What it means to “never forget” – Participation and education on the 41st Anniversary of the massacre of Tlatelolco
On October 2, 1968 the Mexican government murdered hundreds of students, workers, and campesinos in Tlatelolco, a neighborhood and plaza in Mexico City. Not even children and neighborhood residents were spared from this atrocity. The October 2 massacre was preceded by months of political unrest in the Mexican capital, echoing student demonstrations and riots all over the world during 1968.
The massacre happened as a political rally was ending in the plaza. People were hanging out, sitting on the steps of the plaza, and enjoying the autumn afternoon despite the fact that there were snipers in the apartment buildings and military surrounding the plaza. Around dusk, police helicopters dropped flares into the plaza. The military moved in and started shooting indiscriminately. They sealed off the exits between the apartment buildings, trapping people with no way out other than to seek refuge in the apartment buildings. The police and military spent the whole night going door-to-door looking for those involved with the movement. The killings, arrests, and disappearances continued throughout the night. Residents of Tlatelolco reported seeing military vehicles and garbage trucks collecting the dead bodies from the plaza. It’s believed that up to 500 people were killed that night, although official records list the number at just 39.
Just ten days after the massacre, which the government and subsequent media reports falsely portrayed as having been started by “armed terrorists” within the student movement, Mexico hosted the ’68 Olympics. They were the first developing nation and Latin American country ever to host the Olympics. The Mexican government invested a massive $150 million in preparations for the Olympics, an absorbent sum considering the poverty that existed in Mexico. Leading up to the October 2nd atrocity, the government of Gustavo Diaz Ordaz spent the whole summer before the Games suppressing the student and democratic movements.
This past October 2, 2009 was the 41st Anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre. To this day, the Mexican government still covers up the truth about what happened in Tlatelolco. Around 18,000 people marched from Tlatelolco to downtown Mexico City to never forget this atrocity and to demand justice. To learn more and to show solidarity with others, I attended the march with the hope of documenting the day. This is an account of how I remember October 2nd…
I left the apartment at noon. I was supposed to be in Tlatelololco by 1pm for the 4pm march, but with a bus ride and then a subway ride plus transfer, there’s no way I’d be there by 1pm. This is Mexico City, perhaps the world’s largest city. Arriving at the Hidalgo metro stop on the blue line, I transferred to the olive green line going North, before getting off at Tlatelolco. As I climbed the steps out of the dimly lit subway station, I noticed lots of police on the left exit leading onto one of Tlatelolco’s many pedestrian plazas. I decided to head the other direction leading onto the boulevard; still more cops. Passing their corridor was the only way of leaving the subway station.
Walking past the abandoned, bombed-out(graffiti) movie theatre and then the hospital, the neighborhood has a distinct feel to it. Built in the early 60’s as an intentional, middle-class neighborhood with Soviet-esque apartment blocks, it has an imposing, yet vacant vibe. Although still heavily populated, Tlatelolco looks and feels like a shadow of its former self. The apartment high-rises bore much of the brunt of Mexico City’s devastating earthquake in 1985, with two units completely collapsing and 12 others being demolished for safety reasons after the 8.1 earthquake.
Originally, when Mexico City was still called Tenochtitlán in the 1500’s, Tlatelolco was a ceremonial site and temple for the city’s original inhabitants. La Plaza de las Tres Culturas, the starting point for today’s commemorative march and the site of the 1968 massacre, is practically built right on top of what is left of the ruins. The ensuing conquest by the Spaniards led to the destruction of the Indigenous temples and the construction of a Catholic church with the same stones. In the cruelest irony possible, it was this same Catholic church originally built by the Spaniards, that closed its doors and refused to provide refuge for the people being murdered by the military in 1968.
“Ya me voy antes que empiece la sangre”, said one elderly neighbor to another outside the corner store on the edge of the plaza as she hurried home. Fearing the worst she wanted no part in today’s march. The whole plaza was chalked with fallen bodies and little plastic coffins to remember the dead. There was a photography exhibit of different social justice movements around Latin America and graffiti’d murals hung from the side of the building on the East side of the plaza, the exact building where snipers fired from 41 years earlier. The official memorial statue for the victims of Tlatelolco ’68 was covered in wreaths and flowers. Just a bit to the side was a piece of political art laying flat on the plaza bricks, an anarcho-syndicalist memorial with the words “Ni perdón, ni olvido” (Don’t forgive, nor forget) made from tiny wood shavings.
Around the time that the march was to begin, I ran into some musician friends. Escaping the midday heat, we sat and talked in the shadow of the church as the aroma of weed smoke drifted through the crowd. Marchers expectantly positioned paleacates(bandanas) around their necks and faces. Suddenly, I heard the sound of many shuffling steps by the main door of the church around the corner to my left. I peered over and did a double-take as I noticed that the wooden door of the church was on fire. It had been hit with some sort of petrol bomb. Fearful of provoking repression, march organizers moved quickly to put out the flames and avoid confrontation. I was later told that the Church’s door was very unique for its time and style dating back hundreds of years. Nevertheless, given the history it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the damage done to the door.
Soon thereafter, we started to make our away toward Eje Central, the main boulevard that would be the start of the march route. There were about 1,000 people milling about in the street waiting for the march to begin and the various student groups to arrive from the plaza. Although organized and headed by Comité 68, an organization built up by survivors of the massacre and their supporters, the march was also comprised of student contingents from UNAM, Poli, UAM and Bachilleres schools. It was the student groups that took up the rear and seemed to be the most vocal and energetic. I made a conscious effort to take in all the visuals- the paper mache heads of Zapata and others, the middle-aged women with machetes, the still-persistant survivors of ’68, the young people bouncing and singing…
The march started a bit disorganized, but a more cohesive feel formed as we neared where Eje Central turns into a tunnel. As the road and protest inched ever closer to its opening, both sides along the railing above were lined with onlookers, photographers, and city cops. It felt like we were in a city parade. Many in the crowd got out stencils and cans of spraypaint. Masked-up guys and girls took turns writing their outrage on the wall. I even saw a young woman with a baby stroller grab a can and get busy! There were all sorts of memorial statements, condemnation of the government cover-up, and even calls for solidarity with the people of Honduras in light of the on-going military coup there.
What felt most intense was standing in front of the anarcho-syndicalist contingent as they created distance before the tunnel between their crew and the rest of the march in front. There’s a tradition on the Latin America left of creating a gap in the march and then a straight-up run of reckless abandon. Every time I heard the count down I crouched in front and waited for the rush of the crowd to approach me. At the last moment I would snap a picture, turn, and then join the crowd in a sprint. It’s an empowering feeling and one of my favorite experiences of being in a Mexico City demo.
After exiting the tunnel’s rowdy noise and visual resistance, there were about 100 riot cops, or “granaderos” in front of Plaza Garibaldi, a historical site near Downtown known for its mariachi bands and alcoholics. These riot cops were just the first that would be seen out of the 4,700 that were deployed for the day. As I was examining the mood of the march and its interactions with the cops, a huge explosion went off. Not a bomb, but the most powerful firecrackers you could imagine were landing and exploding at the feet of the riot cops. As more exploded, the marchers were taunting and jeering the cops as the sporadic loud blasts made the cops visibly shaky. From conversations I’ve had with almost any resident of the city, the cops are loathed and barely tolerated at best. Known for rampant corruption and abuse of power, it wasn’t surprising to see the amount of anger directed their way.
After passing the first line of riot cops, the march passed a stretch of run-down buildings with two of DF’s most iconic structures, the Bellas Artes and Torre LatinoAmericana buildings, looming in the background. Passing the post office, boarded up and surrounded by more riot police, the street felt increasingly closed-in. There were more small explosions directed at the police, as well as spark plugs and stones bouncing of the side of buildings looking for a window. Many called for calm, but the anger was apparent and the atmosphere was obviously tense. I noticed shouting near the police line. Many of the photographers flocked against the march to get closer. One of the buildings had a ledge with bars over the window, so I climbed up to get a better look, perched above the crowd. The cops were damn-near huddled together, while masked youth threw projectiles and were even jump-kicking the wall of heavy, plastic shields.
Shortly thereafter, the march arrived at the intersection of Madero and Eje Central. Madero is the street that leads directly to Dowtown’s central Zócalo; it was blocked off by riot police. At the same time, other riot police who had been lining both sides of the street strategically moved in and surrounded a contingent of the march, called “La Otra Campaña”. La Otra Campaña is an umbrella group that includes autonomous movements such as the Zapatistas, anarchists, as well as transgender activists and others. After reading the Indymedia Mexico account of the police action, one could deduce that provocateurs had infiltrated La Otra Campaña as a pretext for the police to repress the La Otra Campaña folks. Indymedia also later reported that arrests had been made on the “3 de Marzo” porro that mixed in with La Otra Campaña. “Porros”, not to be confused with soccer club supporter group “porras”, are generally apolitical street thugs that are often-times paid by the authorities to beat up students and activists, as well sabotage and discredit marches and movements. These are the people who most likely provoked the riot police with the foreworks, thus providing pretext for attacking specific segments of the march.
Whether porros or not, the result of actions between the marchers and police had a couple of ramifications: first, it disrupted the flow of the march as many streamed backwards to either watch or show solidarity amidst potential police repression of the marchers; second, it separated the older folks at the front of the march from the youth contingents such as “La Otra Campaña”, thus creating a vulnerability for the more radical-minded elements of the march. This vulnerability intensified as the police surrounded a whole block area of the march and started to push their way in from all sides. Out of the thousands of people marching, I’d guess that there were about 400-600 squeezed in with no escape. I had my camera in hand, but now was less interested in capturing images and more preoccupied with holding my own and finding solidarity with others. As I tried to find breathing room, it was a crushing feeling of wall-to-wall bodies. Some of those caught in the seemingly pre-planned trap were screaming for relief and trying to escape. I soon found my body pressed up against the riot shields with nowhere to go.
Just behind the wall of police was the beautiful marble plaza and fountains of the Bellas Artes museum. The contrast all seemed very surreal. Despite the pleas of some of the marchers, it seemed unlikely that the police would allow access to the famed plaza behind them; the wall stood firm. All of a sudden there was a surge, with the sheer force and momentum of the crowd breaking a hole in their wall. As I pushed my way past the riot cops, I put up my forearms expecting blows from billy clubs. However, the overwhelming push of hundreds in the crowd seemed to have caught the police off-guard. I realized that my only way out was to climb the waist-high wall in front of me. I didn’t hesitate twice as I climbed the wall and ran through the water fountain and jumped down onto the plaza walkway. As I looked back people were struggling and medics were racing to the aid of a middle-aged man who had fainted at the feet of the cops and was slumped on the wet ground in front of the fountain.
By this point, I was nowhere near anybody I knew. I hadn’t come with an affinity group, but at this point I wished I had one. I remembered my conversation hours earlier with my girlfriend. She told me to be extra careful, and I promised her I’d try and understand the balance while in the moment. I promised myself I wouldn’t get trapped in again.
As I was pondering my options, I realized that there was a stand-off between the cops and protesters who who had re-organized in front of Bellas Artes. The cops had now formed a wall again, not allowing the group to re-join the rest of the march. A small handful of masked anti-fascists were chanting “júntense”, or roughly “everybody stick together”. The cops intended goal of corralling the protest and keeping it away from the prestigious Bellas Artes building had now turned itself inside out. However, the cops were surrounded on both sides, but at the same time forming a cordon around the plaza as other contingents within the march continued en route to the Zócalo. Those on the plaza were trying to get back with the march, but the police seemed determined to keep it divided. Stones, firecrackers, and bottles started to rain down on the police from both sides. The police would surge forward to grab somebody, and the crowd would surge toward the cops to defend the group. It was like a push-pull for 15 or 20 minutes, with tear gas being used on the crowd out of fire extinguishers by the police. As I got a better view, I saw that a protester had grabbed a riot shield. He was running toward the wall of police and then jumped in the air, lucha libre-style, and slammed the shield down onto the wall of police. As the wall shifted and moved, I realized that there was now a gaping hole allowing me back with the rest of the march. As I ran to re-join the group and finish the march I was hit with a wall of tear gas. It also dawned on me that I was back surrounded on both sides of the street by the cops again.
As my face and eyes increasingly felt the sting of the gas, I managed to make my way into a crowd of onlookers and found some others washing out their eyes. The police kept on trying to corral people, so I decided to dip down a side street and look for a subway station . Even on these narrow side streets near Chinatown there were lines of uniformed cops. At this point there was enough of a mixture of protesters, journalists, and curious onlookers that a certain safety existed from indiscriminate arrest. My goal was to circle back and somehow make it to the Zócalo for the rally, but the whole downtown area was blocked off. Every corner I turned there were cops. I finally made my way to the Pino Suarez metro station with all the the other pedestrians who were trying to get home for the weekend. If you’ve ever feared what a potential police state would feel like, this seemed eerily close.
As I rode the subway home, I realized that today’s march was also representative of the collective rage that many feel currently toward the incompetence, corruption, and violence being perpetrated by the State. October 2nd is about remembrance and the hope for justice, but also is the reality that many problems still remain unchanged some 40 years later. Consequently, the current political and economic climate bears some similarity to the days of ’68- political and social unrest in the face of rising inequality and oppression, as well as the criminalization of student activism. Not to mention that 2010 is the 200-year anniversary of the creation of Mexico as a nation-state, as well as the 100-year anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. Therefore the ruling class is eager to promote and showcase “their” Mexico. In other words, to show the world the best of Mexico while ignoring the collateral damage their policies have inflicted on the community . It could well be that 2010 truly ends up being a defining year in Mexican history.
(NPR-made three-part documentary on Tlatelolco’s history)