In July 1968, I travelled from Winnipeg to Mexico City.
This was my introduction to the reality of long-distance bus travel. Then, as it still is now, the bus was the cheapest way to travel.
My youth group, Project Christopher, ended up working on a service project in a small community on the outskirts of Mexico City.
I really didn’t have much of a sense of the rich history of that land nor of the complexity of the political situation there on the eve of the 1968 Summer Olympics.
I got my first lessons on both while driving down the grand boulevard, the Paseo de la Reforma, with new student friends.
Built in the mid-1860s on the orders of the Emperor Maximilian I, the Austrian Hapsburg recruited by Mexican monarchists and backed by Napoleon III’s troops, it was modeled on the Paris’s Champs-Élysées.
The wide boulevard cut through the centre of the then burgeoning megalopolis.
It directly linked the former imperial residence at Chapultepec Castle with the National Palace in the Zócalo at the city’s ancient centre.
Monuments along it provided a thumbnail sketch of Mexican history. Near its start at Chapultepec Park the pillars of the Niños Héroes memorial remember resistance to US invaders while further down the statue of Cuauhtémoc recalls the Aztec stand against the Spanish.
It became apparent that the almost-daily student protests filing past the upscale boutiques and hotels of Paseo de la Reforma fit this tradition.
As the demonstrations mounted, the government sent in the troops. They bivouacked in its broad tree-lined median in an effort to dampen protests.
With the lavish expenditures on Olympic facilities, the desire to gain international prestige at any cost by the increasingly remote government sparked the unrest.
Squatter settlements without even the most basic of services mushroomed on city’s outskirts.
This situation, along with a need to draw world attention to the increasingly repressive government of then President Gustavo Diáz Ordaz, demands for university autonomy and the release of political prisoners were among the main issues that provided the impetus for the demonstrators continuing to march.
Ten days before the start of the 1968 summer Olympics, the government moved to silence the protesters. Army and police surrounded a peaceful demonstration at the Plaza of the Three Cultures just north of the Paseo de la Reforma on October 2, 1968.
At sunset troops began firing into the crowd in what became known as the Tlatelolco Massacre.
Historians still debate how many more than 300 students and innocent bystanders were gunned down. Hundreds more were imprisoned.
Silence fell on the city. Fabricated government accounts of the atrocity stated that gunfire by student provocateurs provoked the response and only four died with 20 wounded.
The Olympics were held. John Carlos’ and Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute became the game’s major controversy, not the bloodshed in Tlatelolco.
A monument in the plaza today reads in part:
Who? Whom? No one. The next day, no one. The plaza awoke swept; The newspapers said for news the state of the weather. And in the television, in the radio, in the theatres, there was not a single change in the program, not a single announcement. Nor a moment of silence at the banquet (or following the banquet).
It would be very difficult to imagine what some call ‘Mexico’s Tiananmen Square’ going unreported today.
The World Wide Web hasn’t been around all that long, only since 1989, but it has made complete government impunity nearly impossible to imagine.
Together with e-mail which pushes the boundaries of our computer era back to 1961, the transformation has been profound.
Every week notices come across my electronic desk top that are alerting the world to humanitarian or political crises.
In late May word arrived of the imprisonment of seven prominent Iranian Baha’i in Tehran.
A little over two a week ago the Ottawa based Nobel Women’s Initiative (nobelwomensinitiative.opendemocracy.net) established in 2006 by the six women Peace Prize laureates, joined a mounting global chorus calling for their release.
Letters of concern can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Today people may be disappeared but they won’t be forgotten.