Mexico and the 1968 Generation

Anne Freeland on Susana Draper

1968 Mexico
Review of Susana Draper, 1968 Mexico: Constellations of Freedom and Democracy (Duke University Press, 2018. pp 272. Paperback $25.95.

On October 2, 1968, Mexican police fired on unarmed student protesters in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas of Tlatelolco, in the historical center of Mexico City. While the state initially reported twenty-six dead, witnesses and independent investigators have estimated that two to four hundred people were killed. Many more were injured and imprisoned. Ten days after the massacre, president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz inaugurated the Olympic Games that were meant to showcase Mexico’s burgeoning modernity on the global stage, something the increasingly conspicuous mass protests had threatened to disrupt. The games themselves were used as a stage for political dissent when, on October 16, Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a Black Power salute as the Star-Spangled Banner played at their medal ceremony, an iconic gesture linking Mexico’s student movement to another site in the global constellation of protests that year, the American civil rights movement. The Tlatelolco massacre and its impunity, closely followed by the symbolic performance before the international community of the legitimacy of the authoritarian rule of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) by means of the Olympics, dealt a devastating blow to the mass movement in the streets. But the collective political and aesthetic projects that had begun in the laboratory of the Mexican student movement continued to evolve.

In 2011, the simultaneous eruption of protest movements across the world, from Occupy to the Arab Spring, elicited comparisons to 1968. In Mexico, the #YoSoy132 student movement of 2012 resonated with these emerging modes of dissent that rallied broad coalitions with the help of social media to demand democratic accountability. In 2014, student activists from Ayotzinapa commandeered buses to participate in a yearly demonstration in Mexico City commemorating the victims and survivors of Tlatelolco on the anniversary of the massacre. Forty-three of the students were kidnapped and disappeared by police in an instance of horrific repression that gained more international visibility than most but that is nonetheless representative in a history of state-sanctioned violence. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left populist president who took office in December 2018, ran a campaign founded on a pledge to combat the entrenched reign of impunity and corruption in the Mexican state; his presidency has been welcomed by some as the consummation and closure of the cycle that began with 1968, while early critics noted his former membership in the PRI in advising tempered expectations. This idea of the closure of a cycle—whatever happens under the new government—fails to recognize what Susana Draper identifies in 1968 Mexico: Constellation of Freedom and Democracy as the defining quality of the movement: its overflow of political protest beyond the pursuit of a set of demands into the always unfinished work of social democratization. In each of the moments of organized resistance to state violence and oppression of the past fifty years, but also in everyday practices of freedom—within communities, universities, the cultural sphere, and the home—1968 lives on.

The afterlives of historical events are more than ripples in a causal chain; 1968 Mexico does not advance an argument as to how the student movement and its brutal repression fit into a linear historical progression leading to the current situation of the country. Nor does it propose to tell us the meaning of what happened; the presence of the past is constituted by more than its mere memory or interpretation. Instead, the book studies a collection of theoretical, artistic, and pedagogical processes that converged in the movement as alterations of what Jacques Rancière calls the distribution of the sensible—as openings in the field of what can be seen, thought, and done. This opening, for Draper, is the practice of democracy.

Draper highlights the heterogeneity of the movement, its “transversal nature… that is, its capacity to traverse the social field with a demand for democracy.” She calls this “movement politics,” where democratization is an effect of encounters among different participants and their forms of self-organization, as opposed to “party politics,” which looks to achieve a predetermined goal on behalf of a given collective subject. The corpus of texts Draper examines reflects this broad inclusivity, countering the remarginalization of women and workers within a tradition of memorialization that privileges male and middle-class voices. The selection of texts also expresses the interconnection of different modes of practice within the movement, weaving together discussions of philosophy, literature, documentary films, testimonial writing, and grassroots organizational processes.

The philosophical and literary work of the writer, autodidact, and lifelong political activist José Revueltas, the subject of the first chapter, informs the theoretical framework of the book. By 1968, Revueltas had been intermittently imprisoned for his militancy since adolescence. After being kicked out the Mexican Communist Party for his heterodox views and criticism of the bureaucratic apparatus, he founded the Popular Socialist Party. He was later expelled from this party as well. At the age of 53 and with no formal postsecondary education, he joined the student-led movement in 1968 as something of an outsider. After the Tlatelolco massacre, Revueltas was imprisoned as its “intellectual author.” Without disputing his central role as a prolific theorist and committed militant within the movement, Draper focuses not on how his thought shaped events but on how 1968 challenged and reconfigured Revueltas’s thought. Specifically, she examines how Revueltas responded to the general challenge—posed also at other sites of the global movement—of revising a Marxist conception of a forward-moving historical dialectic in light of the contingency of the event and the plurality of its subjects. Draper takes the terms Revueltas used to answer this challenge—“cognitive democracy,” “theoretical act,” “dialectic of encounter”—and reads the texts and experiences to which she turns in subsequent chapters with these in mind.

The opening of revolutionary thought to the democratic demands of a multiplicity of subjects requires a new conception of the temporality of politics. It requires “moving away from the idea of revolution as a historical telos and toward a more evolving conception of change, one composed of concrete practices, such as self-management and the democratization of knowledge.” One of the implications of this “attempt to de-fetishize freedom” is that “failed” projects are not inconsequential: “This dialectic of unexpected courses (which the dominant history sees as deformations or historical failures) breathes life into what had been falsely deemed ‘irrelevant’ to common Marxism, thus subverting the idea that a failed effort cannot proceed on its course.” This idea guides Draper’s reading not only of the various practices of 1968 and its immediate aftermath, but of their continued relevance for political struggles today.

In her account of the cinema of 1968 in Mexico, in accordance with this philosophical framework, Draper focuses on the primacy of process over product. She shows how the boundary between the aesthetic and the political breaks down in the projects of the Cooperative of Marginal Cinema, a group that used 8mm film and taught workers to film their own struggles. The Cooperative joined forces with labor union organizers, practiced communal living, and participated in the protests. Little remains of the material produced, but Draper is less interested in the filmic texts than in the practices and encounters that made them possible. She sees the films as not only documents or traces of such experiences, but also as their source. The group dissolved when some members decided to dedicate their time to political organizing and others returned to making more traditional films. The integration of politics and art is achieved in a way, for a time; the fleeting nature of the encounter resonates with Revueltas’s theoretical exposition of revolutionary praxis outside of a developmentalist temporal framework.

The same principle of participatory cinema appears in another project, a film made from footage taken by political prisoners with Super 8 cameras smuggled into Lecumberri prison in Mexico City, directed by Óscar Menéndez. If the Cooperative of Marginal Cinema brought the camera into new spaces and into the hands of new subjects, Menendez’s film brings into view a space designed to make its occupants invisible. Both of these cases offer an answer to a fundamental question for cultural studies: “How are politics possible from and in film without assuming a kind of propagandistic logic?” Draper reads these films not as vehicles that transmit a message, but as provocations of thought and action, not only for their viewers but also for their creators and subjects.

In her final chapter, Draper turns to forms of educational self-organization that arose from 1968. She brings together a discussion of the Popular Preparatory, a high school founded and operated by students rejected by the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM), Mexico’s top university and a hub of the movement, and a prisoner-run school at Santa Martha Acatitla Women’s Prison. The experience of the Popular Preparatory, which has received little attention in accounts of 1968, illustrates the central role played by those who had been historically excluded from higher education. These were the students best situated, precisely because of their marginal status, to stage a radical and transformative critique of an educational system that served to perpetuate class divisions despite the recent growth of a professional middle class. In her discussion of the school in the women’s prison, Draper addresses the “forms of micropolitical violence” that surfaced in the encounters of 1968. Reading a memoir by Roberta Avedaño, one of the leaders of the National Strike Council, Draper calls attention to the author’s initial contempt for the “common” prisoners with whom she was incarcerated, revealing the deep traces of a class ideology that she overtly contested as an activist prior to her incarceration. This text prompts Draper to posit the prison as a site where such cognitive and affective habits can be brought out and worked through. Draper notes that, over the course of her incarceration, “little by little, this distance [that Avedaño creates between herself and her fellow prisoners] grows shorter,” arguing that the experience is ultimately productive. Both experiences thus serve as exemplary cases of the bottom-up expansion of the project of 1968 as a reconfiguration of the political.

Commemorations of 1968 have tended to focus on either the heroism of the movement or the tragedy of its defeat. Draper avoids both of these tendencies, not because the truth is somewhere in between, but because both are ultimately premised on a messianic concept of democracy—one that sees democracy as a goal to be achieved once and for all, rather than as a practice to be developed. Mexico 1968 wants to redirect our thinking about the past away from the assessment of failures and successes in terms of causes and effects, and towards the spaces it opens up for thought and action. Draper enters the texts of her corpus—in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s terms—to speak from inside; she appropriates and further develops the modes of thinking that she analyzes. In doing so, she offers a valuable model for transdisciplinary cultural studies work that seeks to move beyond a descriptive mode of inquiry.

Anne Freeland received her PhD in Comparative Literature and Latin American Cultures from Columbia University in 2017. She is the translator of René Zavaleta’s Towards a History of the National Popular in Bolivia (Seagull 2018). She is now working concurrently on a monograph on readings of Antonio Gramsci in Latin America and a study of Mexican prison narratives. She teaches at the City University of New York.