The 50th anniversary of the tragic massacre of students in Tlatelolco in 1968, just a few days after the fourth anniversary of the disappearance of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa, is another painful reminder of how difficult it has been for Mexico to uphold basic human dignity and to curb the worst excesses of The State. There has been some progress in those 50 years: Mexico is now a democracy; governments have expanded education, health, and social services; and some basic rights are protected. But the authoritarian past seems to lurch behind at every corner; profound injustices in a deeply divided and stratified society permeate every aspect of social life; and violence, death and insecurity continue unabated in Mexico.
Over the past months I have been thinking a lot, or have been rather obsessed, by Tlatelolco, both as a physical location, and for what it means for memory, resistance, forgiveness and tolerance. These are some disjoint reflections that will perhaps allow some of my readers to understand why many of us feel so strongly about that day (2 de octubre) and that place. The market square of Santiago Tlatelolco is a place where a horrific tragedy took place 50 years ago. It was the bustling market that Cortes described would bring 60,000 people every day, at the time of the Conquest. It is a complex of high rises dreamed in the 20th century of high modernism. It is the place where survivors of the 1985 earthquake met to cry their dead. It is the heart of Mexico City, a symbolic space of a country striving and hoping for a better future. Tlatelolco is — or rather it has to be, a place for optimism.
Such optimism can be seen in the painting of Mexico City by Juan O´Gorman (the same artist who made the iconic murals of the national library of UNAM, where the Olympic games were inaugurated just a few days after the massacre in Tlatelolco). This urban utopia contrasts quite sharply with the mood that characterizes Mexico today. The painting was done well before the two earthquakes (both on September 19), that have shattered many of the modernist buildings depicted in this 1949 work. The painting is a prospective exercise: a mason is building the future, with a clear blueprint, bricks and mortar in hand. But it is also an exercise in memory: someone holds in his hands the map of 1550 of Mexico City, just after the conquest, an indigenous map depicting a magnificent urban space in the middle of a lake.
The O’Gorman painting shows a city that could still be contained within a bird’s eye, like an early European map by Juan Gomez de Trasmonte of 1628, with the volcanoes at the horizon closing the valley. The indigenous map of 1550, kept in the University of Uppsala, is a very different document. It is contained within the O’Gorman painting, showing the City of Tenochtitlan (as well as Tlatelolco, to the right, inside the lake) surrounded by mountains and river springs. I thought about using the wonderful O’Gorman painting as a cover for a new book I am writing, where I discuss the 1550 indigenous map, on the persistence of the indigenous past, but Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo beat me to it, in his fascinating account of twentieth century Mexico City. O’Gorman painted the future, built by a worker, but containing a map of the past, painted by indigenous hands.
The map of 1550 depicts in the most prominent place not the center of Mexico City, — the Plaza or Iglesia Mayor, or the Casas Reales, or the house of the Marques del Valle, Hernán Cortés — but the market and compound of Santiago Tlatelolco. The complex of buildings is enclosed by an atrium, with a church and a convent, and the Colegio de Santa Cruz, the most important institution of learning and scholarship of the 16th century in the Americas. The indigenous scholars in the Colegio de Santa Cruz produced not only the most accurate map of Mexico City, but also the most important treatise on indigenous medicine, and a true Encyclopedia, the well known Florentine Codex, coordinated (but not necessarily authored) by Fray Bernardino de Sahagun.
To the South of the market, the complex includes also the Tecpan, where the indigenous rulers kept social order and ensured the continuation of political life. I have spent some time trying to understand the meaning of those buildings that were not just homes for the indian nobility, but the seats of their justice system (a talk I gave last week, here in Persicope). The map also shows the canals that crisscrossed the city, and the recently rediscovered Caja de Agua. The mapmakers from the Colegio de Santa Cruz ensured that almost five centuries later, we can imagine the pillars of what made political life possible at the time: a town or barrio enjoying political autonomy, a thriving market, a space for religious practice, a center of higher learning, a court for the adjudication of conflicts, and water provision as a public good.
I have walked the square of Tlatelolco many times over the years. When I was a child, I was taken by my parents to the office of the Secretary of Foreign Affairs housed there, to obtain my first passport, that allowed me to visit the United States for the first time (we crossed into San Diego from Tijuana). I had no awareness of the student massacre, but I distinctly remember how I was deeply moved by the notion of being in a place where three cultures met. The square of Tlatelolco was known as the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, with its archeological site on one side, the colonial church compound, and the high rise apartment building complex.
I came of age, like most of my generation, with the earthquake of September 19, 1985, which was followed by social mobilization and the rebirth of civil society. I distinctly remember a march into Tlatelolco (probably not on October 2, given the disruption of the city in the aftermath of the natural disaster). The City had been taken over by its citizens, and in spite of the tragedy, it was such an optimist time! During those student years we would march to and from Tlatelolco, supporting the damnificados, the organized residents from the collapsed buildings around the Plaza of Tlatelolco, and elsewhere in the City. We arrived at the failed democratization of 1988 with our hopes cut short. Mobilizations to protest the electoral fraud of that year were cut short by the prospect of a repetition of state repression and terror, which was not just a theoretical possibility. Democracy would have to wait at least 9 if not 12 additional years.
The last time I went to Tlatelolco I was strolling through the compound with my friend Ricardo Raphael, the director of UNAM’s Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco. As he showed me the vast spaces, the excitement regarding the exhibit on mobilization and memory, and the sculpture that had been commissioned for the open space (he would not tell me what it was, but now I know it is called Ausencia, a moving space of footprints, remembering those that are absent, who also walked our same space but are now missing). We talked about the challenge of how to render a space that would be devoted to collective memory, truth, justice. I could not help but think that the space is already that. The memorial and the cultural center can help us learn how to open our eyes and seek to understand. But Tlatelolco is there, in plain sight.
Elizabeth Malkin has just published an insightful and strikingly illustrated article in the New York Times, with photographs of the days around the massacre of October 2, 1968, including one of which is shown above. What struck about this photograph is to think about how scared the young soldiers must have been. These descendants of the indigenous peoples of Mexico probably chose a military profession simply because it was an escape from poverty and a career in the army opened the possibility of some degree of social mobility. These soldiers did not give the orders. They were responsible for shooting at the young middle class students (probably a majority of them mestizo and white) in the square of the three cultures, in the same way as the indigenous scholars of the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco were responsible for the adoption of colonial mentalities, a new religion and the domination by the Europeans. These indigenous soldiers probably had no idea of the distinguished history of resistance of the place where they had been ordered to go.
I cannot imagine what it must have been to be on either side of the rifle on October 2. I cannot imagine the pain of the mothers who lost their children that day. From that dimension of humanity, the tragic violence that Mexico is living today is no different — thousands of families are losing their loved ones every month.
We must make every effort to keep the memory, the memories as far back as is necessary, to redress many of the wrongs that are represented by Tlatelolco. And perhaps through more empathy, we may start to heal, to build a more inclusive tolerant society and build a future with bricks and mortar that learns from the blueprint of the past. An indigenous, mestizo and Spanish past. A past of warriors and students. Of victims and perpetrators.