Laura Carlsen talks to Jesus Vargas, a leader of the student movement who was at the demonstration when the army attacked on Oct. 2. Jesus recounts the terror of that day, how the movement regrouped and his work for social justice. Like many organizers of the time, he set out to work with grassroots organizations outside Mexico City, eventually returning to his home state of Chihuahua where he is a historian and writer.

LC: Jesus, 1968 was a turning point in Mexican history. To start, would you tell us what did you experienced personally this year?

JV: Well, Laura, 1968 was a very important point in the history of Mexico, and also a crucial moment in my life. My life completely changed in 1968. My mother said that I was born again that year, because I left behind the person that I had been for the previous 22 years.  After ’68, my attitude towards life, and my conception of life, totally changed from what it had been when I was a student in the years before.

LC: Where were you when the massacre took place that was really the breaking point, the ‘before and after’ in Mexican istory?   

JV: I was there when the massacre happened. I was on the third floor minutes before the shooting started. I was able to survive in very difficult conditions — I hid for about three hours in an apartment because a woman opened the door for me, and protected me.

She protected me by letting me stay there until I felt that — that I could leave. After that, I went back to Chihuahua, where I’m from, for a few days, and then I came back to Mexico City, to keep participating however I could under the circumstances.

LC: We know that after the massacre they actually hunted down students in some of the surrounding buildings. Did you have to hide in these buildings when they came in? 

JV: There were many students, and men and women who weren’t students, who were able to survive. There were many who were able to get out right at the beginning, and when the snipers started looking for students in the apartments, they had already left. I was one of those who was lucky enough to have left the plaza right away and so I escaped the cordoned off area that the Army had put around the plaza. So — in reality, the number of people who were arrested was a few hundred, out of about 10,000 people who were at the protest.

This event was very dramatic for the history of Mexico, but the students, after October 2nd, those who survived, those who were able to escape, we didn’t focus on that date. We returned to our classes, and we returned with the idea of regrouping as a movement.

LC: You were a leader of the student movement at the time,  correct?

JV: Yes, I was a representative of my school. I studied in the National School of Biological Sciences, part of the National Polytechnic. And during the whole strike, I represented my school on the National Strike Council.

When we went back to classes, in January 1969, I returned as a leader in my school. We organized a lot of activities in 1969. And it wasn’t until 1970 — August of 1970, we, along with many other students, we decided to leave school to go work with different communities – in peasant communities, with workers, in neighborhoods and city slums — we decided to go and work on organizing them.

So, I, along with many other students, made that decision to leave school, to forget about school, and to dedicate our lives to organizing a new revolution. Those are the terms we were thinking in back then.

LC: I want to talk later about this stage after the repression where so many students went out and begun to do grassroots organizing. I just want to go back and ask you, were you surprised at this level of open repression, what did that mean for the movement?

JV: The dimensions, the extent of the massacre, that was a surprise. We knew that something was being planned, something big. That same day, October 2nd, the National Strike Council had a meeting in the morning. I was there. The meeting was in the Polytechnic, at the Zacatenco campus.

On September 26th, we had organized a demonstration that was very similar to the one on October 2nd. And at that demonstration, which had also been like an assembly, we had decided that we would have another demonstration on October 2nd, and that the main action we would take on October 2ndwould be to march from Tlatelolco to the Casco de Santo Tomás campus, which is a campus of the Polytechnic that was being occupied by the Army.

So, we were going to go to the Casco de Santo Tomás to demand that the Army withdraw. That was what we agreed on. Taking into account all of the rumors that were going around, and all the bits of information that were more or less serious — the first thing we agreed to on the morning of October 2nd was actually to suspend the march, and not to go [to Santo Tomás].

And then, we also agreed that at the demonstration, only the speakers, those who were going to participate in the demonstration would be in the Chihuahua building, on the third floor. And all of the other members of the National Strike Council, we would be downstairs.

We failed to follow through with that plan, and it ended up being fatal, because that afternoon, we were right there, dozens of leaders and representatives who weren’t going to participate as speakers, and then, when the Olympic Battalion that was in charge of finding and arresting the leaders, well, when they came in, they found the most important, most recognizable leaders of the National Strike Council.

So, yes, we definitely never imagined that they were going to shoot into the crowd like that, we never imagined it. We thought they were going to arrest us, that they were going to come for us at our houses. In fact, many of us, including myself, were already being monitored at our homes. But we never imagined that there would be this kind of repression.

And it was just that, Laura. The writer, Carlos Montemayor, following the investigations done by Julio Scherer and Carlos Monsiváis, did a deeper study in a book called Remaking History (Rehacer la historia) and in that book he shows how the attack on the people at the demonstration was set up, and how the only person who could have been able to make such a decision was the President.

LC: So it was a decision from the highest level of the State. And he has a posthumous book coming out on this subject. You’ve been involved in presenting that new book.

JV: It’s a book that was published in 2010. The first edition was published, and then after he died, there was a new edition, but the new edition didn’t make it to the bookstores. The book has practically been out of circulation for eight years. It’s called State Violence in Mexico Before and After’68 (La violencia de estado en México antes y después del ’68).

What Carlos Montemayor does in this book is to analyze five events where campesinos, workers and students were repressed. He writes about the events of Aguas Blancas, Acteal, the Alameda in 1952, and Tlatelolco on October 2nd. And the part about October 2nd, we took it from the book, because it’s so hard to find, and we made a pamphlet, with the family’s permission.

We made a book, that’s about 120 pages long, and it has the part where Carlos analyzes the events of October 2ndand also of June 10th, using declassified documents from the United States government, and with some documents from General Marcelino Garcia Barragan. In in that book, we show very clearly how the repression was planned and organized that day.

LC: And from that book and that historic evidence it becomes clear that this was a concerted effort on the part of the State to quell a resistance movement.

So later in the stage after 68 when you go back to the schools,  the movement doesn’t die. It doesn’t run away out of fear which is probably what the government hoped. You go back to the schools and then begin the stage of grassroot organizing. Was this in part a form of protection? What was behind that rational?  

JV: Well, Laura, the explanation is very simple. The movement started as a protest against an attack on the students. And within a few weeks, the movement had already lost that identity with this act of repression — it became a movement that took up the causes of the people in general.

In a few weeks, the movement was transformed into a broader movement for democracy, a movement for justice, a movement for the most marginalized peoples in this country. And when we went back to our classes, we weren’t thinking about the students who faced repression on July 26th, we were thinking about our commitment to the people, and that we wanted to fight, with the people, for democracy.

Because we had the conviction that in this country, democracy still hadn’t been established, even though one of the slogans of the Revolution of 1920 was “Effective suffrage, no reelection.” So, we — we were convinced that as long as elections weren’t respected in this country — not only presidential elections, elections for deputies and senators, but also the elections in ejidos, in the labor unions — there wasn’t democracy.

What I’m saying is that in Mexico — and I still think this, 50 years later — as long as democracy isn’t respected in Mexico, as long as the people’s decisions aren’t respected, we will be stuck in many problems. And we aren’t going to be able to fix those problems by keeping the people on the margins of the development of democracy in this country.

LC: So in this moment democracy moves to the center stage and it is no longer a student movement. The student movement almost instantly becomes broadened to a general, national movement for democracy. Was this because authoritarianism shows its face so boldly and because there was instantly so much more sympathy for the students themselves?

How do these contacts between the student movements and other movements for democracy get made at that moment?

JV: It all came together, Laura, just like you said. On the one hand, we felt very close to the people during the months of the strike, because the people who worked in the markets, the truck drivers, the factory workers, they gave us a huge amount of support. They welcomed us, they expressed their sympathies with us, and we felt so much real affection– us, as young people who had never had a political experience — we felt that we were doing something that was really important.

So, it was a strong dose of awareness given to us by the people themselves. And throughout the movement, there were many authoritarian acts by the government, and we described those actions that way. But October 2nd— that was something unimaginable. So, we connected — on September 1st, for example, when the president gave his annual address,  the students, everywhere– in our homes, at our schools– we were paying attention to what he was going to say.

And what he said, it was a threat. He told us that if we didn’t stop doing what we were doing, he was going to act, using all the resources available to him, to stop us. In so many words, that’s what he said. And of course, for us, it was like a bucket of cold water thrown on our heads, because we were still hoping that the president was going to take a more conciliatory tone with us. But that’s not what happened.

So, we were very angry, we had already been hurt by the government’s authoritarianism, many of our comrades had already been killed. But the unity that we had with the people, the integration, the identity between us and the people, especially here in Mexico City — well, it gave us the tools to imagine that our futures didn’t depend on graduating from school, on getting a degree, that our future wasn’t in the classroom.

Well, I’m talking about the most advanced among us, I’m talking about many of us who took this all very seriously. So, between 1969 and ’70, we held a lot of activities, we  organized demonstrations and assemblies, we passed out pamphlets, we went to factories. And our entire message was now directed at the people, with the proposal that we organize, that we unify, and that together– students, workers and campesinos– would change things.

That was our discourse. In 1970, the World Cup was going on in Mexico. And in July, there were elections. In the few months before the election, Laura, hundreds, thousands of students, we went out on the streets to take down Luis Echeverría’s campaign posters.

We took down posters by the ton. And on June 30th, we had a demonstration at the main UNAM campus, where we burnt all of the posters. At the Polytechnic Zacatenco campus, there was another demonstration where they burned Luis Echeverria’s campaign posters.

What were we saying with that? That we didn’t believe in these elections, that we didn’t believe in his presidency. And, of course, a year later, on June 10th, Luis Echeverria got back at us. On June 10th, under Luis Echeverria’s orders, there was another October 2nd. And why? Because after ’69 and ’70, after all the things that we had done, after we went back to class, on that June 10th, we decided that it was time for us to have a demonstration in the Zocalo.

We hadn’t been to the Zocalo since August 27th, since September 13th of ’68, we hadn’t had a demonstration in the Zocalo. On June 10th, well, a few days before June 10th, we decided that it was time to go back to the Zocalo, to make the country’s main plaza ours again. And, well, Luis Echeverria’s government set a paramilitary group on us, a group that had been preparing since ’68, and there was another massacre.

It was so bad that there were cases where the halcones, as this paramilitary group was called, they went into the hospitals to take the wounded out and kill them. It was at that level.

So, that is the Mexico that came out of ’68 and ’71. And of course, it was no longer possible for us to do anything. Why? Because in 1969 and ’70, we made ourselves very vulnerable going out far away from the schools, handing out leaflets and having demonstrations. We always moved in large groups.

Why? Because there was persecution in ’69 and ’70. The government didn’t want the movement to rise up again. And — and after June 10th, it practically became impossible, impossible.

LC: Where did you go after you decided to leave school and organize among the people?

In August 1970, my wife, Marcela Frías, and I, we went to work in northern Durango, in a campesino region, where there was a lot of organization. There was an honest campesino leader there, Alvaro Rios. He invited us to go organize there, to use our ideas of how to organize, which was based on the Chinese experience, and the ideas of Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

And I say it like that because in those years, the Chinese experience had a lot of influence here in Mexico. And the practices and writings of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, as a revolutionary, about how to organize the people were also very influential. We went, along with a lot of other students, who went to other places, we went to northern Durango.

We were there for a while. After Durango, in the campesino region, we went to a mining region, in southern Chihuahua. After that mining region, we went to Durango City, to work with people living in neighborhoods in very bad conditions. And for nine years, we were in different places, working with the people, and living like the people, like the people we were working with.

Because that was the foundation of the Chinese experience, that whoever wants to organize the people needs to live like the people, needs to think like the people, act like the people, to be able to relate with them.

And a lot of young people, like Marcela Frias and I, during those 10 years that we tried to make revolution, we had that experience. We dedicated our youth, from 22 to 32 years old, to that experience.

LC: What was your evaluation after those 10 years of organizing the people? Was it a new fase?

JV: We achieved a lot of things. We were able to democratize labor unions, we were able to build popular urban communities, many popular neighborhoods, in northern Durango. And it wasn’t just us, there were a lot of us who were doing this kind of thing.

But of course, the changes that happened later in the country, the arrival of Lopez Portillo with the petroleum boom, and then Miguel de la Madrid, who brought neoliberalism, Carlos Salinas – and the country was changing in such a way that what we had been fighting in ’68 — it was worse in the ‘90s, in terms of the abandonment of the people’s needs, the sacking of the country’s resources, and all that.

So, it all got diluted. But of course, it wasn’t like a movie. In our case, my wife and I, we had two children already. After about 1978, ’79, we decided that we had to find a way to economically sustain our children. We started teaching, thinking that from teaching, we could also continue our political work. And in fact, we did that.

LC: Without changing your convictions?

JV: Without changing our convictions. For about — I could say that for about 10 years, my passion was education. I taught high school biology and history, and my wife taught biology. And in the late ‘80s, in 1986, ’88, I started doing historical research.

And since then, that’s been what I do. Now, I — I’ve always said that, I don’t have a degree in history. I got my degree in history from working with the people, organizing the people. Because the most respected historians say that to be a good historian, you have to know the people. You have to know the subjects of history. And I think that I know them very well.

So — but also, there’s something else I want to say. During the demonstrations in ’68, there were a lot of criticisms of us for using posters of Mao Tse-tung, of Che Guevara, or Ho Chi Minh, of Marx, of Engels, and the press attacked us a lot, accusing us of bringing in foreign heroes, displacing our own heroes.

It was a very intense criticism that we got from the press. And we took it into account, a little. In my case, it made me think that, well, what do I know about my own history? Do I know the history of Mexico, who Juarez was, who Zapata was, who Melchor Ocampo was, who Hidalgo was? And I came to the conclusion that I needed to know a lot more.

So, it was an interest that was sparked by that desire to make a change in this country. So, I want to say that, for the whole time that we were working with the people, we always formed study groups with the people, and we talked about history, with campesinos, with the poorest people, and we talked about their history, we talked about their problems.

And I got very interested in history, so much so that it ended up being my second vocation, after education. And finally, I ended up as a historian, and I’ve dedicated three decades of my life to this, and well, something that I can say proudly is that for 30 years, I have a column in a newspaper in Chihuahua, the newspaper with the most circulation there.

Every Sunday, I write a column about some cultural or historical topic, and I share what I find most interesting about the history of Mexico, I share it with them through those publications. And I’ve published several books.

LC: As you look back at Mexican history to inform your political activism what figures or political actors are important to you?

JV: The moment that I find most interesting is the mid-19thcentury. It was the era where Mexican thought had the grandest vision of a free, sovereign country. I think that — well, I would argue, and I have argued in my writing, that the constitution of ’57, of 1857, and after that, the Reform, that was the essence of a great era in Mexican thought, and since then, Mexico hasn’t had anything like it.

Because of the thinkers that came out of that era, because of the ideas, because of the convictions, because of the devotion of the people who fought for the Republic with Juarez — it’s the best moment that this country has ever had. And I argue that we have to rescue those ideas, that Republican example.

LC: What lessons does it have for us today?

JV: First of all, sovereignty. We need to defend Mexico’s sovereignty against the attempts to subject us, to use our resources and impose a foreign will on us, and to dilute our culture.

I think that for the liberal reformers, the first element they took into account in those times, when the country faced two different foreign invasions — there was one in 1847 and then the second was in 1862. So, all that republicanism represented, separation of church and state, eliminating privileges, acting with honesty in the government — which was a — President Juarez was in Chihuahua for two years, Laura, for two years and two months, as president, between 1864 and ’66.

And almost every time I talk about this, tears come to my eyes, because he was a president that lived with the people. He went out the plazas, he talked to the people. And the people sustained him. The president didn’t have any other sustenance than what people gave him. And the people protected him, they bought him shoes, because he couldn’t afford shoes, and because he liked to dance.

LC: Very different from what we have now.

JV: No other president of Mexico has identified so much with the people, and had so much love from the people, as President Juarez. And I’m from there. So, I can tell you that the voices that were recorded in the consciousness of the Chihuahuan people, I can still hear them.

LC: It’s a fascinating discussion and we could go on and on, hope we’ll get a chance to continue soon.