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Is it happening? The student protests

2 October 2014

Nothing happens in Mexico… until it happens.

(Porfirio Díaz)

In writing about the student movement of 1968 here in Mexico, and its tragic climax, I traced back the roots of that movement not to the world-wide movements of the late 60s, but to a seemingly unimportant …. and little noted… inident a decade earlier, when students took to the streets to demand the government lift a ban on showing “Jailhouse Rock” in movie theaters.   In 1958, nothing happened (other than the Federal District arranged for more matinee showing of Elvis, with half-price tickets for those with a student ID card) until in 1968, IT happened.  The IT was a growing middle class (one tends to forget that Mexican incomes and expectations rose dramatically in the late 50s and 60s, and that an unprecedented demand for higher education meant the majority of university students were not from the elite classes, or from intellectual families, but were only a generation removed from peasant or worker backgrounds).  Mexico had changed, but to the ruling PRI, nothing had happened.  Like Don Porfirio, the PRI ruling class saw itself as acting for the good of the nation, never noting that the material changes they introduced had changed the people in whose interests they supposedly made these changes, were changed by it.  And, soon after Don Porfirio made his remark in 1910… something happened.

While I am in something of a minority in thinking the PRI of the 1950s and 60s was mostly beneficient, it — like Porfirio Díaz — never noticed that the people (who benefitted from these changes) had also changed.  What made the Elvis protests seemingly unimportant in 1958 was that the number of students at the time was relatively small, and students were still overwhelmingly from priviliged backgrounds, not particularly representative of the people as a whole.  By 1968, with economic growth leading to a larger pool of families that could afford to allow their children to engage in economically unproductive work like seeking a higher education, and with even rural campesinos having benefitted from rural electrification (and television), there were not only more students in 1968, but more and more   campesinos and workers included in their family circle an educated “person of respect”.  That is, whereas in the past, the state depended on an alliance of the elites and middle-class professionals (a formula that dated back to the theories of early Postitivist Juan José Mora), the professional class, and those vying to join the professional class… i.e., the ruling class… had grown exponentially.  And, this new would-be ruling class demanded not just access to the levers of power, but more autonomy for those within their own peer group, those families back on the farm, or on the assembly line, as well.

October 1968 was one of those moments when something happened.  There had been student protests over one and another issue throughout the country, mostly over local issues, that all converged in an orgy of violence at Tlatelolco… which would with time be channeled into largely cosmetic changes that while they seemingly broadened political access never really dealt with the economic and social issues (again, like Don Porfirio’s “reforms”).

Fast forward to 2014.

Public universities gained autonomy (free to operate under self-regulation, without direct state interference) and the political system opened up… to more of the same.  And, with “neo-liberalism” the new theory, for both PRI and the main opposition, the new elites (even those of worker and campesino backgrounds) are again making “top down” decisions, that alter the lives and expectations of the people themselves, without giving them a say in how these changes occur, or what effect they will have on their lives.

Educational “reforms” have been imposed more at the behest of the neo-liberal elites than anyone else.  While the schools are in desperate need of better funding, and the teachers in need of better training and resources, the state has chosen to listen to one “think tank” in Polanco in pushing for “teacher competency testing” while ignoring its own complicity in the problems teachers are having, thanks to the PRI and PAN’s tolerance for mismanagement and outright theft by the union bosses imposed on the teachers by themselves.  Coupled with that is the imposition of curriculum changes meant not to create educated people, but workers.  At IPN, removing humanities from the curriculum in favor of shortened classes meant to impart just the technical training needed for carrers is one of the students’ largest complaints.  That, and as the nation’s main source for teacher training and school administration, a recognition that merely training a student to present facts in a classroom (and to adequately pass standarized tests) is not education, and is meant to thwart the expectations of a better life for the next generation.

IPN students take over the Circuito Interior marching from the main campus to Casco San Tomás (the Superior Normal School Campus)

IPN students take over the Circuito Interior marching from the main campus to Casco San Tomás (the Superior Normal School Campus)

Add to that the attempts by IPN rector Yoloxóchitl Bustamante to prevent students and faculty from participating in political affairs, and this is not another protest against media censorship (as in 1958 and with the #yosoy132 movement), but may be one that… in retrospect… might trace its roots to.  Student in that protest against Televisa’s monopoly on the news and the manipulation of the news did bring students from all universities, including some of the elite private universities, into the streets, but perhaps it wasn’t yet time for “something to happen”.

Teachers, especially from the dissident CNTE and some from the “official” SNTE have been protesting against the curriculum changes and the imposition of teacher tests (designed, one thinks, to denegrate public education, and soften up resistence to privatization, much as mismanagement at PEMEX and tolerance for incompetent and corrupt union leaders has been meant to justify de-nationalization), but outside of a small “permanent encampment” in Mexico City, the issue hasn’t caught on.  There too, something happened.

In Guerrero, at what even by long-time Mexico hands like the Guardian’s Jo Tuckman as “a famously radical teacher training college”, it isn’t so much the “radicalism” that has sent the students off campus and into the streets, as another of the 1968 factors.  The Guerrero students are nearly all indigenous… from families in which a village maestro is as close to “person of respect” that the forgotten campesinos of this country can strive to become.   If these students seem radical, it is only in that they reject the state-imposed corrupted SNTE in favor of the autonomous CNTE, and they recognize that the “top-down” curriculum reforms do nothing for them, or theirs.  If they are “radical” it is in the sense that indigenous people are always “radical” in fighting to preserve their traditions.  These students reject a requirement to teach English, for example, less because of any (quite legitimate) sense that the requirement is for the benefit of foreign employers and foreign control of future workers, but because they recognize that their students are already at a disadvantge, often not speaking Spanish.  And that they can’t get texts in their own languages.  And, as the future “men and women of respect” in their traditional cultures, they are expected to lead the stuggle for their various people’s autonomy.

Tlatelolco 1968.  Iguala, Guerrero 2014?

Tlatelolco 1968. Iguala, Guerrero 2014?

While I wanted to go off on a tangent about the militaziation of the police, comparing what happened in Guerrero where there are “scores” (up to 60) students being “disappeared” (i.e., in all likelihood dead, left to be found later with “signs of torture on their bodies”), with the sudden shock people have in the U.S. at discovering their own miliarized police are not there to “serve and protect” them, I will limit myself to pointing out that the police in Guerrero are suspected of acting in concert with either narcotics dealers or local business interests (often the same thing) in what was by all accounts, a massacre.

Tlatelolco was covered up by the state.  But in 1968, there was no internet, no alternative media except word of mouth to tell what happened.  It’s impossible now, and the Federal Government has been forced to respond.  How successful they will be in spinning the story (just getting The Guardian to call these students “radical” is a good first step in creating a story that this was a “one off” moment somehow related to specific conditions in Guerrero that have nothing to do with class or social conditions throughout the country) is going to be crucial over the next few weeks and months.  In October 1968, the state’s human sacrifices was to be the end of the student movement.  With student standing up for education, here, in Chile, in Colorado and the young risking their lives for democracy and openness, whatever happened in Iguala may only be the opening salvo of IT HAPPENS.

Grabman, Richard, “Everybody, Let’s Rock!” (Gods, Gachupines and Gringos, pp. 385-388) and “The Ghosts of Tlatelolco” (GGG, pp. 394-401).

Igartúa, Santiago, “Estudiantes obligan a Osorio a dar la cara y logran cita para el viernes”, Proceso (30 September 2014)

Knoll, Andalusia and Marisol Wences, “Mexican Police Accused of Brazen Attacks on Buses Carrying Students and Soccer Players“, VICE (30 September 2914)

Lo que se sabe de los 57 estudiantes desaparecidos en Guerrero, México“, Animal Politico (29 September 2014).

Tuckman, Jo. “Scores of students still missing after ambush by Mexican police and gunmen“, The Guardian (30 September 2014).

Televisa, La Jornada, Milenio and the usual suspects.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. roberb7 permalink
    2 October 2014 2:35 pm

    According to this guy:
    the amount of money spent on education in Mexico is reasonable, but a lot of the money gets pilfered.

    • 2 October 2014 3:17 pm

      Precisely, and a good reason for studets and teachers to protest.

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