By Juan Miguel Martinez
Mexico City in 1968 underwent a major sea change, a permutation of consciousness. The spirit of the people wasn’t simply taken and rearranged, it was smashed and pounded to dust, the dust was pressure hosed down into the earth where the remnants were absorbed. What sprouted was something that was no longer black and white, but blood red. It was like 1911 all over again, when the people revolted under El Plan de San Luis Potosi and Madero assumed power under an election. The war was over but the revolution continued. It was to be documented through lenses, film and print instead of stone walls and canvas.
La Plaza de las Tres Culturas is situated in the neighborhood of the Tlatelolco, on the olive green subway line. The area is reminiscent of where Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing was situated, minus the sense of danger lurking in every alley, hallway, and playground. Some of the swing sets are rusted beyond repair, looking like grim photographs of the past. Some playgrounds are far more advanced, populated with laughing children riding metal horses with half-cocked expressions that pull forward and back on industrial strength springs. You can tell when one is pretty new due to being surrounded by garbage cans painted green and shaped like frogs, their mouths agape. There is a wide open space, bordered by an ancient catholic church to the south and a housing complex built in 1964 to the north. This is la plaza de las Tres Culturas, so named because it represents three important eras in Mexico’s history – Pre-Colombian because of the narrow stone steps that lead to a platform, Spanish Colonial because of the oldest European built college in the Americas. It is the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, built in 1536 by Friar Juan de Torquemada. The third cultura represented is that of Mexico the Independent nation. It is represented by a monolithic, sun weathered stone that stands tall at the head of the plaza. It has inscriptions that read:
A los companeros caidos, el 2 de Octubre en esta plaza…
This is a eulogy carved into rock, telling the story of what happened in that very square on October 2nd, 1968. Around 10,000 people gathered here in an effort to protest the 1968 Olympics, which would commence on October 12th, in 10 days time. These were the first summer Olympics to be held in a Latin American country, and the first with a primarily Spanish speaking population. Gustavo Diaz Ordaz had raised a staggering $150 million to bring the Olympics to Mexico, drawing the ire of the community. People were understandably outraged, as many were lacking universal human necessities such as housing and food. What Diaz was doing was considered unethical as he was suppressing independent labor unions and farmers. He was also trying to silence any opposition towards the PRI (Mexico’s ruling party from 1929-2000) and the direction he intended on taking the economy (privatization). The people gathered were a mix of students, children, and residents who lived nearby. The military was dispatched, helicopters fup-fup-fupped above and tanks bellyached their paths down the volcanic asphalt. The records of what happened next are very muddled. This was an incredible embarrassment to the government, an example of how easily they lost control, only because they were antagonizing the situation to begin with. A flare was shot, and to this day, no one can clarify if it was the people or the government forces. Documents released in 1998 suggest that the government fired first, on their own, in an attempt to justify shooting into the crowd of protestors.
Shoot they did. Automatic rifles started blasting – the people scattered, and tanks bulldozed through the plaza. Smoke filled the already smog laden Mexico City air as the blood of democracy trickled throughout the grooves between the stones. There is no official death count for the massacre in Tlatelolco because those numbers were suppressed , but experts estimate somewhere around 400.
The Olympics continued and no mention of the massacre was made. In America, black folk were undergoing their own revolution, and the overwhelming sense of community overcame two athletes during the Olympics. After John Carlos and Tommie Smith received their medals for the 200 meter dash, they did something that would shock the world. During a performance of the “star spangled banner”, they raised a single gloved fist in the air, bowing their heads for the duration of the song. This was an act of courage, that was mistaken as strictly a black power salute. They both clarified later that it was a human rights salute, done in the spirit of solidarity.
The massacre of Tlatelolco overshadowed another tragedy that took place only 2 weeks prior in the town of San Miguel De Canoa, Puebla. On September 14th, 1968, five employees from La Universidad Autonoma de Puebla traveled to the village. They were avid outdoorsmen who traveled here with the intention of scaling La Malinche, a mountain close to Popocateptl. The local priest, Enrique Meza Perez, crazed in his right wing ideals, believed them to be communist agitators. He assured the townspeople they were there to force their ungodly, anti-catholic and communistic views on their way of life. He convinced and led the town in a vile and cowardly act of mob violence, where two were lynched. The other three sustained serious injuries but survived. The Movimiento Estudantil (Student’s Movement) was in its peak act. The residents of Canoa spoke mostly Nahuatl, and were unaware. They simply had to trust their leader, who ended up being a devil in disguise. This is the plot to Felipe Cazal’s 4th film, “Canoa : Memoria de un hecho vergonzoso”, released in 1976.
Felipe Cazals is a very celebrated director in the history of cinema, as his films mimicked the changing political landscape of Mexico. He was the first to take on an anti-government narrative in film, which at the time was an act of bravery. The current administration was canning films they deemed anti-PRI propaganda. The film he made played like an automated program that took in all the facts, emotions and manners of speaking of the pueblo of San Miguel de Canoa and presented its findings in an expertly crafted narrative. He showed the rural parts of Mexico, and didn’t shy away from showing poor villagers. Gone was the golden age of Mexican cinema where romantic, dashing gentlemen like Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, and Agustin Lara wooed women by flexing their baritone beneath a window. The spirit of damas like Maria Felix and Dolores Del Rio loomed over the artistic spirit, damas who took no shit with perfectly applied lipstick. Before venturing into events that set off changes in his country, Cazals also dabbled in the adventurous genre, making a film he would later disavow. 1970 saw him directing a story on the life of Emiliano Zapata starring a then 49 year old Antonio Aguilar in the titular role. “El Charro de Mexico”, Aguilar had already been at the forefront of music and films, having cultivated a harder edged image than his peers. His 6’1 frame proved to show he was the embodiment of Zapata and the fleeting romanticism of hard men was beginning. It would lay somewhat dormant until 1974 when a film titled “La ley del monte” would premiere, showcasing a relatively unknown singer turned actor named Vicente Fernandez.
The language in Mexican cinema was changing. There was more regional grammar and dialects being exhibited. People no longer spoke eloquently in films and “Canoa : Memoria de un hecho vergonzoso” was the first of its kind to show something like this. The accents, the drawls and the slang was finally being displayed in all of its glory. People were called “Pendejos” and “Hijos de la chingada” on film now. This set off a chain reaction in film, and Canoa received accolades from all around the world as it was the first of its kind, but not the last. It was before the delightfully cheesy shoot em ups of the 1980s starring the Almada brothers. Movies where the hero usually seemed disconnected because of boredom, not because of his cold-blooded ways like the script suggested. They were now action-packed romps where the girls squeezed into tight fitting orange dresses to run errands, and the garish background colors obscured the brightness of it.
Mexican art house cinema made another mark in the Mid 90’s-Early 2000s when directors like Guillermo Del Toro, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and Alfonso Cuaron all appeared within 10 years or so of each other. They presented films like “Cronos’, “Amores Perros”, and “Y tu mama tambien”. All these directors owe a lot to Cazals and they acknowledge it. He has cemented himself in the halls of the mastery of cinema, with the criterion collection adding “Canoa” to their canon of films. After seeing how he illustrated shifts in Mexican life on celluloid, his legacy remains intact. After seeing “Canoa” for the first time in 2015, I wish I could say the same for that part of my brain that makes connections through wonder.
Have you watched “Canoa” or any other work by Felipe Cazals? We’d like to hear from you, hit us up on Twitter @Milwaukenyo