Life with a smoking mountain Volcano: Many residents of nearby villages are untroubled by the possibility that Popocatepetl will one day deliver "the big one."

Sun Journal

October 19, 1998|By Paige Bierma | Paige Bierma,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's famed Popocatepetl volcano would not erupt without first telling Don Antonio Analco. He's quite certain of it.

Analco is a holy man from the village of Santiago Xalitzintla, which lies just seven miles east of the powerful volcano he calls Don Gregorio. Analco says he talks regularly to the volcano, which he believes to be a powerful deity that controls not only rainfall but the destiny of the people who inhabit the lands around Popocatepetl.

"The day of the great eruption will come, but it will be forewarned," says Analco, whose thick black hair and dark angular face belie his 52 years.

"When Don Gregorio tells me, 'Here comes the big one,' I will warn everyone, and I will leave Santiago Xalitzintla along with them," the shaman says calmly. He has spoken with both Popocatepetl and its legendary lover, the inactive twin volcano Ixtacihuatl, in person and in his dreams since he was a child tending cattle around the volcano's slopes.

The 17,887-foot-high Popocatepetl lies 50 miles southeast of Mexico City. It has been spewing smoke, ash and molten rock since 1994, when it became active again, resulting in the rebirth of countless Indian legends about the volcano, as well as village gossip and a few juicy conspiracy theories.

Many Mexicans, for example, believe the government is covering up the true danger of a large and imminent eruption. Others believe the administration of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari sold the land surrounding the volcano to the Japanese. According to this theory, officials are trying to scare residents away from the area with rumors of an eruption so that the Japanese can take over the land.

Several human-rights organizations and independent scientists have criticized the government for failing to adopt adequate disaster plans and build decent roads in case an all-out evacuation is needed.

But those who live closest to the volcano -- its name means "smoking mountain" in Nahuatl, the Aztec language -- seem quite comfortable coexisting with it, despite its increased activity. They build their homes at its base and gather from Popocatepetl's slopes the resources that have allowed them to survive for centuries: water, wood, coal, volcanic stone and gravel for construction, and plants to make brooms.

Anthropologist Julio Glockner has studied the religious beliefs surrounding Popocatepetl and Ixtacihuatl for the past decade.

"There's a lot more confidence in the volcano among mountain people than city folk," Glockner says. "These are people who have lived around the volcano for many generations. The elders remember the ash and smoke eruptions in the 1920s. The eruptions caused alarm at the time, especially in the larger towns, but people saw that no damage was really done."

The mayor of shaman Analco's town, Juan Agustin Chalchi, is equally calm about the possibility of an eruption.

"The truth is we don't know if this current activity will turn out to be the big one," he says. "It's been giving off a lot of smoke and causing small [seismic] tremors, but nothing serious. But if Don Goyo [short for Gregorio] does shoot out lava one day, this town will be the first to go."

By contrast, the mayor of nearby Atlautla has been petitioning state officials to help residents relocate.

"Those I've told my plan to say I'm crazy," says Mayor Calixto Granados Villanueva, a member of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party. He has toured potential relocation sites in the states of Hidalgo, Veracruz, San Luis Potosi and Puebla. "I can't just be calm and say that an eruption is never going to happen. My idea is that [residents] can never lose out by investing in some land."

Granados doesn't trust the federal officials in charge of monitoring the volcano and evacuating residents in the event of a large eruption.

"They say that with all their technology and apparatus they can predict an eruption three or four days in advance," he says. "But there have been several explosions and they never tell us about them, or else they call us two or three hours after the explosions."

Servando de la Cruz, a vulcanologist and the research coordinator of Mexico's National Disaster Prevention Center, says the government has been preparing evacuation programs and disseminating information about the volcano for the past four years.

People who say Popo will spew lava and kill everyone for miles around have been watching too many movies, he says. "There is such a thing as acceptable risk. In the case of volcanoes, we have a mechanism to measure risk and if we reach a situation of high risk we can put our evacuation plans into action with plenty of time. The right thing to do is to give people accurate information and allow them to decide what kinds of risks they want to take."

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