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Mexico: the politics of Memory



How does society remember trauma? How do you commemorate a victim of disappearance, when so many questions, including their whereabouts, are left unanswered? And how do families begin to traverse legal and political systems in order to seek justice, truth and a lasting memory of their missing loved one in the face of political ambivalence?

In Mexico disappearance has become endemic and until recently has been widely unacknowledged. In 2014 a government database identified that the number of people registered missing since 2006 had reached 26,000.

This issue has broken onto Mexico’s collective conscience with the recent enforced disappearance of the 43 students of the Ayotzinapa teacher training college at the hands of the municipal police in Iguala, Guerrero, triggering widespread social protest on a scale not previously witnessed.

Latin America has a history of enforced disappearance, when the state illegally detains or kills individuals and refuses to acknowledge the act. The practice of enforced disappearance was common during the military dictatorships that sprung up in 1970s Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay, as well as Mexico among others. In those contexts enforced disappearance was a policy of state repression used to terrorise and eliminate opposition.

Memory not monuments

Calls for memory developed alongside calls for truth and justice, and a new tradition of memorialising desaparecidos was born: a tradition that was creative, commemorative and political. In the wake of these disappearances a battle unfolded between the active demands of relatives and friends to remember those missing and a state-led discourse that attempted to forget them, as well as contested public debate as to how to remember the disappeared. These struggles are now beginning to unfold in Mexico.

When memorialising the disappeared, static or traditional monuments have been widely criticised. In the case of disappearance, when families do not know if their loved one is alive or dead, it is extremely difficult to represent such loss and trauma appropriately in stone.

The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, Argentina

The Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the disappeared in Argentina) have previously said they do not want a memorial that becomes a symbolic gravestone because doing so means to accept unconfirmed death and put the past to rest.

Resisting these pitfalls has instead been a movement for counter-memorials: memorials that are temporary, pluralistic, often performative, and that physically or metaphorically reclaim spaces associated with disappearance or state repression.

Rondas and escraches

The weekly rondas of the Madres are an example of such counter-memory practices; their walk around the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires adorned with photos of their children around their necks, as if to evidence their existence, protests the disappearance of their children and is keeping their memory alive.

Across Argentina ex-clandestine detention centres where the disappeared were taken are being marked and appropriated so that people can see the spaces of repression that they lived alongside and learn from the past.

Furthermore the organisation of the children of the disappeared in Argentina, H.I.J.O.S., began performing ‘escraches’ in the mid-1990s; using chants, processions, posters, and often by throwing paint, the group identified the homes of the perpetrators of the Dirty War in a context of political amnesty. These counter-memorial practices developed alongside calls for justice and truth, fighting against impunity and the ‘forgetting’ that the act of disappearance attempts to enforce.

Vivos los queremos

Mexicans are now confronting the shocking levels of disappearance that have occurred over the past 8 years. The protests, marches and public performances that have taken place since the September disappearance of the students, building on those relatives of desaparecidos have been organising for years, draw on these memorials of enforced disappearance from other parts of Latin America.

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Mexico’s protests have been dominated by the phrase ‘vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos’, demanding the state return the disappeared as they were taken, a demand made across the continent.

Families have marched in ‘caravans’ with large posters of the 43, often their ID photo. Activists have represented and embodied the missing by drawing and cutting out silhouettes of the 43, another practice used in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s and 80s. And the protestors have found their own language to express their anger and loss.

One traditional proverb has resounded in these protests: ‘nos quisieron enterrar, pero no sabían que éramos semilla’ (they wanted to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds), a phrase which encapsulates and gives strength to the protestors as the state attempts to silence them. This phrase gains another poignant layer of meaning when in the search for the 43 students mass graves of unidentified bodies are unearthed weekly. These practices are creating a lived memory of Mexico’s desaparecidos, they are kept alive in the collective conscience.

‘Move on’ says the state

However disappearance in Mexico is not yet discussed explicitly in relation to memory in a wide arena. Perhaps it is too early to be speaking of what happened in Ayotzinapa in terms of memory and memorialisation, yet the battle of remembering versus forgetting, of competing narratives, is taking place.

The Mexican state has attempted several times to write other narratives of this crime and to move on from explaining and understanding the underlying structural problems causing this crisis, and there is an ominous silence over any meaningful prosecutions of the police involved.

Initially speculation was raised that the students were involved with cartels, somehow explaining the attack, a narrative that may have whitewashed over the murder and disappearance of many innocent people over the past 8 years.

When Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam announced on the 7th November 2014 the ‘official’ version of the disappearance of the 43 he was, it seemed, attempting to put the incident to rest; to attribute guilt to the three cartel members they had arrested and to leave little or no space to contest his version of events.

In late November President Enrique Peña Nieto stated that the protests triggered by Ayotzinapa were against the ‘national project’ that his administration is undertaking, discrediting the protesters and legitimising a greater use of force against them. And more recently the attorney general has claimed he has proof the students were all killed, in a seeming attempt to close the case.

The importance of language

Although the contexts and realities of contemporary Mexico and the Southern Cone countries of the 1970s are vastly different in many ways, it is essential to recognise the parallels of the language and actions of both the state and the protestors. Recognising these similarities will help to frame and understand the complex situation Mexico finds itself in; aligning this movement within a Latin American context of disappearance opens our eyes and informs us of a much wider history and repression.

How, then, will the students from Aytozinapa be remembered? The disappearance of these 43 people has been described as ‘la gota que derramó el vaso’ (the drop that overflowed the glass): a sense that from this point onward something has changed. It now seems inevitable that like the 1968 Tlatelolco student massacre it will not be forgotten.

We can speculate as to whether a formal, official or permanent memorial to the 43 will be constructed in years to come, which will depend heavily on how Mexican politics moves forward from this breaking point (the recent memorial to the ‘victims of violence’ in Mexico City is an interesting comparison). However right now and until that point in the future, the protests and constant efforts of the relatives and wider public are engaging in a politics of memory that makes the 26,000 disappeared visible once more. The breadth of the crisis must be understood, and all Mexico’s desaparecidos, as well as the unknown numbers of non-Mexican migrants who have met a similar fate within Mexico, must be remembered.

Memory is lived

Memory is seen as distinct from history – it is lived, experienced, embodied, practiced and performed. Voices such as H.I.J.O.S. Mexico have been calling on us to remember Mexico’s disappeared – both recent and of the Dirty War. These voices need to be amplified and joined because how a nation remembers its past and collective traumas has profound implications for its future.

Systemic structures in Mexico have individualised the victims and imposed barriers that prevented society from seeing the scale of the problem, not least due to the confusion and terror that disappearance intends to instill. As the disappeared become visible, and families and society start to see disappearance as a shared and collective experience, a true collective memory of this period can grow.