The women working at ABC Toys on the second floor of a nondescript office building in Mexico City’s working-class Obrera neighborhood drew so little attention to themselves that when the building collapsed in last week’s powerful quake few living nearby could recall them.
In death, they remained nearly as anonymous: Government officials identified them in a list of foreigners killed during the 7.1-magnitude quake as simply “four Taiwanese women.”
But Helen Chin, Amy Huang, Carolina Wang and Gina Lai did have names - and stories that came to a sudden end under the rubble of the building at 168 Bolivar Street.
The glass-and-concrete building housing an assortment of Taiwanese toy and technology businesses, along with a clothing company run by an Argentine-born Jewish immigrant, is where nearly all the foreigners killed in the quake died. Aside from the four Taiwanese women, they include Jaime Askenazi, whose friends affectionately called “Che,” and Pepe Lin, a Taiwanese-born father of two who made his way to Mexico after first moving as a young boy from Paraguay.
“He came here, like many people,” Margarita Cohen, a distant relative said of Askenazi’s arrival from Argentina. “To search for more luck.”
Their numbers were small but collectively their lives provide a snapshot into recent migration to Mexico. As trade ties between China, Taiwan and Mexico have tightened a new wave of immigrants has arrived to invest in factories and open import-export businesses. Larger numbers arrive from other Latin American nations, either hoping to make their way to the United States or improve their economic prospects in Mexico.
“He loved it here,” Moises Lin, Pepe Lin’s younger brother, said. “He found an opportunity to come so he took the chance.”
The businesses at 168 Bolivar Street were located on four floors of offices inside the peeling red-painted concrete building with tinted floor-to-ceiling windows. Each business had no more than a half-dozen employees and there were likely no more than 50 people believed to be inside the building when the quake struck.
ABC Toys had a showroom and administrative office in the building, while Lin ran Dashcam System Mexico, a company providing security cameras for vehicles, from the fourth floor. On the same level Diesel Technic, a German-based auto parts company, operated an exhibition space.
Though the building appeared dated and ill-maintained, Moises Lin and other friends and relatives of those who worked there couldn’t recall them ever complaining about feeling unsafe.
Rather, they saw the modest office in a neighborhood filled with warehouses and convenience stores as a beacon of opportunity.
Before the quake
Carlos Liao, the head of the Economic and Cultural Office of Taipei in Mexico, said the four Taiwanese women included a recent university graduate, a mother of a 3-year-old girl, and a mother and daughter who worked together. Interviews with friends and relatives provided more details about who they were.
Helen Chin left Taiwan with her husband and three children a decade ago. Her daughter, Amy Huang, worked with her at ABC Toys, a family business.
Chin did not speak Spanish, but her daughter seemed to adapt quickly to the family’s new home. She picked up the language and had a tight-knit group of Mexican friends that she traveled with. Photos from their journeys showed Huang smiling during beach outings, a cruise and a birthday party. In one photo, she stands with friends in front of a giant balloon depicting a Mexican mariachi player.
Mercedes de la Fuente, who met Huang through a mutual friend while they were attending the same university, said the 23-year-old was overjoyed when she obtained her Mexican voter ID card, joking with friends in a heavy Asian accent that now she was Mexican.
Recently, she had taken the lead at her family’s business after her father was diagnosed with cancer, de la Fuente said. The recent graduate seemed firmly committed to making ABC Toys a success.
“Her plans were with ABC Toys,” de la Fuente said.
Lin, who worked two floors above the women, had also worked for ABC Toys at one point, according to his brother. Born in Taiwan, Lin moved with his family to Paraguay when he was a child. There his family ran a Taiwanese restaurant in the capital and Lin helped take care of his little brother.
Born Lin Chia Ching, he took the name Jose in Paraguay.
After moving to Mexico when he was about 30, friends began calling him Pepe, a nickname often used for Jose.
Askenazi had also arrived in Mexico as a young adult pursuing the winds of prosperity.
“Argentina was very bad and Mexico was developing very good,” Cohen said.
In Mexico, his family grew to include seven daughters and one son. His clothing business employed a number of people in Mexico City’s Jewish community, Cohen said, and as his company flourished he became known for his generosity.
Friends liked to call him Che, a popular word for “pal” in Argentina.
On Sept. 19, all five were at 168 Bolivar Street when the ground began to tremble. Witness video shows the building toppling in a matter of seconds, leaving a gray cloud of dust in its wake.
Word quickly spread in the tight-knit Taiwanese and Jewish communities that some of their own were trapped in the rubble. In Paraguay, Moises Lim called his brother’s cell phone repeatedly and got no response. He didn’t worry at first, but grew concerned when his sister-in-law called, saying she’d been trying to reach her husband all day and hadn’t been able to reach him.
The Lin family boarded a flight from Paraguay and arrived in Mexico City the next day. Even when he saw the mass of rubble that used to be 168 Bolivar Street, Moises Lin could not believe that his brother might be dead.
One ambulance came and left with a body from the rubble. Then another. Workers found women’s clothes and toys among the debris.
“It can’t be Pepe,” the distraught family members whispered to one another.
Meanwhile, Huang’s and Chin’s families and friends launched a massive online effort to try to locate them, spreading photos and pleading for any information.
Late on the day after the quake struck, Moises Lin said the family got an unexpected call from Pepe Lin’s cell phone. It wasn’t his brother’s voice on the line, but rather that of a rescuer. They had found a destroyed phone on a man’s body and had managed to recover the SIM card with its phone numbers.
“Can you come and check if it’s your brother?” the man asked.
“We went to the morgue,” Moises Lin said. “And it was my brother.”
The four Taiwanese women were all pulled from the wreckage lifeless within three days after the quake. Liao, who spent hours at the search site and accompanied the families, said the force of the collapse left the women nearly unrecognizable. One was identified through a birthmark, another by her jewelry. The last was identified with the help of her acupuncturist.
Two Buddhist monks were flown in from Los Angeles for a traditional ceremony that stretched through the weekend and into Monday, the seventh day of their deaths, when Liao said many Taiwanese believe the deceased passes from the world of the living into heaven.
In the days since, Moises Lin said he’s wondered about the building where his brother was trying to forge his future. He wonders why the company didn’t choose a space that was better maintained. But he considers such questions useless now and is trying not to anguish over them.
“A part of me is frustrated,” he said in Spanish, before switching to English. “But I cannot feel that. Because if I feel that my brother won’t rest in peace.”
All of the women and Pepe Lin were cremated. Relatives recently began the journey of taking their remains home.