All photos by Trevor Snapp
We’re now less than two weeks away from Mexico’s presidential election, and at this point, few people would have expected that the otherwise unsurprising democratic process of voting would be accompanied by scenes of rabble-rousing students chanting and singing along with mariachi bands outside the studios of Mexico’s leading television network.
These scenes, part of a nascent student movement known as #YoSoy132, are now becoming regular features on the nightly news in Mexico. Imagine that, young people protesting media bias and media manipulation by the thousands in a country with little precedent for such collective grievances against corporate big media.
A lot of people here are pretty excited with this development.
It all started on May 11, when candidate Enrique Peña Nieto visited the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City for what was supposed to be a friendly meet-and-greet with the student and academic community. Instead, over the course of his visit, Peña Nieto suffered a humiliating and disastrous few hours of abuse from what looked like a spontaneous student protest. It got messy.
Peña Nieto came for a normal campaign stop, to deliver a speech and answer questions before an auditorium. The thing was going nominally well until students who had managed to slip in protest signs past a security check could no longer contain themselves. According to video, photos, and accounts of the event, the shouting started after one lone guy with a poofy haircut and a lot of attitude stood up silently holding a hand-drawn sign that read simply, TE ODIO. “I hate you.”
The shouting and chanting grew. Peña Nieto sought an escape. More protesters were waiting for him outside. The candidate with the movie-star looks and soap-opera star wife was chased through the halls and courtyards of “the Ibero” by choruses of “Murderer!” and “Coward!” as students protested his handling of a 2006 dispute with campesinos in the town of San Salvador Atenco during his term as a state governor. The shouting and chasing grew overwhelming. Peña Nieto hid briefly in a restroom with his team, trying to find a good way out. Video of the moment shows Peña’s eyes wide and hollow, his forehead tense, lips curled up with fear.
By the time it was all over, Peña Nieto was literally run off the Ibero campus. As he ducked into a dark SUV, one reporter managed to ask him what he thought of the protests against him. “It’s not genuine,” he responded with a meager smile, and took off. And with that, the 2012 Mexican presidential race—the race that Peña Nieto was supposed to win without breaking a sweat—took a major shift.
The Ibero incident put the Peña Nieto campaign in damage-control mode. The next day, suggestions that the demonstration was staged by outsiders was repeated by his campaign chief, a few sympathetic Ibero faculty, and just about every provincial and vaguely corrupt newspaper that implicitly supports Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
This turned out to be an enormously foolish move. The students responded by uploading a video of 131 of them staring into their MacBook video cameras and repeating their names and their student ID numbers while flashing their Ibero ID cards. The PRI has spent many millions of dollars on its campaign to win Mexico’s presidency, but what followed was a media coup that no amount of cash or army of consultants could have stopped. Among Mexico’s active Twitter-verse, the hashtag soon appeared: #YoSoy132. “I am 132.”
It’s worth noting that this kind of brouhaha was very unexpected for Ibero. It is one of the swankiest schools in the country, the kind of place where a slick, media-savvy politician like Peña Nieto should normally be made to be feel right at home. Hell, the Ibero produces Peña Nietos. I know, because a lot of my friends are recent graduates. Even they were surprised by what happened on May 11, but not entirely. Any decent school always has room for progressive thought and action, and while the Ibero probably costs more per year than what millions of Mexicans make in an adult life, there was an undercurrent of “enough is enough” in the anti-Peña protest that seemed blind to class or social boundaries. By the following weekend, a classic grassroots social-media movement had taken off.
#YoSoy132 demonstrations broke first in Mexico City. Tens of thousands streamed through the central corridor and gathered at the Angel of Independence monument to make it known that they, too, were opposed to the PRI regaining power. The party ruled the country for much of the 20th Century until 2000 with a potent mix of strategies that ultimately boils down to power-by-any-means necessary. It has a widely documented history of vote-buying, fraud, collusion with drug traffickers, censorship, intimidation, election-stealing, and often fatal repression against dissidents—from the assassination of top party figures such as Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994 to the outright massacres of student protesters in 1968 and 1971. Peña Nieto says the PRI under his candidacy is a new party, and that his campaign should not be faulted for the party’s “errors” of the past.
In 2012, as the July 1 election day nears and the PRI remains ahead in the polls, the students aren’t having it.
#YoSoy132 demonstrations were also held in Monterrey, Guadalajara, Tijuana, Durango, Zacatecas, Tlaxcala, Aguascalientes, Veracruz, and many other cities in Mexico. Smaller protests in show of support of #YoSoy132 have also been reported among the wide Mexican diaspora in places like Chicago, Barcelona, Madrid, San Francisco, and before the White House in Washington, DC. Students at more than 35 universities and colleges across Mexico have joined the movement. What’s significant is that they’re forming a private- and public-university horizontal coalition that hasn’t been seen in Mexico with such force since the late 1960s. As thousands join their demonstrations, there’s a sense of collective dissent against the return of the so-called “dinosaurs” of the PRI, and collective disgust at the arguably biased role that the major media companies are playing in the process.
Now, this is not the Mexican Spring. It’s not a movement meant to topple the government. It’s actually stated a sort of incongruent political position: Against a presidential candidate but not in support of any other. For all we know, Peña Nieto has already won the 2012 election in Mexico. He’s about 15 points up; heart-on-his-sleeve leftie Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and incumbent party conservative Josefina Vazquez Mota, who’s all about keeping military on the streets against drug cartels, are so far splitting the anti-PRI vote.
Even if Lopez Obrador or Vazquez Mota pull off a wild upset in the end, #YoSoy132 will seek to keep the movement up, asking for media reform against the duopoly of Televisa and TV Azteca, which evidently represent an extension of the greater status quo in Mexico—all neatly symbolized by Peña and the PRI. Therefore, the natural questions are: Can it? Will it? Could it?
Daniel Hernandez is author of Down & Delirious in Mexico City (Scribner, 2011).