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Mexicans Rattled by Quakes, Hurricanes Seek Solace on Day of the Dead

November 1, 1995

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ A powerful earthquake shakes the capital. Hurricanes lash both coasts. Another quake kills two dozen people at a resort hotel. And those are only the natural disasters.

As this country of 90 million residents prepared for today’s Day of the Dead celebrations, many were wondering if Mexico’s recent string of misfortunes weren’t a sign from beyond.

``I’m not superstitious but there are things going on you just can’t explain,″ said Jeronimo Millan, a 58-year-old bricklayer. ``In all my years I’ve never seen so many things happening at once.″

Fueling the sense of trepidation is a 10-month-old economic crisis that shows few signs of ending.

Mexico has seen more than 1 million jobs vanish since December, when the peso lost 40 percent of its value. Prices have climbed by 40 percent this year, and the economy has so far shrunk 5.7 percent.

``Our national mood is gloomy,″ said historian Jorge Hernandez. ``And since the economic situation is critical right now, anything can be turned into a bad sign.″

Among them:

On Sept. 14, five people died in the states of Guererro and Oaxaca in a magnitude-7.3 quake that was felt hundreds of miles away in Mexico City. It came five days short of the 10th anniversary of ``El Temblor″ _ ``The Great Quake″ _ that killed at least 9,000 people.

The same day, Hurricane Ismael smote Mexico’s Pacific coast, drowning dozens of fishermen. Two days later, four military jets collided during an Independence Day air show, killing six pilots.

In October, Hurricane Opal flooded the Gulf Coast, followed by Hurricane Roxanne, which lashed the coastline around Friday, Oct. 13, doubled back and struck again.

There also have been two other earthquakes, including one that toppled a Manzanillo resort hotel on Oct. 9, claiming more than two dozen lives.

Then on Oct. 23, Popocatepetl, a 17,991-foot volcano 55 miles southeast of the capital, ominously belched white smoke for a day. Scientists said there was no cause for alarm. But people watched TV footage warily.

The volcano had spewed ash in December 1994, forcing thousands to evacuate just three days after the peso began a major devaluation. This time, the volcano’s activity came just days before another big drop for the peso against the dollar _ 6 percent.

``Maybe God isn’t listening to our prayers,″ said Constantino Aguilar, a candy vendor perplexed by the country’s misfortunes. ``These kinds of things are happening almost daily now.″

The Day of the Dead is a natural time to consider the supernatural. The two-day holiday, today and Thursday, is a time to honor deceased relatives with offerings of candy skulls, pastries and vigils at cemeteries.

The worries are evident in the main capital plaza, site of the ancient Aztec ruins of Tenochtitlan, where people lined up Tuesday to receive a ``limpia″ or ritual cleansing with burning incense by Indian spiritualists.

At the nearby Sonora market, housewives spent hard-earned pesos on white and red candles to light on homemade altars for Day of the Dead.

They also picked up good-luck amulets, quartz stones said to provide energy, and ``Indian Herb″ and ``Sandalwood″ aerosol sprays that promised to draw money, jobs and health.

``People have been coming here since the economic crisis looking for help,″ explained one vendor, Rosalinda Cuesta, in stalls crowded with plastic pyramids and smiling Buddhas.

A psychoanalyst, Dr. Antonio Santamaria Fernandez, said many people were looking for answers to the disorder of the past year.

``Economic uncertainty turns people to supernatural thoughts,″ he said. ``People are seeking answers to their fears and insecurities and they do that by trying to interpret the signs.″

The Mexican writer Homero Aridjis agreed.

``We have the feeling that life in Mexico is devaluing, that the ancient gods are abandoning us, not just those of Christianity but of the pre-Hispanic world,″ said Aridjis.

``It’s a kind of Greek tragedy that Mexico is going through: hurricanes, earthquakes, devaluations, assassinations and problems in politics. People are tired.″

But many still scoff at reading too much into the happenings.

Fernando Pena sold Halloween masks of a now-disgraced former president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, on a downtown street corner and laughed at talk of things unusual going on.

``These are things that have always happened in Mexico,″ said Pena. ``So why be scared?″

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