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Reading Marx and changing the country: the role of women in the 1968 movement
The significant labor of women and their active role in the revolutionary brigades prior to the Tlatelolco student massacre remain practically invisible. Heriberto Paredes challenges this narrative.
After a summer of increasingly large demonstrations in response to the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, the Mexican National Guard opened fire on October 2, 1968 on unarmed civilians.
Due to the State’s repressive apparatus, the number of people assassinated remains unknown.
The incident unfolded in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco neighborhood of Mexico City.
Heriberto Paredes shares the testimonies of women who were part of the 1968 student organization.
"They said that women were only good for serving coffee, but we always participated as equals," they recall.
Text and photographs by Heriberto Paredes.
"My comrades and I used to attend all the brigades to hand out flyers, to go out on rallies.
At 2 o'clock in the afternoon the workers would come out, and and we were given such a great reception always. They would continuously receive us so effusively that we liked to go, we liked to hand out our leaflets and we would arrive the next day at school with our jars full [of collected donations]."
This is the story of Elsa Lecuona, who in 1968 was a first semester law student at National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and who, after the beginning of the movement, became a brigadista along with many other students.
A member of her faculty's theater group, Lecuona recalls that they read Marx and Trotsky in secret because most of their classmates were right-wing leaning.
She is proud to have belonged to the resistance movement and affirms that her commitment knew no boundaries until ten days before October 2, when she was forced to leave the city to protect her safety, as demanded by her family.
It’s been more than 50 years since the 1968 Mexican student movement, which quickly escalated into radical political mobilization beyond its original demographics.
Admittedly, great tributes have been made: a large number of books, magazines, pamphlets, articles and reports have been written. Regardless, for Lecuoana as for some of her colleagues, the role of women in this movement has not been adequately addressed.
“I’ve heard it over the years: they say that women’s involvement in the student movement was limited to serving coffee, that we were but mere companions.
And I tell them, 'excuse me, but what I remember is that we participated equally — our lives too were on the line.”
The brigadistas were committed. In order to expand the cause and seek cooperation amidst the population, they would travel to markets, factories, get on buses, hand out leaflets and diversify their crowdfunding.
“Sometimes, when we would paint graffiti and glue stickers to the walls, they [the cops] would run around and catch up with us and kick us… or whatever," recalls Ana Ignacia Rodríguez, affectionately known as Nacha, a fifth semester law student in the same law school as Elsa.
Back then a woman who studied and, in addition, participated in the student movement was already a kind of a scandal.
Trying to dress differently from what was socially stipulated was frowned upon, "we wore miniskirts, high heels, garters and stockings, and that way we had to run from the police or the army," says Lecuona, now a retired lawyer.
Contrary to what one might think, within the student movement – and despite the fact that most of the participants were men – both Nacha and Elsa agree that there was a sense of gender equality in the way they were treated and in the brigade work they carried out on a daily basis.
"We participated as men and women on an equal footing," insists Lecuona.
The movement escalated within weeks, turning into political platform.
The demands were no longer only the cessation of State repression, and went beyond seeking the liberation of imprisoned students. They began to demand the dismissal of government officials and the removal of constitutional articles that allowed criminalization on the basis of assembling for political reasons.
They went from being repressed by the police to being repressed by the army and that constituted a dramatic leap.
The student brigades
From the creation of the National Strike Council (CNH) until at least the beginning of 1969, the brigades became the core of the movement.
Thousands of students took to the streets and began to translate out the messages and material of their political causes to different sectors of the population.
In Mexico City and in several states of the “republic”, the brigadistas gave life and meaning to a movement severely repressed and vilified by the government of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, who could not overcome, not even with his radio, television and newspaper propaganda, the great capacity of the brigades to communicate the motives of their struggle.
"If there is something important in the student movement of 1968 it was the brigades; without the brigades it is inconceivable. And neither have they been given proper recognition," says Nacha, who has defined herself as a brigadista and not a leader, even though many people have called her that.
Silvia Gálvez was 15 years old when the student movement began, today a nutritionist and therapist, and back then she was beginning her training at the Polytechnic Institute of Mexico (IPN) when she quickly became involved in the extensive network:
"I joined as a brigadista and started giving speeches in buses. My school disintegrated but I had a boyfriend who had some cousins at the School of Biological Sciences and we started going to the assemblies, it had a huge auditorium where they held tremendous assemblies.”
This political school quickly consolidated as the skeleton of the movement, without which it would not have been able to confront the governmental dynamics of controlling everything: from political discourse and to all mass dissemination of information.
Elsa, Silvia and Nacha share experiences that, 50 years after the movement and with all the technological advances surrounding us, sound remote.
However, their grassroots work served as an example for new political processes, such as the UNAM strike between 1999 and 2000 or the struggle of the Mexican Electricians Union in 2009, where contact with ordinary people was essential to arouse feelings of solidarity.
“In our brigades," Elsa continues excitedly, "we were busy: cutting stencils, cutting flyers, handing them out, going to the market, holding rallies.
There was a lot of support from the Mexican people, you could feel the sympathy of the working class for the student movement."
In this same sense, Silvia makes an exercise of memory and mentions fundamental things to understand the operation of the brigades, the dislocated engine of the movement:
"We formed a pack, we would get on a bus at a traffic light, we would say 'would you let us give a message to your passengers?', everyone always said yes. And while I gave the message, informing the latest news of what was happening and why we were mobilizing, my partner would pass the can of cooperation. And as soon as we finished the message we would get off at the next traffic light. It was a continuous effort, very fast, requiring a lot of agility and a very synthetic arrangement of the information we’d share with the workers."
It’s only been 50 years since the Tlatelolco Massacre
For the youngest of the group, Silvia, who is about 65 years old, the lessons of her political awakening and the time that followed are concentrated in her consciousness, which has not changed much for her:
"[the student movement] left traces of conviction for the rest of my life, until now I have no doubt that we have to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people, that there is a bourgeois class that has us by the scruff of the neck…”
She adds, “that government expenditures and political bodies are highly corrupt, there is no doubt in my mind. That they live in a different world and we live in another".
In the case of Elsa Lecuona, the reflection she makes when asked about what she cherishes most from that time, focuses mainly on the changes that took place in her personal life and in the lives of women, who like her, decided to break with the dominant and conservative aspects of Mexican society at that time.
"The student movement changed us dramatically and very quickly. These women you see here – she points me to a photograph of the time where she appears with other friends – we promised ourselves not to get married in white dresses.
The whole process was: we were reading Marx and repudiating wedding dresses, and whoever wanted a virgin woman, let's see where they could find one.
We promised ourselves not to commit to marry as virgins; we would stop being virgins out of love and not because we accepted a white dress, a large color TV set, two children and a dog".
The three women agree that the student movement shattered their preconceived notions of what society was supposed to be, showing instead a panorama that they did not know existed and that in their diverse backgrounds they did not possess. It was, in Silvia's words, "a very significant space of expression where they experienced the possibility of expanding their collective and personal awareness."
However, Nacha points out that for her, along with Tita, after prison came other types of repression: labor, housing and social stigma. It has not been easy to move forward in these fifty years in which the country has not managed to end inequality and neither has the State built the justice that has been demanded since then.
The five decades that separate us from 1968 are also the same ones in which we do not know the exact number of people murdered and disappeared.
There has been no punishment for those responsible for the repression and violence of that time. Nor for all the grievances that Mexican society accumulates to this day.
Silvia manages to synthesize the opinion of the three women who have shared their testimony and refers to the decree approved in the plenary session of the Chamber of Deputies to inscribe in gold letters on the Wall of Honor of the legislative palace of San Lazaro:
'To the Student Movement of 1968': "there has been no justice and I do not believe that some golden letters will serve any good."
¡Dos de octubre no se olvida! ¡Fue el Estado!