Black glove/white glove: revisiting Mexico's 1968

Donald Nicholson-Smith
1 October 2008

The 2004 Athens Olympics have been accompanied by inevitable reminiscence of Olympiads past in the United States and European media. But their coverage has been marked by a notable amnesia regarding the 1968 games in Mexico City, and in particular about a single incident of terrible violence just before that event whose deep impacts on Mexican history, politics, and society continue to reverberate thirty–six years later.

President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz had formally opened the Mexico City games on 12 October of that seminal year in an atmosphere redolent (according to a contemporary New York Times report) of “pageantry, brotherhood 2nd peace.” Just ten days earlier, on 2 October 1968, Díaz Ordaz – for many reasons, but certainly out of determination that the games should proceed unmolested by social protest – had unleashed the combined power of the Mexican military and police forces on a mass of unarmed student demonstrators and other civilians in the city’s Plaza de las Tres Culturas, shooting and bayoneting to death more than 300 of them, then covering up the scale of the slaughter and attendant torture and disappearances.

How do societies evade, retrieve and address the painful episodes of their past? openDemocracy examines this question in our Sorry: the politics of apology debate

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), even though one of its members had witnessed corpses being piled onto lorries for removal from the Plaza killing ground, voted in an emergency meeting to carry on regardless.

The legacy of 1968

The 1968 games would in political terms be remembered in the wider world not for the myriad victims of Mexican state terror (as Octavio Paz called it), but for the black–gloved fists, raised in a silent but eloquent call for black power, of the Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the 200–metre gold– and bronze–medal winners. Their symbolic protest was punished by prompt ejection from the Olympic village by the tidy–minded IOC, suspension from the United States national team and vilification by its media.

But for Mexicans, for Mexico, October 1968 would carry a very different political legacy: the bloody defeat of a massive, three–month–old student movement that had begun (or so it had seemed) seriously to challenge the sclerotic, authoritarian rule of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the inheritor of the mantle of the victorious Mexican revolution of 1910–20 and the sole party of government for almost four decades. And it would be not the black gloves of Smith and Carlos but the single white glove worn as identification by members of the “Olympia Battalion” – a secret army unit of thugs who weaved their way among the students, arresting them and beating them up – that would eventually come to symbolise this watershed in the nation’s history.

A watershed indeed, despite the fact that the “Tlatelolco massacre” (named after the housing estate where the event took place) spelt defeat for the burgeoning student–led protest movement of 1968, and that fully thirty–two years would elapse before the election of the first non–PRI president in Mexico’s modern history – Vicente Fox of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), in July 2000.

At the time, and appropriately enough, Díaz Ordaz foresaw nothing of the erosive process ahead: “Mexico will be the same before and after Tlatelolco [and] because of Tlatelolco”, he concluded in his memoirs. As Enrique Krauze notes in his Mexico: biography of power, 1810–1996 (English translation by Hank Heifetz; HarperCollins, 1997), “he could not have been more mistaken.” For the Tlatelolco massacre was also, indubitably, the beginning of the decline of the PRI’s hegemony.

It might have been otherwise, for the initial cover–up was highly effective and durable. Without the almost miraculous presence of the cosmopolitan intellectual Elena Poniatowska, whose relentless investigative journalism produced a most extraordinary oral history, La Noche de Tlatelolco [Mexico City, Era, 1971; English translation by Barbara Bray: Massacre in Mexico (Viking, 1975)], it would surely have been sustained for even longer than it was.

I said 1968 was a seminal, watershed year for Mexico. I daresay that such a characterisation with respect to the French, British, or American versions could provoke an argument; but for the Mexican, it is beyond dispute. Anyone doubting this, and indeed anyone interested in the destiny of the Mexican “generation of ‘68” that emerged from the bath of fire of Tlatelolco – only to confront both the dirty war of the 1970s, with its thousands of killed and disappeared, as well as the multifarious and canny seductions of state power – would benefit from reading an accessible, liberal account of the PRI’s agonised retreat from unalloyed hegemony, namely Opening Mexico: the making of a democracy, by the New York Times reporters Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004).

But for those of a more leftish, marginal or even romantic bent, I want to recommend ‘68, by the well–known Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II (Seven Stories Press, 2004, available in the original Spanish or in an English translation by me). Taibo’s remarkable book, first published in 1991, is a brief memoir of the student movement based on notes made in the immediate aftermath of the disaster for a novel that “probably did not want to be written”.

It is an anecdotal time–capsule, quirky, intimate, and poignant. It is also a collective profile of the author’s generation of middle–class kids in all their pre–Tlatelolco innocence – so alike, yet so different from their peer ‘68ers in North America or Europe. To communicate its distinct flavour, especially to readers beyond the Mexican world, it is worth quoting at length:

“We read Howard Fast and Julius Fucik, Julio Cortázar and Mario Benedetti, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury and Jesús Díaz.... We were surprised by Carlos Fuentes’s Where the Air Is Clear; in sharp contrast to our decontextualised readings of Lenin, here was a scientific account of the formation of the new Mexican big bourgeoisie, product of a perverse union between Sonoran generals and the sanctimonious daughters of Porfirist oligarchs or shopkeepers just off the boat from Spain. ... Literature was real reality. We listened to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary – the music of the anti–Vietnam War generation; secretly, we (or at least the schmaltz–prone among us) listened to Charles Aznavour and Cuco Sánchez.”

A reservoir of commitment

Here is Taibo looking back with twenty years’ worth of hindsight:

“When all was said and done, it had been nothing but a student movement lasting one hundred and twenty–three days. No more and no less. And yet it had given us – given a whole generation of students – a past and a country, a ground beneath our feet.... The most unhinged joined an urban guerrilla struggle that over the next five years bled out into a merciless dirty war. A very large group of us went into the neighborhoods and founded community organizations ... others went into factories .... others ended up in the countryside – an even stranger land.”

“Of course there were defeats, a shitload of them, but surrender was rare. Sixty–eight bequeathed us the reserves of defiance and determination that had been the motor of the Movement as a whole, and it infused us with a sense of place, a firmly rooted feeling of nationality.”

“But then there are days when I see myself, and I don’t recognize myself. Bad times, when the night prolongs a rainy day, when sleep won’t come, and I wrestle vainly with the computer keyboard. I realize then that we seem doomed to be ghosts of ‘68. Well, what’s so bad about that? I ask myself: better to be Draculas of resistance than PRI–ist monsters of Frankenstein, or of modernity. And then the keys produce graceless sparks, weak flares, memories that are sometimes painful but most of the time raise a slight smile; and I long for that old spirit of laughter; I mourn, growing fearful of the dark, for an intensity now lost, for that feeling of immortality, for that other me of that never–ending year.”

Over the last decade or so, wrote Taibo in 2003, “the persistence of the intellectual community and of a number of newspapers and magazines has repeatedly turned the spotlight back onto the ‘68 Movement.... Photographs and films have been dug out of the archives, an excellent documentary has been made by Carlos Mendoza ... and a book published, Parte de Guerra II (Mexico City: Aguilar, 2002), with a commentary by Carlos Monsiváis and Julio Scherer García, that sheds much light on the role of the army.”

A door to the past

The refusal of writers like Taibo to allow the ghosts of Tlatelolco to rest seemed ready to find its official vindication with the arrival in power of the Vicente Fox administration in 2000, after seventy–one years of unbroken PRI rule. The new leader’s much–touted commitment to “transparency” was followed by the appointment of a special public prosecutor to investigate the political crimes of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Mexican state gradually admitted that it had been responsible for many hundreds of killings in those years. Yet, to date, only one indictment has been sought – over an incident on 10 June 1971 when dozens of student demonstrators were killed. The event, known as the “Corpus Christi massacre”, involved a bizarre plot to intimidate some veteran student leaders of 1968 who were then just being released from prison. The plot was supposedly prepared by the then president Luis Echeverría and executed by a goon squad known as Los Halcones (The Falcons).

On 22 July 2004, special prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo Prieto charged Echeverría (Díaz Ordaz’s interior minister in October 1968) with “genocide” over the incident. A breakthrough? But after two days the request to indict Echeverría was denied on the basis of a thirty–year statute of limitations; the government has appealed.

So today, things remain much as described in late 2003 by Paco Ignacio Taibo II (whose felicitous epithet for the Fox transition is “decaffeinated”): “as long as the murderers are not brought to justice, the wounds will fester. The special prosecutor’s office has moved only under external pressure, lurching this way and that, opening investigations and calling on ex–presidents to testify, which they refuse to do. As for us, obdurate as ever, thirty–five years down the line, we are back in the street again.”


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