On Thursday, November 20, many on campus wore black to raise awareness for the 43 Mexican students that were kidnapped earlier this year. The kidnapped students were on their way from their town of Ayotzinapa in late September to a protest in Iguala, when they were taken by the Mexican police and then by Guerreros Unidos, a prominent cartel group in the area. Since then, the students have disappeared.
Uriel Medina ’16 and Alejandra Barajas ’16 organized the meeting to raise awareness and call students to action. The two created a Facebook event calling students to wear black on Thursday and to meet at 7 p.m. in Kohlberg coffee bar. Medina and Barajas said they got the idea after one of their Spanish professors, Professor Luciano Martinez, discussed the issue with them in class.
“I think we had been looking at the news and seeing what was going on but we also saw that it wasn’t necessarily a topic of conversation,” said Barajas. The two also wanted to spread awareness about the sheer number of people who have been affected by violence in Mexico over the past decade.
According to Medina, the campaign to wear black began as a national campaign in Mexico with the hashtag #todosvestidosdenegro, and quickly became international. Medina thought bringing the campaign to campus would be a good way to spread awareness.
Barajas came up with the idea to have a visual installation in Kohlberg. Barajas and Quinn Wong ’16 created a poster with the faces of all 43 students and the caption “Vivos los queremos” (“We want them alive”). Barajas also chose a portrait from the website Ilustradores con Ayotzinapa, or Illustrators with Ayotzinapa, which contains various artists’ portraits of the kidnapped students.
“I think it’s a lot easier for people to connect with a portrait of someone,” said Barajas. “It just makes it more universal and globalizing.”
Medina and Barajas particularly wanted to highlight the U.S.’s role in the violence in Mexico and to stress that this is not an isolated event.
“I want us to remember how much the U.S. is implicated in exacerbating this,” said Medina at the event, citing loose domestic gun laws that enable cartel members to easily obtain dangerous weapons, the war on drugs and public U.S. government support of corrupt regimes as policies that directly and indirectly contribute to corruption and violence in Mexico.
Barajas and Medina suggested writing letters to the families of the kidnapped students to show support and solidarity, writing letters to Swarthmore urging a public statement and writing letters to Congress demanding U.S. acknowledgement of the kidnapping and action to help those suffering. Several students had suggestions, like having a large sheet of paper up in Kohlberg where students passing through could write messages for the families. Another suggested that news sources covering the kidnappings and pertinent news be distributed around campus so that students could more easily stay up to date on the issue.
“One of my biggest focuses around what we can do post the 20th of November campaign is to see how we as Swarthmore students have a role in what’s going on right now,” said Medina. “How we as future voters or scholars or academics or intellectuals can be plugged into what’s going on in the world and how our decisions are connected to other parts of the world.”
Martinez said he was happy with the initiative that his students had taken.
“In the context of my “Gender and Sexuality in Latin America” course, a group of Spanish majors started discussing the skewed coverage in the US media vis-à-vis the in-depth coverage the event received across Latin America and Spain. In this sense, the ability to read across languages was giving us a sharply different account about the severity of the events that were unfolding in Mexico,” wrote Martinez in an email. “This led us to ask ourselves what could be done to raise awareness about Mexico’s human rights crisis, where this latest tragedy is added to the list of more than 100,000 people who have been killed in Mexico since the so-called “war on drugs” began in 2006, and at least 22,000 people are missing.”
Medina and Barajas are currently in the process of coordinating the actions discussed at the meeting. Mainly, they hope to manifest these ideas in a teach-in next semester, led by professors and students.
“We were thinking about a panel where every student or professor takes a look at a specific issue, how the war on drugs has played into this, state-sanctioned violence, economic policies, gun laws,” said Barajas.
“I think it goes from everything from perception to action so your perception of what’s going on sort of contributes to the bigger narratives of how we’re discussing these issues,” said Medina. “So trying to get people not to perceive this as an isolated or exterior issue but as something that as a country that we’re living in, that we’re part of, has had a huge role in contributing to factors that have exacerbated this state-sanctioned violence.”
Martinez had a similar perspective.
“Given Swarthmore’s long-standing tradition of civic and social engagement, we cannot remain oblivious to the thousands of people who are disappeared and killed every year in Mexico,” he wrote. “Let’s be reminded of the tragic symbol behind the Ayotzinapa tragedy: These forty-three college students were studying to become elementary teachers and improve literacy in impoverished rural communities.”
Ways to act in response, according to Barajas and Medina, range from how students approach the issue and discuss it with friends or family to how they vote.
The two expressed gratitude to Martinez and other professors in the Spanish department and staff members of the Language Resource Center for their support help with media.
“Even though I wish more people would have shown up to the actual event, it was definitely a very heartwarming experience to have people reach out and want to participate in organizing from different aspects of campus,” said Medina.