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The Mexican volcano known as El Popo has seen increased activity lately


The Mexican volcano known as El Popo has seen increased activity lately, which is particularly worrying for the 25 million-plus people who live within a 60-mile radius of it, including the capital, Mexico City. So imagine how it feels to live immediately in its shadow. James Fredrick has been to one small town that lies just 5 miles away from El Popo's very active crater.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: Santiago Xalitzintla looks like many small towns in Mexico. There's a pretty central plaza. The mayor's office is on one side, a small cathedral on the other. It seems like any old day here in the central square. It's really just people going about their everyday business. But if you get to the right spot and you look west, you can see the top of El Popo, where it is still shooting this plume of steam and toxic gas and ash into the air. A thin layer of gray covers every surface. Most people are wearing masks, but otherwise ignoring their rumbling neighbor.

LUCIANA ESPINOSA: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Seventy-two-year-old Luciana Espinosa is focused on selling beans and vegetables. "What are we going to do?" she says. "We have to eat. We have to work."

Others I spoke to in Santiago Xalitzintla were also focused on practical concerns over the unknowable volcano. When would schools reopen so students can take their year-end exams? How can I make sure my livestock gets fed if we evacuate? Over time, you adjust to living next to an active volcano, says Benjamin Tequianes.

BENJAMIN TEQUIANES: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "It's normal for those of us who've always lived here," he says. "We coexist with the volcano."

El Popo had similar activity in 1994 and even as recently as 2016. Tequianes said this recent alert was an opportunity for the youngest generations to learn how to prepare for the worst.

TEQUIANES: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: His family has prepared their important documents, an emergency grab bag and a bit of spare water.

Still, Claudia Cantero says, even after years living next to Popocatepetl, there are still some things you never get used to.

CLAUDIA CANTERO: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: She says, the other night, they kept going out onto their rooftop every few hours to watch the faint orange glow from the crater light up the night sky.

CANTERO: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "I trembled, but I was excited," she says. "It's incredible to see a phenomenon like this."

The latest reports from the government indicate activity at Popocatepetl is subsiding. Here in Santiago Xalitzintla, people are hoping that means they can soon go back to the everyday wonder of living next to a very active volcano. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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James Frederick