Teaching is a Political Act: The Case of Ayotzinapa

By Lucy Guevara-Vélez

“they were taken alive, we want them back alive”

More than 50 student and workers groups in Mexico called for a Global Day of Action last weekend to mark the nine-month anniversary since 43 students from Ayotzinapa went missing. The main demand was for the government to open up new investigations on the missing students. Here, scholar Lucy Guevara-Vélez reflects on the disappearance of the 43 pre-service teachers in 2014 and the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968.

In 2003, I travelled to Mexico City to complete a Tinker Summer Research Grant at the Universidad Autonoma de México (UNAM). At the time, I was also working on a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies and was deep into understanding the impact of revolutionary ideologies and activism in Mexico. I not only gained critical consciousness and the language to comprehend the hegemonic motives behind United States intervention in Latin America but also recognized that in no way was Latin America only a victim. Latin America had its own history of dirty wars, dictatorships, and human rights abuses.

When I stepped onto the UNAM campus, I thought about what it meant to be a student at that university in 1968 and be witness to protestas (protests) and marchas (marches) led by the Consejo Nacional de Huelga. Representing 70 universities and high schools, this student group organized against police brutality and the repressive nature of Mexico’s authoritarian regime under President Díaz Ordaz and the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). The government felt so threatened by its youth that it created a batallón Olimpia—a secret police squad that used violent tactics to silence the student movement.

Mexican officials claimed that such policing strategies simply safeguarded peace in preparation for the 1968 Olympic games. This institutional violence against student activists during the summer of 1968 ultimately resulted in the massacre of Tlatelolco on October 2. Thirty to 300 children, women, and men died or disappeared that night; more than 1300 were arrested. Yet, ten days after the massacre, Mexico celebrated the opening of the games at the national stadium by releasing white doves into the air, a symbol of peace and new beginnings. This massacre marks the early years of Mexico’s Guerra Sucia (1964-1982), a dirty war against university students, activists, and anyone who was suspected to be subversive. No one has ever been accountable for these human rights violations and this clearly points to Mexico’s historically-rooted tradition of impunity.

From Michigan to Mexico workshop at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership on May 22, 2015.

I walked the campus of Ciudad Universitaria thinking about the agallas (courage) one must have in order to challenge institutional oppression and blatant disregard for human life.  How do you take on a government that kidnaps, tortures, imprisons, and murders its own youth? I visited Tlatelolco several times that summer in 2003 and walked around the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. The historical significance of this plaza is well documented- it represents three periods in Mexican architectural history: Aztec, Spanish colonial and Mestizo. On the night of the massacre, an estimated 10,000 college and high school students gathered in peaceful protest while buildings that represented Mexico’s mestizaje became sniper and machine gun posts.

Fast-forward to 2015, I am no longer a graduate student nor actively engaged in social movements across Latin America. I hold a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction and proudly teach future teachers in Michigan. I’ve focused on preparing future teachers in secondary education and each semester, I try to provide a problem-posing college course grounded in the Freirean philosophy of education (Freire, 1970). I struggle with questions like: What should they read? Are they ready for Freire, Giroux, and hooks? What type of assignments will create consciousness and not just awareness? I begin every semester with an examination of Critical Pedagogy and our conversations center around concepts such as reflection, dialogue, and praxis. My goal is to prepare future teachers to be intellectuals who are able to understand the difference between what we call pedagogy of poverty (Haberman, 1991) and truly culturally relevant or responsive teaching (Ladson-Billings, 1995a; Gay, 2010). In some instances, these conversations have to be excessively guided in order to help students move beyond feeling attacked by what they consider a “liberal” professor.

Pictures of the 43 disappeared students are displayed at the University of Michigan Library steps on April 11, 2015.

Early this past fall semester, I was doing my regular weekly scramble when I learned about the disappearance of 43 pre-service teachers in Mexico.  What? Mexican police targeted future teachers for doing what they are trained to do? The information released by the media was a professor’s worst nightmare- 43 students taken for engaging in social action! The young men were students at the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa in the Mexican state of Guerrero. This institution was founded in 1926 as an all-male institution rooted in the principles of student activism and social justice. It offers bachelor’s degrees in elementary education, physical education, and specializations in intercultural and bilingual studies.  The school’s vision statement describes its educational setting as a “learning community, focused on the development of graduates in the field of education who can meet the educational needs of society.” Students are trained in critical pedagogy; a mural on the school’s grounds aligns with Freire’s work and his ideas of problem-posing education and praxis-both frameworks for social justice leadership.

The students disappeared on September 26, 2014, a night that is now referred to as la noche de Iguala, when more than 100 students travelled 153 miles to Iguala to protest inequitable funding and unfair employment practices at the municipal level. The State of Guerrero terminated provisions and scholarships for this campus.  In addition to voicing these concerns, it has been speculated that the young men planned to provoke consciousness by disrupting the annual conference of the National System for Integral Family Development (DIF) where the mayor’s wife was scheduled to highlight her community efforts and promote political aspirations. Lastly, the future teachers planned a boteo (street fundraising) to collect funds to attend the annual memorial march in Mexico City commemorating the 1968 student massacre in Tlatelolco.  Local police intercepted them in route to Iguala; and after a verbal confrontation, police fired at the young men, killing three, and took 43 into custody.  The government’s official story claims that the young men were handed over to the local cartel, Guerreros Unidos, and presumably killed, end of story.

Center left Cruz Bautista Salvador uncle of one of the young men and center right María De Jesus Tlatempa Bello mother of José Eduardo.

In April 2015, the Caravana 43, a group of parents, family members, and classmates of the 43 missing, seeking an international forum for la noche de Iguala, provided testimony of the disappearance of their loved ones in multiple cities across the United States. Students from the University of Michigan in collaboration with the Michigan Solidarity Network with Mexico facilitated a community plática (talk) in Ann Arbor. The goal of this meeting was to contest Mexico’s official account of what happened that night, a story that is plagued with misinformation and fabricated evidence. The group also seeks to provoke awareness about the Merida Initiative, a partnership between the US and Mexico to respond to organized crime.  María De Jesus Tlatempa Bello, mother of José Eduardo, a student who disappeared that night, shared:

El día 26 y 27 de septiembre fueron balaceados. Fueron tratados peor que unos delincuentes. Fue una persecución de policías contra nuestros hijos. No sabían porque les estaban haciendo esto, porque eran atacados por los policías.  Murieron tres jóvenes, tres futuros maestros. Que fácil es decir tres futuros maestros. Los padres quieren saber porque pasó esto, porque les mataron a sus hijos.  Ese día se llevaron 43 futuros maestros, 43 estudiantes detenidos por policías. No sabemos porque les hicieron esto y dónde están. Su único delito de ellos es seguir estudiando, como ustedes.

Fueron policías quienes los detuvieron a ellos y desde ese día estamos esperando que regresen a nuestros hijos porque a nosotros nos dieron información que iban a    ser liberados en cualquier momento. Desde ese día no hemos visto a nuestros hijos. Y vivimos con esa desesperación. Vamos más de seis meses y aún no sabemos nada        de ellos. Han matado a nuestros hijos varias veces. Que están en fosas, en el Río de     Cocula. Ya no sabe el gobierno que más va decir, que más va inventar. Va ser su   gran mentira, que venimos a desmentir aquí a Estados Unidos. ¡Sentimos a nuestros  hijos vivos! ¡Y porque los han visto vivos! ¡Y se los llevaron vivos! Y si algo les llega a    pasar a nuestros hijos, hacemos responsables a nuestro gobierno.

Desde el 26 y 27 de septiembre hemos vivido en desesperación de no saber donde están nuestros hijos.  Traemos la información real aquí a Estados Unidos para pedir     que ya no apoyen el Plan Mérida. Ese apoyo que llega, ese apoyo económico, y las  armas a México, nada más sirven para reprimirnos, para matarnos, para  desaparecernos, para secuestrarnos…[1]  

Cruz Bautista Salvador, uncle of one of the young men, also provided testimony and addressed the irregularities of the government’s official version of what happened to the students. The families have refused to accept the government’s official account and have continued to formally request more investigation. For example, in October 2014, in an attempt to silence family members, the government extracted human remains from several mass graves near Iguala and claimed these to be the 43 young men. Although this was a false report, it is not a new tactic; this is what the Mexican government typically does— gathers random human remains in order to close cases. Evidence gathered by an Argentinean forensics team dismissed this claim. This prompted families to continue looking for the young men alive because they have been seen alive.

Demostration in Ann Arbor, Michigan on April 11, 2015.

In November, another false report was published. This time the government claimed that the students’ bodies had been burned in a landfill in Cocula. In January 2015, the media again dispersed this report, this time stating that wood and tires were used to fuel the fire to burn the bodies. They claimed that students were incinerated with all of their belongings.  Families have requested multiple types of information in order to corroborate this story. For example, they’ve requested the weather report, because other students have mentioned that it was raining that night. A climatological record showing rain that night would disprove this version. Representatives from UNAM have also declared this version invalid-this type of fire is impossible in the area where it allegedly happened. The amount of wood and tires needed to fuel a fire of that magnitude is simply not possible. The landfill is located in a remote area, very difficult to access. In addition, the land around the landfill does not have signs of a fire. Trees and grass were intact.

Families have also requested telecommunications reports because technologies to track cell phone signals are available in Mexico. Mexico has legislation that allows the tracking of mobile phones specifically in kidnapping cases but they have refused to provide this information. Families feel that the government’s search for the 43 young men is simply a simulation. They have failed to investigate leads and tips from people who have seen the students alive. Families have searched for the students in abandoned houses, churches, caves, and mining areas, in the mountains. Military police have accepted that they were present when the students were taken that night but have not divulged the details of the disappearance. Fifty students survived the attack and their testimonies affirm the persecution of the young men by local police and military personnel.

The disappearance of the 43 students has given other families a voice. Empowered by the movement of the Caravana 43, many others have come forward to request information about the disappearance of their own loved ones. A culture of fear in Mexico has silenced the families of those who are disappeared. More than 30,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since 2006. 104 people have been arrested in relation to the disappearance of the 43 students including the former mayor of Iguala and his wife, but no one has been charged with this crime. Cruz Bautista Salvador concluded his testimony by saying:

Todas las ejecuciones y desapariciones han quedado en la impunidad.  Nadie ha sido castigado por lo que han cometido.  Tenemos el caso del femicidio de Juárez, el ABC de Sonora, y más reciente en junio en Tlatlaya –todo esto ha quedado en la impunidad,en el olvido.  Si dejamos pasar esto, esto va volverse a repetir en cualquier momento. Quedo claro después del año 1968 de Tlatelolco.  Si en ese momento hubiera habido castigo hacia los culpables, no hubiera pasado lo que paso el 26 y 27 de septiembre.[2]

His final statement connects what happened to the future teachers of the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa to what happened in Tlatelolco in the summer of 1968, concluding that their disappearance is a direct consequence of Mexico’s dirty war and its legacy of impunity.

In 1971, journalist Elena Poniatowska in her book, La Noche de Tlatelolco, documented the counter narrative of the Tlatelolco massacre. As we read her work today, narratives sound too familiar – they parallel what several parents, student survivors, and human rights leaders said after the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa 43.

The disappearance of the Ayotzinapa 43 demonstrates how Mexico is using drug war politics to oppress social justice leaders and ultimately to conceal a second dirty war.  It is not only imperative to spark dialogue about human rights violations in Mexico but also the importance of placing current events within a historical context in order to critically examine social injustice beyond the master narrative of the drug war. We must also understand that devastating human impact of international policies like the Merida Initiative, as the testimonios (testimony) by the Caravana 43 undoubtedly illustrates.

I encourage everyone committed to human rights to think about the role of teachers within our communities, especially in places like Ayotzinapa.  Consider that teaching is a political act and acknowledge the many demands that an inequitable public school system places on our teachers.

[1] English translation: They were fired at on September 26 and 27thand treated worse than delinquents. This was a police-led persecution against our sons. They didn’t even know why this was happening to them, why they were being attacked by police. Three young men died, three future teachers. It is easy to say, “three future teachers.” Their parents want to know why this happened, why they killed their sons. That day, 43 future teachers were taken, 43 students were detained by police. We don’t know why this was done to them or where they are. Their only crime was to continue their education, like all of you are doing.
Police officers detained them and we have been waiting for their release since that day. We were told that they would be released at any moment. But we have not seen our sons since that day. We live in desperation. It’s been more than six months and we still have not heard from them. Police has killed our sons several times. We’ve been told that they are in mass graves, or in the Cocula River. The government does not know what else to say, what else to come up with. This will be their biggest lie, and we are here in the United States, to tell the truth. We feel that our sons are alive! They have been seen alive! And if something happens to them, we make the government responsible.
We have lived in agony since the 26 and 27thof September because we don’t know where they are. We bring the truth to the United States to ask that you stop supporting Plan Merida.  That support, the economic aid, and weapons, are used to oppress us, to murder us, to disappear us, and kidnap us…

[2] All of the murders and forced disappearances have gone unpunished.  No one has ever been held responsible for the crimes committed. There’s been several cases: the femicides in Juarez, the ABC in Sonora, and most recently, in June, the Tlataya incident- all have gone unpunished, erased from memory. If we continue to allow this, it will happen again at any moment. Tlatelolco 1968 made this clear. If at that time, those responsible had received punishment, what happened on September 26 and 27th would’ve never happened.

Lucy Guevara-Vélez has a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, specifically in Cultural Studies in Education, and a doctoral portfolio in Mexican American Studies from The University of Texas at Austin. She is a Tejana, raised a few blocks away from the U.S.-Mexico border, and this region continues to impact her social consciousness and work. She and her husband moved to Kalamazoo from Austin, Texas in 2011 and are the happy parents of Nicolás Efraín, a very active toddler. She has taught college and adult education courses at four different institutions since 2002, and is truly in love with her work. She was a fellow at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership in the 2015 spring. 


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