Social movements claim public space in one of the largest cities in the Americas.
by David Bacon
The Progressive – October 9, 2023

Every day Mexico City taxi drivers, trying to navigate the city’s intense traffic, tune into the morning’s radio announcements of marches and demonstrations.  There are a lot of them – colorful, loud and insistent.  Over the years it has been easy to step out of the Maria Cristina in the morning, walk a block up to the Reforma, and join them with my camera. Much of the political life of the city is found in the street.  Its social movements use the public space often as a reminder of earlier protests and actions that have given form to Mexican politics.  

Those politics reflect an interplay of street protest and a more formal electoral process.  Today, following a new more open procedure for choosing presidential candidates (itself in part a product of movements in the streets), Mexico’s governing party Morena (the Movement for National Regeneration), has selected as its standard bearer the city’s mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum.  Given the popularity of Morena and its founder, current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, she is virtually certain to be elected.

She is an engineer, a skilled politician, the daughter of a leftist family, and of course a woman.  If elected, she will be Mexico’s first female head of state, joining a growing number of women who head or have headed governments throughout the Americas (notably not including the United States).  But it’s not just women in office that is changing politics.  The country’s Supreme Court recently struck down the prohibition of abortion.  Women have been protesting abuse and gender-based violence for years, especially since the disappearance of scores of young maquiladora workers in Juarez, on the Mexico/U.S. border.

It’s no surprise, therefore, to see that women have taken over a traffic island in the middle of the Reforma to highlight these attacks and demand justice.  A metal, violet-colored silhouette of a woman with her fist in the air rises above the corrugated walls of a kiosk.  The surfaces have first been painted back, and then the names of women murdered and subjected to repression have been hand lettered in white.

The number of names is extraordinary.  Each panel of the kiosk emphasizes repression directed towards a particular group.  One displays the names of women journalists.  Another lists indigenous activists.  It includes Bety Cariño, ambushed and killed as she brought support to an autonomous Triqui town in Oaxaca, and Digna Ochoa, defender of the poor, shot in her Mexico City office.  A third panel memorializes the 49 children burned to death in the ABC nursery.

On paper banners hung on strings at the edge of the curb are the words of ordinary women, giving account of abuse:  “Because of fear, because of reprisals, because I was not protected,” or “Because he was family, I was afraid of what they’d think of me, and when I told my mother, and she told his mother, they said I’d probably provoked him,” or simply, “He scares me.”

Further up the Reforma is another permanent memorial.  Not far from the guarded facade of the U.S. Embassy, and the buildings housing rich banks and government offices, is the Ayotzinapa encampment.

Nine years ago, students set out in commandeered busses from their teachers’ training school in Guerrero to the annual march commemorating the death of hundreds of students in the city’s Tlateloco Plaza in 1968.  Forty three Ayotzinapa students were seized and disappeared.  Through those nine years the investigation into the crime’s authors has reached into the highest levels of the government, especially the armed forces.  While previous administrations tried to pretend the students were simply victims of a narcotics cartel, it has become clear that there were deep political reasons for their murder.  

The Ayotzinapa school itself has been the target of the Mexican right for its history of training rural teachers.  The school gave students a radical and Marxist analysis of their country, preparing them to be social organizers, even revolutionaries.  It followed the tradition of one of its best known professors, Lucio Cabañas, who took up arms against the Mexican government in the 1960s.  

Over the years since the 43 murders, new generations of Ayotzinapa student have kept up pressure on the government by coming to the capital every month.  They have built a permanent camp on the Reforma, with cabins and shelters for sleeping and space for meetings.  Surrounding it are silkscreened images of the disappeared students, strung in rows on the shelter’s walls, facing the traffic.  This planton, or encampment, even boasts a small library, cared for by Martin, one of a group dedicated to maintaining the space.

On September 28 the families of the 43 disappeared lifted another planton they’d maintained in front of the Military Camp #1 in Mexico City, after a new report from the Commission for Truth and Access to Justice authored by Undersecretary for Human Rights Alejandro Encinas.  Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador stated, “We have not abandoned the case, we are going to continue investigating it for the mothers and the fathers, for justice and also for our convictions.”  He gave a new order to the army to release files on the case it had withheld, including documentation of the personal involvement of past President Enrique Peña Nieto in covering up the crime.

Public space is contested space for protest movements in any city.  In some, any effort to create a permanent presence is greeted with fire hoses, arrests and worse.  Mexico City has its own history of trying to sweep social movements out of sight.  But a tradition of popular protest is equally strong, including the planton.  It has popular recognition, which the government must take into account.

Perhaps the Ayotzinapa encampment, and the Glorieta de las Mujeres que Luchan (the Roundabout of the Women in Struggle) are products of a certain political moment.  But perhaps they will become as much a part of the recognized life of the city as the Angel of Independence.  The column with its winged statue has towered over the Reforma since 1910, the first year of the Mexican Revolution.

The two occupations of public space mark their own watershed in Mexican politics, and that change, with or without memorials, will perhaps last decades as well.

Permission given by David Bacon

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