Here in the United States, the grand jury in St. Louis has failed to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. People are in the streets all over the country. Social networks are full of despair, anguish, and fear. #BlackLivesMatter, people are saying. #Ferguson. #ShutItDown. People are filled with anger against a cynical, white supremacist state that kills again and again and again.
Meanwhile, others who I know are full of the same emotions, but are expressing them with different hashtags: #Ayotzinapa. #FueElEstado. #VivosSeLosLlevaron, #VivosLosQueremos. My Facebook newsfeed is full of the anguish of Mexican students because I spent the first half of this year living in Mexico City, and I use social media mainly to keep in touch with my friends there. Lately, Mexicans are fighting back in the streets and online against a government that murdered six students and disappeared forty-three more from Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College in Ayotzinapa. Dozens of universities are shut down by strikes. Student assemblies are replacing classes this semester. Mexico City has seen its biggest demonstrations of the twenty-first century. In rural areas, protesters have destroyed government buildings and shut down highways. The Mexican people’s response to these disappearances has brought Mexico to a political crisis.
When I arrived in Mexico in January 2014, it wasn’t this way at all. Rather than rebellious, Mexicans seemed beaten and depressed. At the end of 2013, Mexico City had dramatically increased subway fares, from $3 pesos MXN to $5 pesos MXN, making public transit completely unaffordable for working-class residents of Mexico City. In response, young people started the hashtag #PosMeSalto, Mexico City slang for “I guess I’ll jump.” On 13 December, the first day of the new fare, thousands of youth jumped turnstiles and posted pictures on social media, but the movement quickly lost steam. When I got there a month later, the movement was definitively over. Mexicans had settled into the grind of struggling to find a way to pay the fare or find another way to get where they needed to go.
Meanwhile, striking teachers from rural states were occupying a public square near where I was staying. I went a few times to their encampment to see what their movement was like. Being in that encampment reminded me more than anything of Occupy encampments in the waning months of that movement. The spirit was gone and it seemed that people were just hanging on to hang on. The teachers had originally struck and come to Mexico City months before to try and block an educational reform aimed at busting teachers unions and imposing high-stakes testing in their communities. At first they occupied Mexico City’s main plaza, the Zocalo, and took bold actions, like sitting down on runways so that the airport couldn’t function. But the government didn’t blink. The reforms were passed and the teachers forcibly removed from the Zocalo to a much less central plaza. By January, there seemed to be no way the teachers could win and that it was a matter of time before they went back to their states and returned to work, if they still had jobs.
On campus, there was a similar sense of a movement having passed. Two years before, in the spring of 2012, Mexico had its presidential election. The domination of the mass media and the political parties by a tiny elite completely divorced from the lives of ordinary Mexicans was clearer than ever. The candidate for the center-right party, then-Governor Enrique Peña Nieto, reminiscent of George Bush both for his neoliberal policies and widely mocked slips of tongue, came to give a campaign speech at a private university in Mexico City. When students protested him to call attention the 2006 massacre of protesters in rural Atenco that he oversaw as governor, the media mostly reported that they were not really students at the school where he was speaking, just partisan agitators. In response, 131 of them made a video showing their ID cards. Almost immediately, others around the country began to symbolically claim to be the 132nd protester with the hashtag #YoSoy132 (I am 132). The #YoSoy132 movement took off as a student movement that focused on the corruption of the mass media and political parties. They aimed to defeat Peña Nieto’s candidacy for president. There were rallies and walkouts around the country, but the election went forward and he was named president, although the election was widely condemned for irregularities and vote-buying. A little more than a year after he took office #YoSoy132 was over.
The school where I was studying, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) had been shut down entirely by a student strike in 1999-2000 that successfully stopped the implementation of tuition. UNAM has always been tuition free for all who can pass the exams to enter, like CUNY before open admissions. While I was there, people talked constantly about the strike, but it was difficult for me to imagine. UNAM had some amazing organizers, but the atmosphere was not much more mobilized than at CUNY. In some ways, it seemed less active. At radical events, you would see the same people again and again. People were disengaged from politics, even in the Political Science department. At off-campus rallies for International Women’s Day or May Day, usually only a handful of students would come out, mostly members of disciplined Leninist organizations.
Other foreign students who I knew at UNAM came from places like Quebec or Chile and openly mocked the lack of mobilization on the part of Mexicans. While we were there, Peña Nieto and his friendly congress passed reform after reform, constitutional amendment after constitutional amendment, privatizing public goods, restricting civil and workers’ rights. Mexicans would almost universally condemn the reforms if asked, but few were in the streets, leaving those who were subject to police beatings. Towards the end of the spring of 2014, I went to Mexico City’s May Day rally. We failed to fill even a quarter of the Zocalo, partly because many unions didn’t want to appear to be protesting against the government and partly because students didn’t mobilize much either. In the end, a city of over 20 million produced only a few thousand marchers on International Workers Day. What hope was there for Mexico?
After the summer, as the school year again got underway, I was back in New York. On social media, I started to see some rumblings. On 24 September, the administration of the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) dramatically changed the charter of their institution. Administrators would now unilaterally set curriculum, instead of sharing governance with faculty and students. The mission statement that emphasized using science and engineering to improve standards of living for all Mexicans would be replaced with one that emphasized competition and entrepreneurship above all. Finally, many of the rights that had been guaranteed to students in the past would be eliminated, making it harder to form student clubs, impossible to change majors, and harder to maintain full-time enrolled status. Outraged, students from IPN poured into the streets, shutting down major avenues in Mexico City. They were joined by students from other schools, including many from UNAM.
Meanwhile, on 26 September, students from the Ayotzinapa Teachers College went to the town of Iguala to get buses and raise money so that they could go to Mexico City. The college in Ayotzinapa is an independent, self-managed, radical institution set up during the Mexican Revolution that trains mostly indigenous people from some of the poorest communities in Mexico to become teachers in their own communities. The students were headed to Mexico City, ironically, for the annual 2 October march marking the anniversary of the 1968 government massacre of student protesters in Tlatelolco. The series of events is somewhat confused, but the mayor of Iguala had some combination of city police and narco-gangsters attack the students, killing six of them on the spot, disappearing forty-three more, and injuring twenty-five others who survived, escaped, and have told the story to the world. The story didn’t get out immediately, and even when it did, it didn’t immediately shock in the way that we might imagine it would in the United States. Keep in mind that in Mexico, every year tens of thousands are kidnapped, disappeared, or killed as part of the militarized drug war. It is estimated that in 2013 alone, 123,470 people were kidnapped.
Nevertheless, in October and November, the popular response to the disappearances grew and grew. 8 October was the first national day of action. On 13 October, UNAM went on a two-day strike. The strikes spread to other schools and states in Mexico. They became longer. My Mexican friends’ posts online became less and less about kittens and TV shows and more and more about the forty-three, the marches, and strikes they were organizing, and the endless gaffes of the Mexican elite in the face of the crisis. By 20 November, the day of a national general strike, the country seemed transformed. Even people who had never seemed political before were posting radical attacks against the “criminal government.” Chatting with a friend, I asked how she was. “Bad,” she said in Spanish. “The whole country is in a bad time right now. It’s impossible to be okay.”
This seemed so different from past struggles. People were angrier than they had been when the national oil company, Pemex, was privatized or when the teachers went on strike to save their schools. The people who stayed home on May Day were in the streets. The people who marched for #YoSoy132 were striking and occupying and shutting the city down. I started asking more and more of the people I knew and the people they knew about what was going on and why things were so different than before.
“It’s difficult to respond, honestly,” one friend from Northern Mexico wrote. “Mexico has been beaten and plundered for CENTURIES…we have a great power that we are only showing now.” Another suggested that the #Ayotzinapa movement brought together the forces resisting the drug wars and the student movement, breaking them out of their silos and bringing them together because “the Disappeared are just as much students as they are victims of the State.” Several said that they felt especially called to be involved with the movement because the students from Ayotzinapa could have been them. “Tomorrow maybe my brothers, friends, cousins could be missing…What happened to them could’ve happened to us, too,” said one person. Another: “We’re in the streets because we’re missing 43 students who could have been you or me.” Others pointed to technology and the ability to distribute information quickly across the country. Although Mexican print and television media are controlled by a tiny group of companies that are tightly politically aligned with one another and the leaders of major political parties, web-based media is much freer. “I think the Internet has given us another plane of communication, in which there is still something of freedom,” one person said.
Nearly everyone agreed that at some level it was exhaustion, some kind of accumulation of trauma. People used many metaphors of overflowing, breaking through barriers, and spilling over. More than anything, people used variations of the hashtag #YaMeCansé (I’m tired), which is a quote from a government official who said he was tired of the Ayotzinapa crisis, but which has been reclaimed by the protesters. “We’re tired of the injustice,” one person concluded. Another said, “This (the possible death of the students) was the spark we needed. We were tired, but they are killing us at such a young age…Enough is enough!”
The people I talked to ranged in age from nineteen to thirty-six and included students from UNAM, from other schools, from other parts of Mexico, and non-student activists. Nearly all of them agreed that the most exciting things happening right now as part of the current upheaval in Mexico are the spreading of consciousness and attention from outside the country. One friend said, “To me the inclusive marches seem essential. It’s not just students who are taking the streets, but families and workers as well.” “People you wouldn’t find organizing before now are,” observed another. “At the same time as the repression and the fear campaign are increased a notch, Mexicans’ political participation is as well.” “I’ve never seen so many people come together to fight for other people,” wrote a third. “I appreciate very much that among all of us, we’re planting a garden of consciousness, planting seeds with our actions.” Many talked about people “waking up” and seeing that this problem goes much deeper than a single government, and more generally about a process of mass politicization happening in the country.
Everyone I asked said that this movement was about all of the problems in the country, not only the forty-three students. One woman said, “No struggle is an isolated case.” Another said, “This movement is like a ball of snow. It went, bringing in every injustice, and resting on the top layer is Ayotzinapa, so that’s the thing we talk most about, that motivates us the most, but it has been everything together. It’s just that this case was the breaking-point, and because of that we all decided to go out and fight.” Many people I talked to said that the goal of the movement is, or should be, the total overthrow of the government. Even one person who didn’t argue for overthrowing the government said that the most important aspect of the movement for her was that “Our government is afraid of us… and they should be.”
There are many amazing stories coming out of Mexico right now. An important one that hasn’t received enough attention is that of the 20 November actions in Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora state. Sonora is a large northern state on the border of Arizona, and like many other northern states, it tends to be wealthier and more conservative than the rest of Mexico. In 2009, a nursery in Hermosillo, called Guardería ABC, where working-class parents left their small children burned to the ground, killing forty-nine children who were inside. This was a clear case of government negligence and corruption, because the politically connected owners of the nursery have still not faced any justice. There has been a national movement, focused in Hermosillo, to demand justice for the children killed in the nursery. In Sonora, the movement for justice for the Ayotzinapa students (who, between the murdered six and disappeared forty-three, total the same number as the children of ABC) has largely come out of and stayed closely tied to the Guardería ABC Justice movement. On 20 November – when the whole country had a general strike and marches in every city – in Hermosillo, they marched from the main university to the State Congress building, and simply seized it. There the people held sessions of congress inside the building, passing laws and resolutions about Ayotzinapa, the Guardería, and other issues. Many of my friends who participated in that taking of the congress told me it was an experience they would never forget, especially because only a short time ago, they would have never imagined something like that happening in Sonora. Things are changing.
I also asked people what they wanted people in the United States to know about their movement and what is happening in their country now. Three messages came through clearly from everyone: First, don’t ignore what’s happening and don’t forget about it. Second, don’t think that it doesn’t have to do with you, or that it’s only our problem; the blood of the Ayotzinapa students is not only on Mexican hands. Lastly, spread the word to everyone you know.
On the first point, many Mexicans are not studying at radical teaching academies in rural areas or traveling through drug-war-torn towns to protest, but nevertheless, they say that they feel that what happened to the forty-three students could happen to them or anyone they know. I would encourage us to take on that way of thinking. Yes, we are not in the same situation as the Ayotzinapa students, or even UNAM students, but the state here also kills and disappears people, through mass incarceration, deportations, police murder, extraordinary rendition, and other ways as well. Mexican organizers have sought to push at the boundaries of definitions to bring together the Guardería ABC and Ayotzinapa. We can do the same.
The extensive ties between the United States’ repressive apparatus and the Mexican equivalent are not surprising considering how friendly the two governments are, and the strong interest that the United States has in maintaining the status quo in Mexico. In this case, they are still coming to light more and more. Meanwhile, the Narco-wars in Mexico are fueled by drug consumption and drug policy in the United States. The current drug laws make no sense for the United States, and they are destroying Mexico.
Another woman writes, “Let’s begin by you respecting us. Reject your racist laws that treat Latinos like criminals. In our country, you don’t listen to us, you don’t pay us, you don’t educate us. We need freedom of movement across borders. America is an entire continent.” These issues are all connected.
Finally – we in the United States must talk about what is happening in Mexico. There is the main story, which is still not well-enough known, but also more recent events. Since 20 November, the authorities in Mexico City have begun taking many more students into arbitrary detention. This is a violation of students’ political rights. Meanwhile, we must also spread the word about the hopeful news coming out of Mexico, that in a place like Sonora, the people took over the state congress for a few hours last week. People value the fact that around the world, other people know what is happening in Mexico. Help to make that more true.
In the past few days in the United States, we’ve seen the movement against police brutality erupt across the country with many forms of resistance and many connections being drawn with other movements. What has happened in the past few months in Mexico should give us hope. Perhaps we, too, can learn from the past few years of movements in our country and take this opportunity to exploit the political crisis on both sides of the border. It’s time; enough already; #YaNosCansamos!