Monday, November 3, 2014

Life and Death, Hope and Fear: a visit to Iguala

by Maggie Ervin

The city of Iguala in Guerrero state, Mexico

It was here in Iguala, a city whose name means “place of the serene nights,” where local police killed six people and disappeared 43 students on the night of Sept 26th. This latest episode in Mexico - unlike many other bloody events since massive US - supported militarization began here in 2007 - has made national and international headlines, and sparked tens of thousands of Mexicans to take to the streets in protest. The outrage is palpable. As Edgar, a man I spoke with here in Iguala, put it, “We never thought they’d go this far. They really gave it to us this time…People are fed up.” For the last six weeks, despite the government’s promise to do all it can to find the students and its unprecedented deployment of federal police and army on the search, they have yet to be found.
Although its population is less than 120,000, Iguala, Guerrero, is an important city in Mexico due to its key role in the country’s history. In 1821, the famous Plan of Iguala was signed here, declaring Mexico free of Spanish rule. Soon after, the first national flag was both designed and sewn here. And Iguala is the only city mentioned in the national anthem. So if you’re Mexican, you’ve probably heard of it. If there’s national, historic symbolism to this place, it’s hard not to see recent events here as emblematic of Mexico's present. 
Death is all around these days, it seems: images of Catrina, the skeleton woman who dons a lavish 19th century hat; the colorful sugar skulls of all sizes called calaveritas; kids dressed up as zombies and ghosts. All this, of course, because this weekend was Day of the Dead, a celebration with a rich pre-Hispanic history - later syncretized with All Saints’ Day - which involves remembering and communing with the dead. But it seems there are other deaths around as well: That of trust. (Something's wrong when you fear your police. Or when, as a sovereign nation with plenty of forensic experts, your citizens demand you bring in their Argentinian counterparts to identify the bodies.) That of security. (My taxi drivers: “People are careful about who they talk to. You should be too.” “Please get in the front seat if you want to talk.”) That of any remaining confidence in the country’s three main political parties (all tainted with corruption and links to organized crime). And it’s easy to lose count of the mass graves found around Iguala. It seems that every few days since the students disappeared, more have been discovered. I thought I’d managed to keep track of how many, at twenty, but then Edgar said there were two new ones just found on the edge of town that had yet to be accounted for.
Like any city, there are official graveyards here too. And on every November 1st and 2nd, families visit them to remember their dead. So by Saturday Iguala’s three cemeteries were replete with families cleaning graves and decorating them with the yellow and purplish-red flowers known as cempasúchil. Meanwhile, its main plaza filled up with captivating and creative tributes: to deceased pets, to Led Zepellin’s drummer, to mortal victims of breast cancer, to a bride in Chihuahua who legend says was embalmed into a mannequin, to Robin Williams, and to the 43 missing students.
The world awaits news of them. Millions of people are desperately hoping that they’re still alive, that there will be no tombstones decorated for them on next year’s Day of the Dead. “They took them alive, we want them back alive!” is being chanted all over Mexico and abroad, in march after crowed march. There have been some testimonies, however, that suggest the students were killed. So while there is hope, there is also fear. Fear that to the more than 60,000 violent deaths in Mexico over the last seven years, there will be added 43 more. Which would be the worst historic legacy that Iguala could leave. 

Iguala’s Flag Museum. The green of the Mexican flag represents liberty, the red union, and the white peace, which feels elusive these days. In addition to recent grisly events, Edgar added that, "If the students are found dead, there's gonna be a bloodbath here."

Mexico's second largest flag lies on the edge of town. Although President Peña Nieto tried to ignore the violence in the country, his focus on “moving Mexico” forward and his claims of security came crashing down with news of the massacre and disappearances. This added to recent revelations that (in his home state) 22 civilians were killed point blank by army members after having surrendered, an event which the army had tried to cover up.

Mexican Independence from Spain was declared here 193 years ago. The declaration contains three main points, the third of which is the "union of all social classes." Unfortunately, though, the divide between haves and have-nots in Mexico is still alarming. Almost half the population is officially considered poor. The 43 missing students all came from humble, rural families and were studying to become schoolteachers in their communities.
Iguala's mayor Jose Luis Abarca quickly fled town as his possible role in the massacre and disappearances, as well as revelations of his close ties with organized crime, came to national light. His fortune expanded rapidly over these last few years, and  among his many properties that sprang up is this shopping mall.

The city's police chief is on the run as well. Soon after the massacre and the subsequent arrests of officers, the local police department was closed. It was later reopened with federal police in charge. Mexico’s federal police, however, have a dubious human rights record, and enjoy widespread impunity for violations. The National Human Rights Commission received 146 complaints of human rights violations by federal police in 2006. By 2012, that number had jumped to 802. Since 2008, over 1.2 billion US taxpayer dollars have been directed to Mexico through the Merida Initiative. Beyond massive military equipment, these funds have supported “security services,” used in part to train and increase these police forces.

There is now a heavy federal police presence in Iguala. “But there’s talk that they’ve started to extort just like the local police did,” said one of my communicative taxi drivers.

A tombstone in the main cemetery of Iguala decorated with the cempasúchil flowers.
A truck in Iguala. The US government has been largely silent about the 43 disappeared students. The White House called it “worrisome” last week, and the State Department only issued a brief statement soon after the incident. Read our recent Action Alert and take action to demand that the US government take a more forceful and vigorous stance.

In the city's main church, this image had special resonance, as "Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, advocate of difficult and desperate causes."

From the tribute to the missing students in Iguala's main plaza: "You took them alive, we want them back alive!"

Vida y Muerte, Esperanza y Miedo: una visita a Iguala

por Maggie Ervin

La ciudad de Iguala, Guerrero

Iguala, una ciudad cuyo nombre significa "donde la noche es tranquila", fue el escenario donde la policía local mató a seis personas y desaparecieron a 43 estudiantes en la noche del 26 de septiembre. Este último episodio en México - a diferencia de muchos otros hechos sangrientos que han sucedido desde el comienzo de la militarización masiva apoyada por Estados Unidos en el 2007 - ha sido noticia nacional e internacional, y ha provocado que decenas de miles de mexicanos salgan a las calles a protestar. La indignación es palpable. Edgar, un hombre con quien hablé aquí en Iguala señaló que nunca esperaron que ocurrieran tales hechos. “Nos dieron en la torre...Estamos hartos”, dijo. Durante las últimas seis semanas, a pesar de que el gobierno afirmó que haría todo lo posible para encontrar a los estudiantes desaparecidos y ordenó el despliegue de la policía federal y el ejército en la búsqueda, aún no han encontrado a los jóvenes.
A pesar de que su población no llega a los 120.000 habitantes, la ciudad de Iguala, Guerrero, ocupa un lugar importante en México debido a su papel clave en la historia del país. En 1821, se firmó el famoso Plan de Iguala aquí, declarando a México libre de la dominación española. Poco después, la primera bandera nacional fue diseñada y elaborada aquí. Además, Iguala es la única ciudad mencionada en el himno nacional. Así que si eres mexicano, probablemente has oído hablar de este sitio. Si bien cuenta con un simbolismo histórico y nacional, es difícil no ver los recientes acontecimientos violentos ocurridos aquí como emblemáticos de la situación actual que se vive en México.
Al parecer, la muerte está presente por todas partes estos días: imágenes de la Catrina, el esqueleto femenino que usa un lujoso sombrero del siglo IXX; coloridas calaveritas de azúcar de todos los tamaños; niños disfrazados como zombis y fantasmas andando por las calles principales. Todo esto, por supuesto, porque este fin de semana fue el Día de los Muertos, una celebración que cuenta con una rica historia prehispánica - después sincretizada con el Día de Todos los Santos – con el fin de recordar y festejar a los difuntos. Sin embargo, existen otras muertes: la de la confianza. (Algo está mal cuando la población teme a la policía. O cuando, como nación soberana que cuenta con muchos expertos forenses, los ciudadanos exigen la presencia de especialistas argentinos para identificar a los cuerpos). La de la seguridad. (Los taxistas con los que hablé me dijeron, "La gente cuida con quién habla. Tú debes tener cuidado también". “Ven al asiento delantero si quieres hablar".) La de la poca confianza que queda en los tres principales partidos políticos (todos manchados por la corrupción y su vinculación con el crimen organizado). Además, resulta fácil perder la cuenta de las fosas comunes que se han encontrado en los alrededores de Iguala. Desde que desaparecieron los estudiantes, se descubren cada vez más fosas. Pensé que había logrado llevar la cuenta total de ellas (veinte), pero después Edgar dijo que habían hallado dos fosas más a las orillas de la ciudad que aún no se eran registradas.
Como en cualquier ciudad, hay cementerios oficiales aquí también. Los días 1 y 2 de noviembre, las familias los visitan para recordar a sus seres queridos muertos. Así que para el sábado, los tres cementerios de Iguala estaban repletos de familias limpiando las tumbas y decorándolas con flores amarillas y rojas-moradas conocidas como cempasúchil. Mientras tanto, en el Zócalo se llevaron a cabo homenajes cautivantes y creativos: a las mascotas fallecidas, al baterista de la banda Led Zepellin, a las víctimas mortales de cáncer de mama, a una novia de Chihuahua que según la leyenda fue embalsamada como maniquí, a Robin Williams, y a los 43 estudiantes desaparecidos.
El mundo espera noticias de ellos. Millones de personas anhelan desesperadamente que aún estén vivos, que no haya lápidas decoradas para ellos el Día de los Muertos del próximo año. "Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos!" gritan por todo México y en el extranjero, en las innumerables marchas que se han realizado. Sin embargo, ha habido algunos testimonios que sugieren que los estudiantes fueron asesinados. Así que mientras hay esperanza, hay miedo también. Miedo de que a las más de 60.000 muertes violentas que se han registrado en México en los últimos siete años, se sumen 43 más. Lo cuál sería el peor legado histórico que podría dejar Iguala. 

Museo de la Bandera en Iguala. El color verde representa la libertad, el rojo la unión, y el blanco la paz, algo ausente en estos días. Además de los recientes eventos espeluznantes, Edgar agregó que, "Si resulta que los estudiantes están muertos, habrá una matazón aquí ".

La segunda bandera más grande de México se encuentra al borde de la ciudad. Aunque el presidente Peña Nieto trató de ignorar la violenta realidad del país, su enfoque de "mover a México" y sus afirmaciones de la seguridad nacional se vinieron abajo con la noticia de la masacre y las desapariciones. Esto sumado a las revelaciones de los 22 civiles que fueron asesinados a quemarropa por el ejército (en su estado natal) después de haberse rendido, un evento que el ejército había tratado de encubrir.

La Independencia de México fue declarada aquí hace 193 años. El documento contiene tres puntos principales, el tercero de los cuales señala la "unión de todas las clases sociales”. Sin embargo, lamentablemente la brecha que separan a los ricos de los pobres sigue siendo alarmante en México. Casi la mitad de la población es considerada oficialmente pobre. Los 43 estudiantes desaparecidos procedían de familias humildes de zonas rurales, y estaban estudiando para formarse como maestros y posteriormente enseñar en sus comunidades.

El alcalde de Iguala José Luis Abarca no tardó en huir de la ciudad cuando su papel en la masacre y las desapariciones, así como las revelaciones de sus estrechos vínculos con el crimen organizado, salieron a la luz a nivel nacional. Su fortuna aumentó rápidamente durante los últimos años, y entre sus muchas propiedades se encuentra este centro comercial.

El jefe de la policía de la ciudad también se fugó. Poco después de la masacre y las posteriores detenciones de algunos policías, cerró este departamento. Más tarde abrió nuevamente con la policía federal a cargo. Sin embargo, la policía federal de México tiene un dudoso historial en lo que se refiere a derechos humanos, y disfruta de una impunidad generalizada por dichas violaciones. La Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos recibió 146 denuncias de violaciones de derechos humanos cometidas por la policía federal en el 2006. Para el 2012, ese número había aumentado a 802. Desde el año 2008, más de 1,2 mil millones de dólares provenientes de los Estados Unidos se han destinado a México a través de la Iniciativa Mérida. Más allá de proveer equipo militar masivo, estos fondos han sido utilizados para apoyar los "servicios de seguridad", en parte para entrenar y aumentar estas fuerzas policiacas.

Ahora hay una presencia notable de la policía federal en Iguala. Pero “hay rumores de que han empezado a extorsionar igual que la policía local lo hacía", dijo uno de los taxistas.

Una lápida en el panteón general de Iguala, adornada con flores de cempasúchil.
El gobierno de Estados Unidos en gran medida ha mantenido el silencio sobre la desaparición de los 43 estudiantes. La Casa Blanca calificó esto como "preocupante" la semana pasada, y por su parte el Departamento del Estado sólo emitió un breve comunicado poco después del incidente. Lee nuestra reciente Alerta de Acción para exigir que el gobierno de Estados Unidos tome una postura más enérgica y contundente.

En la iglesia principal de la ciudad, esta imagen tuvo especial resonancia: "Nuestra Señora del Sagrado Corazón, abogada de las causas difíciles y desesperadas".

Homenaje en el Zócalo de Iguala a los estudiantes desaparecidos: “Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos!”

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dreaming in Mexico

by Maggie Ervin

It was standing room only, agonizingly hot, and we could barely see from the back. But we weren’t going anywhere. Gathered in one of the many beautiful museums in the ever-expanding metropolis known as Mexico City, we had come to hear dreams. Not to analyze them in a Freudian way or to go to some sort of mystical place of altered consciousness. No, this was all rooted firmly in reality. We had come to hear the stories of Los Otros Dreamers, the “Other Dreamers.” 

Much has been written about Dreamers in the US, thanks to their effective organizing, large numbers, tireless work to get the as-yet Dream Act passed, and for the heartbreak implicit in many of their stories. Considering all of the parallels, it’s interesting that little attention has been given to Dreamers on this side of the border, here in Mexico. After all, their numbers are not insignificant. The new book launched last week, Los Otros Dreamers - with text by Jill Anderson, photos by Nin Solis, and testimonies by 26 "Other Dreamers" - aims to address this absence. 

Anderson estimates that there are about 500,000 Dreamers who have returned to Mexico since 2005. [She defines a Dreamer as someone between 18-35 years who lived in the US for five years or more, and who was either deported, voluntarily departed (de facto deported), or chose to move back to the country where they were born.]  Their reasons for returning to Mexico are varied: to reunite with family, to seek educational opportunities denied them in the US, exhaustion and frustration with the difficulties of living undocumented in the US, deportation (in many cases for minor infractions for which a US citizen would only pay a fine, such as getting caught driving without a license or drinking in public), among others.
The book is a multilingual experience. The Dreamers give their testimony in either English, Spanish or Spanglish, and each is translated into Spanish and English. Saul, Virginia and Rufino's testimonies are trilingual, as are they, and their testimonies are translated to the Mixe and Tzotzil languages. While the stories that appear in the book are as diverse as the stories of any group of 26 people, there are recurring themes around the experience of returning to Mexico that many recount:
  • The struggle to get proof of schooling in the US, which needs to be both notarized and translated in order to be valid in Mexico, and is required from all schools attended (elementary, middle and high school). More than a few of the featured Dreamers had to wait over a year to get these papers, and at great expense, frustration, and even humiliation (i.e., learning that the only way to get their transcripts from the US is to request them in person).
  • The difficulty of getting a voter identification, the most basic document needed in Mexico to be able to rent an apartment, do a bank transaction, or even get a job.
  • Language barriers, especially in the case of those who were taken to the US at a very young age.
  • Not being fully accepted as Mexican by their compatriots.
  • For those who were deported, being dropped off at the border with no one to counsel them or orient them, far from any family member, and at risk of being robbed. In the case of women, they’re often let go a few minutes before the men so they can get a head start and avoid risk.
  • Separation from family that remain in the US, without the possibility of visiting them there or of their families visiting them in Mexico.
This last issue was touched upon during the book launch, as Dreamers read clips of their testimonies. Not an eye was dry as Edgar, who lives in Nogales, read: “I go to the border to see my brothers, they’re in the process of getting papers so they can’t cross. It’s messed up how we’re close but far away because we’re divided by a fence. I can talk to them, but I can’t hug them.” Then Raziel told about his mother's deportation when he was in fifth grade: “Then my mom’s friend drove me home and I remember going to my mother’s bed and laying down where she used to sleep. I put my head on the pillow and I smelled her shampoo, and that’s when everything just came.” 

Border fence separating Nogales, Sonora from Nogales, Arizona

Just this week came news of the 2 millionth deportation since Obama - sometimes called the "Deporter in Chief" - took office. 2 million is a huge number, and hard for some of us to conceive of in our minds. But it is these heart-rending details that bring to life the realities embedded in that number. Currently, a full one-quarter of all deportees are separated from their US citizen children, and more than half of deportees in 2013 were deported without a criminal conviction. 
But it's not all bleak. In their testimonies, some of the Dreamers write about being grateful to be in Mexico and being quite happy with their lives. Moy and Pedro Noé are  thrilled to be studying dentistry at the National University. Maggie works hard to keep her parents' shop running. Saul is a silver level in Amway and is thoughtfully raising a son. Maru and Daniel dedicate themselves to Los Otros Dreamers Collective and Dream in Mexico, non-profits that support Dreamers. In fact, passive or resigned would be the last words I'd use to describe anyone in this book. These are young people whose dreams are many, and they're making them happen.  

Maggie: "I  know we all have struggled and I'm not the only one. 
I just wish I could be in front of the US government and tell them all of 
the harm they do us. I am not a criminal. My parents took me and at 
the age of eighteen, I decided not to break the law. So tell me: What is my crime?"

The problem is, of course, that despite being both "from here and from there," they can't go "there," where they still have friends, families and a rich history. As Pamela writes, "Now, I feel like I was always Mexican...You don't have to tell me. I know it. And do I feel American? I don't even know what I am, but I know I'm both at the same time. I can't ignore my whole life." 

Take action to reduce deportations:

Tell your Representatives and Senators to support the Dream Act:

Where to buy Los Otros Dreamers book: (all profits go to Dream in Mexico)

Where to attend a Los Otros Dreamers book event:
  •    October 13th, 7 pm: Foro de la Galería "La Capilla del Arte", 2 norte número 6, Centro Histórico, Puebla, Puebla, Mexico
  •    Coming soon to Los Angeles, Chicago, NYC and Washington. Stay tuned at