The Storms of September Whistle Across Generations

There is something about September in Mexico. September 16, of course, is the country’s day of national independence, honoring the date in 1810 when the priest Miguel Hidalgo rallied the downtrodden to rise up against Spanish rule.

September is also marked by semi-official and unofficial commemorations that convey timeless messages, ideas, impressions and lessons, both positive and negative. In music, prose and poetry, oral and written history, legend and lore, even in food, September stands like a mighty pine whistling through the storm of ages. The ninth month is an indelible time in a nation’s cultural history and national consciousness.

Saturday, September 19, was the 30th anniversary of the Mexico City earthquake that not only left thousands dead and devastated a major world city, but also shook the Mexican political system to the core and, arguably, represented the final loosening in a catastrophic chain of events that led to the downfall (temporary) of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) government.

“The earthquake of 1985 not only marked the city, it marked Mexico as well,” remarked Mexico City Mayor Miguel Mancera at a weekend ceremony commemorating the tragedy.

The big tremor followed other earth-shattering episodes that altered the national psyche: the 1968 massacre of students in Mexico City, the Dirty War of the 1970s, the boom and bust of the oil industry, successive peso devaluations, and the beginning of the dismantlement of the state hatched from the 1910 Mexican Revolution.  The devastation triggered out-migration, helping grow cities like Aguascalientes and Puebla, and denuded a government that did not rise to the occasion.

Instead, the spontaneous outpouring of mutual aid fostered the emergence of civil society organizations that figured prominently in the politics of the 1980s and 1990s.  A rupture with the past, however contradictory and incomplete, was expressed in part by newly emboldened opposition political parties that unseated the PRI in various quarters well into the new century.

A cycle of Mexican history, brimming with rising expectations of change, was ushered in amid the ruins of Old and New Tenochtitlan, eventually giving way to the new, uncertain one of today.
September 23 marks another important date on the unofficial calendar of popular memory. That was the date back in 1965 when a group of 13 men attacked the Mexican army barracks in Madera, Chihuahua, in an unsuccessful assault that cost eight of the rebels their lives. Organized as the Popular Guerrilla Group, the revolutionaries took up arms after the government cracked down on a mass popular movement in Chihuahua for land and liberty, the unfulfilled promises of the 1910 Revolution.

This past weekend, Chihuahua City was the scene of a theater performance inspired by “Las Mujeres del Alba,” the book by the late writer Carlos Montemayor that portrayed the Madera rebellion through a lens that is not worn: the eyes and hearts of the women who were the mothers, daughters, sisters and wives of the ill-fated squad led by Arturo Gamiz and Dr. Pablo Gomez.

Among others, the play was attended by surviving relatives of the Madera attackers, as well as Francisco Ornelas Gomez, one of the two guerilla survivors still alive. Alma Gomez Caballero, daughter of Dr. Pablo Gomez, was in attendance, and invited the other family members to ascend the stage in homage to the actors who portrayed their loved ones.

“Suddenly, 50 years of pain and struggle struck,” Gomez said.

Published on the website, longtime Chihuahua political leader and analyst Victor Quintana offered his observations on the 50th anniversary of Madera:

“The attack of the guerrilla group on the Madera fort was, together with the doctors’ movement of the same year, and later, the popular and student movement of 1968, the manifestation of crisis in the model of stable development, the agony of “The Mexican Miracle,” revealing the exclusion of great sectors from the benefits of development and democratic participation.”

Quintana compared the socio-political similarities and differences between the Mexico of 1965 and the Mexico of 2015.

“The great problems of exclusion, of poverty and of oppression that Pablo Gomez, Arturo Gamiz and their companions denounced have not been resolved in the essential,” Quintana wrote. “The 55 million poor people there are in Mexico today exceed by 10 million the total population of the country at the moment of the rebellion….”

Nonetheless, five decades have brought new concerns to the table:

“The campesino (small farmer) movement has modified its demand for land. The movement demands its territories with all the accumulation of biodiversity: natural resources and water, as well as the importance that these contain, and in the face of attacks of transnational mining companies, of the extraction of shale gas, and against tourism, logging and hydroelectric projects that take over and destroy indigenous and small farm communities.”

Then there is Ayotzinapa. September 26, 2014 is another date that is now etched into the popular consciousness.  Nearly one year after the brutal police and paramilitary attack that left six people dead and 43 students disappeared from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college in the state of Guerrero, more questions than answers swirl around the bloody night, with a slew of recent reports casting further discredit on the official version.

The Night of Iguala, as it was coined by Proceso magazine, haunts the Mexican nation. The students are still missing, and their parents and loved ones remain in anguish.

Ayotzinapa is the poster child of forced disappearance. In a country where mass graves containing the victims of the so-called narco war, migrant victimization, femicide, and political repression bury the truth from north to south and from east to west, nobody knows for sure how many missing are out there. 25,000? 50,000? 100,000?

Officially, Saturday, September 26, is being remembered this year as the Day of the Disappeared Person, per the unanimous proclamation by the lower chamber of the Mexican Congress.

Unofficially, the Ayotizinapa parents, rural teacher college students and allies from an assortment of civil society organizations are making sure Mexico doesn’t forget.  An intense week of activities kicked into gear on Sunday, September 20, when Ayotzinapa parents and their supporters temporarily blockaded the highway between the Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo and the coastal city of Acapulco.

During the next few days, the parents will stage a hunger strike and march on Mexico City. Protesters are then expected to converge on Iguala, Guerrero, the scene of the crime. Solidarity actions will be held in other Mexican and international cities. In New York City, the International Tribunal of Conscience, convened by human rights activists and prominent members of civil society from across the world, will put the Mexican government on trial for the Ayotzinapa atrocity.

In Mexico (and now beyond) the old and new storms of September whistle long and hard across generations.

Additional sources:  El Sur. Articles by Carlos Navarette Romero, Proceso and Agencia Reforma. September 20 and 21, 2015. La Jornada (Guerrero edition), September 20, 2015. Article by Margena de la O., September 20, 2015. Article by Victor Quintana. La Jornada, September 18, 2015. Article by Roberto Garduno and Enrique Mendez. Proceso/Apro, September 18, 2015. Article by Maria Luisa Vivas.

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