On Recent Student Protests in Mexico

Students in the state of Michoacán have recently protested changes in the curriculum, leading to increasing antagonisms and the occupation of three teachers’ colleges. The protests, and the government’s responses, get at the heart of the complexity of student movements and their connections to society more broadly.

The protests started with recent announcements that students at teachers’ colleges would have to take courses in English and computer science, fields that students felt were useless for programs designed to train teachers to help rural (and often still impoverished) areas. In the protests, some students ended up intercepting delivery trucks, not permitting the drivers or the trucks that entered the campuses to leave, leading the government to crack down by sending troops to the campuses to arrest anywhere from 120 to 300 students (based on initial reports), citing the loss of “hundreds of thousands of dollars per day” as the reason to violate the autonomy of college campuses.

This last point is not a small matter, neither in Mexico nor in Latin America more generally. Historically, university campuses have been seen as autonomous from government interference, and with justifiable reasons: the autonomy of the campus means that professors and students alike have the academic freedom to think and ask questions that may unsettle politicians or other powerful sectors of society. Campus invasions have happened in the past throughout the region – in Brazil in the early years of the dictatorship or in Mexico City in 1968, for example. But the repression involved in these invasions only reinforced the importance of campus autonomy, as the invasions were explicitly tied to dictatorial regimes. That’s not to say the occupying forces are dictatorial, but the move to occupy a campus is a rare one, and one fraught with political, social, and historical implications. It will be worth seeing if this becomes the new tactic for student protests in Mexico, or if this is an isolated incident.

Another issue at play, and one that is all too often overlooked, is the heterogeneity of student voices, and the ways in which it ultimately inhibits students’ ability to have input into how education in the Americas operates. While some students are protesting, many others are opposed to the protests. Separate protests at Mexico City’s National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM, the same school that the armed troops invaded in 1968) provide a powerful reminder of this:

This month, about 100 students at Mexico City’s Autonomous University rushed the gates of their seized campus and briefly forced out striking students, who later returned with a pickup truck to bash in the gates and retake the school. The two sides are now in talks to end the standoff.

With only a dozen or so masked students holding some campuses at the school, frustration has boiled over among hundreds of locked-out students who tried to take make-up classes in improvised classrooms. The strikers were backed by some professors and university employees.

“We are now holding classes in tents, at the soccer field next to the campus, and the conditions are deplorable,” said Gustavo Martinon, 23, a media arts student at the university’s Cuautepec campus. “When it rains, the tents flood.”

“The engineering students need labs and computers, and they don’t have them. We (media arts) students need the radio station, the video facilities, and all the equipment we need.”

Like most of the other students trying to take back the campus, Martinon said he has no position on whether the strikers have a legitimate grudge. Taking over a campus and affecting thousands of students, he said, isn’t the way to air a grievance.

This isn’t surprising. Although the tendency in the US media is to portray student movements as a unified bloc, they  never are; even Chile’s student movement, which has been able to mobilize tens of thousands of students in recent months, it has not managed to have all students in Chile join, and it is one of the more successful of recent student mobilizations. Nor is it surprising that, when students find their own studies interrupted by those in other programs with different issues, they tend to be antagonistic towards the mobilization and strikes; as Erik Loomis has repeatedly pointed out (most recently with the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike), people who claim to support a movement suddenly turn against it the moment it interrupts their daily lives.

Martinon’s comments are a perfect example of that, and his failure to even consider the legitimacy of the demands shows the ways students themselves can undermine their own causes. By failing to consider whether the striking students’ demands are legitimate (and thus, worth supporting), he and thousands of others have refused to show solidarity. That matters for a number of reasons. First, by fragmenting internally, students ultimately weaken their position in the face of administration and state officials who gain the upper hand in imposing their vision and will on curriculum and campuses without necessarily listening to or heeding students’ voices or needs. Secondly, and in turn, such divisions hurt long-term student organization and defense of student interests; if one group fails to support another when they mobilize to protect their interests, why should the second group mobilize for the first group when the time comes for them to make their demands?

Additionally, Martinon’s argument that protests aren’t the appropriate way to air grievances is at best highly problematic. More often than not, protests and occupations are the best and even only way for students to make their voices collectively heard, and are usually a last resort after failure to use more “quiet” methods, such as petitions, lobbying, etc., have failed; this is the case throughout Latin America, be it in Mexico in 1968, Brazil in the 1960s, or even Chile today. Martinon himself doesn’t seem to realize that this is true; he complains about students protesting and shutting down campus because their educational experience is lacking, but then complains that everybody suffers on campus, as if these two things were unconnected, as if the university is not being run as an institution by state officials and university administrators; they see universities as a single, large organism, something students like Martinon fail to do.

And there are likely thousands of Martinons in these protests, both in Mexico City and Michoacán, whose irritation at inconveniences spurred by protests and campus shutdowns blinds them to the fact that the students are in fact all in this together, even if the immediate demands of the protesters has little to do with other colleges on campuses. Students could realize that curriculum reform, much-needed infrastructural improvements (like the engineering students’ needs for computers and labs or Martinon’s own need for a radio station and video labs) are part of the same struggle, and that protests are often the fastest way to bring attention to your causes and to see they are addressed; students in Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s increasingly took to the streets to make such demands, and ultimately the military regime ended up trying to address some of those issues students raised in protests via a massive university reform in 1968; though the regime had its own reasoning and defenses for the reform, there’s little doubt student complaints had created a broad awareness of the failings of the university system, failings the regime had to address. And again, more recently, by taking to the streets and making public their complaints themselves (rather than relying on media or politicians to frame the debate), students in Chile have been able to draw massive support to their cause of educational reform, leading to very low support for President Sebastián Piñera.

These are just some of the issues at play in the recent Mexican protests, but they do provide a good example both of the challenges facing students throughout the hemisphere today, not only in terms of opposition to governmental policies or weaknesses in curricula and infrastructure on campuses, but in terms of the challenges in working as a collective with shared interests as well.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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