We don’t forget…
I do not enjoy dwelling on the negative past but yesterday was the 42nd anniversary of the student massacre at Tlatelolco, a huge public housing complex not far from the main square of Mexico City. The consequences were so devastating that we cannot forget…
Much has been recorded about this heartbreaking chapter of Mexico’s contemporary history. And I have written a novel lthat addresses what happened afterwards and how the participants’ lives were forever affected…
During my research, I read many books about the event, the best being “Massacre in Mexico” by Elena Poniatowska. I also conducted interviews with some of those who had been at The Plaza of Three Cultures on October 2, 1968. Following is what I wrote after finishing one of them…
… He shakes his head emphatically, opens his trembling mouth and haltingly asks me what I know about the massacre.
He’s talking about Tlatelolco of course and although I want him to be the one to speak, I begin relating what I’ve read. Soon he shakes his head and stops me. He closes his eyes and painfully begins,
“All through the summer of ‘68, we organized lots of marches, especially around El Zocalo – the Main Plaza. The government bastards wanted to shut us up at any price. They called us dangerous. For Christ’s sake they were the ones who should have been locked up! Finally at Tlatelolco the army opened fire on the crowd. I wish to God I’d never seen it …”
I could hardly bear to look at him; the pain in his eyes seemed raw, recent – not 40 years old. He reminded me that tens of thousands resided in the multi-floored, yellow brick apartment buildings that flanked Tlatelolco’s sprawling central area known as La Plaza de las Tres Culturas. His whole body tensed and he clenched his teeth. Outraged, I asked him, “What about those people who lived there? Where were they during this confrontation you saw?”
He started jerking and his eyes flew from me to his hands, to the wall – he seemed immersed in a memory too terrible to either remember fully or totally forget.
“They were trapped. All of us were – protestors, city cops, old people, mothers with their children, school kids, little dogs… Everyone was pushing and screaming, trying to get to safety.”
“The military bastards blocked most of the apartment entrances. I tried to stay with my group but we got separated. I heard shots being fired and bodies began falling. I glimpsed some of my friends heading into one of the buildings and so I ran over. Someone told me the army was patrolling the hallways and breaking in wherever they suspected activists were hiding. My friends were probably walking into a trap – I went ballistic and headed straight for the main door. A guy grabbed my arm to hold me back and said, Don’t go in there, man! Don’t go in there!”
The story of the terrible riot is almost unbelievable. I don’t ask more questions but he needed to say more. He clutched my arm so tightly, forcing me to listen …
“I joined others who were trying to carry out some of the injured. I got caught again and this time two crazed goons pummeled me with bludgeons. They pounded harder and harder. They would have beaten me to death, I’m sure of it, but a loud nearby explosion caused them to shift their grip – they wanted to use me as a shield between themselves and the falling debris. The next part of the ordeal happened in a heartbeat…”
I didn’t want to hear one more word. Was all this true? Did the government really allow this to happen? I closed my eyes – it seemed he couldn’t stop now.
“They were distracted and I wrenched free. I ran like a madman and quickly dropped down into the Aztec excavation that’s over to one side of the plaza. I goddamn flew until I’d put six blocks between myself and the massacre. Totally wiped, I thought my lungs would burst. I flagged a passing taxi but the driver wouldn’t stop.”
Hundreds of protestors fell victim to the brutality. The army and police callously withheld medical care and allowed some of the victims to die from their injuries. They gathered up the rest and took them away to be interrogated. I was told there could have been hundreds of protestors, maybe thousands lying dead or injured. Most of them were just kids who found themselves, in definitely the wrong place at the wrong time.
I realized that the Tlatelolco massacre signaled the end of an era. The fragile trust between the politicians and the public was severed. Mexico’s age of innocence was lost forever.
On the heels of the massacre, the government orchestrated a shocking cover-up. The Mexico City Olympics were to open in a matter of days and the authorities had no intention of allowing the dissidents to further derail their plans. Their aim was to elevate the country’s status to that of “the leading republic in Latin America.” There was censorship in the media and consequences for disseminating information about the extent of the killings were severe.
The autocratic government held virtually total control over the radio, television, and newspapers. Only a few reports about the terrible aftermath appeared. I understood what the main periodicals said was false, misleading, or minimized the tragedy. How could such lies be presented as facts?
The campaign of misinformation took on huge proportions. No truth existed except for what lay hidden in the city’s jails and military installations. In the face of the government’s repressive, hard-line tactics, the citizenry could do nothing.
How did it get so out-of-control? I sadly conclude that the majority of Mexico’s population will never know the full scope of la noche triste – the sad night in Tlatelolco. Those who do are left to mourn the dead and the disappeared, quietly.
***Several weeks ago, I had the honor and the pleasure of meeting Elena Ponitowska at Merida´s “Centro Cultural de la 68”