The Disappearance of Mexico’s Students & How You Can Help

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
I’ve been covering the disappearance of the 43 students from the state of Guerrero, Mexico since early November, nearly five weeks after the students were taken by authorities on September 26.

Since most of my reporting has been from my home base in New York (with the exception of a couple pieces that were reported from Mexico City on November 20), I’ve focused on US responses to the disappearance and to artistic and cultural reactions, both online and off.

I’ve been gratified and moved by the responses to my articles, not because they were about me or my work, but because they confirmed that people do actually give a damn. And, a lot of them (you!) told me that they care so much, in fact, that they want to be able to do something–anything–meaningful to make a difference and to let Mexicans know that they stand in solidarity with them.

A sign carried by a participant in the November 20 protest in Mexico City. It reads "In solidarity with the disappeared." (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

A sign carried by a participant in the November 20 protest in Mexico City. It reads “In solidarity with the disappeared.” (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

This happens a lot with the news, I think. We hear about the terrible things that are happening in the world and we want to take action. But more often than not, the news we’re presented is totally decontextualized and it lacks any call to specific action. The effect, then, is that we’re left feeling helpless. Knowledge, it seems, isn’t always power.

In the weeks that I’ve been covering the Ayotzinapa story, I’ve given a lot of thought to what readers can do to take meaningful action and to feel that they’re not just passive consumers of the news. I’ve come up with the list below based on several inputs: (1) my own experience as a former social worker and what it means to help; (2) my experiences of listening to Mexicans as they confront the horror of Ayotzinapa and related atrocities; (3) my interview with John M. Ackerman, a law professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University and a journalist in his own right.

Here are some actions that you can take:

1. Continue to commit yourself to staying informed.
With all of the abuses and horrors committed in the world, it is incredibly difficult to continue paying attention to one single episode of violence. And yet, doing so is crucial if governments are to feel that international attention and pressure are upon them to take action. Staying informed is the single most important thing you can do to show your support, even if it feels like the most passive action. With respect to Ayotzinapa, the website Mexico Voices provides English-language translations of articles that were written by Mexicans and published in Mexican media. The coverage is far more comprehensive than any currently available in the mainstream media in the United States.

2. Share information with others.
You don’t have to become a left-wing activist crusader to help spread the word about what’s happening, and you don’t have to flood your Facebook status updates with impassioned pleas for followers and friends to pay attention to what’s happening in Mexico or elsewhere. Share articles and information that seem of greatest value among your social networks. Put these into as much context as you can. Avoid sharing information that’s sensationalist or that comes from a source that you can’t verify or that seems suspect. Spreading consciousness about what’s happening is key, but it’s only useful if the information you’re sharing is accurate.

3. Commit yourself to your own community.
Though there is a desire–and an understandable one–to help the families affected directly by the disappearance of their children, it’s not entirely clear (at least from my position) what kind of tangible help would be (a) most useful and (b) most sustainable. When confronted with the world’s horrors, I’m reminded that one of the best and most sensible actions I can take is to recommit myself to acting honorably within my own microcosm.

One of the reasons I left the social work profession was because I realized that while it was founded on pragmatic ideals that involved tangible changes in individuals’ and communities’ well-being, so many of its actual practices were rooted not in actionable activities. Instead, actions were often based on hand-out principles that made the giver feel good, but either had little positive long-term effect or actually had a detrimental impact. Rather than obsess over what you can do for someone else, take the time to consider how you can make the greatest impact for peace in your own community and in your own family.

God knows every community could use more of that.

4. Take a stand or contribute your skills when obvious opportunities arise for you to do so.
Whether it’s signing a petition in support of Adán Cortés, who interrupted the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony last week, creating a piece of artwork for Tribute to the Disappeared or #IlustradoresconAyotzinapa, or offering to host the Clothesline project in your community, there are opportunities to take a more direct action that will make you feel like you’re doing something important. I know for sure–because I’ve been told as much–that the participation of a larger community means a great deal to the people who are organizing these displays of support and solidarity.

[Update: I just learned of this photography initiative supported by Social Documentary Network, which is a worthy cause for both pro and amateur photographers.]

5. Pick up a pen.
Send a letter to Mexican officials to let them know you’re watching and that you condemn the disappearance of the students and the way the case has been handled. Let them know you are a witness and that you stand in solidarity with ordinary Mexicans, whose lives have been impacted negatively by narcoviolence and the collusion of the government in profiteering from drug cartel activity.

Tweet President Enrique Peña Nieto: @EPN
Write him a letter: President Enrique Peña Nieto
Residencia Los Pinos
Distrito Federal, MÉXICO

6. Don’t boycott Mexico.
Deciding to boycott Mexico by canceling a vacation there or choosing not to buy Mexican products is unlikely to hurt the people who are causing and contributing the problems that gave rise to the disappearance of the students. Instead, it hurts ordinary Mexicans who are, in many cases, already struggling.

7. Learn more.
Take the opportunity to learn more not only about the current situation, but to fill in the blanks of history that the US media fail to contextualize. One excellent beginning resource is The Mexico Reader, an anthology published by Duke University Press.

Do you have other ideas about how people can help? Please share them below.

Categories: Mexico | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What Obama’s Cuba Announcement Means

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
Earlier today, President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro held press conferences announcing that they have been involved in secret negotiations for over a year with the end goal of beginning to normalize relations between the two countries, which have been embroiled in a Cold War-like diplomatic deadlock since Fidel Castro took power more than half a century ago.

The changes President Obama outlined (see the full video here) are sweeping, and they are historic. But as the initial euphoria wears off, people are starting to ask what, exactly, the changes mean.

A Pastors for Peace Bus in Havana, Cuba in 2010. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

A Pastors for Peace Bus in Havana, Cuba in 2010. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Here’s a quick summary:

1. The embargo is still in effect.
President Obama cannot unilaterally strike down the embargo. Though aspects of the embargo are being described as being “eased,” the embargo remains in effect for the foreseeable future. If you don’t know what the embargo entails, it’s worth reading the highlights here.

2. That means that you can’t just book a trip to Cuba tomorrow.
Unless you fall into one of the 12 categories of US travelers who are authorized to visit Cuba, you still can’t travel unimpeded to Cuba– at least not legally.

3. But if you DO fall in that category, it seems like travel IN Cuba is about to become much easier.
For those of us who can travel to Cuba, spending money to get to Cuba and spending money IN Cuba sounds like it’s going to become much easier, thanks to a bilateral agreement that will permit Americans to use debit cards in Cuba. Can I tell you how thrilled I am about this? I hated dealing with cash only.

4. And we’ll be legally permitted to spend money in Cuba.
One of the trickier restrictions imposed on Americans traveling to Cuba is that we technically weren’t permitted to spend money there. I was on a White House conference call about Cuba this afternoon, in which we were informed that Americans will be allowed to return to the States with up to $400 worth of goods. $100 of that $400 can be alcohol (Havana Club!) and cigars (Cohiba! Romeo y Julieta!).

5. I predict that the restricted access to US travelers (imposed by the US government, not the Cuban government) will be the next domino to fall.
And believe me when I tell you that there are dedicated staff members at all the major air carriers, hoteliers, etc. who will be ready, willing, and able to get you to Cuba as soon as they’re legally permitted to do so. Any major player in the market has a Cuba Plan just waiting in the wings. In the meantime, if you’re American and you want to travel to Cuba, you can read my SATW-award-winning article about how to do so here.

6. Cuban Americans can now send more money–a lot more money–to family members in Cuba.
This is one of the most interesting changes and one that’s likely to have a considerable impact.

7. President Obama has charged Secretary of State Kerry with reviewing Cuba’s status as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Also a big deal.

8. The US will establish an embassy in Havana.
This has been touted as really big news, but I’m not sure it is. There’s already a “Special Interests Section” in Havana that is staffed by Americans and does embassy-like functions. What I’m still wondering is whether we’ll get a functioning Cuban Embassy in the States. The Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. is a largely ineffective quagmire where no one ever answers the phone and US policy has made it extremely difficult for Cuban Americans with Cuban passports to complete basic transactions. I speak from firsthand experience.

9. The US will support major telecoms expansion.
What this means exactly isn’t totally clear yet, but given all the recent exposes about USAID (see: Zuzuneo and attempt to manipulate thought via Cuban hip hop), I’m going to withhold speculations and judgments por ahora.

10. Cuba will release 53 political prisoners indicated as such by the US.
Big deal? Yes. But questions remain about Americans who exiled themselves to Cuba and whether/how they will be affected by the diplomatic thaw. Among them are Black Panther members, such as Assata Shakur.

11. The US will expand commercial trade with Cuba.
Many Americans aren’t aware of this, but the US has had trade with Cuba for years. Still, there are some significant changes under the new policy, including the removal of restrictions that affect third countries engaging in trade with Cuba. Previously, for example, cargo ships that made ports of call in Cuba were not allowed to come to the US within six months of docking in Cuba. It was a lame but effective attempt to compel other countries to go along with the US embargo of Cuba.

A complete list of the changes as issued by the White House can be found here.

Categories: Cuba | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Cooper Hewitt Design Museum reopens this weekend after 3-year renovation

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**

A few shots from my visit to the newly renovated Cooper Hewitt. (Photos: @collazoprojects)

A few shots from my visit to the newly renovated Cooper Hewitt. (Photos: @collazoprojects)

Let’s just cut right to the chase: I don’t adore the newly renovated Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, which seems like an absolutely terrible and unkind thing to say since the museum has been closed for three years, undergoing a meticulous $91 million once-over.

As I walked away from Tuesday morning’s media preview of the museum, which will reopen to the public this Friday, December 12, I searched for the right word to describe why such an ambitious project left me feeling so dissatisfied. The word is: incohesive. Among the 726 objects on display, there are some compelling ones, including Abraham Lincoln’s funeral pall and pocket watch, a pair of Toscanini’s pants, and–coming up to the present century–Damian Ortega’s most impressive installation of tools, “Controller of the Universe.” There’s also the Hansen Writing Ball and a Comstock Knitter, both of which are glorious representations of 19th-century industrial design.

But for every “Ooh” “Aah,” “Weren’t those the glory days of design?” object, there’s one that feels a little out of place, either “Too soon, too soon” (ie: the iPhone and MacBook Air) or boring because of its predictability and ubiquity in other museums (I’m looking at you, Zig-Zag and Vermelha chairs). Mostly, though, the collection as it is presented feels incredibly disjointed, the attempt to be representative yet selective not even cohering well within discrete exhibits, and far less across and among them.

That’s not to say I’m unswayed by the Cooper Hewitt’s new charms, however. I’m impressed by the effort and (most of) the execution of the museum’s new hands-on interactive elements, as well as the places in the museum where exhibits try to explain how design is relevant to daily life. The Cooper Hewitt has always excelled in this regard; its 2007 exhibit, “Design for the Other 90%,” was exceptional. When Cooper Hewitt’s good, it’s good. But that’s precisely what makes the “Meh” parts so disappointing.

Categories: Art, New York | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

More Posters about Ayotzinapa

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Images: As attributed
**
Earlier this week, I published an article on Latin Correspondent about the poster and cartoon art that have emerged in Mexico since the disappearance of the 43 students in the state of Guerrero. You can see that piece here.

Here are a few additional pieces that I find particularly compelling but weren’t included in the LC article:

This poster, announcing a "Mega University March," says "Education is the best barrier vs. bullets and the bad government." (Image via Facebook)

This poster, announcing a “Mega University March,” says “Education is the best barrier vs. bullets and the bad government.” (Image via Facebook)

In the wake of Ayotzinapa, protesters have been reminding the public about many other disappearances and killings, including those of Tehuacán, where two teachers were killed earlier this year. (Image via Facebook)

In the wake of Ayotzinapa, protesters have been reminding the public about many other disappearances and killings, including those of Tehuacán, where two teachers were killed earlier this year. (Image via Facebook)

This clever crossword puzzle also makes mention of a number of other disappearances and deaths. At the bottom of the puzzle, the text reads, "And when he woke up, death and impunity were still playing there."

This clever crossword puzzle also makes mention of a number of other disappearances and deaths. At the bottom of the puzzle, the text reads, “And when he woke up, death and impunity were still playing there.”

Imagery typical of Mexico, including ex votos, the medals used to pin up near saints in Catholic churches to either ask for or give thanks for favors, can be seen in this and other posters. (Image via Facebook).

Imagery typical of Mexico, including ex votos, the medals used to pin up near saints in Catholic churches to either ask for or give thanks for favors, can be seen in this and other posters. (Image via Facebook).

President Enrique Peña Nieto depicted giving a speech. "Blah, blah, blah" is the main message. (Image via Facebook).

President Enrique Peña Nieto depicted giving a speech. “Blah, blah, blah” is the main message. (Image via Facebook).

Categories: Art, Mexico | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reporter-and mother-in Mexico

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
Note: This was the essay I submitted to The New York Times’ Motherlode blog before covering the NYC protests on the night of the Ferguson verdict. After consulting with the editor, I used only a small part of this piece in a reworked essay about covering protests, which was published by Motherlode last week. You can read that essay here.
**
The assignment email arrived on Wednesday morning. Could I cover the planned march in Mexico City the following day? Thousands were expected to turn out for a march demanding justice for 43 students who were kidnapped by police in late September, their fates still unknown. I’d been reporting various aspects of the case for several outlets from afar. Could I, the editor asked, cover it on the ground? I read the message to my husband. “When are you flying out?” he asked.

Mexico City's Monument to the Revolution is visible in the background as thousands of protesters march towards the city's main plaza. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Mexico City’s Monument to the Revolution is visible in the background as thousands of protesters march towards the city’s main plaza. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

It’s not as if we sit around wringing our hands, wondering whether I should take on assignment that involves leaving him and our three children—a five year old, a 13 month old, and a three month old—at home. As a generalist freelancer specializing in Latin America and working in a publication climate where the calculus of effort and work versus financial reward never seems to become less challenging, I don’t have the luxury of turning down many assignments, especially as my family’s breadwinner.

But as I stood under the flag flying over the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main plaza and the end point for the march that had brought thousands to the street in a peaceful demonstration, I knew that this was entirely different. Across the plaza, I could hear small explosions. A man with a bullhorn was warning those of us in the middle of the plaza to move back; a confrontation was inevitable, he said. I was about to make the decision to advance toward a group of protesters throwing Molotov cocktails at police standing in front of the National Palace, decked out in full riot gear. Should I beat a retreat to my hotel, just a couple blocks away or stay and see this protest through, reporting the full trajectory of events?

A small group of protesters threw Molotov cocktails at riot police, who were posted in front of the National Palace. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

A small group of protesters threw Molotov cocktails at riot police, who were posted in front of the National Palace. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

I advanced. I’d take common-sense precautions. I’d leave if things escalated to the point where I felt my life was in danger. I knew the area well—my husband and I had lived in Mexico City before we had kids and I’m there frequently for work—and as I surveyed the scene, I evaluated possible escape routes.

Then, I took out my camera and started shooting.

Every few minutes, I’d update my Facebook status. Each time I did, the joyous face of my five year old looked back at me from the screen. My husband, too busy with our three energetic kids to keep an eye on my social media feeds, wouldn’t be reading my posts, but I knew close friends would alert him if they had urgent concerns about me. He knew where I was staying and where he could find a copy of my passport if he needed to contact the Embassy. We had even talked about the possibility of teargas at 3:30 that morning as he helped me out the door for my 5:45 AM flight.

Protesters shouted insults and profanities, threw bottles and garbage, and rattled and rocked the barricades separating them from the riot police at whom they were directing their rage. I was standing on the barricade, shooting photos as Molotov cocktails exploded at the feet of police, who were putting out the small bursts of fire with extinguishers. I was alert but not overly worried– the Mexican Constitution prohibits police from carrying arms at and during peaceful protests. On the other hand, the 1968 massacre of unarmed students at Tlatelolco, the site of which was less than a mile away, came to mind, and the striking absence of uniformed police along the entire march route had already put me on edge. I wasn’t naïve: the shit could hit the fan without warning.

One of the gates separating riot police from protesters was wrested free and thrown toward the police. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

One of the gates separating riot police from protesters was wrested free and thrown toward the police. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Suddenly, some protesters managed to wrest one of the barriers free of the others, hurling it towards the riot police. The breach of the barrier flipped the switch. Cops swarmed toward protesters, sending them running in retreat. The crowd seemed divided. The majority had come as peaceful protesters, drawn closer to the conflict because of curiosity and, in some cases, the hope that their presence and their chants of “No violencia, no violencia” (“No violence, no violence”) could deescalate a confrontation. Others wanted to stand their ground and shouted “Ni un paso atrás” (“Not one step back”). Riot police pulled back. But then, another provocation. This time, they surged forward with full speed, pushing the crowd across the plaza. Once on the other side of the plaza, they broke into files, closing off side streets and trapping protesters—and me—in a box they made with their bodies. Tear gas was released, sending some people into a panic. I pulled my scarf up over my mouth and thought about my husband’s warnings.

Riot police, moments before they begin to swarm across the Zócalo. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Riot police, moments before they begin to swarm across the Zócalo. (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

It was time to make another decision. As a mass of people heaved forward, pressing into my back and pushing me along, I thought of my kids, a picture of each of them flashing across my mind. “They died doing what they loved” has always seemed the most pathetic of epitaphs, no matter how true. I was face to face with a riot cop, my body pressed against his shield. I didn’t want to get trampled by the crowd or beaten by the cop. I knew that no matter what, I couldn’t let myself fall down. I inched along the wall I was pressed against, looking for an out.

And it was just then when a gap opened between two cops. I knew I had to get there and I knew I had to do it fast. A man beside me, his face bloodied and his expression of confusion transitioning to shock, was the last thing I saw as I dove around a riot shield and out onto Calle Madero, where a constellation of glass lay shattered on the sidewalk. Gulping deep breaths of air, I kept moving forward, dodging what looked like a road block by ducking onto a side street and winding my way back to my hotel.

"Cursed be the soldier who takes up arms against his people." (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

“Cursed be the soldier who takes up arms against his people.” (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

It is easy, perhaps, for you to think I’m some irresponsible adrenaline junkie, a charge, it’s worth noting, I’ve never heard leveled at a male journalist who happens to also be a father. I am not. I am, instead, a writer who believes in the power and responsibility of being a witness to other people’s stories and telling them because I have the privilege of access to outlets that let me use my voice to do so. Earlier in the evening, my attention had been drawn repeatedly to women, mothers, grandmothers, and children in the protest. “What if your son was #44?” read a handmade poster carried by a woman who looked worn by life’s trials. I couldn’t bear to take her photo. Instead, I looked deeply into her eyes and nodded, a quiet gesture of recognition between two mothers.

"The homeland isn't the narco-politicians. The homeland isn't narco-businessmen. The homeland is its people, its culture, its natural resources, itrs traditions. In the end, we are one people, you and I." (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

“The homeland isn’t the narco-politicians. The homeland isn’t narco-businessmen. The homeland is its people, its culture, its natural resources, itrs traditions. In the end, we are one people, you and I.” (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

My identity as a mother informs my identity as a reporter and writer, and vice versa. How could they not? I noticed the child lying on the ground in front of the Benito Juárez memorial, drawing a picture to carry in the march. I noticed the dad who carried his daughter in his arms for the two miles between the Angel of Independence statue and the Zócalo. I wanted to be here as their witness, to say that I won’t be complicit in the silence of media who don’t think these stories and lives are important. I wanted to be here because maybe, just maybe, the thousands of people marching might make their country—a place that had once been my home, too—a safer one.

Her sign reads, "I don't want to grow up in fear." (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Her sign reads, “I don’t want to grow up in fear.” (Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo)

Many friends and colleagues who are women and who have reached their mid 30s struggle with “the kid question.” “How can I have kids and still do this work?” some have asked me. “How can I not?” might be the better question. I wanted to be here because I want, someday, to say to my children—my two daughters, especially—that they don’t have to choose between their family and their work. That it’s all important.

Categories: Mexico | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment