers killed by the collapsing buildings, were taken in by aunts, uncles and grandparents.

A team of doctors, nurses and social workers has cared for them all these years. Foreign donors provided funds to pay for their medical care and even their education. Their caregivers say many have come to lead successful lives, while others have struggled.

Despite their traumas and injuries, the children of the earthquake today appear to be fairly typical young men and women: Some are day laborers, another a pharmacist at the hospital where she was taken as a near-dead infant. Some are unemployed. All came from humble beginnings.

“As babies, how did we survive all we did? The rocks, the lack of water?” asks Victor Hugo Hernandez, now 24, who was born two days before the quake and later had both legs amputated. “It was a great miracle."

A shattered city

The 8.1-magnitude quake struck Mexico City on Sept. 19, 1985, followed by a 7.5-magnitude aftershock one day later. At least 10,000 people were killed, three times that number injured and 100,000 left homeless. It was the biggest natural disaster in decades, in the most densely populated city in the hemisphere.

The first quake hit at 7:17 a.m. Juarez Hospital and General Hospital — the two biggest maternity centers for Mexico City’s poor and working-class residents — were among the hardest hit. They, like 400 other buildings throughout the city, simply collapsed.

Hundreds were killed, including doctors, nurses, orderlies and their patients — mothers and their tiny newborns. Rescue teams from France, the United States and other countries, and dozens of volunteers from Mexico City’s devastated neighborhoods, including family members of the victims, dug for days looking for survivors.

The Children’s Hospital, next door to the General Hospital, somehow escaped major structural damage and the rescued children began arriving there almost immediately. Of the 16 infants who were taken to the hospital, 14 would survive.

"We began receiving victims within hours, nine at first. Over the next eight days or so seven more arrived," says Dina Villanueva, a neo-natologist who headed the team of doctors, nurses and social workers that began caring for them.

In the early years, the hospital provided free, government-paid medical and dental care, including multiple internal and reconstructive surgeries, for the babies. With money donated by individuals and groups in Mexico and Europe, hospital authorities set up a trust fund whose earnings have paid for medicine and educational expenses.

“The hospital adopted them,” says Jose Alberto Garcia Aranda, director of the Children’s Hospital. “Life for them has not been easy.” The hospital never issued a report on the miracle babies to protect their privacy, he said.

That did not prevent Mexican TV stations and newspapers from focusing on members of the group during anniversaries of the quake each September, with a theme that might be called, “One more year of life for the miracle babies.” Early on, the group’s caregivers facilitated celebrations, sponsoring birthday parties, masses and other gatherings. The last was in 2000 and was a sort of coming-of-age for the boys and a group “quinceanera” for the girls, all of whom were turning 15.

To look at the "ninos" today as they approach a quarter century of life is to see a reflection of the hopes and dreams, some fulfilled and some dashed, of the Mexican people.

Claudia: “Just let me play”

Claudia Isabel Rios lives in the working-class Mexico City neighborhood of Azcapotzalco, where unemployment and burgeoning street crime are the biggest concerns for most residents. She was born at the Juarez Hospital on Sept. 17, 1985, and arrived at the Children’s Hospital with a broken left ankle, a severe laceration over her left eye and multiple abrasions. Her mother died in the earthquake, so Claudia eventually went to live with her mother's sisters.

Claudia Rios with her soccer trophies and newspaper clippings of the "miracle babies."
(John Enders/GlobalPost)

“I missed having a mother, but I didn’t ever know her,” Claudia says. Her aunts, both of whom she calls “mom,” and her uncle “filled a big hole for me.”

Claudia graduated from high school and now works in a factory that makes kitchen appliances. But her life revolves around soccer. She started playing in the streets with an all-boys neighborhood team at age 5, and since 17 she has played on an all-female team called the Pumas, or Panthers.

“For me, soccer is everything. Sundays are sacred,” Claudia says. But, at 24, she no longer aspires to join the Mexican women’s national team, recognizing she is too old to join a major team. An unusually outspoken feminist for this macho-dominated society, she says that girls have fewer opportunities than boys in Mexico.

Her aunts have sacrificed a lot by taking Claudia into their home.

“I never married. I dedicated myself to this girl. She is enough,” says her aunt Hortensia Juarez. “We don’t have any inheritance to give her. But we’ve given her an education.”

Theoretically, Claudia says, she would like to go back to school someday but can’t see any good reason to do so. “Why keep studying? There are doctors, college graduates driving taxis all over Mexico.”

Araceli: Paying it back

“She was always underweight,” says Norma Lucia Vinas, the team's other doctor, about Araceli Santamaria Romo, who is perhaps the most outwardly successful of the “ninos del sismo.”

Petite, usually wearing tight jeans and with her nails sporting bright acrylics, Araceli is known to everyone in the Children’s Hospital, where she has worked for two years as a lab technician. Every day, in the packed hallways and the sun-lit courtyard of the hospital, she greets many of those responsible for healing her and keeping her healthy after her rescue.

Araceli Santamaria Romo.
(John Enders/GlobalPost)

Araceli was born the day before the quake and rescuers took her to the Children’s Hospital within hours of the disaster. She had 37 broken bones, including her pelvis. Her mother, Maria de Jesus Romo, was in another part of the hospital when the temblor hit and was rescued two days after her daughter.

Araceli says that the fame of the “miracle babies” has nothing to do with them, but rather is about what they symbolize. “It was a second chance, to have a second life,” she says.

Araceli was always a good student and her mother used trust fund money to help send her to a private school for several years. She later she obtained a scholarship to college, where she studied biology and chemistry as part of a pharmaceutical program. She loves going to work at the Children’s Hospital.

“To me, it’s like paying the hospital back. I was a patient, and now it’s my turn to serve,” she says. She hopes to pursue a master’s degree. Araceli, who calls herself an atheist, says she does not believe in miracles. But she believes in fate.

“One is destined for something,” she says. “I haven’t found my destiny yet.”

Milagros: All in the name

Hortensia Hernandez was breastfeeding her baby, born just one hour before, when the earthquake struck. They were in the maternity section of the General Hospital, and rescuers found them four days later. She later named her baby Milagros Guadalupe for the milagro, or miracle, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. Milagros doesn’t like the name, thinking it pretentious, and goes by “Lupita.” (The two Hernandez families are not related.)

Milagros Guadalupe Hernandez during a visit to the Children's Hospital.
(John Enders/GlobalPost)

“It was dark. There were voices. People were yelling, crying out, asking for help,” she says, repeating what her mother has told her over the years. “The next day, many voices faded away.”

Her mother was crushed, held down by the debris, and could not move even to feed her. So she shared her saliva with the baby and “prayed and prayed” to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Eventually, a search dog barked and another woman, apparently trapped nearby, yelled for help. Hortensia by then could not speak. The rescuers, helped by family members who spent days digging at the devastated hospital building, eventually found Hortensia and Milagros, but they never found the other woman.

Milagros suffered mostly cuts and bruises, but she also is missing the third knuckle on her left hand from a crushed bone that never developed. It is a daily reminder to her, she says, of the disaster.

The youngest girl in a family of seven children, Milagros is an assistant to a building contractor and earns 200 pesos (just over $16) a day. She is married and has a 5-year-old son. She refers to the doctors, nurses and others at the Children’s Hospital as “my other family.”

“It has all made me think that we live for something,” she says. “People tell me that I take life very seriously. I feel we have to take advantage of every minute.”

Jesus Francisco: Angry at the world

Jesus Francisco was born four days before the quake, but he and his mother had remained in the General Hospital so she could undergo a hysterectomy. She had four children and didn’t want more. They were in a room on the sixth floor, and she had just gone downstairs for something when the earth shook. She died, and for five days her child, one arm and ribs crushed and with a severe head injury, lay jammed into a dirty, rat-infested space hardly bigger than a shoebox.

His aunt Graciela Rodriguez and her husband Leonardo — who later became Jesus’ adopted parents — waited for days outside the hospital for news. On their final day of waiting, Leonard had gone to another part of the city to check on family members. When he returned, he says, as he choked down tears from the memory of it: “They said, ‘he lives, he lives.’ It was amazing.”

Jesus, who refused to talk to a reporter about his life, left school early to work so he could help the family. He worked for awhile at a gas station, but also at times has been “desperately unemployed,” says Leonardo. “He has physical problems with his legs. He is resentful, he thinks life is unfair.”

“He says, ‘I don’t know why God didn’t just take me then,’” Leonardo says.

When Jesus sees newscasts of the devastation in Haiti on the television, he quickly turns the channel. He spends a lot of time in his bedroom with dark curtains over the window, listening to music. He is impulsive and has an explosive temper, says the older man sadly.

But his adoptive parents have not given up on the young man, who underwent half a dozen major surgeries to repair a knee, a hip and his crushed mouth and cheek. Doctors took one of his ribs and used that bone to rebuild his face.

“The life he has, he has won,” says Leonardo. “He is very strong, very courageous.” He tells his adopted parents he wants to return to school one day and become a social worker.

“We don’t have children," says Leonardo. "He’s the only son we had.”

25 years on

The life of each “miracle baby” was turned upside down and inside out. Each had to deal with the tragedy of their infanthood, the cuts, bruises, crushed limbs and bones, and the emotional trauma that started on that September day almost 25 years ago. For them, reminders of the catastrophe are everywhere.

Juana Jazmin Arias.
(John Enders/GlobalPost)

“The hardest thing was seeing videos of 1985 every September in school,” says Juana Jazmin Arias. “When we started school, everyone knew us. They would ask, ‘How do you feel?’ Children are very cruel sometimes.” Juana was born one day before the earthquake. Her mother’s body was never found.

All the “miracle babies,” like other Mexicans, are today left to cope with a national economic crisis, low wages and high unemployment, and a drug-related crime wave. Their lot in life, and their challenges, are not unlike those facing the children and adults rescued in Haiti in recent weeks.

The 7.1 earthquake that hit Haiti on Jan. 12 was far smaller than the 8.1 quake in Mexico, but the magnitude of the catastrophe has been far greater. Perhaps as many as 20 times as many people died in Haiti as in Mexico City, and the Haiti quake brought an entire country to its knees, while Mexico’s economy, infrastructure and society appeared far more resilient.

For the orphaned and rescued Haitian children, their plight is not without precedent. The "miracle babies" of Mexico City have been the poster children of survival for almost 25 years. Some have done well, others have not. But being alive is better than being dead.

With both of his thighs strapped into prostheses and a warm smile on his face, Victor Hernandez has grown up with strength, grace and optimism. He wants to get a good job and get married. He's a happy person, he says, despite the 1985 earthquake. "I lived it. But I don't remember it."

John Enders covered the aftermath of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City for the Oregonian newspaper. Today, he is a freelance journalist specializing in Latin America. He keeps a blog and can be reached at www.johnenders.com.

Richard Sennott photographed the earthquake aftermath for the Boston Herald.