Teresa Ortiz: Activism shaped by 1968, surviving Tlatelolco massacre


As a university student in 1968, Teresa Ortiz survived the bloody repression of the Popular Student Movement and the October 2 Tlatelolco Square massacre (see documentary, above). Some 45 years later, her activism has stretched from Mexico to Minneapolis, taking her to the midst of Guatemala’s civil war, to the highlands of Chiapas during the Zapatista uprising, and to the streets and classrooms of the Twin Cities. What threads connect 1968 to 1995 to 2013, Mexico to Minnesota? What happens when activism crosses borders? 

Activism Across Borders:  At the suggestion of historian Peter Rachleff, we are digging deeper into ways in which immigrant communities remain connected to their home countries, in the realms of politics, activism, etc. Rachleff urged us to dig deeper into “the connections between activism ‘there’ and ‘here,’ the circulation of ideas, the synthesizing of a single struggle, albeit with many internal currents.” This article is part of the story. 

Before college, Teresa Ortiz was very sheltered, living with her family in Northern Mexico. In a country where a small minority owned the majority of the wealth, she and her family were on the comfortable side of the economic divide. Then, in the late 1960s, she enrolled at the Mexico City campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where she became part of the growing student movement demanding justice, and a firsthand witness to the bloody repression by government forces.

“Most analysts would agree that, indeed, 1968 was a watershed year in modern Mexican history. For many urban Mexicans the Popular Student Movement of 1968 and the subsequent repression marked the end of an era. For me, and for many Mexicans of my generation, 1968 was the year when everything in Mexico changed forever.” [Never again, a world without us, p. 26]

In 1968, a group of high school protesters at Vocational School #5 who were attacked by riot police. In response, Javier Barros Sierra, the Dean of UNAM, led a big march involving 50,000 students and people from the university, protesting the military’s violation of the University’s autonomy.  When the government responded with more repression, the movement grew beyond students to include workers and families as well.

Ortiz characterizes the protests as nonviolent, following the beliefs and philosophy of Gandhi, but they were huge. The March of Silence drew one million people, all of whom made no noise, she said.

The government responded violently, closing the University in September, and the military occupied the campus, so the movement went to the streets, Ortiz recalls.

The student formed a national strike committee, which included representatives from the different universities, and coalitions of artists, workers, professors of various universities.

On October 1, the government opened the University again, and the following day, on October 2, there was a mass rally in a neighborhood in Mexico City called Tlatelolco. Tlatelolco was the site of a housing project as well as a pyramid and colonial churches, and a big plaza where the demonstration took place.

During the speeches, with the National Strike Committee positioned in one of the floors of the buildings, shooting started suddenly.

“When you are down on the ground you, don’t know who is shooting, you just start running,” Ortiz recalled. There were helicopters, and lights, and shooting, despite the fact that there were families and children in the demonstration. “Everybody was just going crazy,” said Ortiz.

She and a friend just started running, ending up in a basement apartment, where they waited until things got quiet. They were lucky — they didn’t get arrested or killed. Some 400 others died or disappeared that day, according to Ortiz.

After that, the jails became crowded with all the people the government arrested, including any member of the communist party, though it was a legal party at the time.

Ten days later, the Olympics started, and “the entire world arrived,” said Ortiz. The movement was pretty much over after that. The majority of the National Strike Committee ended up in jail, and many of the schools were closed, including the School of Philosophy at the university that Ortiz attended.

“It wasn’t about student issues,” Ortiz said of the 1968 movement. “It was about freedom and economic and social justice.”

At the same time, in the late 60s, the civil rights movement was happening in the United States, as well as anti-Vietnam War protests, the women’s movement, and student protests in “Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, New York, Berkeley, Rome, Prague, Rio, Mexico City, Warsaw,” and around the world. Ortiz and her fellow students felt they were part of not only a national effort, but also an international movement. 

Nearly thirty years later, listening to the stories of women in rural Chiapas, she heard the echoes of that international movement.

“Doña Maria repeated the first phrase of her story several times: ‘yes, yes, 1968 was the year. It was in August 1968 that we walked to the jungle. It was in 1968 that we built this community called Emiliano Zapata here in the Lacandón rainforest.’ … I listened to Maria describe how they had literally walked from the northern Chiapas highlands to the rainforest, how they’d built this paradise from nothing, and how they’d organized to defend their rights ..” [Never again, a world without us, p. 25-26]

In 1969, Ortiz came to Minnesota, through a program for students from the University of Mexico. She came just to visit, but met the person she eventually married.  In the United States, she became involved in the anti-war movement. The activism she had begun as a student in Mexico continued. Activism, marriage and children left little time for classes, but many years later, while living in Southwestern Minnesota, she completed her degree at South Dakota State University.

Though she eventually became a U.S. citizen, Ortiz’s activism took her beyond U.S. borders, back to Chiapas in Mexico and to Central America, as described in the second part of this story, Teresa Ortiz: Telling Chiapas stories

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Reporting for this article supported in part by Bush Foundation.