Four months after the disappearance of 43 students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico, Fresno State students are paying tribute to those fellow students who lost their lives.
On Sept. 26, 2014, 43 male students went missing after boarding buses traveling to Iguala to reportedly hold a protest at a conference led by the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca Velázquez, and his wife María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa. Intercepted by local police, the 43 male students were then allegedly handed over to the local Guerreros Unidos (“United Warriors”) crime syndicate. According to a press release by Tomás Zerón de Lucio, director in chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the Attorney General’s Office the stud ents “were kidnapped, taken to a trash dump, killed, set on fire, the remains put in bags and then thrown into a river.”
With over 40 percent of the Fresno State population being Latino, Lizbeth De La Cruz, a graduate student in the Spanish program, said that she was surprised when none of her classes on the Fresno State campus had spoken out about the issue initially.
“In my point of view as a graduate student studying Spanish, we should have at least commented on the issue, but it never came up,” De La Cruz said. “I felt it was up to me to speak up or at least bring light to the issue on our campus.”
De La Cruz organized a peaceful sit-in on Nov. 13 at the Peace Garden on campus, inviting students, organizations, clubs and the community to join and show their solidarity with Ayotzinapa. Students displayed images of all 43 missing students and handmade posters and banners in support of the missing students and their families. Many of the Fresno State students, she said, couldn’t believe that the event had happened.
“As students, we discussed the importance of education, especially in connection with the 43 normalists who are students themselves,” De La Cruz said. “We felt that as students, we all have the right to manifest and have public displays of issues that affect us both directly and indirectly, such as the horrific crime by the Mexican government to the 43 students.”
Chicano and Latin American Studies professor Dr. Carlos Perez said that this was not the only incident of state violence by the Mexican government against its own citizens, but adds to a long list of grievances dating back to colonization.
“The most notorious case, Oct. 2, 1968, with the Olympics when the Mexican government killed about 500 students and family members because they didn’t want the Olympics to be disrupted by student demonstrators. That was a major movement,” Perez said. “Recently as a result of NAFTA, you have the Zapatista revolt in Oaxaca and in Chiapas. A lot of these states in Southern Mexico, where you have the more rural, the inequality between the wealthy and the poor is much more stark, and in regards to this incident in Mexico, it did galvanize people to protest against it in Mexico City as well as in the state of Guerrero where the incidents occurred.”
More than a class issue, Perez said, Ayotzinapa also acts as an example of racism–part of a Mexican colonial heritage that has warped into discriminatory treatment against the indigenous peoples and has become a common theme in Mexico.
“When the Spaniards came, they were the conquerors establishing themselves over the conquered people,” Perez said. “Those patterns have existed historically all the way to the present, with the Indians still at the bottom of the totem pole.”
“Many times what goes on in the rural areas doesn’t catch people’s attention until something like this happens with the 43 students, and it becomes very horrific and people do get shocked, again because it’s just a horrific type of crime and people just can’t believe that the government or the state is doing this to other Mexicans,” Perez said.
“Because there is no empathy with those people, since they are the conquered peoples, you’ve had this pattern and history of discrimination and repression of the cultures there.”
Fresno State English professor Alex Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico before moving to the U.S. at an early age. As a Mexican citizen, he said, he cannot help but feel concerned for the deceased students.
“It weighs heavily on me,” Espinoza said. “I was very affected by it, by the disappearances of the 43 students, the fact that the parents couldn’t even grieve for their children.”
De La Cruz, whose family is from Pueblos, nearby Guadalajara, said that her family has shared their fear about traveling from their hometown to their school because of military blockades and questioning.
Based on what her family has said, De La Cruz said that many times students are a target by the military.
“This past December, my family decided not to travel to Jalisco, Mexico, because of the issues going on,” De La Cruz said. “Although not every city in Mexico is unsafe, we didn’t want to take the risk.”
Perez also spoke about the growing discontent in Mexico.
“When I was hearing this about the 43, people were saying there has to be another revolution in Mexico, or that things have to change,” Perez said.
“It’s always a tinderbox in Mexico. These particular little incidents like this one, which isn’t a little incident at all, it will impact people.”
Espinoza spoke about the potential impact of Ayotzinapa.
“I think the important thing to remember is that this isn’t just a Mexican problem, it’s a global problem when you have politicians who are in power who are swayed more by money, by drug cartels, by lobbyists trying to further their own agenda, politicians not necessarily looking at what’s in the best interest of citizens and the constituents that they represent, it’s a tragedy,” Espinoza said.
As family members of the slain students still search for their lost loved ones, Espinoza said that there must be global recognition.
“I think what students at Fresno State can do is become informed, to do what they can to raise their voices and to protest and to demand that the governments of Mexico, as well as globally, are transparent, and that we are making sure that their first priority should be to protect the citizens. They aren’t above the law.”
Dr. Annabella España-Nájera, assistant professor for the department of Chicano and Latin American studies, said that student involvement on the Fresno State campus is essential.
“This is what being at university is partially about, becoming an engaged citizen,” España-Nájera said. “Becoming aware of events such as these do make us more aware of the political and civil rights that we enjoy here in the U.S. It should, however, also give students perspective on these rights and the ability to analyze them in context so that they can consider and evaluate them. As we’ve seen in the last few months in the U.S., there are instances of abuse here too.”