Putting a spotlight on the massacre of 1968

Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY -- It was like Chicago ‘68, only much bloodier, or Tiananmen Square ‘89, only more shrouded in secrecy.

Even today there is no definitive count of how many pro-democracy demonstrators were slaughtered by Mexican army troops in the Tlatelolco zone of this capital on Oct. 2, 1968. Was the death toll a few dozen, as the government claimed? Or closer to 300, as some intrepid journalists reported? Did President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz approve the attack? No one knows for sure.

But finally, after decades of government stonewalling, Mexicans searching for answers to these questions have some place to turn: the new Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco, a cultural center dedicated to exploring the massacre, its violent antecedents and its brutal aftermath.


Located in a striking mid-century Modernist office tower that formerly housed Mexico’s Secretariat of Foreign Affairs, the center sits smack on the edge of the so-called Plaza of the Three Cultures, where the massacre occurred nearly 40 years ago. The centerpiece is a permanent multimedia exhibition that uses photos, archival film footage, music snippets, yellowed newspaper clippings, taped interviews, poster displays and art installations to tell the murky, tragic story. Many Mexicans say it’s about time the country had a living memorial to this watershed event.

“It takes you by the throat. I think it’s very true to reality, it’s very true to what happened,” says Elena Poniatowska, 75, who as a journalist helped expose the truth of the massacre with her 1971 bestselling book of survivors’ testimonies, “La Noche de Tlatelolco” (The Night of Tlatelolco), published in English as “Massacre in Mexico.” “I think it’s a good memorial and it’s a good way of honoring all these students that were killed and remembering that their life was cut in two.”

The massacre occurred on the eve of the 1968 Olympic Games, which the Mexican government hoped to use as a showcase for the country’s booming economic growth and seeming stability. But this picturesque facade masked growing discontent with decades of autocratic, one-party rule and a persistent gap between haves and have-nots.

After gaining size and strength all that summer, the student-led protests culminated on the evening of Oct. 2, when thousands massed in the Plaza of the Three Cultures, so named because it contains Aztec ruins, a colonial-era church and modern apartment and office towers. The bloodshed began when troops creeping in among the ruins converged on the protesters, and snipers began shooting down on the plaza from the surrounding buildings. Despite international protests, the Olympics went forward a few days later.

For a long time after Tlatelolco, there was no mention in school textbooks or state-controlled television of the massacre. Two independent “truth commissions” appointed in the 1990s fizzled out with few tangible results. So did a pledge by former President Vicente Fox to investigate Tlatelolco, and the government’s subsequent “dirty war” against dissidents also fizzled.

“Sixty-eight practically didn’t exist,” says Sergio Raul Arroyo Garcia, 53, the center’s director general. “On the level of our official history there has been a type of forgetfulness or amnesia in relation to the student movement.”


Then in July 2005, the Mexico City government and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (itself the site of major student protests in 1968) agreed to create a cultural center containing a memorial to the Oct. 2 massacre and the political context surrounding it.

Spread across two floors, the exhibition creates a rich aural and visual environment that immerses visitors in an incendiary era. Snatches of “Light My Fire” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” flow out of speakers. One gallery wall bristles with colorful posters, witty bumper stickers and quasi-psychedelic handbills touting anti-government slogans.

Half a dozen small theaters allow visitors to watch dramatic black-and-white period footage of mass marches (including the summer’s violent climax), interviews with eyewitnesses and reflections by leading writers, artists and intellectuals.

One stark gallery, resembling a prison cell, is lined with police mug shots of arrested protesters, dozens if not hundreds of whom were tortured and “disappeared.”

“We didn’t think that the memorial was going to cancel the discussion about ‘68, to convert it into a museum piece,” says Arroyo Garcia. “No, rather what we thought . . . we had to do is to put ’68 at the entrance, at the threshold, that would permit us a new reflection, there would be a new discussion about this.”

Alvaro Vazquez Mantecon, the exhibition’s curator, says that by using a multimedia approach to the subject, and utilizing nearly 60 recorded testimonies, the center offers viewers a pluralistic and “polyphonous” view of the student movement and its effect.


“There isn’t only one vision about the movement,” he says. “Perhaps the model that remains was the movie ‘Rashomon,’ of Kurosawa. There are moments in which the voices coincide, and many times when the voices differ. Clearly, it’s a thing that has to be seen with a great plurality of voices and perspectives.”

Since opening in October, the center has drawn enthusiastic crowds, including many students. Some remain skeptical that the spilled blood of that summer led to an end of repression and greater democracy for their country. “I think that the same thing is going on,” says Norma Zuniga, 29.

But Saray Chavaro Cruz, 15, was impressed after visiting the exhibition by what a previous generation had achieved. “Truthfully, yes, today it’s very different,” she says. “Now we’re allowed to express ourselves.”