To be silent or to speak may constitute the difference between life and death. The life that comes from speaking, the life that comes from being silent; the death that comes from speaking, the death that comes from being silent.
—Trauma and Healing Under State Terrorism, by Inger Agger, Søren Buus Jensen
Midway on one of the major journeys of her life—the journey to find her son, Jorge—Blanca Luz Vélez Nava takes a moment to breathe. “I think of Jorge all day and all night, and I won’t stop until we get him back, until we find out the truth of what happened,” she says, while sitting on one of the granite slabs beneath the 300-foot campanile clock that marks the birth of the Free Speech Movement, the South Africa and the Central America solidarity movements, and other movements that fired political imaginations here at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.
“I’m halfway on this trip and I’m tired,” she continues, as she listens to a student strumming her guitar, “but I hear the young woman playing and I think of Jorge, because he loved to play guitar too. I see these young people and I feel happy knowing they support us and give us cariño [love].” Nava’s eyes light up as she looks toward the hundreds of students, faculty, and parents gathered solemnly in a circle, as if they’re protecting the delicate flames of the 43 small white votive candles forming the number “43” at the center of this outdoor event. Each flame is a reminder of Jorge and the 42 other student teachers from Mexico’s Ayotzinapa Teachers College, whose disappearance last September 26, along with six who were murdered, has inspired anger and indignation, as well as other, nobler sentiments—ones that start and sustain movements for social and political change.
Such expressions of solidaridad surprised Nava from the moment she and the dozen other parents and fellow students of the 43 missing student teachers, called “Normalistas,” crossed the McAllen-Matamoros border into the United States on March 15. As West Coast representatives of the Caravana43, she and her colleagues say they are undertaking the one-and-a-half-month journey, visiting more than 40 US cities, in order to educate and agitate around the disappearances that have become emblematic of the larger crisis in Mexico, which has left more than 100,000 dead and more than 25,000 disappeared, many of whom, they say, were killed and disappeared by the Mexican government. The three-pronged Caravana (East Coast, Midwest and West Coast), she said, is also shining a light on the US government, which provides guns and training through Plan Mérida, the multibillion-dollar security aid package that Nava and other parents say is “being used to kill, hurt and disappear our children.” The three legs of the caravan will converge on New York City for a final rally on April 26 at the United Nations and other events there and in Washington, DC.
Among the less apparent but truly unprecedented aspects of the Caravana43—and US-Mexico solidarity generally—is where the leadership of this new US movement is coming from: a US Mexican community, now over 35 million strong, whose border-smashing ties and larger sense of familia are altering US politics, forcing the United States to look southward while also influencing Mexico to look northward, often in powerfully intimate ways.
“A young boy walked up to me at an event last week and I didn’t know what to expect from the nervous look on his face,” Nava told me before preparing to speak to the crowd gathered beneath the Berkeley campanile. “He got close to me and said something I will never forget: ‘Please let me give you a hug so that you can know that it’s your son that’s giving you the hug.’” She paused and continued, “And then someone else, a mother, came close to me, and told me, ‘My son didn’t talk to me for years, but when he heard your story, he had a change of heart—and now we’re speaking again!’”
These and other signs of the borderless movement’s birth shone all around Nava; student eyes bubbling with tears; freshman fists and voices raised in commitment to a causa that, for most, is their first political engagement; and, especially, the raising up of the compañeros, the desaparecidos, and other martyrs whose memory will fuel this fight into the precarious future.
I had not seen these signs of powerful movement at Berkeley since mothers and students from El Salvador altered many young destinies with their testimonios in the 1980s. Their stories of struggle and hope, and their organizing against US-backed military dictatorships in Central America, changed life decisions and sustained what was, along with the nuclear-freeze, anti-apartheid and AIDS-activist movements, one of the more powerful social movements of that era.
As in the 1980s, the encounters and organizing of the Caravana43 are translating into aid money, political accompaniment, and lots of activism. But unlike the ’80s campaign, we’re not talking about a movement led publicly by whites and rooted in a Salvadoran refugee population of less than a million. In the case of Mexico solidarity, today’s movement is rooted in one of the largest mass migrations in US history: Americans of Mexican origin, now approximately 11 percent of the US population, maintain regular, often daily contact with their homeland through vast social, political, and media networks operating across a contiguous border—and in large parts of the US side of that border, family cemeteries and old churches still bear the memory of having once been a part Mexico.
Posters for Caravana43 reflect this borderless sensibility that Mexicans express in unique and often poetic ways. Images of seeds combine with images of the 43 students to color a regional map that has no political borders, a map that also includes the rallying cry repeated bilingually from Oaxaca and Chiapas to Oregon and Massachusetts: “They Tried to Bury Us But They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds.”
These personal and political connections between the United States and Mexico were not lost to Angel Neri de La Cruz, a Normalista student and one of the survivors of last September’s fateful attack. On his way to the Berkeley event, de la Cruz carried with him a local socialist newspaper with a full-page spread packed with pictures of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alex Nieto, and dozens of other young people killed by police in the United States.
“Ayotzinapa Vive, La Lucha Sigue, Sigue!” (Ayotzinapa Lives, the Struggle Continues) he chants on his way to the mic. Stopping the chants, he starts talking about what happened to his fellow Normalistas and him that night. “We also know what the drug war can do,” he said. “That night, we were chased like dogs in the rain by the police—for no reason. For no reason, they fired so many bullets. The bus was cut to pieces by gunfire.”
De la Cruz slowed his pace even further to share the story of what happened to his compañero, 22-year-old Julio César Mondragón, known as “El Chilango” (the nickname of those born in Mexico City). “They tore off his face and took out his eyes,” he said, his voice heavy with sadness. Choking up, de la Cruz stopped, took a breath, and invited students and others in the crowd around the candles to join him in the kind of thought experiment that he and other Normalista students had been taught: “Imagine what it feels like to see pictures of him with his face like that on TV. Now imagine when his daughter grows up and sees those pictures of him in that condition.”
After de la Cruz finished, Berkeley undergraduate Genesy Melida Hernandez Ceballos felt the need to speak up. “I know how hard it is to be a student. I know personally what it is to struggle as a student and as a parent like El Chilango,” said Ceballos, a 24-year-old native of LA and mother of a 9-year-old.
“He had a kid when he was young, like me,” she said, her voice cracking. “I can also relate to what’s happening to you because I grew up with the drug war as a daily reality. My high school was full of cops. My dad was deported because he was a marrero [Salvadoran gang member].”
By the time that de la Cruz and his colleagues have finished the rallies, the media appearances, and the hundreds of meetings with local and national leaders, tens of thousands of students like Ceballos will have heard their stories in Houston, Milwaukee, Columbus, Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, and the other 40-plus cities on the Caravana43 route. Many of these students will be connecting the dots just as she did, despite the absence of national media coverage in the United States and the radically skewed corporate media in Mexico.
To break the media blockade on both sides of the border, the Caravaneros and their supporters across the United States are deploying a tried-and-true tradition of the Latin American left: the testimonio, the direct, people-to-people process of collectively telling stories that challenge the official narrative in situations involving great trauma caused by political violence.
They used testimonio to push back against statements at a November press conference by Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam, who declared, “I’m tired” (Ya me cansé) of the investigation into the disappearances the Ayotzinapa students. After the official story was challenged by the story from below, millions more used the slogan “Ya Me Cansé” to express their own indignation at the national trauma symbolized by the personal trauma of Nava, de la Cruz, and other families and friends of the disappeared. More recently, they faced more top-down discouragement from former Mexican president Vicente Fox, who told the US-based Univision network that parents and family members of the disappeared students “have to accept reality” and move on, a message whose timing—right before the launch of Caravana43—de la Cruz, Nava, and other family members of the disappeared denounced during the Caravan.
The need to pursue justice and fight back against official narratives is what led Nava’s brother, Yosimar, to leave his job as a teacher in Acapulco. At the heart of the conflict in Mexico, said the older de la Cruz, is violence in the service of privatization. “In Mexico, they’re repressing us because we oppose privatization,” he said. “The government is leading the privatization of water, the privatization of mines, the privatization of oil, the privatization of everything.”
“What’s next?” he asked rhetorically. “Are they going to privatize the air? That’s why they’re repressing us, because they need to get us out of the way to keep privatizing.”
As he looked around the campus, Yosimar was impressed by the “enormous wealth” he saw in the Bechtel engineering building, the Sutardja Dai computer science hall and the other opulent structures of the techno-scientific revolution that are transforming the Berkeley campus, along with the gentrified Bay Area. Yosimar’s curiosity was also piqued by the stories he heard from student organizers who told him about being denied permits to hold their Ayotzinapa event at Berkeley’s storied center of free speech, Sproul Plaza.
“What good is it to have a palace for a school if you don’t have freedom?” he asked. “Even though our buildings are falling apart, even though our school is in the open air, and even though our school is extremely poor compared to yours, I prefer Ayotzinapa 1,000 percent, because we have our freedom, we fight for our freedom. It feels like students here live in a golden cage!” He encouraged Berkeley students and faculty to break out of that cage by “identifying corporations making a profit from selling guns to Mexico’s security forces, pressuring members of Congress, and doing what you can to stop Plan Mérida.”
Yosimar and his fellow Caravanistas’ message resonated strongly with recent Berkeley theater grad Anatalia Sánchez Valle, who writes performance pieces, poetry, and records with song lyrics like these:
They will tear out my fruit
They will tear out my tree
They will tear out my roots
But the fruit gives life,
And the fruit gives seeds
And the seeds are not forgotten
Even if they’re scattered at long distances
It is this kind of cyclical seeding across borders that makes Estanislao Mendoza Chocolate, a soft-spoken man, feel “obligated” to continue searching for his son, Miguel Angel Mendoza Zacarías, one of the 43 disappeared. Mendoza shared the story of how he, a self-described campesino (peasant) who “never got involved in anything,” got involved in a movement that, he said, “will make me search for all my life, if I have to.”
“I lived around San Diego, in Fallbrook, for more than 15 years,” said Mendoza, 55, as he watched the students gathered around the candles. “I know what it’s like for immigrants and Latinos here, paying rent, paying bills, and saving money to send back for the family. I worked planting seeds and growing plants so that I could support Miguel Angel and my other children.”
“One day, I got a call telling me that Miguel Angel was crossing the border to come and bring me back to Mexico to be with the family,” said Mendoza. “And there he was, convincing me to come back. After that adventure, I never thought I’d come back to the United States.”
“But here I am, doing what he did for me, trying to find help to find him and bring him home.”