What happens when a revolution is turned on its head? When the lines between dominators and dominated become blurred? When it is no longer clear who is writing history? These are the questions confronting any study of the 1968 student movement in Mexico City. What first appears as a straightforward case of oppressive government against oppressed youth begins to unravel when one asks how the Mexican government, purported paragon of rising modernity, turned its rifles on its own people on the eve of the Olympic Games. How could Mexico have eluded condemnation from its people and the international community? How could the night of October 2, 1968—the night of the Tlatelolco Massacre—not become revolutionary? A simple explanation can be found in the failure of the students to break free of habitus and create a historical event in the full Foucaultian sense of the term. A more nuanced understanding of 1968 begins with understanding Mexico in the larger context of the international state system, in which the foundation of habitus that seemed so steady in Bourdieu’s account of revolutionary struggle no longer proved stable.
It was the summer of 1968 and Mexico’s elite were aglow: Mexico City was on the eve of hosting its first Olympic Games. When the International Olympic Committee granted the Mexican delegation the Olympic bid in 1963, it was not simply granting Mexico the honor of hosting an international sporting event; it was also affirming Mexico’s place on the international stage as a “modern country.” Granting Mexico its bid for the 1968 Olympics was a performative act on a grand scale. The international community had hailed Mexico as the paragon of “from revolution to stability.” Mexico emerged from its bloody revolution at the turn of the century to enjoy nearly unparalleled economic growth and political stability. Then president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz was the successor of Latin America’s longest series of peaceful power transfers, which stretched from 1934 to his own election in 1964. Mexico’s gross national product, bolstered by the export of extensive oil and mineral resources, grew at an annual rate of six percent from 1940 into the 1970s. At World Fairs before the Revolution, Mexico’s elite had long been engaged in building the image of a “modern” Mexico. After the developed Euro-American world formally acknowledged Mexico’s progress in affirming its Olympic bid, the Mexican elite would spare no expense to confirm their nation’s modernity. As the Olympic organizers self-consciously acknowledged in one of their many mottos, they were “before the eyes of the world.”[i]
By the 1960s, the “Mexican Miracle” of the 1940s and 1950s was already beginning to unravel. Although Mexico could boast political stability relative to its Latin American neighbors, it could not claim the Western ideal of democracy. Despite a policy of nonconsecutive, six-year presidential terms, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) could rely on endemic corruption and political repression to guarantee essentially uncontested elections. Additionally, prosperity had not been shared equally amongst all Mexicans. The gap between wealthy and poor only grew as the 1950s and 1960s progressed; the wealthiest twenty percent of Mexicans held sixty percent of the nation’s wealth by 1969. Combined with rampant corruption and unregulated development, the majority of Mexicans found their socioeconomic position worsening year by year and hopes for political representation dwindling.[ii] Mexico was not the modern miracle it had presented to the international community.
As in countless cases before and after, it was the Mexican students who initially took up the mantle of revolution. Inspired by movements such as the Cuban Revolution, opposition to the Vietnam War, and youth counterculture, educated, middle-class Mexican students began questioning the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, their role within a modernizing Mexican society, and the PRI’s monopoly on revolutionary rhetoric. However, the students took pains to define their role as social revolutionaries and not student reformists. From the movement’s outset, the students identified themselves as inheritors of the labor struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.[iii] They took pains to highlight the social and political character of their demands and distance themselves from other student movements, such as those in France, which mainly sought education reforms. The students’ demands were most succinctly articulated in their Six Point Petition, which called for liberty for all political prisoners, dismissal of police chiefs responsible for the violence the movement carried out on July 26, abolition of the grenaderos (riot police that acted as the instruments of political repression), abolition of Article 145 of the Penal Code (the juridical instrument of repression), indemnities for families of the dead and injured, and the identification of other officials responsible for police violence. In addition to these Six Points, the students also demanded that the PRI engage in public dialogue with their leaders.[iv] In the words of Pablo Gómez, a student turned activist from the left-leaning Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM), “The 1968 Student Movement was not suddenly born that same year…it did not come about by spontaneous generation… [the Movement] not only pressed for the six reforms on its list but became the spokesman for the reforms most urgently sought by Mexican students, workers, and intellectuals.”[v]
A brief chronology of the 1968 Student Movement follows here. The movement began with a putative gang-clash between young men from opposing preparatory schools on July 22, which escalated into the beginning of the student movement after the deployment of the grenaderos to engage students in violent street fighting for two days. The PRI’s choice to deploy the grenadors, who had previously only been deployed against civil unrest, politicized what was otherwise an innocuous street confrontation. On July 28, student representatives from UNAM and Instituto Politécnico Nacional (IPN) met to form the first draft of what would become “The Six Points” and discuss a possible strike until their demands were met. On July 29 students organize guardias to occupy their universities and begin their strike. Dissatisfied with Díaz Ordaz’s offer of an “outstretched hand,” August 13 marked the first mass demonstration in the Zócalo, the main plaza of the city, which is attended by 150,000 students, teachers, and the general public. By August 16, “lightning brigades” of youth formed to distribute leaflets, post posters, and raise general awareness of their movement. As the summer progressed, these brigades formed the bedrock of the movement, effectively spreading the students’ message while acting as a source of funding as the students would often receive donations from supportive residents. On August 22-23, students and professors reiterated their willingness to engage the government in dialogue as long as it was publicly broadcasted; on August 27 a second mass demonstration of 300,000 occupied the Zócalo. In Díaz Ordaz’s September 1 annual address, the Mexican president denied the existence of any political prisoners and his own culpability in the situation while referring to an article of the constitution that permitted the use of “all military force for the security of the country.” As a show of their commitment to nonviolence, the students organized a massive silent march on September 13. From September 18-24, University City (where UNAM and IPN are located) became a battleground when the army retook university campuses seized by the students. The scattered student movement called for a public meeting in the Plaza de Tres Culturas on October 2; at approximately 6:00pm helicopters flooded the square with light while army and police officers opened fire on an estimated ten to twenty thousand people. When the Olympic Games opened ten days later, the student movement faded into the background. No mass demonstration rose against what became known as the Tlatelolco Massacre.[vi]
In his Pascalian Meditations, Pierre Bourdieu analyzes how symbolic violence is embedded in the structures of social life; it is a necessary constitutive characteristic of any such structure. It is “the coercion which is set up only through the consent that the dominated cannot fail to give.”[vii] The norms and assumptions that one has no choice but to accept to be a member of any given society constitute the habitus and nomos of any group. By recognizing one’s position within such a scheme, an individual who has already internalized the schemes of his dominators is the victim of his own doxic submission. In this way, society constrains individuals from all sides, defining perceptions and relationships, and establishing the distribution of symbolic capital by imprinting individuals with physical and mental boundaries. This defining of reality favors the dominators of any given society. The prime architects of this habitus, in their quest for social recognition, employ a complex web of structural and symbolic violence to maintain dominance.
On the surface, it is clear who the dominated and dominators are in the summer of 1968. The corrupt political system, headed by Díaz Ordaz and the PRI, can be easily identified as the dominators and the Mexican people as the dominated. Largely bypassed by the economic successes of the 1940s and 1950s and becoming habituated to corrupt elections and the reliable use of grenaderos to quell protests, as evidenced by the suppression of earlier protests in the late fifties to early sixties,[viii] the Mexican people clearly fulfill the role of the dominated. However, the growing unrest of the Mexican people in this period hardly signals the unquestioning submission of truly well established habitus, of a habitus so well rooted that the dominated are no longer aware of even their own submission. This is precisely because Bourdieu’s conception of structural and symbolic violence, as laid out in his Meditations, is insufficient to describe the reality of Mexico 1968.
Bourdieu defines the State as “the holder of the monopoly of legitimate symbolic violence.”[ix] It is the “site par excellence”[x] of the imposition of the nomos and the construction of the habitus of a population. How does one claim such “legitimate power?” Bourdieu proposes that claims to legitimacy must be based upon claims to universal and natural principles, to a form of pure rationality and raison d’être that does, in fact, not exist. A thing, be it a belief or an institution, can only be accepted as legitimate after it has gone through a process of misrecognition and recognition which obscures its arbitrary foundations by first misrecognizing the force behind it (by forgetting or denying its arbitrary roots), and then recognizing a seemingly autonomous second force as validating the first. As such, the roots of any institution must be obscured before it can become “legitimate.” The State’s violent and arbitrary foundations must be forgotten before it can claim its monopoly on symbolic violence. This dichotomous understanding of a people and their state is insufficient to describe the Mexican case.
In the case of 1968 Mexico, the young polity’s historical roots were far from forgotten. The modern Mexican political system was founded in 1934, a scant thirty-four years earlier, after a chaotic and bloody revolution. In the years since, the PRI’s first president, Lázaro Cárdenas, had been elevated to the status of national hero and champion of the people with his vigorous and extensive programs of land redistributions, education in the ruralities, and expropriations of the oil industry. Even if the Mexican people had already obscured their nation’s inaugural force with its misrecognition and recognition as a component necessary to Cárdenas’s struggle for social reform, the people could not have forgotten the violent suppression of political protests in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the grenaderos. The Mexican middle and working classes were still acutely aware of the violence that acted as the lynchpin of their society’s stability. The habitus of the Mexican people was hardly waterproof; indeed, as the sporadic bouts of violence far into midcentury illustrate, it seemed to still be under active construction. To borrow from Bourdieu’s analysis of the scientific field: “To every advance in knowledge of the social conditions of production of ‘subjects’ there corresponds an advance in the knowledge of the scientific object, and vice versa.”[xi] The Mexican people were still acutely aware of the processes of habitus production their government was engaging in and were not content to quietly submit themselves to the role of the dominated. As Bourdieu states, “Habitus is not destiny.”[xii] Perhaps this statement should be amended with the caveat, “especially before it is solidified.”
Bourdieu’s dichotomy of the dominating State and dominated people additionally fails to consider a further level of domination that, in this case, is exerted on the previously dominating State by the international system. Ironically, the state that ruled its own people with an iron fist was self consciously aware of its “inferiority complex” on the international stage, imprinted with years of colonialism and relative economic deprivation.[xiii] Mexico’s elite was enmeshed in their own struggle against the habitus imposed on them by the international community, by Euro-American conceptions of what it meant to be a modern nation. To the Mexican elite, this meant reconciling Mexico’s indigenous past and colonial history with the image of the confident, sleek modern nation-state it aspired to be. This conflict was epitomized by the Mexican committee’s design of its Olympic logo. Combining the bold black and white patterns of the pre-colonial Huichol ethnic group with the sleek lines of mid-century modernism, Mexico effectively projected an image of confident nationalism that had yet to be realized on the ground.[xiv] By winning the Olympic bid, Mexico not only broadcast its participation with the dominating superstructures of the global elite, but also opted to fulfill the International Olympic Committee’s performative declaration that Mexico was modern enough to host the Games. Mexico now had to become part of the global elite or concede their failure and inferiority. The weight of the international community’s scrutiny weighed heavily on the minds of Mexico’s politicians; they felt the chains of their habitus in every self-doubting moment as they measured themselves against their Euro-American peers’ seemingly rationalist demands and fell short. Though a child of the post-World War II era, and an eloquent, nuanced sociologist, Bourdieu ultimately failed to address the complexity of the international system that arose from the two World Wars.
How can we understand social change in such an interconnected system? And, momentarily stepping away from the international dimension of 1968, how can we understand the struggle of the Mexican students from July through October? What can account for the failure of their efforts in light of such local popular support as demonstrated by the filled Zócalo on August 13 and 27 and the filled streets of Mexico City on September 13? If, as Niklas Luhmann claims, power is annulled violence, how did the PRI maintain such a firm hold over the Mexican people after the Tlatelolco Massacre? The failure of the student movement can be explained by the students’ failure to be revolutionary. Reduced to intraordinal violence, the students ultimately annulled their own power through their violent resistance to police brutality. Furthermore, mired in a system of political domination still experiencing growing pains, the student protesters were denied the traditional tools of revolutionaries. The Mexican student movement of 1968 was, in many ways, doomed to fail, and presents a bracing perspective for hopeful revolutionaries in the remainder of the developing world.
What can be understood by the term “revolutionary?” Michel Foucault defined the historical event, not as a decision, treaty, or battle, but the “appropriation of a vocabulary turned against those who had once used it… the entry of a masked ‘other.’”[xv] In Bourdieu’s language, this is the appropriation of habitus, of the symbolic violence pervasive in the social structures the revolutionaries are seeking to change. It is not enough simply to change who is in power; that is the shallow significance of who won which battle and which son holds which land deed. Rather, a revolutionary event is a shift in the means of habitus production. It is simultaneously, as Bourdieu asserts in his analysis of the historicity of reason, a recognition of the arbitrariness of reason—that the social reality in which the dominated live is a construct of the dominators—and the political struggle to reclaim the physical imprinting of their own bodies.[xvi] This, necessarily, means inflicting their own forms of domination on their previous dominators. History is, thusly, the procession from “domination to domination”[xvii] A successful revolution is both a historical event and the triumph of the dominated over their dominators.
Without the latter component, there would be no meaningful distinction between a revolution and an event. The granting of the Olympic bid to the Mexican delegation was undoubtedly an event. The offer an acceptance of an olympic bid were performative acts that simultaneously declared and presupposed the existence of a modern Mexican state. By claiming its space on the international stage of modern nations and broadcasting its own form of ethnic nationalism, Mexico was appropriating the language of its Euro-American dominators to redefine modernity. Mexico was demanding that modernity include its artists, intellectuals, and indigenous roots. However, Mexico was not proposing a shift of the status-quo. Although it wanted to claim the right to shape the international system, to move from dominated to dominator, it did not want to overthrow the system of values and ideologies it had worked so hard to claim as its own. Mexico’s self-consciousness belied its own desire to leave the established systems of domination in place – its recognition of the lines already drawn in the sand across which it was being tentatively invited. The last message that Mexico wanted to broadcast was a desire to overthrow its dominators.
According to Elaine Carey’s analysis of the 1968 protests, “the student movement was a social uprising against an oppressive, monolithic, and paternalistic construct of the state, and it emerged as an abomination to sanitized hopes of modernity and control propagated by Mexico’s elite in the 1960s.”[xviii] However, it light of the students’ demands and their form of protests, it would be a stretch to even credit the student protestors of 1968 with catalyzing a historical event. By 1968 the cycle of protest and repression had already imprinted itself on the national psyche, it had become part of the nation’s habitus. After seven iterations of protest followed by violent grenadero repression, spanning from the late 1950s until 1965 without having already incited a social revolution, the habitus of the Mexican people cannot be understood as easily cracked by acts of physical violence from their government; these acts had already become part of their social reality. Although coming tantalizingly close to challenging Mexico’s vicious cycle of political violence with the September 13 silent march to the Zócalo, the historical continuity of the PRI’s physical domination was confirmed in the eyes of Mexico City when the students re-engaged the army and grenaderos in street fighting from September 18-24 in University City.
If the students had been truly revolutionary in protesting an oppressive and paternalistic state, as Carey suggests, they would not have held so tightly to the demands of their Six Point Petition. The demands of the petition were strictly limited to retribution for prior victims of the political violence the PRI system had already established, whether the called for loosening current anti-sedition laws or freeing political prisoners. Furthermore, student protestors did not object to the sanitized modernity proposed by the Mexican elites. Portrayed as a scruffy, foreign-tainted youth counterculture by the PRI, the students did little to reach out to the Mexican people and reconstruct an identity for either themselves or the nation as a whole. The cacophony of voices recorded by history reveals no centralizing ideology nor vision for a new Mexico. The youth protesters monopolized on the latent dissatisfaction with political repression to populate its movements; its posters and slogans call for a cessation to the violence and monopolize on the peoples’ fear of the grenaderos to mobilize. The students lacked a positive vision, what Derrida would call their own “performative fiction,” with which to crack the ideological habitus and nomos of the people.
Both Derrida and Bourdieu claim that the structures of domination used by oppressors can be reclaimed to combat their oppression. Bourdieu understands these oppressive institutions, after having being built up by the dominators to enforce their own habitus, to be the concentrations of social capital that revolutionaries can themselves claim: “No one can forge weapons to be used against his opponents without having those weapons immediately used against him by them or by others.”[xix] The institutions that saturate the social worlds of the dominated are the exact sources of legitimacy they can use to construct their own social reality. Derrida refines how the particular institution of law can be used by the dominated in political struggle. Through an act of reflection the oppressed can deconstruct the system of oppression in their favor. This is how Nelson Mandela stripped the constitution of South Africa back to its arbitrary roots to reveal the white minority’s coup de force at its base. However, simply revealing this foundation was not sufficient to mobilize a revolution. Mandela had to fight fiction with fiction, referring to an arbitrary, yet to be realized delineation of a South African “nation.”[xx] The Mexico City student revolutionaries had no such “performative fiction” to mobilize a people. Furthermore, it was denied the opportunity to seize the tools of oppression the dominated could normally rely on simply because the Mexican state had not yet solidified them. As one student political prisoner recounts of his time in prison, after telling his interrogator that what the movement “wanted” was for the “people to obey the Constitution,” the interrogator replied, “Don’t kid yourself… We’re the ones who decide what’s constitutional and what’s unconstitutional.”[xxi]
Physical violence, with its indiscriminate destruction, normally provides the ultimate recourse for revolutionaries because it recalls the fundamental arbitrariness of our belief in structures and reveals the weaknesses in the State’s nomos and habitus. However, the 1968 student movement was also denied recourse to this option because it in the Mexico of the 1950s and 1960s, state violence was the explicit instrument of habitus. It was far more effective for the students to deploy nonviolence to broadcast their aims, simply because it challenged their reality of their political climate. When students began their September 13 silent march from the Museum of Anthropology to the Zócalo, placing white tape over their mouths to broadcast their silence, they were using nonviolence to speak louder than what the government could drown out. If power is to be understood as Luhmann’s conception of asymmetrical communication—the ability to reduce the scale of alternatives in the empowered’s favor—on that day the student movement was at its most powerful. Not only did it challenge the violent foundations of the PRI-built habitus with a stark juxtaposition of nonviolence, but also effectively eliminated the PRI’s coercive ability by declaring their dedication to non-violence, regardless of the physical risks. In Klitgaard’s language, the students proclaimed themselves “irrational” by disregarding rational pay-offs, aligning themselves with the higher principle of nonviolence.[xxii] They had become immune to the PRI’s physical and propagandized attacks on that day. However, this period of power was brief. As soon as the students responded to the army’s September 18 invasion of University City with violence they had annulled their own power, betrayed their higher principles, and reduced themselves to the level of the violent PRI institution in the eyes of the Mexican people.
Constrained by their own domination and limited imaginations, the student protesters could not be revolutionary. Having never cracked the habitus of the PRI’s dominating social structures, students—even during their six days of violent street-fighting—were relegated to intraordinal status. Their struggle was not an interordinal struggle of reason against reason, the struggle of a collective to completely redefine their habitus, a collective engaged in revolution.[xxiii] The students’ violence could not become legitimized within their own system of domination because they were not fighting to establish one. By never becoming truly revolutionary, the student movement surrendered its legitimacy to the PRI. By the September 24 the grenaderos and the Mexican army retook University City. The student movement was fragmented with no physical centralized base. By the night of October 2, the PRI’s decision to launch a military campaign against the students and city residents gathered in Tlatelolco was simply a tying of loose ends. Accounts from the square revealed armed combatants on both sides, although the students were clearly outnumbered and tactically disadvantaged.[xxiv] The precedent for violence had been set on both sides of the movement since before the innocuous gang-fight in July that started it all, and it was violence that would ultimately determine the victor.
If the summer of 1968 can be understood as the continuation of a long chain of protest and repression, how does the Tlatelolco Massacre still stand out to vividly in modern Mexican history? Ironically, it was the PRI’s decision to mobilize such deadly force that made October 2, 1968 a historical event. Modern estimates of those killed range from the low fifties to the mid-three hundreds. Why did the PRI engage in such disproportionate violence? The Mexican elite themselves felt the weight of their own domination by the international community. Pressured by expectations of modernity and stability, the PRI opened fire on a peaceful square of protesters, forcing hundreds of student leaders and political prisoners to flee the country. Perhaps what is most shocking, though, was the international response. The international community was so embedded in its own structures of domination that it failed to recognized the repression for what it was. It had come to value the veneer of modernity over real political freedom. Olympics visitors were recorded afterwards as accusing the students of wanting to “steal the spotlight from the Olympics;” one visitor advised the Mexican people to “wash their dirty linen in private.”[xxv] The real travesty of October 2 was that the Olympic Games were not immediately called off afterwards. Caught between two roles, both dominated and dominator, the Mexican government’s dilemma is emblematic of that faced by many nascent states caught between the demands of their own people and the demands of the international community. In this age of technological connectivity, the “eyes of the world” are on all states. Yet, without the structural tools necessary to successfully incite revolution or the support of international elites, the future for hopeful revolutionaries like the students of 1968 Mexico City appears bleak indeed.
This essay was awarded 3rd Place in the 2013 Acheson Prize.
Mary Shi (’14) is a Political Science and Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry major in Trumbull College.
[i] Witherspoon, Kevin B. 2008. Before the Eyes of the World: Mexico and the 1968 Olympic Games. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press. Introduction and Ch. 1.
[iii] Carey, Elaine. 2005. Plaza of Sacrifices: Gender, Power, and Terror in 1968 Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1-13.
[v] Poniatowska, Elena. 1971. Massacre in Mexico. Trans. Helen R. Lane. New York: The Viking Press, 1971. 9. Poniatowska’s Massacre, originally published in 1971 as La noche de Tlatelolco (“The night of Tlatelolco”), is a compilation of first-hand testimonials from political prisoners arrested during the summer of 1968.
[vi] Poniatowska 325-333.
[vii] Bourdieu, Pierre. 2000. Pascalian Meditations. Trans. Richard Nice. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 170.
[viii] See Carey 40. Grenaderos had been used against the telegraph workers’ strike (1958), railroad workers’ strikes (1958 and 1959), teachers’ strikes (late 1950s to early 1960s), and the student protests (1964 and 1965).
[xiii] Brewster, Keith. 2010. “Teaching Mexicans How to Behave: Public Eduction on the Eve of the Olympics.” Reflections on Mexico ’68. Ed. Keith Brewster. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell. 46-62. 49.
[xiv] Brewster, Claire. 2010. “Changing Impressions of Mexico for the 1968 Games.” Reflections on Mexico ’68. Ed. Keith Brewster. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell. 23-45. 34-36.
[xv] Foucault, Michel. 1977. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 139-164. 154.
[xx] Derrida, Jacques. 1987. “The Laws of Reflection: Nelson Mandela, In Admiration.” For Nelson Mandela. Eds. Jacques Derrida and Mustapha Tlili. New York: Seaver Books.
Derrida, Jacques. 1999. “Excerpt from The Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority.” Violence and Its Alternatives. Ed. Manfred B. Steger and Nancy S. Lind. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 77-83.
[xxi] Poniatowska 105-108.
[xxii] Klitgaard, Robert E. 1971. “Gandhi’s Non-Violence as a Tactic.” Journal of Peace Research. 8:2. 145.
[xxiii] Waldenfels, Bernhard. 1991. “Limits of Legitimation and the Question of Violence.” Justice, Law, and Violence. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 101-102.
[xxiv] Harris, Chris. 2010. “Luiz Gonzalez de Alba’s Los dias y los años (1971) and Elena Poniatowska’s La noche de Tlatelolco (1971): Foundational Representations of Mexico ’68.” Reflections on Mexico ’68. Ed. Keith Brewster. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell. 107-127. 126.
[xxv] Poniatowska 307-308.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Pascalian Meditations. Trans. Richard Nice. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Brewster, Claire. “Changing Impressions of Mexico for the 1968 Games.” Reflections on Mexico ’68. Ed. Keith Brewster. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 23-45.
Brewster, Keith. “Teaching Mexicans How to Behave: Public Eduction on the Eve of the Olympics.” Reflections on Mexico ’68. Ed. Keith Brewster. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 46-62.
Carey, Elaine. Plaza of Sacrifices: Gender, Power, and Terror in 1968 Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
Derrida, Jacques. “The Laws of Reflection: Nelson Mandela, In Admiration.” For Nelson Mandela. Eds. Jacques Derrida and Mustapha Tlili. New York: Seaver Books, 1987.
Derrida, Jacques. “Excerpt from The Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority.” Violence and Its Alternatives. Ed. Manfred B. Steger and Nancy S. Lind. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. 77-83.
Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977. 139-164.
Gandhi, Mahatma. Excerpts from Selected Political Writings. Ed, Dennis Dalton. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.,1996.
Harris, Chris. “Luiz Gonzalez de Alba’s Los dias y los años (1971) and Elena Poniatowska’s La noche de Tlatelolco (1971): Foundational Representations of Mexico ’68.” Reflections on Mexico ’68. Ed. Keith Brewster. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 107-127.
Klitgaard, Robert E. “Gandhi’s Non-Violence as a Tactic.” Journal of Peace Research. 8:2, 1971.
Poniatowska, Elena. Massacre in Mexico. Trans. Helen R. Lane. New York: The Viking Press, 1971.
Waldenfels, Bernhard. “Limits of Legitimation and the Question of Violence.” Justice, Law, and Violence. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.
Witherspoon, Kevin B. Before the Eyes of the World: Mexico and the 1968 Olympic Games. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008.
Elena Poniatowska 1933-
Mexican journalist, nonfiction writer, novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Poniatowska's career through 1997.
Poniatowska is one of the most highly regarded contemporary Mexican writers. Her writing demonstrates a strong concern for the voiceless and silenced segments of Mexico's populace. Poniatowska is known for her use of the novela-testimonio (testimonial novel), which utilizes a realistic storytelling style, and her works are widely noted for bringing recognition to the marginalized and ignored classes of society.
Poniatowska was born in Paris, France, on May 19, 1933. Her mother was Mexican, and from a wealthy family that lost their land during the Mexican Revolution. Poniatowska's father was descended from Polish royalty who were forced from Poland during the partitions of the country in the late 1700s. At age eight, during World War II, Poniatowska moved to Mexico with her mother and sister while her father remained in France to fight the Germans. Because French and Polish were the only languages spoken in the house, Poniatowska learned Spanish from the household servants. After finishing her secondary school education in the United States, she received a scholarship to attend Manhattanville College, then returned home to her adopted country, Mexico. Her writing career began in 1954 as an interviewer for the Mexico City newspaper Excelsior. In 1955 she began working for the newspaper Novedades. Her first novel, Lilus Kikus, was published in 1954, but it was Poniatowska's second novel, Hasta no verte, Jesús mío (1969; Until We Meet Again) that brought her critical acclaim and international attention. Poniatowska resides in Mexico City, where she continues to work as a staff writer for Novedades.
The majority of Poniatowska's writing exposes oppression. In La noche de Tlatelolco (1971; Massacre in Mexico) she relates an account of the protesters that were massacred in October, 1968, in Mexico City, Mexico, by the Mexican government. The massacre arose out of growing tension between students of UNAM (the National Autonomous University of Mexico) and the government. Due to the approaching 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, the government wished to quell a student protest that could potentially embarrass Mexico internationally. Students at UNAM had successfully taken over the University and turned it into an alternate, or model, society. Mexican troops subsequently occupied the remaining free regions of the University, and during a large gathering assembled for a speech from the National Strike Committee at the Tlatelolco housing unit, soldiers and police surrounded protesters and opened fire. Hundreds were killed and over one thousand people wounded. The government attempted to hush up the incident and was largely successful in limiting public knowledge of the event. International media coverage was hushed, and even many residents of Mexico City did not realize a tragedy had occurred. Poniatowska's book is an account that brings to light many of the details surrounding this event. Poniatowska's publicizing of the Mexican government's failings during the 1980s is an integral part of Nada, nadie (1988; Nothing, Nobody). After an earthquake in Mexico City in September 1985, Poniatowska assisted rescue efforts during the day and spoke to survivors whenever she could, and then wrote her recollections of these interviews from memory at night. In this work, she pieces together a picture of the Mexican government's corruption and inability to deal with a major disaster.
Poniatowska's works do not focus solely on political oppression and government ineptitude; her most celebrated novel, Until We Meet Again, exposes social injustice. The main character, Jesusa, is orphaned, beaten by her husband, unfairly denied a pension, and arrested several times. These misfortunes occur in part because she is poor and uneducated, but mostly because she is a woman. Jesusa's rebellious spirit keeps her afloat in this novel. A recurring theme in many of Poniatowska's fictional works revolves around the rebellious spirit of her female characters. In Lilus Kikus, Lilus rebels against rigid social conventions that confine and restrict her. “Love Story,” a short story in De noche vienes (1979), relates the experiences of Lupe, a maid who rebels against her employer. In La ‘Flor de Lis’ (1988), Mariana rejects her upper-class upbringing. In Tinísima (1992), Tina opposes both the government and the standard roles placed on women. Poniatowska's protagonists do not always succeed in their rise against repression, but because of their spirited resistance these women gain a spiritual freedom previously unrealized.
Critics find Poniatowska's works thought provoking and well written. Although some reviewers believe that Poniatowska includes irrelevant information in her writings, most believe the amount of detail she does provide gives readers a better perspective. Commentators agree that her use of the novela-testimonio produces insightful and provocative stories. Critics acknowledge that Poniatowska's love for Mexico and its populace is very apparent in her writing. This love is most evident in her nonfiction works Massacre in Mexico and Nothing, Nobody. These two documentaries, along with Until We Meet Again, are regarded as her most important works.