By Victoria Bouloubasis
Their hearts were rattled.
On Palm Sunday, dozens of families paraded into the Immaculate Conception Church in Durham, N.C. A few babies shrieked on their parents’ laps; elders sat quietly. Parishioners padded the walls of the atrium, standing like soldiers of God, the sun’s rays illuminating obedient silhouettes as the afternoon turned to dark. They prayed for each other. They prayed for families at the pews and the families they left behind, in countries they may never see again. They prayed for souls departed, gone from this Earth but whose memories live eternally in their hearts. And they prayed for their visitors, who had no idea where their loved ones had gone.
After mass, they stomped in Aztec rhythm. A lead dancer wore a heavy warrior’s crown and “Nos falta 43” scrawled in blood-red paint on his bare chest. “We are missing 43.” The ancient Aztecs danced to communicate their pain and triumphs, and to pray for a future yet unborn.
“Mexico, te queremos libre!” roared hundreds of parishioners in Durham, N.C. “Mexico, we want you free!”
There are more than 27,000 missing Mexicans since President Nixon declared a “Drug War” thirty-four years ago.
Forty-three rural students disappeared from Ayotzinapa, Mexico, on September 26th, 2014 after clashing with police. This January, the Mexican government declared them dead, providing three cadavers with severed heads as evidence. The families, however, refuse to believe the official narrative.
In April 2015, dozens of the Ayotzinapa parents and relatives travelled to more than forty cities in the United States to demand justice. The Raul Isidro Burgos school in Ayotzinapa is among the normalista teachers colleges created after the Mexican revolution to provide rural students with an education. The missing forty-three were on their way to protest in commemoration of a 1968 government massacre of hundreds of young people like them in Mexico City. Their disappearance adds to more than 27,000 missing Mexicans since President Nixon declared a “Drug War” thirty-four years ago. “Forced disappearance” is what the Mexicans call it, perpetuated by the government and drug cartels alike. All supported by a complicit America.
Mexican immigrants in North Carolina brought #Caravana43 to Durham and Raleigh, raising nearly $1,800 by selling food and T-shirts in town. Many of them left home because of drug violence and safety concerns. The South was a haven, largely hidden behind kitchen doors and out of sight up high on cranes and bulldozers. They couldn’t speak up at home about injustices, or they would become a target. But the rallying cry of brave activists in Mexico is “ya me canse.” I am tired.
Felipe de la Cruz keeps a steady gaze in quiet company, telling the story of what happened on September 26th. His son was there, in a van behind the bus that the police attacked. A bus full of his classmates who, amid the chaos, disappeared.
“My son could have been among the murdered, the disappeared, the injured. He’s here, but he’s not the young man he was before.”
“No hay orden en Mexico,” he whispered. “No hay seguridad para nadie.” There is no order. No safety. For anyone.
In front of an audience, Felipe preaches his politics as if at a pulpit. His calm teacher’s voice rises to a howling, angry rallying cry. “¡Esta casa de ratones!” He yells, pointing to the Mexican consulate behind him in Raleigh, N.C. A house full of rats. A house of thieves.
A recent news story reported that Felipe was receiving death threats for his activism, for traveling on #Caravana43. “No hay orden en Mexico,” he whispered to me just weeks earlier. “No hay seguridad para nadie.” There is no order. No safety. For anyone.
Anayeli Guerrero had just sent twenty pesos to her baby brother, Jhosivani, to reactivate his cell phone. They texted each other the afternoon of September 26th. Anayeli promised Jhosivani 200 more pesos by Monday. He was studying at the teacher’s college because it was free, though he wanted to find a way to afford to become a veterinarian later.
Jhosivani’s family was alerted of his disappearance on September 27th. Soon after, they were summoned to Ayotzinapa, where authorities claimed one of three mangled bodies was his. Jhosivani’s mother adamantly declared: “That is not my son.”
“¡Vivos se los llevaron! ¡Vivos los queremos¡” They took them alive. We want them back alive.
On February 15th, the family travelled again to Ayotzinapa for a symbolic celebration of Jhosivani’s twentieth birthday at his school, where they last left him, just forty minutes from home. The Guerreros live in San Juan Omeapa in small houses made of adobe clay. They do not have running water, but still grow squash, maize and beans in their backyard. 500 people in the village. Their immediate family alone accounts for at least twenty-five. Jhosivani is the youngest of seven, the most sweet and spoiled, says Anayeli. His face has appeared on the television screen countless times since September. Their rural community is more accustomed to telenovelas than bad news. At thirty-two years old, Anayeli took her first plane ride, her first trip out of Mexico, to represent her parents in the fight to bring her favorite little brother home. “I’m a mother, too. And I’m a luchador social, a justice fighter, because of my little brother.”
“There are thousands of us,” she says, “con el mismo coraje.” Thousands who feel the same rage.
“They are not rumors. The forty-three boys are alive.”
Clemente Rodriguez Moreno, forty-six, shows me the tattoo on his left forearm. The ink is twenty days old, a pre-Hispanic turtle you may find etched on an ancient Aztec artifact, with simple curves and angles. Inside, a smaller turtle is drawn in a never-ending swirl.
Ayotzinapa. The world rustles off the tongue and ends with a pop. It comes from the indigenous Nahuatl language, rooted in the word for turtle. Clemente says it also means ‘nest,’ like a family.
Clemente doesn’t hide the playful bravado typical of fathers. He spends some time before the protest in Raleigh taking selfies with new American friends, posting them on Facebook as any over-sharing parent does. But he frequently wanders from conversations, more so than anyone else in the group. Tears pool in his eyes, dimming his luster into vacancy. His son, Christian, was known as Hugo by his friends. The normalista school in Ayotzinapa gave Hugo an opportunity to get an accredited degree to teach. He excelled in folkloric dance, dreamt of graduating and returning home to the family village in Tixtla to teach campesinos how to be revolutionaries through dance.
“It hurt a little bit,” Clemente says about getting his tattoo, “but it hurts more that my son hasn’t appeared.” He points to the tiny turtle in the middle. “Here, I’m reunited with him.”
He pauses to look me in the eyes. “When he comes back, I’ll say to my son, ‘I never stopped fighting for you.’” He reaches over to grab my shoulder with his tattooed arm. He lets tears fall onto his cheeks before going back into the crowd.
“I’ve been with them three days and I’m already tired.”
Martha Hernandez’s cadence is marked by a maternal understanding and a captivating determination. “La esperanza de ellos nos mueve. Y la exigencia.” Their hope is what moves us. And their demands. An activist in Raleigh, Martha has no time for political drivel and empty promises.
“No quiero hijos que están sentados, quietos,” Martha says. I don’t want children who just sit there, motionless. Her youngest son is in middle school and frequently accompanies his mother to protests. Martha cannot yet return to Mexico. Instead, her oldest daughter traveled there after finishing college in North Carolina. She learned about the struggle for human rights among women and the poor, rooted in her mother’s homeland, rebellion and resilience. “Hay que luchar,” Martha says. We have to stand up and fight. For a virtuous life full of pride, full of freedom.
Jose Archila unfolds forty-three chairs and sets them out in a triangle, like a flock of birds ready for flight. With each step, he drops a book onto an empty chair, each one representing a missing student. Books by Howard Zinn, Sandra Cisneros, Malcom X. A biography of Tupac Shakur.
“El panaderooooo!” Jose is bearded, but blushes. You can tell by the way he quickly bites his lip to diffuse shyness before getting back to what he came to do. El panadero, the baker, spent the night pasting forty-three prints of black and white faces onto a banner he crafted from recycled flour bags. He hops onto a bench with a roll of heavy-duty blue tape. The protest begins against the backdrop of missing faces plastered onto the wall of the Mexican consulate.
At 3 a.m. Jose adjusts the fine mesh over his beard, slips on a pair of latex gloves. A Pandora station streams from his phone, soothing tropical house beats against the raucous whir of an industrial-sized mixer. Bread dough prepped nearly two hours earlier swells against the plastic of a 20-gallon bucket. Jose eyeballs the measurements and scrapes out enough for a dozen loaves, shaping them as he talks politics, quoting former Uruguayan president Pepe Mujica and revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in the same breath. “The uncertainty that lives in Mexico right now,” he says, “is huge. Forty-three disappeared and no one knows where they are? Es ficticioso.” Whatever the media claims is all fake.
Critics of the Mérida Initiative call it a “papelito,” no more than a little piece of paper, to downplay the entanglement of American and Mexican politics and profit, at the expense of their most vulnerable people.
“I’m going to make it back to Chiapas for my twentieth high school reunion.” He missed his recent ten-year, saw it happen in real-time on his Facebook feed. His parents didn’t think it was the best idea for him to come to America, but Jose wanted to build a house. He has been counting pennies and dollars and hours and days for ten years. He doesn’t have a house in Mexico yet, and he doesn’t have a family here.
Jose breaks mid-day between bread-baking and burger-slinging. In those few hours he sometimes sleeps, but mostly reads. Four newspapers minimum. Then he’ll run. He reserves full days off to participate in half-marathons. Soon he’ll find time to take English classes. “I’ve been here too long,” he says.
In June 2008, under the administrations of George W. Bush and Felipe Calderon, the United States signed the Mérida Initiative into law. This promise led to the allocation of $1.5 billion to Mexico from 2008-2010. The plan, considered a cooperative effort between the two countries to combat drug trafficking and smuggling of firearms across the border, funneled into the Mexican military and police to curtail and ideally halt the violence caused by drug cartels. According to the US Department of State, the plan is “based on principles of common and shared responsibility, mutual trust, and respect for sovereign independence.”
Critics, like Mexico’s ex-minister of exterior relations Rosario Green, call it a “papelito,” no more than a little piece of paper among many in an attempt to downplay the entanglement of American and Mexican politics and profit, at the expense of their most vulnerable people. The plan requires $73.5 million (15 percent of the funds) be used to employ numerous judicial reform efforts against human rights abuses. According to Washington, DC-based nonprofit Witness for Peace, the US State Department withheld about $26 million in Mérida funds in 2010 until the Mexican state passed human rights reforms to their constitution and the Military Code of Justice. Mexico has yet to pass either measure. An estimated 90 percent of weapons used by Mexican drug cartels come from the US, and Witness for Peace insists that the Mérida Initiative and policies like NAFTA have exacerbated Mexico’s problem with poverty while ignoring the cause of drug trafficking and violence rooted in American ties.
Activists with #Caravana43 agree. They ended their trip with a march to the United Nations headquarters in New York City last month. They traveled more than 2,800 miles to get there. They have had enough of the empty promises, the corruption, the thievery. They are ready to take it all back—their dignity, their rights, their freedom. Ayotzinapa is a turtle, slow and steady. The journey has been long—generations long—but Ayotzinapa is full of warriors.
“Mexicanos al grito de guerra,” sings the chorus of the Mexican national anthem. Mexicans sing their battle cry.
Mexican immigrants swim in limbo between two countries, in a sea of parallels. They are tired of the politics entangling the lives of the most vulnerable on both sides of the border. Despite years of sleepwalking through life and work in America, in the shadows, despite the checkpoints, despite the daily threat of losing their jobs, they are speaking up.
These voices are indicative of a changing South and a civil rights movement not yet laid to rest. They simply cannot keep silent any longer. They are letting out a roar.