I read an article recently which argued convincingly that 1968 was a year in American history that ranked right up there with 1776 and 1941. Assassinations of RFK and MLK. The Chicago riots at the Democratic convention. LBJ’s decision to step down. Nixon’s election victory. Certainly, the assassinations in and of themselves changed history, even without the other cataclysmic events. And there was international tumult as well. Paris boiled. Czechoslovakians defied the Russians with their Prague Spring. We might recall the olympics of that year in Mexico City when sprinters Carlos Jones and Tommie Smith raised their fists in a black power salute on the medal stand. But there were
more important and horrible events than a mute civil protest at an athletic event in Mexico City that year.
’68 is a memoir about the Mexican government’s massacre of protesting students in October of 1968. Paco Ignacio Taibo II lived through the fury and went on to develop a distinguished writing career, but it wasn’t until twenty-five years after the events that he was able to construct a work about the protests, his role, and their meaning in history. The current version of ’68 has several entries from not only 1983, but ’93 and ’03 as well. It’s as ugly a story as the second half of the 20th century has to offer.
Upset by the repressive measures of president Diaz Ordaz–secret police, attempts to censor universities, imprisoning of political opponents. The usual–students at the universities began striking, occupying. The more the government tried to crack down, the more the strikes spread. My own impressions of the time were that these were university-centered protests. But no. High schools, middle schools (or their Mexican equivalents) all got involved. Hundreds of thousands marched. It was an amazingly fluid movement for a time when the highest technology was the mimeograph machine. God knows how successful they’d have been if they’d had Twitter and Facebook.
The movement was essentially leaderless, its activities spontaneous, yet tied together by common tactics. “Flash protests” by a couple of hundred here and there without any public notice. Painting of public buses and walls and even rooftops where helicopters could read the messages.
There were the normal government lies about outside agitators. Clubbings, arrests tortures. Then the disappearing began. Arrests were followed by flights over the Gulf of Mexico with victims shoved out of planes into the ocean. It all culminated in a military bloodbath which killed over 400 demonstrators.
Taibo’s accounts of the fear, excitement, hope; the nights without sleep; the friends who just evaporated. It’s all poignant and painful. So, too are his reflections on why it took him so long to write about it, on the ultimate meaning of it all.
It’s a profound and painful read by a thoughtful, intelligent, poetic soul who was there and who knows, really knows, how to write. Most of all, sadly, this stuff hasn’t stopped. We need to be aware of that.