Radical media, politics and culture.

Donald Nicholson-Smith, "Black Glove/White Glove: Revisiting Mexico's 1968"

"Black Glove/White Glove: Revisiting Mexico's 1968"
Donald Nicholson-Smith

For all the inevitable talk of Olympiads past, we haven't heard much (in the U.S. media at any rate), about the 1968 Games in Mexico City, formally opened by President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz on 12 October of that seminal year in an atmosphere redolent, according to the New York Times, of "pageantry, brotherhood and peace." Just ten days earlier, Díaz Ordaz — for many reasons, but certainly out of determination that the Games should proceed unmolested by social protest — had unleashed the combined power of the Mexican military and police forces on a mass of unarmed student demonstrators and other civilians, shooting and bayoneting to death more than three hundred of them, then covering up the scale of the slaughter and attendant torture and disappearances. The International Olympic Committee, though one of its members had witnessed corpses being piled onto lorries for removal from the killing ground of the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, voted in an emergency meeting to carry on regardless. Politically speaking, the 1968 Games would be remembered in the world at large not for the myriad victims of Mexican state terror (as Octavio Paz called it), but for the black-gloved right fists, raised in a silent but eloquent call for black power, of the Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the two-hundred-meter gold- and bronze-medal winners. The two were promptly ejected from the proceedings by the tidy-minded Olympic Committee.But for Mexicans, for Mexico, October 1968 would be remembered for the bloody defeat of a massive, three-month-old student movement that had begun, or so it seemed, seriously to challenge the sclerosed authoritarian rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). And it would be the single white glove worn as identification by members of the 'Olympia Battalion' - a secret army unit of thugs who went among the students on 2 October arresting them and beating them up - that would eventually come to symbolize this watershed in the nation's history. For though the 'Tlatelolco Massacre' - so named for the housing estate where the event took place - spelt defeat for the burgeoning student-led protest movement of 1968, it was also, indubitably, the beginning of the decline of the PRI's hegemony, even though fully thirty-two years would elapse before Vicente Fox's election in 2000. Appropriately enough, Díaz Ordaz foresaw nothing of the erosive process ahead: 'Mexico will be the same before and after Tlatelolco [and] because of Tlatelolco,' he concluded in his memoirs. As Enrique Krauze notes in his Mexico: Biography of Power, 1810-1996 (English translation by Hank Heifetz, New York: HarperCollins, 1997), "he could not have been more mistaken."

To begin with, all the same, the cover-up was highly effective and durable. Had it not been for the almost miraculous presence of the cosmopolitan Elena Poniatowska, whose relentless investigative journalism produced a most extraordinary oral history, La Noche de Tlatelolco (Mexico City: Era, 1971; English translation by Barbara Bray: Massacre in Mexico [New York: Viking, 1975]), it would surely have held up much longer than it did.

I said 1968 was a "seminal" year, but I daresay I could get an argument about this characterization with respect to the French, British, or American versions. Not so for the Mexican. Anyone interested in the destiny of the Mexican "generation of '68" that emerged from the bath of fire of Tlatelolco to confront on the one hand the dirty war of the seventies, with its thousands of killed and disappeared, and on the other the still multifarious and canny seductions of state power, could do worse than pick up a readable, liberal, general-purpose account of the years of the PRI's long agony, namely Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy, by the New York Times reporters Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004).

For those of a more leftish, marginal or even romantic bent, I want to recommend

'68, by the well-known Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II
(New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004,
available in the original Spanish or in an English translation by me). First published in 1991, Taibo's book is a brief memoir of the student movement based on notes made in the immediate aftermath of the disaster for a novel that 'probably did not want to be written.' It is an anecdotal time capsule, quirky, intimate, and poignant. It is also a collective profile of the author's generation of middle-class kids in all their pre-Tlatelolco innocence - so much like, yet so different from their peer '68ers in North America or Europe: 'We read Howard Fast and Julius Fucik, Julio Cortázar and Mario Benedetti, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury and Jesús Díaz.... We were surprised by Carlos Fuentes's Where the Air Is Clear; in sharp contrast to our decontextualized readings of Lenin, here was a scientific account of the formation of the new Mexican big bourgeoisie, product of a perverse union between Sonoran generals and the sanctimonious daughters of Porfirist oligarchs or shopkeepers just off the boat from Spain.... Literature was real reality. We listened to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary - the music of the anti-Vietnam War generation; secretly, we (or at least the schmaltz-prone among us) listened to Charles Aznavour and Cuco Sánchez.'

Here is Taibo looking back with twenty years' worth of hindsight: 'When all was said and done, it had been nothing but a student movement lasting one hundred and twenty-three days. No more and no less. And yet it had given us - given a whole generation of students - a past and a country, a ground beneath our feet.... The most unhinged joined an urban guerilla struggle that over the next five years bled out into a merciless dirty war. A very large group of us went into the neighborhoods and founded community organizations... others went into factories.... others ended up in the countryside - an even stranger land.' 'Of course there were defeats, a shitload of them, but surrender was rare. Sixty-eight bequeathed us the reserves of defiance and determination that had been the motor of the Movement as a whole, and it infused us with a sense of place, a firmly rooted feeling of nationality.'

'But then there are days when I see myself, and I don't recognize myself. Bad times, when the night prolongs a rainy day, when sleep won't come, and I wrestle vainly with the computer keyboard. I realize then that we seem doomed to be ghosts of '68. Well, what's so bad about that? I ask myself: better to be Draculas of resistance than PRI-ist monsters of Frankenstein, or of modernity. And then the keys produce graceless sparks, weak flares, memories that are sometimes painful but most of the time raise a slight smile; and I long for that old spirit of laughter; I mourn, growing fearful of the dark, for an intensity now lost, for that feeling of immortality, for that other me of that never-ending year.'

Over the last decade or so, wrote Taibo in 2003, 'the persistence of the intellectual community and of a number of newspapers and magazines has repeatedly turned the spotlight back onto the '68 Movement.... Photographs and films have been dug out of the archives, an excellent documentary has been made by Carlos Mendoza... and a book published, Parte de Guerra II [Mexico City: Aguilar, 2002], with a commentary by Carlos Monsiváis and Julio Scherer García, that sheds much light on the role of the army.'

When, after 71 years of unbroken PRI rule, the Fox administration government came to power with a much-touted commitment to 'transparency', a Special Public Prosecutor was appointed to investigate the political crimes of the 1960s and 1970s. Although it is now officially admitted that the state was responsible for many hundreds of killings in those years, as yet only one indictment has been sought, that of former president Luis Echeverría (Díaz Ordaz's Minister of the Interior in October 1968), charged with "genocide" on 22 July last by special prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo Prieto in the killing of "dozens" of student demonstrators on 10 June 1971. This incident, known as the Corpus Christi Massacre, involves a bizarre plot supposedly hatched by the then president himself and executed by a goon squad known as 'Los Halcones' (The Falcons), the aim being to intimidate veteran student leaders of 1968 just then being released from prison. After two days the request to indict Echeverría was denied on the basis of a thirty-year statute of limitations; the government has appealed.

So today things remain much as described in late 2003 by Taibo (whose felicitous epithet for the Fox transition is 'decaffeinated'): 'as long as the murderers are not brought to justice, the wounds will fester. The special prosecutor's office has moved only under external pressure, lurching this way and that, opening investigations and calling on ex-presidents to testify, which they refuse to do. As for us, obdurate as ever, thirty-five years down the line, we are back in the street again.'

[New York, 21 August 2004]