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World & Nation

In Mexico, Yo Soy 132 ponders next step

In Mexico, Yo Soy 132 ponders next step
Members of the Yo Soy 132 (“I am 132") movement demonstrate outside the offices of the TV network Televisa in Monterrey, Mexico.
(Miguel Sierra, European Pressphoto Agency)

MEXICO CITY — Here they were again, marching through the dark and the rain — the preppies from private universities, the hipsters in fat-lace skater sneakers, the young intellectuals with faces framed in wispy Che Guevara beards, the regular kids with backpacks and smartphones.

They pooled by the thousands on Avenida Chapultepec in front of the headquarters ofMexico’smost powerful broadcaster, brandishing signs and banners, trailed by an opportunistic band of hot dog and taco vendors. They shouted and chanted, sometimes using language that would make a Mexican mother blush.

The recent presidential election that saw the Institutional Revolutionary Party return to power was a fraud, they said, and Televisa was in on the fix. Amid allegations of vote shenanigans, they warned darkly of the country backsliding into despotism.

“Mexico has become the beaten woman who goes back to the husband,” read a sign carried by an earnest, curly-haired 18-year-old named Edgar Adrian Nepomuceno Chavez, “because she thinks he has changed.”

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Nepomuceno and the thousands of other young Mexicans in the Yo Soy 132 movement had a simple goal on this gloomy Thursday night: to build a 24-hour “human fence” around the television company’s massive downtown campus.

In this country where student activists have a legendary — and tragic — past, they wanted the protest to be a reminder that its youth were still on the case, even if the election was over.

In Mexico, few narratives are more powerful: The 1910 revolution was sparked by concern over a rigged vote. This year, however, voter irregularities are not likely to prevent the election results from being ratified. Nor does revolution appear to be in the cards.

And so this abruptly famous student movement, at its moment of peak momentum and hype, finds itself fighting to remain at the center of the national conversation — and deciding what, exactly, it wants to say next.

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Yo Soy 132 (“I am 132") may end up being swallowed by the clamor of protest that is part of the country’s daily dose of ambient noise. But like other outsiders who have stirred the Mexican moral imagination, it may also become something more. In 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, an obscure armed indigenous group, emerged from the backwaters of poverty-stricken Chiapas state and made waves in the public sphere for years.

“It’s not the Prague Spring, or the Egyptian movement,” commentator Jose Nuñez Castañeda wrote in the newspaper Reforma in June. "[But] whoever occupies the presidency will not be able to ignore the significance of a youth disillusioned with the levels of democracy we’ve achieved.”

The city sent 1,500 police officers to Televisa to keep the peace. They massed in yellow rain slickers around the headquarters and blocked off some surrounding streets. It soon became apparent that the students wouldn’t be able to surround the campus in one unbroken ring.

Using bullhorns, organizers pleaded with the protesters to spread around the buildings the best they could. Some marched off to take their positions. Some loitered on Avenida Chapultepec, chatting or buying snacks. Some pitched tents to hunker down for the night.

A group of young women walked the police line, handing out roses to the officers, who blushed and giggled among themselves.

On a street corner, a drum circle and accordion fueled a cumbia written for the movement.

“Look, no way,” the chorus went. “You’d better find yourself another sheep. I’m 132.”

When the ad hoc band finished the tune, the crowd cheered for another number. But it didn’t seem to have one.

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“OK,” someone said. “Same song, one more time?”

*

Yo Soy 132 sprouted up in the middle of the campaign season to oppose the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s handsome young standard-bearer, Enrique Peña Nieto. It disapproved of the way Peña Nieto’s forces had cracked down on a 2006 uprising by machete-wielding protesters while he was governor of a nearby state. An official inquiry found the response resulted in severe human rights abuses.

The movement objected to Televisa’s campaign coverage, which the protesters saw as skewed in Peña Nieto’s favor.

And they harbored a deep distrust of Peña Nieto’s party, known by the initials PRI, which had ruled Mexico with a quasi-authoritarian grip for most of the 20th century.

During a visit to Mexico City’s Ibero-American University in May, the candidate was heckled mercilessly by students, and when his supporters claimed the hecklers had been planted, 131 students went on YouTube to prove their identity.

To say “Yo Soy 132" — “I am 132" — was to announce one’s solidarity with the 131 students. It became a way of saying, “I, too, am real. And so are my concerns.”

Making extensive use of Twitter, and deliberately shunning the selection of a single figurehead to lead the movement, the students organized marches and inspired many Mexicans, who saw them as a fresh, grass-roots antidote to the country’s old-school parties and powers.

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Peña Nieto has promised that his reformed party will hew to democratic principles.

The students were having none of it.

Alerta! Alerta! Alerta que camina!” they shouted as the clock approached midnight, borrowing a chant used by young activists around the region. “La lucha estudiantil por America Latina!”

Look out. The student struggle for Latin America is on the march.

*

Their overnight demonstration seemed fueled by anger over an election newly lost, but also by excitement over a voice newly found. One group of torch-bearing protesters set a cardboard television on fire. Another started up a raucous country-and-western line dance.

There were impromptu speeches delivered from the top of a van. There were mothers, like Maria Haydee Cruz, 47, who’d come to support their children. Her daughter Fernanda, 18, imagined a more democratic Mexico not just in electoral terms. A stronger democracy, she said, would come when the poor were better educated — and when the TV wasn’t choked with telenovelas.

There were numerous references to Mexico’s 1968 student movement, including a wrenching film on the topic, “Rojo Amanecer” (“Red Dawn”), which was projected onto one of Televisa’s walls. The ’68 movement culminated in a massacre of students by the PRI-led government of the time, and its fallen are considered martyrs.

There were new allies the students have picked up along the way, including members of the Communist Party of Mexico, who hoisted red flags with hammers and sickles; and members of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union, which, to its critics, illustrates the worst of the union movement: greedy, recalcitrant, hopelessly old-school.

There was also a manifesto, read in turns by student leaders from a crowded stage.

The bleakly lyrical document described the “budding hope” of the Mexican people “obliged to scream in the emptiness.” Among other things, it called for educational reform, criminal justice reform and a change in the “neoliberal model” for Mexico — the oft-repeated and largely unfulfilled demands of so many Mexican social movements.

A Televisa employee appeared in a third-floor window of the TV network to check the scene below. Dozens of students whistled through their teeth and threw up their middle fingers.

The employee quickly disappeared.

*

The night belonged both to starry-eyed dreamers and cold realists.

Alexander Vidal, 22, an engineering student at the National Polytechnic Institute, said he thought there was a good chance the election could still be annulled, given the allegations that the PRI engaged in vote buying and exceeded campaign spending limits.

Philosophy student Ernesto Castañeda, 25, didn’t think an annulment was likely. Still, he said it was important for the movement to stay alive to serve as a counterweight to the PRI, and an example for the rest of the country.

“It’s important that the PRI knows that someone will stand up to them,” he said.

With his beard and olive-drab army cap, protester Omar Ortega, 30, looked like he could have been with Guevara in 1959. But Ortega, an attorney who represents rural workers, said he wasn’t wedded to a particular ideology. “Just something that respects the rights of campesinos and workers, something that addresses the wealth gap,” he said.

“The students aren’t looking for power,” added architecture student Estefania Aguilas, 23. “We’re looking for better conditions for the country.”

*

As the night wore on, the protest began to feel more like a block party.

On Avenida Chapultepec, a ska band played a rocking version of Madness’ “Night Boat to Cairo,” and a crowd gathered, skanking joyously, passing a Mexican flag overhead. The distraction left big gaps where the human fence was to have been. Some protesters had hoped the ring might also disrupt Televisa’s airing of the opening of the 2012 Summer Olympics. But the next day, Televisa would broadcast the opening ceremony, apparently without a hitch.

Down the block, Leo Giron, 26, took note of the holes in the human fence, then shrugged them off with a chuckle.

“Mexico is a mess, generally speaking,” he said.

Giron, an economics student, acknowledged that the movement might have problems sustaining itself through six years of PRI rule, perhaps beginning in the early fall, when the students would return to class.

But even if that were to happen, Giron said, he figured they could always reconstitute the movement quickly.

“Now, with just a click,” he said, “we’ll all be in the streets.”

richard.fausset@latimes.com

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.


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