She captured our hearts. Still a child but old enough, at 12, to understand the signals relayed to her deep inside the rubble of the Mexico City school that had crumbled all around her. Too young to die, and smart enough to tap back: here, down here, over here, where the kitchen was. She was safe, but trapped beneath a granite table. Could she wait? Yes. As day turned to night and then another day, as dazed and wounded classmates were pulled to safety and handed to ecstatic parents, she waited. As the remaining parents held back their sobs and brigades of rescuers carved and clawed their way through the mound of broken walls and floors and ceilings, she waited. Word came that she had moved her fingers, that milk was being sent to her by straw. Hourly bulletins confirmed that she was still alive. The painstaking effort to save her became a race against the clock.
And then, as silence enfolded the ruins of her school and the lifeless forms of other children were brought to the surface, as light turned once more to dark, the girl beneath the rubble, inexplicably identified now with the double name Frida Sofía, underwent an astonishing metamorphosis: long before her rescue, she became the poster child of the earthquake.
Of course her name was Frida. Like so many Mexican girls of her generation, she had been named after Frida Kahlo, one of the great artists of the 20th century and a national icon known to every schoolchild in the country. One day, like her famous namesake, she too might paint or dance or write. Mexico would be her stage. So young, and she was already a heroine, an example.
Having spent many years in Mexico, I held my breath with the millions who were rooting for that little girl. As the mother of a daughter, I felt the anguish of her silent parents. There were other children trapped beneath the collapsed school and hundreds of other victims still unaccounted for across the city and in villages closer to the epicenter of the quake. But Frida was the one whose name we knew, the one who was more than a statistic.
Although the school supplied no photographs, we understood the need for privacy and tact at a time when other families were grieving. While crews of photographers and journalists from around the world waited for their first glimpse of the young survivor, it was easy to imagine her. With her dark hair and big eyes, fragile and thirsty in the glare of the cameras and searchlights, doubtless in shock from her ordeal, our girl would nonetheless manage a brave smile as her weeping parents, restrained by rescuers and medics, strained to embrace the daughter of their dreams.
WE TURN TO FICTION for many reasons—to entertain, distract, elevate or escape. We read for realism, for magic or, at times, for the intoxicating blend of both: magical realism. Sometimes the stories we read or tell ourselves are set squarely in the present and on familiar turf. Fiction also can transport us to other countries, other worlds, and even to the far future or the distant past. But the one thing most of us seem to require of stories—whether written, acted, sung, or filmed—is a satisfying ending. Not necessarily a happy one, since even children nowadays have lost their innocence and no longer expect to hear that “they all lived happily ever after.” Still, as readers or viewers, we expect a final scene or at least a closing shot or sentence that resolves the story line, even if the ending is tragic or uncertain. But the story of Frida has no ending.
Two days after the quake, the authorities announced, rather unceremoniously and without assigning blame, that Frida did not exist and never had. There was no girl alive in the rubble, and no girl by that name enrolled in the school that had imploded from the quake, killing 21 children and four adults.
Unlike the hundreds of other casualties in Mexico City and beyond, Frida did not die in the quake. She exited this world as gently and quietly as a wisp of smoke, a simple exhalation. Who was she then, and what are we to make of her brief but intense existence?
Was her story, as many now contend, a hoax? A lie? A fraud? A fabrication? The growing anger of Mexicans is understandable when hundreds of rescuers risked their lives to save her and millions spent days and nights on social networks posting words of encouragement that the phantom girl would never hear or see.
Was Frida the product of a deliberate conspiracy peddled by the media colossus Televisa, whose reports from the scene were repeated and amplified by the country’s major newspapers and websites and even some from abroad? A cynical ploy to distract the masses when the quake had already revealed yet again for all to see the shoddy construction for which Mexico is known? Thirty-two years to the day after the cataclysmic 1985 quake that some say killed upwards of 20,000 people in Mexico City alone, Mexican commentators are already seeing her as a symbol of everything that is still wrong with their country.
With each passing hour, as columnists, sociologists, and psychologists weigh in and blame begins to be cast, Frida risks becoming a synonym for corruption and deceit. I have even seen in the Mexican press the coinage of a derogatory new term: “a Frida” being used to designate a scam.
But rather than accusing the government of manufacturing the story as a coverup for incompetence or graft; rather than attacking the media for purveying a sop to the millions of anguished Mexicans who were glued to their TVs and social media as the scale of the disaster became clear; and certainly rather than accusing those legions of well-meaning, compassionate Mexicans of falling for a story that from the outset was suspiciously unfounded (“fake news”?), I am inclined to place the story of Frida in another light. As a writer of novels, I know that fiction can often point us to a place of greater truth.
That means that sometimes, often unwittingly, we tell ourselves the stories we need to hear. And we believe them. Sometimes even made-up stories, just as convincingly as the best journalism, can deliver facts we might otherwise not know and reveal complexities we might otherwise not see.
There are thousands of genuine survivors of the quake, not only in Mexico City but in the hard-hit states of Morelos, Puebla, and Guerrero. Dozens if not hundreds of their names and tales will emerge in the coming days, along with denunciations of buildings erected in violation of the country’s housing codes, of bribed inspectors and truckloads of aid appropriated by greedy officials. When the last families have been notified, portraits of the dead will also appear in the Mexican media and life will begin to resume, as it always does in the aftermath of such disasters.
But Frida will live on, and I would prefer to see her story not as a tale of crass deception (although there is reason to believe that some reporters knowingly transmitted false information) but rather as proof of the most transcendent human need: to believe in something greater than ourselves and more enduring—hope. To reduce her story to a media concoction or disparage it as a collective hallucination, as some psychologists would do, is to deny the essence of that truth.
In recent weeks, the world has seen that the true heroes of this quake and the one that struck two weeks before in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas are the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who poured into the streets from Mexico City to the rubble-filled villages near the famous volcanoes, who risked their lives as first responders in the face of official ineptitude, and who emptied their shelves and stripped the blankets from their beds to offer immediate aid to those made homeless by the quake. It is these people, with their astounding reserves of dignity, generosity, and courage, whose story remains to be told and who still wonder, as Mexican journalist Elena Poniatowska eloquently asks in La Jornada, when they will finally see a government worthy of their hope.
In that light, rather than consigning Frida (or Frida Sofía) to the realm of fantasy or lies and berating ourselves for believing she existed, we should embrace her with all her multiple, contradictory meanings and include her in the story of the quake of September 19, 2017.
TOP IMAGE: Rescue operation continues at a school where more children are believed to be buried on September 20, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)