1968 Massacre Spawned an Art Revolution

Ed McCaughan’s new book, Art and Social Movements: Cultural Politics in Mexico and Aztlán (Duke University Press, 2012), examines three art movements in Mexico and the U.S., as well as the socially conscious artists that flourished after the Mexican government’s brutal massacre ten days before the 1968 Mexico Olympics.


Nearly lost to history is the Tlatelolco massacre. On the evening of October 2, 1968, the Mexican government slaughtered hundreds of student, civilian protesters, and bystanders in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City.


Out of that turbulent period came a movement of Mexican and Chicano artists and art collectives whose work would reverberate over the next three decades and beyond. As McCaughan recently told the San Francisco Examiner, the artists “created visual discourses that allowed people to imagine themselves differently—as empowered citizens or feminist women…as people with rights who could stand up to their government.”


“Artists helped shape the politics and identities of an international generation of social movement activists forged in the protests of 1968 that shook cities across the globe, from Paris, Prague, and Tokyo to Mexico City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco,” McCaughan writes.


McCaughan’s book focuses on three movements that grew out of that period: “in Mexico City, the student movement of 1968 and a closely associated network of activist art collectives”; “in Oaxaca, a political and cultural struggle rooted in the region’s Zapotec communities”; “and in California, the Chicano civil rights movement.” In a series of e-mails, McCaughan answered questions about the synthesis of art and social movements.


Berkowitz: How did you come to focus on the three movements that you address in your book?


McCaughan: I wanted to identify specific social movements in which a critical mass of visual artists had been actively involved. I started thinking about movements I already knew about, either because I had written about them or had been involved with them in some way.


I ended up selecting the Mexico City-based student movement from 1968—which produced vibrant graphic art—and the closely associated movement of artists’ collectives that were active throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The California Chicano movement, which produced an entire Chicano art movement (which I came of age with as a college student and activist in the 1960s and 1970s); and, although I was less familiar with it, I chose the Zapotec/ COCEI (Coalición Obrera-Campesina-Estudiantil del Istmo-Worker-Peasant-Student Coalition of the Isthmus) movement in Oaxaca, which Peter Baird and I had written about in our 1979 book, Beyond the Border: Mexico and the U.S. Today.


These three movements arose during the same historical period, shared a common generational experience, and contained many common elements of Mexican culture and politics. The fact that they were from three quite different locations with quite different social bases clarified for me how important local conditions and local history are in mediating the experience and artistic expression of social movements.


What role did the massacre in Tlatelolco play?


The government massacre was pivotal to the three movements—as well as to my own politicization. The student movement in Mexico City would likely never have developed into a massive movement with national and international impact had the Mexican government not been so brutal in its response. Government repression became one of the key themes explored over and over by the movement’s graphic artists.


And there was a direct relationship between the government repression in 1968 and the movement in Oaxaca —both because university students and artists in Oaxaca mobilized in response to what was happening in Mexico City and because some students fled to Oaxaca to escape the repression. Internationally renowned artist Francisco Toledo, who was key to the emergence of the Zapotec/COCEI movement, offered his home as a refuge to some of the students who fled. And I remember clearly that many of the Chicano activists at UC Santa Cruz, where I began my undergraduate studies, were aware of the repression in Mexico City.


What was it about the art (the images, style, composition, color choices, format, etc.) during the periods you discuss that made it resonate not only with movement activists, but also the general public? How did it differ from early politically/socially conscious art?


The art really helped define the countercultural zeitgeist of that generation. It delighted in breaking all the rules of the “establishment” whether you’re talking about the dominant institutions and discourses of the art world or the political and cultural elites of the era. A generation of youth who were dissatisfied with the world as we knew it saw our rebellious, irreverent, nonconformist selves represented in the work produced by activist artists.


When Luis Echeverría—the man alleged to have ordered the massacre—ran for president of Mexico in 1970, his campaign slogan was “arriba y adelante” (“upwards and onwards”). Artist Felipe Ehrenberg, who had fled to London to escape the repression, responded by producing an irreverent and formally innovative piece for a group exhibition of politically engaged artists in Mexico City. He used wicked humor rather than didactic sloganeering to expose the irony of the future president’s campaign slogan and of Mexico once again hosting a major international event only two years after the October 2 massacre. Formally, it broke all the rules of the art world.


When women in the Mexico City art collectives began to take on sexism in the movement, Maris Bustamante responded with a performance piece in which she skewered Freud’s theory of penis envy while wearing a prosthetic penis on her nose. Bustamante’s humor, sexual irreverence, and genre-breaking performance helped to define a new approach to politics and art.


In California, a similar phenomenon can be seen in the way feminist Chicana artists re-made the Virgin of Guadalupe and, in the process, Chicano culture.


Tell us a little how you got into the work you’re doing?


I was a freshman at UC Santa Cruz in 1968 when I first learned about the repression of the students in Mexico City. That event —and the response of my fellow students and professors at UCSC—directly led to my decision to study social movements in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America and to get involved in the U.S.-based Latin America solidarity movement. I earned a Masters in Latin American Studies at Stanford before working for several years at NACLA, an activist research collective. While at NACLA, Peter Baird and I wrote a series of research reports about the relationship between the economic integration of the U.S. and Mexican economies, social class formation, and social movements.


After a 15-year period of activism in the San Francisco Bay Area, I returned to graduate school and wrote my doctoral dissertation about the crisis and potential renovation of the revolutionary left in Cuba and Mexico. I’m now a professor of sociology at San Francisco State University where I continue to teach and write about Mexican social movements.


My next research project is a comparative study of four U.S.-born women artist-activists who ended up making Mexico their professional and political home—two of them in the 1940s and two of them in the 1970s.


How does the growth of social media expand or limit political activist art?


These days movement artists have vastly expanded opportunities to have their work seen. When student artists were producing silk-screen graphics for the demonstrations in 1968, the number of images they could physically print and distribute by hand—wheat pasting them on buildings and buses, for example—limited them. Today, while young street artists in Oaxaca are still producing political art by hand—especially stencil art that covers the streets in Oaxaca—they simultaneously create digital art and circulate it widely on the Internet. I still see graphics that Rini Templeton produced in the 1970s and 1980s being used in picket signs and banners at Occupy marches. But at the same time, Oakland-based artists like Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza make extensive use of social media to circulate their politically and aesthetically powerful work.



Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer.