Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Wednesday 23rd August 2017 | Manchester, UK

Revolution and war

In the Mexican state of Guerrero, teachers rampaged last week in protest of educational reforms, lighting fires, shouting anti-government slogans and attacking buildings with pickaxes. They fear that the proposed reforms will produce widespread dismissals and the privatisation of education. The London riots appear small-fry in comparison but protest and dissent are entrenched in the culture of expressing dissent in Mexico.

Like much of Latin America, modern Mexico was forged in the fight against Spanish colonialism. Mexican separatists under Miguel Hidalgo declared independence as early as 1810; yet eleven years of spirit independentista fighting during the War of Independence were required to force Spain’s signature of the Treaty of Cordoba that established independent Mexico.

The transition from oppression to democracy across Latin America was turbulent. Building an economy from nothing while the poor lamented their non-improving conditions proved difficult. Looting and banditry were common. Meanwhile, Liberals battled with Conservatives for political control.

Moreover Mexico was a target for territory-grabbing imperialists. Economic problems and French imperial ambitions precipitated the delightfully-named 1836 Pastry War, when a French pastry-cook complained to King Louis Philippe when his shop in Mexico City was destroyed by looters. The King demanded compensation and repayment of substantial debts by Mexico. The Pastry War followed.

Ten years later, Mexico conceded half its territory to the US, including California, New Mexico and Texas, after the Mexican-American War. Then France re-occupied under Habsburg Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian. Mexico was thus constantly threatened.

Yet protest culture remained ill-defined until the Revolution that ousted dictator Porfirio Diaz. During Diaz’s reign, the economy boomed, prompting massive investment in culture. When Diaz resigned in 1911, disparate revolutionary groups, led by caudillos Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, battled for control for over twenty years.

Thereafter, Mexico defined its identity through indigenous and mestizo culture. Many different ethnicities formed the Mexican population. Authors and artists promoted Mexico as a ‘melting pot’ society; in 1925, revolutionary writer Jose Vasconcelos published La Raza Cosmica – The Cosmic Race – to endorse Mexico’s new multi-ethnic position.

The mural art movement formed to reunify the country under the post-Revolution government. Socialist messages were plastered onto colonial buildings as substantial investment in educating an illiterate population began. The nationalistic expressions of murals were met with adoration and the ‘Big Three’ artists, Diego Rivero, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Siquieros were central to interpreting the new revolutionary culture.

Mexico has subsequently been core to protesting peoples. It seems to even subconsciously ignite dissent; during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos delivered their infamous Black Power salute, protesting for the Civil Rights movement in America.

Since those heady days of the Revolution, the Mexican people’s understanding of protest has developed further. Now, the Indignados movement, created in 2011, organises large-scale demonstrations against the government’s handling of the Drug War, corruption and inequality. Yo Soy 132 has become the Mexican ‘Occupy Movement’, protesting media bias in the 2012 General Election. In 2006 the teachers’ union in Oaxaca demonstrated for several months in similar circumstances.

Thus the strikes in Guerrero are nothing new in Mexico’s history or present, but they do reflect a Pan-American, even global, trend. In Venezuela, people are marching, banging pots and pans to protest against President Nicolas Maduro replacing Hugo Chavez. In Argentina, more than 1 million people recently invaded Buenos Aires to condemn the country’s economic problems and President Cristina de Kirchner. Meanwhile, unrest over the ailing European economy continues and the Middle East revolutionary movements fight for freedom in the Arab Spring.

Perhaps, then, the Guerrero strikes reveal a country that has learnt how to protest through historic instability and conflict, but they also reflect a global protest movement that continues to strengthen.

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