68, 43: Analyzing the Collective Memories and Cultural Traumas of Mexico’s most infamous atrocities


The fall of 1968 and the autumn of 2014 seemed to present a relapse in history. Similar images flooded the internet that might have been printed in newspapers outside of Mexico decades ago: protests flooding the open spaces of Mexico City’s Zócalo, a large public square where the contestation of the Mexican state is an activity much safer within this historic space than at the infamous locations of Tlatelolco’s square and Iguala’s fosas. Although these marches served as symbolic gestures, the Zócalo was not the site of the 1968 student massacre or the 2014 disappearance of 43 normalista students. Simply put, the Zócalo was the only place where students, citizens, and victims of a repressive state could denounce their government in reaction to these particular human rights violations under the open air of the Federal District’s smog. Hence, both atrocities engendered outrage, but one period suffered silence while a new generation has attempted to reclaim the significance of Mexico as a country where civil society is supposed to be protected.

Mexican Army in the Zócalo, 1968

Mexican Army in D.F.’s historic Zócalo during the initial stages of the 1968 student protests. (Armored cars at the “Zócalo” in Mexico City in 1968  – Cel·líOwn work; Permission details: Copyright free)

Zócalo Ayotzinapa Protest

Citizens gather at the Zócalo and protest the federal government’s mishandling of the case involving 43 students disappeared from Ayotzinapa. (People march into Zocalo Plaza, the main plaza in Mexico City during the ‘Global Day of Action for Ayotzinapa’ Wednesday, October 23, 2014. IMAGE: BRETT GUNDLOCK/BOREAL COLLECTIVE/MASHABLE)

In this sense, through the ‘collective memories’ of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre and the 2014 Disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students, ‘cultural traumas’ have permeated Mexican society, political discourse, and civilian dialogues, but have not materialized into concrete legal accountability for the perpetrators of these human rights violations. Thus, this essay shall analyze the collective memories and cultural traumas engendered by the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City and the recent disappearance of the 43 normalistas from Ayotzinapa. Additionally, this essay shall argue that Mexico failed to implement its collective memory to institutionalize law and accountability measures for human rights violations in the case of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, but will explicate how the cultural trauma of the 2014 disappearance could change the relationship between collective memory and law.

Students take part in a protest in support of the 43 missing students of the Ayotzinapa teachers' training college Raul Isidro Burgos, outside the Mexican Embassy in Bogota

Portraits of some of the 43 missing students are placed outside the Mexican Embassy in Bogota during a protest November 7th. Photo: Reuters


Mexico’s two greatest contemporary massacres, and arguably, largest human rights violations, have both involved the vulnerable population of students. Although the documented, historical, and scientific evidence of both atrocities clearly exists, the ‘collective memory’ and ‘cultural trauma’ of Mexico has been trivialized by the Mexican government. According to Maurice Halbwachs, the theory of collective memory alludes to the idea that “knowledge about the past is shared, mutually acknowledged, and reinforced by collectivities such as small informal groups, formal organizations, or nation states and global communities.” (Halbwachs 1992) In this sense, information about events such as the 43 students is shared and mutually acknowledged by the majority of citizens, reinforced by collectivities such as the Centro Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDH) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), and condemned by higher bodies such as the United Nations and Inter-American Court of Human Rights. For example, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco, stated that the “These are the worst atrocities we’ve seen in Mexico in years, but they are hardly isolated incidents, but that these disappearances reflected a continued pattern of state repression, abuse, and government failure to address issues that has plagued Mexico for decades. In this sense, the Ayotzinapa case is acknowledged by a formal organization working throughout the global community, further consolidating the development of a ‘collective memory’ on the event and contributing to a sort of potential ‘boomerang effect’ in terms of action and pressure from organizations and groups outside of Mexico.

In similarity, the concept of cultural trauma is a “memory of an event or situation that is laden with negative affect, represented as indelible, and seen as threatening to a society’s existence or violating its cultural presuppositions.” (Smelser 2004) The central idea surrounding cultural trauma is the fact that a certain event carries enough significance as a situation that it has usurped a society’s fears and memorialized them as an indicator to prevent a similar case from occurring. In the case of ‘68 and the 43 students, many journalists, writers, and public figures have equated the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students to the repressive measures of the Mexican state in the Plaza de Las Tres Culturas, essentially violating the presupposition that Mexico is a democracy where the rule of law is, to an extent, upheld.  Furthermore, Jeffrey C. Alexander posits that “members of collectivities define their relationships in ways that…allow them to share the sufferings of others.” Thus, when Mexicans took to the cybersphere to post tweets with hashtags declaring #TodosSomosAyotzinapa and protesters commemorate the 1968 massacre with annual marches on the Federal District’s Zócalo, their collective cohorts internalize these microcosmic events as equating the macrocosmic experience that many Mexicans suffer perennially under the jurisdiction of their government.

Students in Mexico City arrange candles during a vigil for 43 Ayotzinapa students missing after last month's deadly clashes

Candlelight vigil at the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico (ITAM) in Mexico City. (REUTERS/Tomas Bravo)

Additionally, Alexander sets up four requirements for the development and social internalization of cultural trauma. First, claims must be made by ‘agents’. Second, ‘carrier groups’ with stakes involved in the event of the trauma must make ‘speech acts’ to audiences with the goal of communicating a ‘claim’ of the trauma’s validity. Lastly, ‘cultural classifications’ that highlight the “nature of the pain” and victim, the potential relatability that the victim could share with an audience, and an “attribution of responsibility” to whatever actor might have perpetrated a violation establish the means to societally accept a cultural trauma. The subsequent sections of this essay shall apply the theoretical concepts of collective memory and cultural trauma to the atrocities of Tlatelolco and Ayotzinapa.


On the evening of October 2nd, 1968, students protesting against the “extreme centralization of decision-making powers, the country’s lack of civil liberties, the PRI monopoly on power, corporatism, the [state-run] loyal press…and [in favor of] a more equitable distribution of income” (Trevizo 2011, pg. 60) were met with fatal repression from the Mexican state. An estimate of 300 students were openly murdered while thousands were arrested for what the Mexican government deemed as communist affiliated activities that led to violence provoked by university students. The Tlatelolco massacre was the watershed moment that defined the beginning of a new epoch of continued political crises and delegitimization for the Mexican state, instilling a strong collective memory and cultural trauma about the situation in Mexican society. According to the National Security Archive at George Washington University, “thirty years later, the Tlatelolco massacre has grown large in Mexican memory, and lingers still. It is Mexico’s Tiananmen Square, Mexico’s Kent State.”


Students gather at the Plaza de Las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. Later that evening, the Mexican Army would open fire on unarmed demonstrators. 

Although the students of the 1968 movement were able to contribute to the eventual democratization efforts of the Mexican state (Trevizo 2011), I argue that a strong collective memory tied to a national cultural trauma shared by the body politic of civilian society and state officials has failed to institutionalize legal action and accountability for human rights violations. According to King and Savelsberg, collective memory can shape law and legal processes because “memories of past injustices can influence our expectation of what constitutes justice.” (King & Savelsberg, pg. 200) For example, the eventual apprehension of former President Luís Echeverría under the accusations of genocide “due to his presumed responsibility in the murder of students that occurred on the 2nd of October of 1968” in Tlatelolco serves as an example where collective memory attempted to shape law, but ultimately failed in its intent. Imputations regarding 1968 against Echeverría were later matched with an exoneration of his guilt; previously under house arrest, Echeverría was absolved of all charges and liberated from his domestic apprehension.

Echeverría had served as Secretary of State under President Díaz Ordaz, the primary perpetrator of this massacre alongside his presidential administration; some accounts state that Díax Ordáz was not in Mexico City when the repression occurred and the orders came from Echeverría’s command. After almost 38 years, Ignacio Carrillo Prieto, the special prosecutor investigating Mexico’s Dirty War appointed by President Fox, decided to try Echeverría under the accusation of genocide for the 1968 massacre. After almost three years in trial, the former president was acquitted. Perhaps the overall accusation of genocide was too harsh for Ignacio Carrillo Prieto to prove, as he had based his allegations on Echeverría’s endeavour to “exterminate” a “national-group” of students in opposition to a repressive regime. But even with the Mexican government’s 2006 recognition that “presidents Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Luís Echeverría, and José López Portillo [had] sustained policies of violence against political dissidents”, (Trevizo 2011, pg. 60) the institutionalization of this ‘collective memory’ into legal action failed. The indictment may have been thwarted by the ultimate decision of a Mexican court, or possibly stifled because of the scope of the allegation, but in all, fundamentally proved a continued policy of impunity for officials. The case against Echeverría proved that those convicted or accused of human rights violations in Mexico can ultimately escape through a tunnel of impunity all too common in Mexico’s legal system. With a distant similarity to the transitionary democratization of post-apartheid South Africa, a democratized Mexico was still a nation where its culture of human rights “was constructed upon the quicksand if impunity.” (King & Savelsberg, pg. 197) Even after its democratization, Mexico still did not have a culture of promoting human rights or condemning officials who violated these tenets.

Archival footage of the October 2nd Massacre at the Plaza de Las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, Mexico City.

In any case, the collective memories and cultural traumas vinculated to the 1968 student massacre made an indelible impact on Mexican society and contributed to democratization efforts, but did not result in any form of justice for the human rights violations committed. Ultimately, the collective memory of 1968 continues to generate annual commemorations of the massacre with marches across the country and Mexico City. Similarly, a museum and monument bearing the names of the accounted victims stands at the Plaza de Las Tres Culturas today. These commemorations “are imbued with meaning… [giving] tangible form to latent emotions and [representing] moral consciences, as symbolic commemorations of the past reflect contemporary culture” (pg. 202)  In this sense, and through this definition, the commemorations of 1968 continue to inform the political actions and mobilization of various opposition groups throughout Mexico. 1968 serves as a symbol of the state’s ultimate repression, and the need to continue the students’ struggle. Ultimately, the collective memory and cultural trauma of 1968 has led many citizens of Mexico to recontextualize the events of Ayotzinapa as part of a greater pattern of state sponsored violence that has in no sense concluded with the democratization of Mexico’s political system. Although the acquittal of Echeverría proved impunity as a central principle of Mexico’s rule of law, the collective memory of 1968 has influenced how Mexicans are reacting to the disappearance of 43 students in demands for justice and lawful procedures of accountability.

Third massive protest for missing students in Iguala

Citizens protest the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School in Mexico City. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)


In an all too similar episode, future teachers in Guerrero experienced this episodic fate. On the evening of September 26th, 2014, 43 students from the Rural Teacher’s College of Ayotzinapa went missing after attempting to commandeer a bus that would transport them to the site of a protest that Iguala Mayor Jose Luís Abarca would not tolerate. The students planned to disrupt a low-key event that was hosting the potential mayoral campaign announcement of Abarca’s wife. However, before they could arrive to their first “action”, Abarca had already ordered police officers to prevent them from arriving at any cost. On that night “uniformed police ambushed five buses of students from the college…together with three unidentified gunmen, they shot and killed six people, wounded more than 20, and “disappeared [those] 43 students.” In hopes to exercise their freedom of expression as delineated in Article 9 of the Mexican constitution, and as stated in the Preamble and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which Mexico has ratified), these students were intimidated, murdered,  and disappeared by police forces designed to protect these fundamental rights.

A student testimony from Ernesto Guerrero, a survivor and witness to the disappearance of the 43 students.

Cultural trauma has swathed the attitudes of Mexicans when faced with the facts, actions, and outcomes of this brutality. Claims have been made by agents ranging from government officials to survivors of the situation. Although federal officials such as Jesús Murillo Karam and President Enrique Peña Nieto have sought to desperately and quickly conclude investigations of the 43 students, claims from the parents of Ayotzinapa desaparecidos have contributed to not only speech acts, but strategic measures by bringing their struggles to the forum of the United States for a 45-city tour of a country they hope can offer help. Cultural classifications have been most intelligibly linked to the 1968 massacre, drawing comparisons in student activism. Finally, the attribution of responsibility has been ascribed to Iguala Mayor Abarca, his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, the 22 policemen arrested after the attack, and the violent drug gang, the Guerreros Unidos.

A Vice News Special on the case of the 43 Missing Students from Ayotzinapa.

The collective memory of Ayotzinapa has been shared by the other surviving students of the Iguala disappearance, such as Ernesto Guerrero and Jorge Vásquez, who have provided their own testimonies of the events that occurred in Iguala. In juncture, the mutual acknowledgement from Mexican citizens impelled one famous writer to state that the federal government’s political reaction and administration of the disappearance felt “like all of Mexico was being asphyxiated.” Ultimately, the collective memory of the disappearance was reinforced the Mexican Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, HRW, and the United Nations. With President Peña Nieto’s hope to conclude the Ayotzinapa investigation with little contestation, the CNDH dictated that the case could not be closed because judges from the Inter-American Commision on Human Rights were still requiring evidence. Additionally, the United Nations has condemned President Peña Nieto’s handling of the case while the State of California has followed suit, ultimately presenting an international ‘collective memory’ of the tragedy.

While international bodies, governments, and populations have decried for justice, the collective memory of Tlatelolco has shaped how Mexicans are processing Ayotzinapa. For example, the “symbolic depictions of certain atrocities”, such as the 1968 Tlatelolco, massacre can “provide a cognitive and moral framework that can impel legal action” for contemporary events, such as Iguala. (pg. 200) The appropriation of collective memory linked to the 1968 Tlatelolco case as an analogical device for the recent occurrences of Ayotzinapa have drawn many organizations, collectivities, and individuals to decry the disappearance of 43 students as synonymous with the decade-old Mexico City massacre. For example, José Miguel Vivanco from HRW stated that in order to understand the atrocities of Iguala, “lamentably, we need to go back to Tlatelolco at the end of the 60s, where acts this macabre occurred as well.” Correspondingly, media sources, such as the German news outlet Deutsche Welle, have headlined stories asking: “Iguala’s Disappeared: An inheritance from ‘68?”


Protesters hold machetes as the march through Mexico City for ‘Global Day of Action for Ayotzinapa.’ (IMAGE: BRETT GUNDLOCK/BOREAL COLLECTIVE/MASHABLE)

In this sense, King and Savelsberg further posit that “society’s exploration and evaluation of the past in light of the present” can propel the effectuation of legal processes. (King & Savelsberg, pg. 202)  With newspaper headlines, public statements, and other methods of dissemination, the collective memory of Mexico’s populace has the potential to impact legal procedures for Ayotzinapa. In the most direct use of collective memory as an analogy, the famous novelist and Mexican intellectual Elena Poniatowska has made polemic statements not only equating Ayotzinapa with ‘68, but has drawn similarities from Iguala to the horrors of the Second World War’s Holocaust. On October 11th, the writer of La Noche de Tlatelolco, stated that “ if in 1968 we formed committees for struggles, we can’t stand still today. What happened in Ayotzinapa is more horrendous than what happened in ‘68. We live in a Mexico we don’t deserve.”

With a plea for change and accountability, Poniatowska implicates all Mexicans in the struggle for justice in Ayotzinapa. Her role as a single agent, making a claim through a ‘speech act’, highlights an important cultural classification about what Iguala’s atrocity symbolizes through the comparative context of Mexico’s history in 1968. But instead of solely attributing the entire responsibility of these disappearances to the corrupt officials of Guerrero, she antecedently inculpates all Mexicans for their potential lack of mobilization. In this sense, Poniatowska’s role as a ‘moral entrepreneur’ seeks to use “symbols of past evil” to “bolster calls for legal (and other) intervention” in Mexico’s Iguala crisis. (King & Savelsberg, pg. 202) Poniatowska’s motivation to denounce the Mexican state’s violence also calls upon Mexican citizens to draw curtains on impunity, pressure the state for accountability in the violation of human rights, and mobilize for justice in Ayotzinapa.

As previously mentioned, Poniatowska states that Ayotzinapa “reminds us of concentration camps, of Auschwitz, of Birkenau, of Treblinka, it reminds us of…the elimination of human beings.” This statement, utilizing what King and Savelsberg argue to be the use of the Holocaust’s “metaphorical power…as the universal symbol of evil in the Western world” (King & Savelsberg, pg. 200) serves as a tool to further impel state agents and societies to internalize the impact of the Iguala atrocity. The cultural classification of the Holocaust as the ultimate significance of genocide and the ‘starting point’ for human rights allows the benefactor of this ‘historic consciousness’ to shape the recipient’s understanding of the events through an even greater, more universal comparative contextualization than the single juxtaposition of Iguala and 1968. In this sense, the construction of a collective memory aims to galvanize the “micro-mobilization” of activists and agents with capabilities to influence law. (King & Savelsberg, pg. 205) The words and experiences of Poniatowska and other 1968 activists can motivate and energize younger generations to participate in a mobilization process for greater transparency and accountability in Mexico’s human rights violation. Hence, Mexico’s opportunity lies here, during the official trials of former Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, to ensure that a nation’s collective memory and a generation’s cultural trauma can produce legal proceedings to prevent similar human rights violations.

Ver Arder (Y no meter las manos al fuego) (2014) (Prod. Collectivo Revolución 1341) A short film inspired by the events of Ayotzinapa and a continued culture of violence and impunity in Mexico, played across theaters in Mexico before feature presentations. This film was thoroughly promoted by Mexico City’s Cineteca Nacional.

Implementing Ayotzinapa’s Collective Memory as Law

This essay argues that although efforts from collective memories related to the 1968 massacre were futile in actualizing legal accountability for human rights violations, the re-contextualization of Ayotzinapa as a ‘relapse’ harkening the events of Tlatelolco has the potential to engender immense legal precedents. In order to create a legal precedent for the success of implementing human rights, Mayor Abarca, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, the 22 police officers, and any other state agents involved in the Ayotzinapa disappearance must not only be convicted criminally, but must be held accountable for their violations of human rights. Although the likelihood of every perpetrator being adjudicated and sentenced on a criminal accusation is very high, the classification of their actions must fall under the architecture of human rights in order to fulfill the realization of collective memory into legal precedents.

In theory, human rights violations (in the ‘negative’ categorization) are violent transgressions against the body and person of a victim attacked and/or targeted by a state actor in official uniform. This usually includes violations by soldiers, policemen, or other agents of the state perpetrating actions of torture, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and extrajudicial assassinations. (Landman) The important factor determining and delineating human rights violations from regular crimes is that officials and representatives are committing violations in uniform. In the case of the 43 disappeared students, multiple human rights violations were committed.


President Enrique Peña-Nieto speaking in front of his new plane. Unintentionally, he stands here; Peña Nieto – 43. (Foto: Victor Medina Gorosave/ La Crónica Baja California)

First and foremost, the apprehension of the disappeared students is in direct violation of Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” Secondly, Abarca’s attempt to silence the normalistas before they arrived to protest at a municipal event through an armed assault violated article 19 of the UDHR, which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” Thirdly, the disappearance and suspected murder of the 43 students by law enforcement officials in uniform violates Article 4 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which states that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of [their] life.”

To determine the actions of Mayor Abarca, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, and the 22 police officers involved in the disappearance of the 43 students as human rights violations would set a precedent of accountability in Mexico. As agents of the state, the primary function of representative and law enforcement officials is to protect their communities from violence, ensure their right to assembly and freedom of speech, and grant individuals suspected of any ‘illegal’ activity the right to a fair trial in court. However, these particular officials not only failed to ensure these protections, but engaged in “practices that deliberately violate” the basic principles of human rights. If convicted under violations of human rights, these agents would no longer be ‘criminals’, but proof of a repressive and corrupt state.

Hence, Mexico must use its collective memory to learn from the lessons of Echeverría’s acquittal and ensure that the accusations against these agents are possible to prove and set a precedent to prevent further violations. Additionally, President Peña Nieto must heed the IACHR’s and CNDH’s counsel to not close the case of the 43 students until all of the evidence is presented. If Mexican courts are incapable of declaring these actions as human rights violations, then the IACHR must assume a continuation of the trials based on the clear and unmistakable violation of human rights. Lastly, although the implementation of collective memories in legal procedures must be achieved through a continued commemoration of violations, the memorialization of victories for accountability is imperative to the success of human rights in Mexico.




Posters and banners of demands, questions and support from civil society in Coyoacán, Mexico D.F. These photographs were taken in March of 2015, almost 7 months after the atrocity. (Photos: César Martínez)


On the trajectory of their route, the normalistas of Ayotzinapa were making their best efforts to travel to Mexico City in order to honor that older generation of students that died all too similarly, stuck between the desperate grasp for a better future and the mano dura of a distant and repressive state. Throughout the difficult, tragic, and appalling weeks that followed the disappearance of the 43 students in Mexico, many hashtags erupted from a civil society que ya se cansó (that was already tired). Of those hashtags, two made impacts that shifted the perspectives of Mexicans within their country and throughout their diasporas. The first, #TodosSomosAyotzinapa, consolidated a cultural trauma into a monumental cultural classification; all of the sustained violations throughout Mexico’s contemporary history was metaphorized in Iguala’s tragedy and compared to Tlatelolco’s atrocity. The second, #YaMeCanse, displayed a clear condemnation to Jose Murillo Karam’s infamous comment, but linked Mexicans in a despairing plea to end impunity, corruption, and constant danger. Although President Peña Nieto has still avoided visiting the site of the fosas, where the biological evidence of the 43 students is claimed to be found, he visited the city of Iguala. 68 days after the incident. This incident presents an uncanny coincidence in numbers, but a complete disgrace in leadership.

Preceding this essay is a quote by a preeminent Mexican writer, Octavio Paz. When discussing Tlatelolco, Paz refers to a ‘past’ that he discusses as “[presenting] itself as masked and armed; we won’t know who it is, except that it is destruction and vengeance.” The hope for Mexico’s collective memory and cultural trauma of Tlatelolco and the disappearance of 43 students is that it can establish legal precedents that do “recognize, name, [and] de-mask” this past so that a wounded nation can learn from  its history, but slowly begin the process of marching collectively towards a future.


(Photo: Reuters/Daniel Becerril)

Essay by César Martínez

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