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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.