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Story of revolt in 1968 Mexico

Review of by Peter Lamphere | February 4, 2005 | Page 9

Paco Ignacio Taibo II, '68. Seven Stories Press, 2004, 224 pages, $12.95.

THE YEAR 1968 is remembered for its fierce social movements and political turmoil--a general strike of 10 million workers in France, the Tet offensive in Vietnam, Black Power salutes at the Olympic games. But few are aware of the mass student movement in Mexico in the months leading up to those games--a general university strike encompassing nearly half a million students that was brutally extinguished by a massacre of up to 400 by the Mexican army.

The first translation into English of '68--a short reminiscence of one of the student leaders of the movement--is important for everyone who wants to draw inspiration from the 1960s. The account, personal and anecdotal, doesn't pretend to be a systematic analysis but gives a clear sense of the hopeful creativity that pervaded the movement.

Unlike many excellent books on the movement, such as Elena Poniatowska's La Noche de Tlatelolco, this book doesn't focus on the massacre of students. Instead, Taibo concentrates on the sudden explosion of a mass movement, from a student left that was relatively weak and isolated.

The movement began when a demonstration in solidarity with the Cuban revolution--called by Taibo "the most ritual demonstration of the left"--encountered a simultaneous demonstration of thousands of polytechnic students protesting a police intervention into their schools.

Both demonstrations were viciously repressed--and the students returned to their schools to organize assemblies that could call a strike. The repression continued, with the police using a bazooka blast to break into the door of one of the preparatory schools. Soon, the demonstrations swelled to 30,000, and then 100,000, and, within a month, half a million.

Readers of '68 gain a sharp sense of the movement's creativity. From the very beginning of the student strike, the activists organized themselves into propaganda brigades, which spread across the markets, bus stations and street corners of Mexico City to distribute leaflets and collect donations. The students held "lightning meetings," stopping traffic and enacting skits illustrating the demands of the movement.

Taibo writes brilliantly of the day-to-day experience of the movement: the communal kitchens where anarchists, Troskyists and "miniskirt Guevarists" would cook together; the newfound freedom of women in the movement who rejected the sexist admonishments to stay in at night; the "crazy insomnia" of the all-night guarding sessions at the university (at one point, Taibo and his friends wrap an entire building in typewriter tape because it was the red-and-black colors of the strike).

The moments of support from the workers of the city were incredible. At one point, after tanks were called into Mexico City's main square to clear out a student demonstration, Mexican President Diaz Ordaz brought thousands of state bureaucrats out to counterdemonstrate. But state workers began to chant that "we've been carried here--we are the sheep of Diaz Ordaz," and the tanks again had to clear the main square.

Small support committees began to spring up amongst workers in the refineries and amongst the power workers of Mexico City, and the outpouring of support for the student demonstrations was impressive.

Despite the repression and eventually crushing of the student movement, the student movement had a long-lasting impact on Mexican society. It was the first crack in the edifice of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

As Taibo writes, "The student movement was many things at the same time: an unmasking of the Mexican state, an emperor without clothes in front of the thousands of students; it was schools taken over by the creation of a communal liberated space based on assemblies; it was family debate in thousands of homes; it was a crisis in the traditional methods of misinforming the country and the discovery of the flyer, the spoken word, and the saving rumor as alternatives to the press and the TV; it was also violence, repression, fear and murder. But above all, more than anything, before all else, it meant the re-launching of a generation of students towards their own society...the discovery of popular solidarity...trespassing the grey walls of the factory and arriving to those who were inside."

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