The central Mexican city of Aguascalientes is perhaps typical this time of year. Beginning on December 12, Virgin of Guadalupe Day, Mexico’s long holiday season cranks up in a steaming barrage of rockets, tamales, Aztec dancers and a honking bus caravan that bears portraits of the national icon.
Nicknamed Lupe Reyes, the festivities extend until January 6, Three King’s Day, when gifts are traditionally handed to children. This January 6, however, will also be the day when politically embattled Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto visits the White House.
Prior to Christmas, Aguascalientes teems with shoppers. Chicas Telcel hustle cellphone deals while stands of clothing, shoes and wrapping paper snag pedestrians on jammed downtown streets and plaza corridors. The incessant conflict between municipal authorities and vendors plays out, as a group of merchants protests against an official’s alleged betrayal of promises to grant commercial licenses.
Holiday cheer abounds. Uplifted by the rhythms of grupero, cumbia, rock, jazz and even blues music, revelers make their own pilgrimages in the city’s dramatically expanded downtown entertainment district, which has practically converted Aguascalientes’ night life into a permanent edition of the famous San Marcos spring fair.
Usually, Lupe Reyes is a time when worldy woes are left behind in a ritualistic bath of celebration, family gatherings and partying. But this year is different, with an added element hovering in the air. As hundreds of runners heaved and puffed through Aguascalientes’ Virgin of Guadalupe race, two young men were spotted emerging from the dispering crowd with the message “We are Missing 43” printed on their t-shirts.
In today’s Mexico the number 43 means, of course, the 43 students of the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college who were forcibly disappeared by policemen in Iguala, Guerrero, last September and then transformed into the collective face of a nation shaken to its core.
The slogan, “They wanted to disappear you, but you appeared all over the world,” literally proved true last week when a 21-year-old Mexican university student, Adan Cortes Salas, burst into the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Norway waving a Mexican flag and urging the world to pay attention to human rights violations in his country- all to the delight of 17-year-old Nobel Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan.
Morphing into a popular uprising in different forms, the Ayotzinapa justice movement has has not stopped for Lupe Reyes. In Aguascalientes, for example, young activists show nighttime videos projected onto a large screen in the downtown plaza.
The short videos feature a testimony from a survivor of the Iguala Massacre, a piece dissecting the feudal-like carving up of Guerrero into a “narco-state” and an interview with Don Nepomuceno Moreno, the Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity activist who relentlessly demanded justice for his son, disappeared by policemen in Sonora, only to wind up a victim himself when he was gunned down in broad daylight in Hermosillo in 2011.
Attracting dozens of people who watch and listen with intense concentration, the videos are a tool meant to spark citizen awareness, involvement and dialogue on vital issues defining the future of a nation, said activist Rene Lopez.
On another recent day, as shoppers surged through the streets and a crew prepared the stage for a Catholic rock concert that was later soaked in rain, activists gathered on the downtown plaza’s edge.
Prompting questions from a couple of municipal cops who scribbled notes, the university students and representatives of the Aguascalientes Social and Gender Violence Observatory planted pink crosses and passed out pesquisas, or missing person’s fliers.
Originally popularized by women’s activists and victims’ relatives in Ciudad Juarez, the crosses have since become an international symbol in the movement against gender violence. The Aguacalientes crosses bore messages like “More than 250 Feminicides in Aguascalientes from 2001-2014” and “Feminicide is not a crime of passion: It is a crime of the State.” The fliers solicited public information on the disappearance of three young residents: Crystal Acevedo Gomez, 29; Sara Estefania Munoz Mota, 18; and Sergio de Lara Quezada, 28.
Mariana Avila, local coordinator for the Observatory, sounded complaints long familiar in Ciudad Juarez and other parts of Mexico. Local law enforcement, she contended, routinely delays investigating women’s disappearances and is behind the curve in implementing an investigative protocol that grew out of the historic 2009 Inter-American Court of Human Rights sentence against the Mexican government for women’s murders in Ciudad Juarez, in the case known as Campo Algodonero, or the Cotton Field.
According to Avila, the state prosecutor’s office released a statistic of 229 women and 135 men who had vanished in Aguascalientes from January to September 2014, but left unclear how many of the reported missing were eventually located safe and sound or remain disappeared.
“We don’t have a credible set of data at the state or national level,” Avila said. “Information is not correctly compiled. This is a national problem.”
Citing the National Registry of Missing or Disappeared Persons, which reflects numbers maintained by the federal Interior Ministry, the Aguascalientes edition of La Jornada reported last week that 191 people had disappeared in the small state during 2014. The newspaper ranked Aguascalientes as the 21st place nationally among states and the Federal District in terms of disappeared persons. To put both Aguascalientes and Ayotizinapa in national perspective, more than 23,000 people are listed in the national registry as disappeared.
Avila said her group, which monitors gender violence and the Mexican government’s compliance with the mandatory Campo Algodonero sentence, supports the Ayotzinapa justice movement but is pushing for it to cut culturally deeper.
“Feminism is an alternative to look at the situation at the national level,” she said. “We’ve proposed this as a position but, unfortunately, many of our friends haven’t adopted this.”
While Avila spoke, a small group of university students passed out fliers and spoke to passersby one-by-one about the missing. Young, smart and serious, they are among the future leaders of Mexico.
Finishing up a degree in psychology, Brenda Serna described the situation of women as especially grave, with their grievances including underrepresentation in political office, sexual assault, impunity in the justice system and the wolf whistles she’s personally experienced walking down the street.
A local example, she continued, recently happened when a male stripper allegedly raped a young woman in the bathroom of a nightclub ironically named “Mafia House,” escaping with the collusion of employees. The establishment now stands with a government “closed” seal on its front door.
The activism in Aguascalientes represents only a slice of the protest and moblization that is occurring across Mexico during Lupe Reyes 2014. In post-Ayotzinapa Mexico, violence which once largely went unnoticed is increasingly becoming a magnet for public outrage. The brutal December 3 murder of 19-year nurse Erika Kassandra Bravo Caro in Uruapan, Michoacan, even jolted an entity where hyper-violence has been the norm for years and mobilized 10,000 people into the streets, according to media reports.
Erika’s cause hit social media, where a YouTube video of the young woman demanded justice. After days of protests the Michoacan state prosecutor’s office announced early this week the arrest of Bravo’s 42-year-old step-father as the probable murderer.The young homicide victim reportedly had plans to become a doctor.
While specific mobilizations for the Ayotizinapa students continue throughout the holiday season, more sectors of society are rising up around a host of issues. Outraged by reforms they contend will devalue an essential profession, nurses have staged demonstrations in Guerrero, Nuevo Leon, Guanajuato, Baja California and Mexico City in recent days. As the national pulse drips with discontent, the inevitable question begs: What next? With each passing day, public opinion is less tolerant of systemic tinkerings or public relations gestures.
For example, representatives of the culturally influential film industry published a December 14 statement that urged thorough changes. Signed by dozens of members of the Mexican Academy of Arts and Cinemagraphic Sciences, the statement called for “many and very radical actions” designed to deliver “genuine and profound changes to Mexico, where democracy, justice, the opportunity for development for all and national unity is posible.”
In a first step toward fundamental changes, grassroots activists are organizing “citizen dialogues” outside the structure of governmental agencies and political parties to identify concerns and possible solutions. In Aguascalientes, housewives, students and residents of low-income neighborhoods have been turning out for the citizen dialogues, said university student Josue Perales, who’s also participated in the initiative. In the current political and social juncture, both short-term and long-term actions are manifest, Perales said.
“This is important work,” the young man said. “We can see marches and protests but this is just the beginning. The real work that will change Mexico is citizen dialogue.”
Additional sources: El Universal, December 16, 2014. Article by Dalia Martinez. Proceso/Apro, December 11 and 15, 2014. La Jornada, December 14, 2014. Articles by Hector Briseno, Erick Mendoza and editorial staff. La Jornada (Aguascalientes edition), December 11, 2014. Article by Fermin Ruiz E. Munoz.
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico