Recent humanitarian crises have challenged traditional top-down responses that neglect the role of community engagement and citizen volunteers in emergency situations. These approaches also tend to overlook local cultural resources a key community asset that can make significant contributions to post-disaster recovery. The strategy adopted in Mexico after the 2017 earthquakes provides an innovative intervention model that combines cultural practices, community engagement and disaster management.
After the devastating earthquakes that affected Mexico City and several states in the country, citizen volunteers responded immediately to the emergency. They helped dig for survivors, provided first aid, and set up shelters. This assistance also included cultural interventions to help survivors cope with the phycological effects of the disaster by providing a safe space to process emotions and relieve stress.
Amongst these initiatives were the Reading Mediators (Mediadores de Lectura) who were part of the nation-wide programme Reading Rooms (Salas de Lectura) implemented by the Secretariat of Culture. The goal of the programme was to create a network of volunteers to provide reading, storytelling and other book related activities in informal settings such as homes, community centres, parks and markets. Reading mediators had received training to support vulnerable, displaced children and their families. The experience with community mediation and special training enabled the mediators to emerge as a critical actor in the emergency response.
During the first days after the earthquake the 100+ network of reading mediators focused on meeting the basic needs of communities such as food, shelter, and medical care. They then drew on their expertise to provide psychosocial support trough arts and culture. Meetings and workshops were organised with children, women, and the elderly using any safe space available in the community. Picture books were the main tool used to provide counter narratives, reduce stress, and promote problem solving. Books also helped participants learn more about earthquakes and other natural phenomena. In addition, the workshops included dramatizations, movie projections, painting and mask making.
Given the need to better coordinate and support Reading Mediators, the Secretariat of Culture established centres for collection and distribution of books creating a more formal infrastructure for their work. Importantly the Secretariat developed a specific training programme based on the practices and experiences of mediators. This was later consolidated in a protocol (El Protocolo) which provides a template for cultural interventions during emergencies. What makes this protocol unique is that it recognises Reading Mediators as key actor in the reconstruction process and the vital role that culture and arts play in the response to crisis situations.
The experience of the Reading Mediators and the consolidation of the protocol demonstrates that arts and culture based practices can assist communities to recover and build resilience. It also highlights the importance of community actors and bottom up approaches. Climate induced disasters, COVID 19 and protracted conflicts will continue to put pressure on governments and the international aid system. Humanitarian responses must innovate by adopting multidimensional strategies and rethinking the role of community actors and their networks. The Mexican cultural response provides a unique approach that could be replicated in other crisis settings.