The ‘68 Tlatelolco Massacre
The Tlatelolco Massacre that occurred just before Mexico City hosted the 1968 Olympic Games was part of the Mexican government's so-called “Dirty War.” The event helped to trigger new forms of political art and artistic expressionism in Mexico that vented the frustrations of the surviving generation. While there were some government efforts to reconcile what happened only decades later, the seemingly never-ending injustices in the following decades fomented distrust and mass migration by Mexicans seeking better lives in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Ross Chambless: In 1968, just before Mexico was about to host the Summer Olympic Games, the country was also experiencing a growing and energetic new student movement. Young Mexicans, including workers, farmers, housewives, merchants, intellectuals, artists, and teachers were mobilizing and calling for political change and more accountability from their government and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Students marching in 1968.
Ross: On the evening of October 2, 1968, when a large group of students gathered in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Plaza for a peaceful protest and march, it didn’t seem that unusual. This was just 10 days before the Olympic Games were scheduled to begin.
One of the students on the plaza that day was Fanny Blauer’s father, Fernando Alvarado Rosas.
Fanny Blauer: He was protesting with the students. He had already graduated and was a professor of English. He was doing his Master’s [degree] actually.
Fanny Blauer's father, Fernando Alvarado Rosas, with her mother in July 1968.
Ross: It was around 6:50 PM that evening when the students reported seeing a light coming from a military helicopter in the sky.
Fanny: And soldiers are marching towards this big group of people, thousands of people. And when this light, like a firework, was dropped from the helicopter, the army started to shoot people.
Ross: Chaos erupted among the thousands of unarmed students.
Fanny: People started to run, trying to figure out exactly what was happening. Everybody was rushing back and forth, didn’t know exactly where to go. People who were being captured. People falling down were being killed.
Ross: Some soldiers were shooting from surrounding buildings and rooftops. An investigation later revealed that snipers with the Presidential Guard were even instructed to fire on the military forces in order to provoke them.
Fernando was among those students who were shot.
Government footage of the '68 Tlatelolco Massacre.
Fanny: He was shot in the leg. But he didn’t notice he was shot until he saw blood. I remember him saying that the adrenaline of what was happening was so intense. And there was no electricity. And it was raining really hard, and he was wearing a long coat. He was laying on the floor when he saw blood. “What is this? Oh, it’s me?”
Ross: Fanny says right at this moment, a man wearing a single white glove, grabbed him by the hair and pulled him down a flight of stairs.
Fanny: And he was swearing at my dad, saying you’re going to hell. At that point, they started to shoot. They were shooting everywhere. And he told my dad, stay here, I’m coming back. So, my dad of course, instead of waiting for this man, who was a spy… because there were policemen and soldiers and people dressed as civil people, but they were working for the government and they were identified by this white glove.
Ross: Her father knocked on the door of a nearby apartment and a kind woman let him in.
Fanny: Within this apartment, there was a nurse and when she saw my father, she told him you are going to die, you are bleeding. So, she saved him by saying you are my husband and we went out for bread for our children… because this is happening in an apartment complex for children and families live! This is not an industrial area or a financial district. It’s in a neighborhood. People being killed in a neighborhood.
The military arrested thousands of people, and it's estimated 300 to 400 people were killed.
Ross: This podcast is Nuevas Voces – Episode 17 – a podcast by Artes de Mexico en Utah. In this episode, we’re talking about the Tlatelolco massacre – or the massacre of student activists that occurred in Mexico City 10 days before the 1968 Olympics began. The event was considered part of the so-called “Dirty War” the Mexican Government waged against its own citizens for several decades, from about 1968 to 2000. It was a devastating time for Mexico. We’ll be talking about how the event is remembered or misremembered, and how it affected artistic expression and political art and protest by that surviving generation.
On that day, thousands of students were arrested, the final death toll is a mystery. While the earlier estimates were grossly under-counted by the government, some estimate hundreds of civilians lost their lives or were injured.
The government’s official account at the time was that the students — infiltrated by communist forces — had fired on the army first, and the soldiers had to fire back to defend themselves. Fanny’s father was one of the fortunate survivors of a massacre that the army attempted to cover up.
Fanny: The most horrible thing about this is that the next morning, the plaza was completely clean. It looked like nothing had happened…They were sweeping with water, right, cleaning the plaza, to make sure there was no evidence of blood or anything.
My dad, whenever he shared this story with us, ever since I was a little girl, he always told us to never share this story with anybody. For 20 years he was basically undercover because he was so afraid he would be killed.
A memorial to the people who lost their lives in the Tlatelolco Massacre.
Ross: But today, thankfully, the event is acknowledged and memorialized. But it wasn’t until 2001 after the PRI lost its 70-year reign on power and newly elected President Vicente Fox ordered the release of previously classified documents about the massacre released to the public.
Fanny: Now there’s a museum in Mexico City, close to this plaza. It includes everything that was found that night. There are pictures taken at the moment. There is a picture I remember of shoes, of people just running trying to save their lives.
Ross: There is now quite a lot of literature, dramatic films, and documentaries about the Tlatelolco Massacre. Now we actually see the Mexican army’s own film footage of the massacre taken from a nearby rooftop.
Fanny: Famous Mexican writer, Helena Poniatowska wrote about this movement. Jose Luis Cuevas our "La Ruptura - Cortina del Nopal" creator, is believed to be one of the initiators of this movement because he was against the corrupt political party.
Masacre en Tlatelolco, 2 De octubre 1968. Directed by Alan Tomlinson.
Ross: One interesting issue that some social scholars point to regarding this event, and similar conflicts between the Mexican military and civilians today, is one of social class inequity and conflict.
Fanny: Remember, we’re talking about a new social class. Suddenly we have this new middle class, and people coming from rural areas. But the army in Mexico is mostly indigenous. They don’t come from the cities, they come from rural areas. Maybe it’s their only option to succeed. So, the army was very upset against this new middle class, still looking indigenous maybe, but still middle class. So, they didn’t mind killing their own people representing the new urban Mexicans.
Ross: Here’s Jorge Rodríguez.
Jorge: In today’s day and age in Mexico, there is this a hierarchy of “low lives,” because the police are “low lives”, the military are also looked down upon. And like Fanny said, they are predominantly from rural areas, indigenous people, who don’t have access to a comprehensive education. Usually, the military is their only option for a stable income. Even today we have this huge divide.
Ross: The Mexican Student Movement and the Tlatelolco massacre itself had an impact on artistic expression, specifically on Mexican political protest art. Oddly, the artistic designs of one American graphic artist, Lance Weiman, who ultimately created the logo and graphic designs for Mexico City’s ’68 Olympic Games, were co-opted by the student movement.
Fanny: He had never been in Mexico, and suddenly he was fascinated by the culture by visiting museums. I found it interesting how he developed his art based on ancient cultures. All the circles and continuation of geometric shapes. (learn more of his story here) So, there was suddenly a new movement of art that was used by the students after this massacre, to protest the government. It was the “bloody Olympics.”
Adolfo Mexiac, Mexico 68, 1968, lithograph
Ross: One visually gripping lithograph shows a student with his mouth bound with chains, along with the logo for the ’68 Olympics. Here’s Susan Vogel.
Susan: This was created by one of the artists who was part of the Taller Gráfico Popular. But many of the artists from the Taller, like Pablo O’Higgins, were no longer producing political art, and certainly not political art that showed the current problems, because they were so close to the government. They were getting a very good deal through the government galleries. The government started art galleries and then they could choose the artwork that was in their favor. So, there were few artists who were still really speaking out against the atrocities happening during what’s now called the “Dirty War.”
Ross: Another image that was produced after the massacre shows a white dove being stabbed by a bayonet.
Fanny: The Olympics in Mexico were called the Los Juegos de la Paz, the Games of Peace. And then they have the icon of the pigeon here.
Fanny: And, the poster phenomenon in Mexico still exists. You go to Mexico City and you see posters, political posters on every wall. Everywhere. Print and post.
Ross: So, these were meant to be massed produced, so they could spread out and widely seen?
Fanny: Yes, they still do it.
Ross: Part of the goal of the mass-produced posters was to combat the government’s misinformation campaign and how the massacre was reported at the time by Mexican media, and to shape how it was to be perceived and remembered afterward.
Fanny: The newspapers were advertising that a bunch of anarchists started this fight against the government to break the reputation of the "Mexican Miracle". The other personal experience that I have is when my mom and dad were dating. She was very worried about my dad. She didn’t know what happened until she saw him. She heard something on the radio but didn’t imagine the significance of what happened. My grandmother was upset to think he was part of these anarchists when my dad was saying that’s not how it happened.
Ross: So, there was a narrative and a counter-narrative.
Fanny: There was a huge division socially. Remember, we’re talking about a new middle class that was divided. The students who are fighting for social justice, and the Mexicans growing in this very wealthy Mexico who felt that they needed to protect this industrialized Mexico.
Jorge: It’s an interesting contrast because I have family members were very poor. But on the other side, some of my family are wealthy and would be millionaires. There was this contrast. And there was this feeling that we have to keep this quiet. There was a feeling not to rattle the cages and keep it nice and civil. Anyone trying to mess up that image up is not welcome. And definitely, you can still see this today with most affluent people in Mexico.
The families of the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College lead a protest, Sept. 26, 2015 in Mexico City. (Getty Images)
Ross: As we mentioned, when the political reign of the PRI party ended, around 2001, the government began a period of reconciliation about what happened. But did things really improve for Mexico?
Fanny: I think the phenomenon of immigration can give you the answer. In the ‘70’s, immigration grew tremendously in the U.S. To me that is a manifestation of people wanting to escape the corrupted system. The revolution was just an ideal. My dad was constantly, constantly – like an existential crisis – he was very sad. My grandparents fought in the revolution, and he was a result of the revolution, he participated in this industrialization, hoping to have a better life condition. We grew up fine, but not rich. But so many social injustices. You would think after the Revolution, thousands of people were killed, 60 years later, and this thing happened, and the government acted like nothing happened. In 1971, there was another movement – "Los Halcones" – and same thing, nothing happened. And then the 43 (young student teachers) who disappeared a few years ago, and again, nothing happened. The government doesn’t have an answer. And people can see it’s a corrupted system. It makes me very sad.
Jorge: Something to add to that idea, on just how difficult it is to live. I grew up in a city, and there are different levels of police. And nobody is feared more than the judicial police. They are the law and executioner. They have the impunity to kill anyone at any time without repercussions. They became a myth, a bogie man. I had some run-ins with them as a kid. I had friends’ families run into them, and it’s not uncommon to hear about people disappearing, even in a large city, because of different political ideologies. And it’s still going on to this day.
Mexican immigrant Nieves Ojendiz holds her 4-year old daughter Jane as she attends an immigration reform rally in New York City, on June 28, 2016. (Drew Angerer—Getty Images)
Ross: For me, as someone trying to better understand the phenomenon of mass migration and the political concerns of immigration of people from Mexico wanting to come to the U.S., this conversation seems relevant and important.
So, you see this mass movement of people wanting a better life and wanting to get out and come to this country. But did that pick up after this event, or was it more gradual?
Jorge: It picked up in the ‘80s, especially after the Reagan Administration as the economic situation became direr, there were more immigrants, there was more movement of people and we started noticing it more and cracking it down more, and it became more of an issue in the U.S. in the 70s and 80s. You can see the reaction by the U.S. to this migration, which is interesting since the U.S. was largely responsible for the conditions that created this movement in the first place.
Ross: The Mexican “Dirty War,” and the seemingly never-ending injustices that hurt Mexico and its people in the decades following the Tlatelolco massacre is something that still today weighs heavily on the minds of many people.
Fanny: I think for me, from my perspective as a Mexican immigrant, I see it as history repeating itself all the time. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, it’ll happen again. Maybe to make peace we have to have war? But it depresses me that these things are constantly happening, that shows these things are always happening. It’s why we have to have these conversations because we have to question what happened. We have to look, and study and ask people their personal stories.
Jorge: There’s another problem and that is today we have a very tailored ideology. Mass media and the arts are custom made to specific ideologies to push the narratives. And one of the beautiful things of the art world was it was able to speak about injustices and bring the public face on it in a unique way. Whereas you couldn’t just protest without repercussions, and some artists were persecuted, but a lot of their works tended to survive. But now, in the U.S., artists are depicting a specific ideology based on their political ideas, and it creates more confusion. And it makes it harder to learn any specific thing out of it. Now it’s harder to tell what side was right. Because now we have this idea that if only this side would do what we need them to do, or if this side would only do this other thing, and there’s no reconciliation. It’s only gotten worse in the past decades.
Susan: When we do exhibits of photographs of the Mexican Revolution, we have a lot of older people who shed a lot of tears. They saw there was so much hope, million people died and family members died and they say, what for? So I think, that really signaled the end of hope that a lot of people had in Mexico. And the muzzling of the opposition, or artists or people who speak out is awful because usually, the artists are the first to speak out against injustices. And now, journalism, journalists in Mexico – it’s a very risky profession. A lot of journalists are being silenced.
Jorge: It’s the most dangerous place for a journalist in the world – Mexico.
Fanny: But, to be optimistic, when I go there to visit my family, as a foreigner in her own country, what gives me hope is that level of authentic artistic expression. If you go to Mexico, any plaza, any museum, you will find art somehow, color, vibrant expressions. People have a huge desire to express themselves through art. It’s the only way they can do it. And they do it through crafts because it’s their ancient culture or through paintings, or singing, or street art. It's fabulous. I get so passionate about it. You can almost touch it. It's there. You can hear the voice of the people, you can see it in every single thing that they do. And it's in the families, too.
Jorge: A few years ago, I became very interested in ancient history, Mexican ancient history, native history, especially in art. In the last eight to ten years there has been some sort of "renaissance", "decolonization". All sorts of modern movements, different types of artists (from musicians to actors to painters). All the mediums, expressing this idea, that we are done with the past, it's time for us to find ourselves again, find our roots again. That as an artist excited me to explore that as well. I think there's definitely an optimism there. It’s not over yet.
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Thanks to our commentators Susan Vogel; Fanny Guadalupe Blauer; and Jorge Rodriguez. Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to the Scope Radio at University of Utah Health for the studio space; Music credit: The music you heard in this episode comes from Cliff Martinez, Gustavo Santaolalla, Ellito Goldenthal, Calexico, Al Caiola, Antonio Pinto, Philip Glass, and Fernando Delgadillo.
Engage with Us:
Did you or one of your family members have an experience with this sad event in 1968?
Did the decline of civil society in Mexico affect you or your family in the years following? What has been your experience?