Protest poetry: From Tlatelolco to Ferguson

Plaza de las Tres Culturas, Tlatelolco, Ciudad México.
Photo: Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata, Wikipedia commons.

By Tim W. Shenk
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

The Tlatelolco massacre of October 2, 1968 in Mexico City shaped a generation across Latin America. We may look back to say the same of a U.S. generation galvanized by the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014. Sometimes poetry can connect these raw wounds in our popular consciousness better than prose.

A revolutionary spirit was in the air across the world in 1968, from national liberation movements across the Global South to a wave of massive strikes, protests and uprisings in the U.S. and Europe. In October, the international spotlight shone on Mexico in the lead-up to the Olympic Games to be held in Mexico City later that month. (Black U.S. athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith would famously give the “Black Power salute” there upon receiving their medals for track and field.)

Before the games began, Mexican students, teachers and workers took advantage of the world’s attention to share their grievances about their government. They gathered by the thousands at the Plaza de Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City. On the night of October 2, the Mexican army opened fire on the protesters, killing 300-500 and arresting over a thousand more.

The next morning, as Rosario Castellanos’s poem says, “the dawn found the plaza swept clean” and a massive cover-up was underway.

Elena Poniatowska was a newspaper reporter who interviewed students after the massacre, and wrote it up for “Novedades,” the paper where she was employed. In an interview a half-century later, she said, “I thought they would publish these accounts, but they rejected all of my articles.” She kept gathering stories. They would become the book, La noche de Tlatelolco, one of the clearest and most damning accounts of the mass state violence that no agency of government or major news source wanted to admit had transpired.

The poem, “Memorial de Tlatelolco” by Castellanos (original here and my English translation below), is iconic and haunting. It captures the entrance into an era of open and brutal attack on those who threatened the status quo, and the lengths to which the ruling elites and their militaries would go to repress voices for change.

Mexican society relived similar terror in 2014 when 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College – a school that trained public school teachers for poor communities – were kidnapped and disappeared by government agents. The students from Guerrero state were raising money to travel to Mexico City to commemorate the Tlatelolco Massacre.

Also in 2014, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, USA, murdered Black teenager Michael Brown, and authorities left Brown’s body in the street for several hours. The subsequent protests in Ferguson and around the country consolidated under the plea, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and the now ubiquitous hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

“U.S. Guns,” by Mia Barraza Martinez, also shared below, is an equally raw and powerful indictment of state violence against the poor. Barraza Martinez connects the history of Tlatelolco to the more recent attacks on our people north and south of the border.

In Memory of Tlatelolco
Rosario Castellanos

Darkness begets violence
And violence demands darkness
To coagulate the crime.
For that reason the 2nd of October continued into the night
So that no one would see the hand that gripped
The weapon, only its lightning effects.

And that light, brief and fierce, who? Who is it that kills?
Who are those in agony, those who die?
Those who flee barefoot?
Those who will fall into a hole of a jail?
Those who rot in the hospital?
Those who are struck mute, forever, from fear?

Who? Who? Nobody. The next day, nobody.
Dawn found the plaza swept clean; the newspaper
Headline was the weather forecast.
And on television, on the radio, in the movie theater
There was no change of program,
No newsflash, not even a
moment of silence at the banquet
(And the banquet carried on.)

Don’t look for what there aren’t: fingerprints, cadavers
Because everything has been given as offerings to a goddess,
To the Devourer of Excrements.
Don’t rummage around in the archives because the record shows nothing.
Yet behold, I touch a sore: it’s my memory.
It hurts, therefore it’s true. Blood with blood
And if I call it mine, I betray everyone.

I remember, we remember.
This is our way of helping it dawn
upon so many tainted consciousnesses,
upon a wrathful text on open bars,
upon the face protected behind the mask.
I remember, we remember
Until justice comes to sit among us.

U.S. guns
Mia Barraza Martinez

It’s 1968
the U.S. said 44 dead
Tlatelolco, México
but eyewitnesses say hundreds
and we believe each other.

It’s Ferguson, Missouri
cops say thug thug thug call for backup
but we believe each other
he was a black boy a black boy
a boy a boy.

It’s 1968
it’s the Summer Olympics
Mexican president says quiet quiet quiet
it’s the Olympics Mexicans be quiet
in ten days it’s the Olympics
quiet Mexicans quiet.

U.S. guns kill Black Americans.
In México U.S. guns kill Mexicans
And they leave they run
they run from U.S. guns.

It’s 1968
in México
snipers on rooftops and helicopters
say quiet Mexicans quiet.
It’s Ayotzinapa
Mexican cartels with U.S. guns.
a 4 next to a 3 is 43
4 plus 3 equals 7
and 7 fits between 6 and 8.

It’s 1968
it’s Memphis, Tennessee
Dr. King on a balcony.
Bobby Kennedy shouldn’t have broken bread with Mexicans
killed in a kitchen in California
land that used to be México.

It’s Tlatelolco and these are students
the U.S. said officially it’s 44 dead
but we believe each other
we know it’s hundreds
hundreds of Mexican students now quiet quiet quiet.

Michael Brown was a Black American student.
In Ayotzinapa they were learning to be Mexican teachers now they are quiet quiet Mexicans.

In México Black American athletes win gold
it’s 1968
black poverty black power black scarf shoeless hungry
in México a white Australian wears a human rights badge
as the U.S. anthem plays because he’s tired of their shit too
in México Black Olympians were stripped of their medals
like the Spanish stripped México of our medals

two black power fists, three bowed heads
in 1968 in México the U.S. anthem plays.
43 disappeared
It’s Ayotzinapa.
It’s Ferguson.

It’s 1988 and my family left México because we were starving.


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