I’m very excited to be joining Americas South and North, and, I have to admit, it has been a bit difficult to choose what I’d like to say first. Currently, I’m in Mexico City on a research trip where I’ve been fortunate enough to have witnessed two of the Mega Marchas and other events that have been taking place here surrounding the July 1 elections. Yesterday [July 22] I had the opportunity to view one of these from the sidelines. Of course, as a historian working on a dissertation, my first impulses were to make comparisons between my research and what I witnessed in the streets. As a scholar of the Mexican Revolution in the borderlands, I was struck by the various images of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata that were used in signs and chants.
During his own lifetime, Villa became notorious in the United States for his early morning raid of the tiny town of Columbus, New Mexico, on 9 March 1916. In Chihuahua, however, the raid provided Villa’s movement with a short period of resurgence and strength. The punitive expedition led by John J. Pershing placed Villa’s rival, Venustiano Carranza, the de facto president, in an extremely delicate position because he was forced to acquiesce to a foreign invasion—at least in the minds of many chihuahuenses and other Mexicans. And Villa used the opportunity to argue that Carranza was in collusion with Woodrow Wilson to make Mexico a U.S. protectorate. Many returned to (and joined anew) his ranks to combat this foreign threat.
Yet, Villa’s movement fell into decline again for various reasons. Although early in his revolutionary career he had been adept at controlling and promoting his public image (famously through film), following the Columbus attack such efforts eroded. At that point he was much less successful at combatting efforts by his opponents to vilify him and take away his legitimacy. It also didn’t help that he was constantly short on supplies and that he lost more battles than he won between 1917 and 1920. Despite claims that he was simply a plundering marauder, he surrounded himself with advisors (that he didn’t always heed) and issued manifestos and proclamations stating his stances on issues such as land reform (he worked to break up much of the latifundia in Chihuahua). Yet his opposition worked to downplay or deny outright his ideas and instead label him as at best a mere bandit and at worst a raging madman.
Revolutionary forerunners in Chihuahua (and elsewhere in Mexico and beyond) faced a similar plight. When Santana Pérez, following the lead of Simón and Celso Anaya, rose up in resistance to the Porfirian regime in 1893, the response was to label the movement’s supporters as “indios” or “temochitecos” (hearkening back to the uprising that was violently quashed by the Díaz regime the previous year). The implication of such labels was that those who had taken up arms were barbaric savages, not political actors. Along with leading an attack on the Customs House in Las Palomas, Chihuahua, Pérez issued manifestoes that declared his motives and goals. He proclaimed: “We want the constitution of 1857 restored to us. That instrument guarantees us a free republican government. Under it the President can only serve one term. Diaz had that clause stricken out and the result is that he is Dictator” [published 1 December 1893 in the New York Herald and other papers in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico]. Yet, as other newspaper reports on both sides of the border confirmed, the Díaz regime did a great job of eradicating such proclamations, instead labeling the movement as indicated above. Eventually through the war of words and a bloody massacre in the small town of Santo Tomas, Chihuahua, the uprising was extinguished.
During my time here in the D.F., I’ve had conversations with a few locals about the continued significance of Pancho Villa (no one here has heard of Santana Pérez). Villa resonates here as a heroic symbol of resistance to the United States, as well as a symbol of revolutionary prowess, among other things. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, to see images of Villa (and Zapata) among the many slogans and signs carried by the thousands of marchers in the streets. Both figures have continued posthumously to represent the side of the Mexican Revolution that was most responsive to the demands for justice of the lower-class inhabitants of their regions. The presence of these revolutionary martyrs in the Mega Marcha, I think, carries more than just a superficial significance.
Two days ago I spoke to a man from Mexico State about the Yo Soy 132 Movement and its implications for his country. As a fellow student of history, he regards the movement as guided by emotion and frustration, but nothing more. Without being grounded in economic or historical theory, he feels, the agitations will amount to just that. Yesterday in the streets, I heard comments that the movement suffers from a lack of leadership—“once they get to the Zocalo, they have no leaders, no one to guide them.” While these are important concerns, and although the Marcha was highly emotionally charged, I was impressed with the ideological cohesion of the images, slogans, and chants that emanated from the crowd of marchers. At present, they are united by the overarching goal of protesting what they consider to be the fraudulent election of Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party).
As journalists have noted, members of this movement took it upon themselves to act as electoral monitors. They used mobile technology to watch for irregularities and fraud. Additionally, the Soriana and money laundering scandals have illuminated fraudulent and corrupt methods used by members of the PRI during the recent election. Supporters of the Mega Marcha (including student activists connected to the Yo Soy 132 movement, as well as people from various age groups and walks of life) speak of Enrique Peña Nieto’s impending presidency as an “imposition.” As they put it, “México votó y Peña no ganó,” (“Mexico voted, and Peña didn’t win”). Supporters of the movement want Mexico to be a true democracy in which the voices of the citizens count and are heard. They want to eradicate the monopolization of Mexican media by corporate powers. Those same media outlets, as well as the PRI, have downplayed and outright denied the ideas of the movement.
The movement does have a system of assemblies that guide it. These include the commissions of Citizen Vigilance, Human Rights, and the Congreso de la Soberanía (Congress of Sovereignty) which distributed fliers that espoused the above ideas and also added: “It is necessary to organize in every municipality and delegation of the country, in the workplace, home, cultural centers, and associations, to struggle for the transformation of the country, uniting local demands with the national demand to ANNUL THE ELECTION and to immediately initiate a DEMOCRATIC RENNOVATION that will end the current farce of United States dominance over Mexico, neocolonialism, and neoliberalism” [my translation, original emphasis].
The movements I’ve just schematically described, both past and present, were/are far from perfect. And, of course, proclamations and ideas are not the only elements of successful social protest. But what interests me is that each faced/faces a powerful media structure that is attempting to deprive them of even the opportunity to be heard, and each tried different methods to overcome such obstacles. Although the movements in Chihuahua around the turn of the twentieth century ended in blood and violence, the present mobilization has adopted non-violent protest tactics that became prominent globally during the middle-twentieth century. They are also able to combat the monopolized news outlets through social media and broadcasting resources available on the internet. I am very interested in what happens next.