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News / Nation & World

Amid the ash and threat of evacuation, life goes on under Mexico’s most dangerous volcano

By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times
Published: May 28, 2023, 1:37pm

SANTIAGO XALITZINTLA, Mexico — Each spring, residents of this village tucked at the base of one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes trek up to a cave near its crater to make a peace offering.

Their gifts of fruit, flowers and turkey cooked in sweet mole are meant to placate Popocatépetl, the nearly 18,000-foot-high volcano viewed by many here not just as a geological wonder, but also as a mythological being whose whims have long shaped the lives of those in its shadows.

These days, the consensus among villagers is clear: Popocatépetl isn’t happy.

For months now, the volcano has been spewing molten rocks and shooting massive columns of ash into the sky.

The eruptions have grown bigger and more frequent in recent weeks — rattling homes with wheezing exhalations that residents compare to steam escaping from a pressure cooker. Bone-gray ash blankets everything: cars, crops, even the dogs that beg for scraps in the streets.

The quantity of ash — which is a mixture of rock, mineral and glass particles from deep inside the volcano — prompted officials to ground flights at airports in nearby Puebla and Mexico City over the weekend and to suspend school in nearly two dozen municipalities.

On Sunday, officials raised the volcano threat level to “Yellow Phase 3,” which calls for those who live nearest to the volcano — including the 2,000 residents of Santiago Xalitzintla — to prepare for possible evacuation.

Although the volcano appears to be more active now than it has been in the last two decades, there is no indication that catastrophic eruption is underway, said Ana Lillian Martín del Pozzo, a volcanologist at the Geophysics Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. It has been centuries since the volcano last expelled a significant flow of lava.

Still, the volcano’s long history of destructive explosions and the 24 million people who reside within 60 miles of its crater make Popocatépetl an acute threat, and authorities aren’t taking any chances.

Scientists are monitoring seismic activity, testing the chemical content of ash and probing other metrics that predict future volcanic activity. Meanwhile, 7,000 federal troops have been mobilized in case an evacuation becomes necessary.

As geology fans gape at video feeds that show incandescent rocks blowing from El Popo’s peak, those who live along its flanks have watched with respect and a noteworthy lack of trepidation.

Residents went on with their scheduled celebration of a saint’s day over the weekend, dancing to a live band as flurries of ash fell, coating the streets with what looked like a soft dusting of snow.

And while many complain of sore throats, coughs and irritated eyes, they have mostly continued tilling the earth, tending their horses and otherwise going about life as usual.

“We’re used to it,” said Nazario Galicia, an 81-year-old farmer who on a recent afternoon was feeding his donkeys even as truckloads of national guard troops descended on the village to help sweep up piles of ash. “Our grandparents lived with the volcano, and their grandparents lived with it too.”

Like many people here, Galicia believes the volcano is a kind of deity — they call him Don Goyo — whose behavior is closely linked to human activity.

Galicia wondered whether the powerful eruptions in recent days were occurring because townsfolk had been unable to bring their offering to the volcano this spring, when milder bursts had ruled out their annual ascent. Or maybe, he said, the volcano was responding to current events, expressing its discontent with Mexico’s high levels of violence and corruption.

Popocatépetl and a nearby volcano, the relatively dormant Iztaccihuatl, have loomed large in Mexican mythology since at least the time of Aztecs.

According to one popular myth, they were formed after ill-fated lovers — the warrior Popocatepetl and the princess Iztaccihuatl — died tragic deaths and were turned into stone.

Popocatépetl’s explosions have displaced humans in the past. Archaeologists say a pre-Hispanic settlement not far from Santiago Xalitzintla was buried twice by eruptions long before the Europeans arrived in Mexico five hundred years ago.

The volcano was dormant for about half of last century, but rumbled back to life with a series of relatively small eruptions beginning in the 1990s.

The government ordered evacuations then, and some locals moved away. But most returned, adopting new practices such as covering water and food supplies for farm animals to prevent contamination from falling ash. Many, too, have embraced a kind of steely humor to cope with living alongside an ever-present threat.

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“We hope it calms down,” said Juana Hernández, 55, as she finished off her tacos near the town’s plaza one afternoon this week. “If not we’ll have to bring an offering.”

She wondered whether a chicken would do. Her friend Francisca de los Santos, 56, had another idea. “Maybe we should sacrifice one of our men,” she said, laughing.

The friends said they haven’t slept much in recent days, thanks to the volcano’s rumblings. In the evenings, villagers gather outside in the cold to watch as eruptions light up the night sky.

Many children are scared of the pyrotechnics. Some had urged their parents to find them a new place to live.

But despite her burning throat, scratchy eyes and worry that her family’s fruit trees might not survive the volcano’s blowing debris, De Los Santos said she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

After all, in this part of Mexico so prone to natural disasters — where earthquakes can level apartment buildings in seconds — there’s a certain pride that comes with living in proximity to danger.

Agustín Ochoa, the 64-year-old owner of a hat shop in the next town over, said life is more exciting under a volcano.

“The day there’s no eruption,” he said as he whisked ash from several white cowboy hats, “we’ll miss it.”