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.