Lesson: Tlatelolco: Mexican Student Massacre 1968

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Mexican History, Global Studies, Current Events

Introduction

Written by New School teacher, Cristina Ross.
This lesson investigates the specific history of Tlatelolco, the development of Mexico’s student revolutionary movements and the traumatic consequence of government oppression. Students will be presented with official accounts of history and will compare it to primary sources to understand how history is constructed and represented.

Objectives

The class will develop a deeper understanding about the Massacre of Tlatelolco and will assess the use of police authority today, specifically in the 2004 New York Republican Convention in New York City and protests surrounding the Beijing Olympic Games of 2008. Students will understand the relevance of history by relating past events to current political issues that affect their lives.

Vocabulary

Massacre is the intentional and brutal slaughter of people.
Barricades are temporary blockades put up to prevent the flow or movement of opposing groups in a protest or confrontation.
Strike is the refusal to work until workers’ grievances and demands are settled.
Brigade is a subdivision of the army organized for a specific purpose.
Coalition is the combined alliance of political groups to create a stronger political impact.

Materials

The book Massacre in Mexico by Elena Poniatowska
Copy of the poem In Memory of Tlatelolco by Rosario Castellanos

Lesson Strategy

Historical background
Mexico’s unique heritage is evident in the ancient history of Tlatelolco and the Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Plaza of the Three Cultures). The three cultures of Mexico are comprised of ancient Aztec, 16th century Spanish colony, and, representing the third culture, mestizos, or persons with mixed European and Pre-Hispanic ancestry. The architecture and landscape of Plaza de las Tres Culturas tell the story of these cultures with its ancient Aztec ruins, the Colonial Cathedral of Santiago dating back to 1524, and the Nonoalco Tlatelolco apartment complex and government buildings built by Mario Pani.

The plaza is notorious for three bloody events. The earliest event occurred on August 13, 1521, when 40,000 Aztecs died in their desperate struggle against the Spanish army led by Hernán Cortés. Bodies clogged the local canals for days in the aftermath. Memorializing the event is a plaque that marks the end of pre-Columbian Mexico; it reads, “Neither a victory nor a defeat, but the painful moment of birth of the Mexico of today, of a race of Mestizos”.

The second tragedy, and the focus of this lesson, occurred on October 2, 1968, when Mexican soldiers, equipped with tanks and machine guns, fired into a crowd of 14,000 unarmed students staging a protest against government spending on the 1968 Summer Olympics held in Mexico City. That day came to be known as the Massacre of Tlatelolco as 300 people were murdered and thousands others wounded and incarcerated. A huge monument at the site lists the names and ages of some of the students who fell that day.

Finally, the plaza was the site of a major earthquake occurring on the morning of September 19, 1985, causing the collapse of modern buildings adjacent to the plaza. The estimated death count rose to 8,000 and left those who survived it homeless and in temporary shelters in the plaza.

The Mexican Student Movement
The beginnings of the student revolution started on July 22 with a violent confrontation between two rival high schools. Though the cause of the altercation remains unclear, the exaggerated and unfair use of police force prompted students to hold public meetings. Later, with the support of the Communist party, the students organized to formulate their political demands from the government, among which were freedom for all political prisoners, dismissal of the police chief, breakdown of the antiriot police, university autonomy, and the repeal of the “law of social dissolution” (regulating the punishment of acts of subversion, treason, and disorder).

The Mexican government prioritized the needs of economic and business professionals and suppressed students’ anti-government protests in an attempt to maintain economic flow and growth. Despite this, during preparations for the Olympic games, held from July through October, academic life in the city and throughout Mexico came to a halt as students declared a national strike on July 29, this time with the support of discontented sectors of society. The PRI and President Díaz Ordaz were showing foreign visitors an altogether different Mexico, one that appeared to international journalists as a politically stable and economically sound Mexico. Luis Echeverría Álvarez, the new interior minister, agreed to discuss social and political issues with the students but changed his mind when students demanded a televised meeting.

The students escalated the scale and frequency of their protests in late August when they convened the largest antigovernment demonstration with an estimated 500,000 protesters in the main plaza of the capital. Díaz Ordaz ordered the army to take control of UNAM and to arrest the student movement leaders. In retaliation, students called for another rally at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas.

On October 2, 1968, a crowd of about 5,000 convened in the plaza in defiance of the government crackdown. Armed military units and tanks, including military helicopters hovering menacingly and agitating the crowd with flares, arrived on the scene and surrounded the demonstrators. Shortly thereafter, shots rang out (it is uncertain who fired the first shot and both sides blame the other). The panicked crowd suddenly surged toward the military cordon only to be met by the military that shot and bayoneted indiscriminately into the crowd. Death toll estimates ranged from several dozen to more than 300. The Massacre of Tlatelolco is not fully documented in Mexican history and aspects of the event are still denied by Mexican authorities. Despite the violence, the Olympic games proceeded on schedule.

Read primary sources and quotations from witnesses of the massacre to present contradictions in official history versus first person accounts.

Read poem aloud for students to experience how this traumatic historical event was used creatively as a response to social injustice.

Relate current events to this lesson and ask students to reflect on social movements and how it may affect their own generation.

Discuss International student movements and historical moments particular to the year 1968

  • The assassination of U.S. civil rights leader for social change, Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. His assassination caused a wave of emotional demonstrations in major cities across the country as well as student-led occupation and closure of Columbia University on April 23.
  • Only two years later, the Kent State shootings occurred after President Nixon announced America’s invasion of Cambodia on April 30. On May 4, four students were shot for protesting the invasion. Bystanders were shot for merely walking nearby or observing the protest at a distance. There was significant national response to the shootings. Hundreds of universities, colleges, and high schools closed throughout the United States with a student strike of eight million students, dividing the country along political lines.
  • In France, “May 1968” is the name given to a series of student protests and a general strike that caused the eventual collapse of Charles De Gaulle’s government.

Discuss political and social consequences of the Olympic games in Mexico City and compare it’s history to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Discuss in particular the issue of injustice in Tibet. Click more info.

Homework

Recommend readings and research on social issues relevant to the Olympic games of 2008.

Assessment

Evaluate student’s understanding of the history of the Massacre in Tlatelolco. Assess student participation in class discussions.

Extending the Lesson

The lesson could be extended to in depth discussions about images regarding the topic, as well as the impact of testimonial text to humanizing historical events.