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Last Friday afternoon in Mexico City, I was waiting for a friend, a dedicated human and civil rights activist for many years in Mexico. He was going to tell me about his work on an initiative recently launched to call for a citizen’s convention to draft a new constitution for Mexico. This initiative, the “Constituyente Ciudadana Popular,” is spearheaded by Bishop of Saltillo Raul Vera, a leader of the Mexican Catholic Church.
Vera was assistant to the well-known Bishop of Chiapas Samuel Ruiz, an uncompromising advocate for Indigenous rights. During and after the Zapatista uprising in 1994, Ruiz denounced military and paramilitary attacks on the largely Indigenous Zapatista base, and was instrumental in negotiating on their behalf with the Mexican government. It was said that Vera was originally sent to be a conservative counterweight to Ruiz, who was unapologetically committed to liberation theology and its preferential option for the world’s poor. But instead Vera has joined the company of the Latin American church’s firebrands for social justice, famously denouncing homophobia as an illness, advocating for the rights of political prisoners, accusing the government of collusion in not just the disappearances of the 43 teachers’ training college students of Ayotzinapa last September, but of several other confirmed but less publicized massacres that preceded it.
In announcing the launch of the Constituyente effort last January, Vera cited his experience with Ruiz negotiating the 1996 San Andres accords, institutional reforms that the Zapatistas had intended to be binding on all of Mexico. The accords reached were limited to protecting Indigenous cultural and land rights, and the government then failed to implement those. But the negotiations were supposed to have included democratic, judicial, and economic reforms as well. Vera realized that without deep, consensus-based, nationally binding reform in all those areas, Mexico would never exit from the continual crisis of violence, impunity, corruption and impoverishment that has gripped it ever since.
My friend was working closely with Vera and several other bishops who have joined the initiative. He was going to tell me about how it is being organized on the ground, state by state in key localities, in a way that is intended to be horizontal and inclusive. The overarching idea, he would tell me later, was to develop a consultative process that would culminate in a citizens’ constitutional convention in 2017. That will be the hundredth anniversary of Mexico’s revolutionary constitution, whose landmark guarantees of social rights have been gutted over the last twenty years by neoliberal reforms.
I arrived with an hour or two to kill before he finished work. I decided to spend some time in the “Historic Center,” the colonial and pre-colonial heart of this sprawling city of more than 21 million. It fans out from the great stone field of the central plaza, the Zócalo, where in traditional fashion, the most prominent edifices of church and state line two of its sides. Buried beneath that heart is the great temple of Tenochtitlan, destroyed by Cortez along with the Mexica civilization that built it, in the conquest of Mexico.
The Historic Center has undergone a radical metamorphosis since I first visited Mexico City over 25 years ago. Many of its buildings were severely damaged (and much of the damage in poorer sections never repaired) in the massive 1985 earthquake. But then began a process of transformation by capital, the only force on earth now that rivals nature’s ability to alter vast landscapes in geologically insignificant spans of time.
Mexican telecommunications billionaire Carlos Slim, for years now one of the world’s two or three richest men, grew up in the Historic Center as the child of Lebanese immigrants. He began to buy up a huge number of properties and renovate or restore them. He then pressured the government to “clean up” the area, which meant dislodging hundreds and perhaps thousands of the permit-less street vendors who used to line its narrow cobbled streets. Major avenues leading to and from the Zócalo were converted into pedestrian-only thoroughfares. Other streets and their buildings were scrubbed and facelifted. The faded elegance of Alameda Park, the subject of one of Diego Rivera’s most famous tableaux (“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park,” where a cross-section of Mexico’s people strolls placidly, accompanied by historic figures, ghosts, and other dreams) was completely re-landscaped, and also almost entirely purged of the vendors of delicious and unique street food who used to crowd its smooth stone paths.
The speculative frenzy familiar to world-class cities like London, Paris, and New York ensued. Rents went up, old residents were pushed out, new businesses (particularly notable now – US chains: Starbucks, Subway, Gap, Saks Fifth Avenue, etc.) opened glitzy storefronts. And along with all this gussying up, came a police presence unmatched anywhere else in the city. The men and women in blue, now puffed out in bulletproof vests, are everywhere you look. No central street corner is without its patrol.
When I came up out of the subway this time, the Zócalo, which I associate with mass mobilizations like May Day marches, fights against privatization, and free concerts by iconic Latin American political songwriters like Silvio Rodriguez, was almost entirely filled with the conventional white tents of a massive international trade show, the “Friendly Cultures Fair.” Ninety-four countries were represented, showing off their most savory products and touting their tourist attractions. A sound stage took up most of the rest of the space; a mediocre folk-rock band was playing.
The space was mobbed, with more people arriving every minute, and the radial pedestrian thoroughfares were thronged with well-dressed gawkers at the fancy shops and restaurants. It was, as I soon discovered, Teachers’ Day in Mexico (and many other Latin American countries). Schools were closed, and although it is not a paid holiday, many parents seemed to be taking the day off or leaving work early.
Most of the human flood was heading for the Zócalo, but I walked away, towards the gold-domed Fine Arts Museum that stands at the entrance to the Alameda Park, where I was to meet my friend. But as I entered its fountained plaza, with landscaping modeled on the formal gardens of Paris, I saw, not the usual cluster of lounging police patrols, but dozens of anti-riot cops in shoulder-to-shoulder formation effectively sealing off access from the plaza to the park. And to the Avenida Juarez, the major boulevard bordering it. And then, entirely blocking that broad avenue, which is the main thoroughfare between the Zócalo and the equally grand Plaza de la República to the east, a battalion of riot cops at least six rows deep. A sea of blue-black helmets, like a Mormon Tabernacle Choir of made up of Darth Vaders. I could now hear the distorted booming of a speech through a loudspeaker, so I sensed that this was all in response to some demonstration. But for all the hundreds of riot cops, and the crowds of strollers who, with seeming obliviousness, circled the plaza languidly like water looking for an outlet, I could not see any of the demonstrators, banners, flags, or anything that indicated where or what it was all about.
The twenty or so police buses that brought those legions of cops were parked nose to tail along the street that divides the Fine Arts Museum plaza from the beginning of the park, so there was no way through there either. More armed riot cops stood atop them, like gangster sentinels at a hit. The air was gray and warm, heavy with grit and the possibility of a later storm. The whole scene was shot through with dread – mostly at how seemingly oblivious and cheerful were the masses of middle class shoppers and strollers, how complacently they veered away in accordance with direction from the police, who also used a kind of quintessentially Mexican formality of speech when forced to speak to the crowds: “Kindly have the courtesy to proceed to the right, this area is closed.”
After managing to cross the avenue behind the police lines I saw that for several blocks along Avenida Juarez the other cross-streets were also blocked off by riot police (I later learned that a full ten blocks on the perpendicular Eje Lazaro Cardenas had also been closed.) I went down to the next avenue paralleling Avenida Juarez and walked along it till I got tired, finally simply turning up one of the cross-streets that I could see had also been blocked, to try my luck with the cops. I stopped to ask a woman who was also looking for a way through what was going on.
“It’s the teachers,” she said. “They’re demonstrating. They want to march to the Zócalo. And of course they can’t let them go there because there’s that big trade fair.”
The teachers. It’s Teachers’ Day. And in Mexico the teachers have been some of the most militant and vocal forces against privatization, government corruption, police repression and the failed drug war. The biggest and oldest teachers’ union, (Spanish acronym: SNTE) a corrupt sweetheart union tightly aligned with Mexico’s long-time dominant political party, the PRI, had been broken two years ago by current President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government, when the union’s infamous leader Elba Esther Gordillo was jailed for tax dodging.
This was to have been seen as a landmark act, the first shot in Peña Nieto’s war on organized educators and a prelude to his hastily crafted educational reforms. The education reform law was passed by a compliant legislature, accompanied by the triumphal braying of anti-union, teacher-scapegoating, charter school promoting neoliberals, mostly in the US. The reforms opened the door to many practices that have become characteristic of the US death by a thousand cuts model of public education: heavier reliance on standardized testing, outside teacher evaluation linked to merit pay, the abolition of seniority, and invitations to increased sponsorship by the private sector, among others.
Peña Nieto continued an aggressive push for a whole suite of neoliberal reforms. And then, shortly after he had thought to achieve his coup de grâce to the Mexican public sector, the privatization of Mexico’s lucrative energy industry, the jewel in the crown of the Mexican economy, came Ayotzinapa and the revelation of earlier police and army mass repression resulting in the massacre and disappearance of civilians. It was as if a curtain had been lifted. Under the pretty mask of a finally “modernized” Mexico was the monstrous face of a gangland capitalism that has left an estimated 100,000 dead and 30,000 disappeared in the last nine years.
And the education reforms have mostly remained unimplemented. They have continued to be relentlessly opposed by the education sector, locally and nationally.
Long before this (in 1979) teachers had formed a breakaway union, more grassroots, more committed to union democratization, more politically independent and radical, the CNTE. The CNTE had instigated an uprising in the southern city of Oaxaca in 2006 that resulted in a weeks-long experiment in autonomy that could be compared to the Paris Commune. The CNTE had been the loudest voice against the educational reform law. It has an estimated 300,000 members. It was the CNTE that was marching now.
At the police line, a few cops stood aside randomly for a couple of guys in suits who wanted to go through, and I followed them, finally entering the small space in the street where a hundred or so protestors stood listening to speakers who stood atop a bus planted crosswise on Avenida Juarez. They called for Peña Nieto to resign (or to die, the words “fuera” meaning “leave” and “muera” meaning “die” being hard to distinguish in these fiery speeches) and for a full independent investigation of the Ayotzinapa case. That the missing students were teachers in training is particularly significant – their radicalism, like that of the educational sector writ large, definitely made them a thorn in the side of the government. There was, however, no reason to see them as any threat to the drug gang enforcers who supposedly assassinated them.
The speeches finished, the protestors piled back onto their bus, which awkwardly began to turn around and head back down the avenue. There had been many more in the march earlier in the day, I later found out, but the standoff left them with nowhere to go. The police blockade continued long after the relatively small number of remaining marchers had dissipated into the surrounding area. It seemed so stark, so clear then, the price that Mexicans were being made to pay for shopping at those glossy stores off the Zócalo, for the uninterrupted ability of a dwindling minority to pursue the big fat carrot of middle class consumption. This was the trade-off. An army of police occupying their streets to keep a teachers’ union from disrupting a trade fair.
My friend and I agreed to meet elsewhere; I headed to the metro again. A small group of young Communists was occupying the station, waving a big red flag and encouraging people to pass under the bars without paying, which most of them easily did. The cops were nowhere. The real threat was up on the street, that fierce group of uncompromising teachers, whose march the supposedly “fiscal responsibility”-minded state had seen fit to meet with a police presence that looked like it out-numbered them at least five to one.
The next evening at a party, I met members of the youth group my friend works with, who’ve joined the Constituyente effort. They are called Young People Facing the National Emergency, and they organize protests in public spaces to maintain public awareness of the numbers of dead and disappeared, and government complicity in the violence. Last year they had also organized a formal tribunal at a space created by Mexican human rights activists (including Bishop Vera) as a kind of unofficial court of conscience, where they condemned the Mexican government for the “destruction of youth and future generations.” They had just come from a daylong sit-in near the National Auditorium where they are calling for the establishment of a memorial to the victims of state violence from 1950 to 2013. Human rights and social justice organizations have compiled a list of almost 8,000 people whose deaths during that period can be traced directly to police, army or other government agents in Mexico.
We drank shots of gut-warming tequila and sang songs, old and new, of struggle, including, with a nice air of international solidarity, a Spanish version of “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
At one of their protests, in which posters with the faces of the 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa were wheat-pasted on the Zocalo’s great stone field, there is a photo of someone holding up a poster which says:
“They tried to bury us
They didn’t know we were seeds…”
Christy Rodgers lives in San Francisco. She can be reached through her blog What If? transformations, tales, possibilities.