On September 19, 1985 a massive earthquake hit Mexico City. More than 10,000 people died and 3500 buildings collapsed or would be torn down because of damage.
In one of those buildings Rodrigo Gonzalez lay dead. He was a folk singer with a growing following. He sung about the megalopolis he called home, the magic behind the city’s bright lights and the alienation of its masses. "It was a grand, electric ranch with automatic cactus, with cyber charros, and neon sarapes," he sang in "Tiempos híbridos" (Hybrid Times).
Three decades later two L.A. residents keep his memory alive.
“Many people called him, or say that Rockdrigo is the Mexican Bob Dylan,” said Miguel Morales, using two of Gonzalez's nicknames. He was also known as El Profeta del Nopal (the Cactus Prophet).
Morales lived in a suburb south of Mexico City and moved to the United States several years after the 1985 earthquake.
Gonzalez and Bob Dylan, he said, have many things in common, “like the acoustic guitar, and the harmonica, and the good content of the songs, of the lyrics, many of the songs are poetry, like Bob Dylan himself.
For over 20 years, Morales has organized and played in his own musical tributes to Rockdrigo at small bars, restaurants, and cafes throughout Southern California, always on or around September 19th, the anniversary of the Mexico City quake and Rockdrigo’s death.
He only played Rockdrigo songs.
“In a typical tribute I perform like about 20 songs, 25. In the first years I used to perform straight, two hours” he said. He typically plays without any accompaniment. It's just Morales, his guitar, a harmonica, and the microphone.
Morales plans to play in a tribute with other musicians in October organized by the Latin rock magazine La Banda Elastica.
Gaby Berlanga was also born and raised in Mexico City. She moved to Oxnard 21 years ago.
She can’t think about 1985 without thinking about Rockdrigo’s song “Ama de casa, un poco triste” (Housewife, Slightly Sad).
“I was married, I was committed to my kids and I used to put that song and clean that house listening to all the lyrics and the songs of Rodrigo Gonzalez,” she said.
She also can’t think about 1985 without thinking about how the earthquake destroyed many Mexico City neighborhoods.
The earthquake hit at about 7:20 a.m. She felt it even though she lived 50 miles away, in Cuernavaca.
“I wake up really scared and I start looking at the news but then all of the sudden the signal went down," she said.
Some of the first news reports, on radio, came from Mexico’s most watched TV news anchor, Jacobo Zabludovsky. He drove around the city, described the devastation and interviewed people on his car phone.
Gaby and her husband got in the car. His grandmother lived in a five-story building near downtown Mexico City. As they drove in, they couldn’t believe the destruction.
“People was walking in the street like zombies, like they couldn’t believe what happened,” she said.
Morales and Berlanga didn’t know each other back then. He was playing guitar on the subway for spare change. She was raising a family.
For Morales, Rockdrigo’s music has been with him through the highs and lows of life in the United States.
“Looking back I have been in lapses of depression. I never knew until I read about it. I am learning to live with it and deal with it. In that sense music also lifts my spirit,” he said.
And Rockdrigo’s music has brought Miguel Morales and Gaby Berlanga together.
“I met Miguel through Facebook and last year. I had the chance to meet Miguel on November 22, the day of the musician and he invited me to sing a song with him on stage,” Berlanga said.
They had a lot in common: Mexico City, Mexican rock, and being immigrants.
“I knew that he was my soul mate, it was made in heaven, because I had never had the chance to meet somebody who can be so specifically equal like me in every way,” she said.
And they both thank Rodrigo Gonzalez, the folk singer who died in the Mexico City earthquake 30 years ago, for playing cupid.