In hard-hit area of capital, Mexicans manage to get by

Guadalupe Vargas has been sleeping in the courtyard of her apartment complex since the great earthquake rocked the city 12 days ago. The apartment walls were badly cracked and she was told her to stay out of her apartment.

Alberto, her son, worked out of their two-room apartment until the quake. He assembled shoe parts with a heavy machine for a shoe factory.

``I can't use the machine here anymore because it causes vibrations,'' Mr. Vargas says, adding that the motion could knock down the weakened walls.

``We are like street vendors [now], because we have no means of supporting ourselves,'' says Mrs. Vargas, who has long been a resident of Tepito, a densely populated downtown neighborhood in Mexico City.

Mrs. Vargas and her son are typical of how many Mexicans are managing after the Sept. 19 earthquake.

Residents of Tepito have joined together to help one another as they face great hardships: lack of water, food, safe living conditions, and employment, and the fear of disease. Tepito was one of the hardest hit areas in the earthquake.

Further down the street families live under makeshift tents on the sidewalk. Felipe Moreno, his daughter Leticia, and her children sleep in a room made of flattened cardboard and plastic sheets.

Two of Mr. Moreno's daughters and seven more people were killed when apartments in their complex collapsed in the earthquake.

Both Felipe and Leticia are temporarily unemployed. The machine he used to assemble shoes was destroyed in the wreckage of his home. The clothing store where Leticia worked as a clerk is closed indefinitely for repairs.

The Moreno family finds the biggest problem is getting food. ``There is a lack of control of the aid,'' Mr. Moreno said. Many families send each child to stand in line to pick up food packages which are meant to feed an entire family, he said.

``The major problem for me is water,'' said Teresa Argijo as she hauled six buckets of water on a rickety wooden dolly.

Water is scarce and poses a health problem to the Tepito residents and the 3 million other people who have been without water since the quake.

``The main problem is disruption of the sewage lines and the mixture between the drinking-water system and the sewage lines,'' said Nancy Sugg, an American doctor volunteering at a Mexican Salvation Army clinic in Tepito.

On nearly every block in Tepito, residents stand in manholes, using buckets to pull up water that collects in the underground network of pipes. Purified water for drinking is being distributed in quart bottles.

Tepito's cultural center set up a shelter the day of the earthquake. Some 300 people slept there in the days following the disaster. Community volunteers bring in food from collection points around the city, distribute staples, and help residents haul water.

``The people organized and surpassed everything the state did,'' said Sergio Puga, who coordinates the shelter.

``Here aid came from the people. Volunteers came bringing water, milk, and clothing,'' said Jos'e Luis Silva, a shopkeeper in Tepito.

The spontaneous, swift action of volunteers here has been instrumental in getting emergency aid to most if not all of the damaged neighborhood.

On Friday, a group of Tepito residents marched to the presidential palace and asked the government to provide reconstruction credits, reactivate centers of employment, and give aid to the homeless.

``The authorities [of Mexico] dislike private associations directed toward public ends,'' said Lorenzo Meyer, political scientist at the Colegio de Mexico, commenting on the widespread volunteerism that has arisen since the tragedy struck.

The Mexican government has traditionally fostered and granted social benefits to labor and peasant organizations affiliated with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. Independent popular organizations and civic groupings are unusual in Mexico's one-party system.

``Now there is a possibility of collaboration between the government and this outburst of social energy directed toward something very constructive, helping people, and the reconstruction of Mexico City,'' said Meyer. ``That collaboration suffers from friction now, but the two forces are working side by side for the most part.''

Community leader Puga says organizations like the Tepito cultural center can learn the benefits of working together by responding to similar emergencies.

``We must remember the lesson of Managua,'' he added. Government misuse of aid that flowed in after the 1971-72 quake that leveled the Nicaraguan capital increased opposition to former ruler Anastasio Somoza. Mr. Somoza was overthrown seven years later in a popular insurrection led by the Sandinistas.

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