Rather than the usual parties and celebratory parades, many Mexicans marked Revolution Day last Thursday by protesting the massacre of 43 students from Ayotzinapa in a vividly symbolic way: burning effigies of their leaders.
In Mexico City, demonstrators set fire to a 10-foot-tall papier-mâché dummy of President Enrique Peña Nieto wearing a black suit, patriotically tricolor sash, and a clown nose. In Tijuana, members of the Teachers Union of Baja California also burned statues of the head of state along with two local politicians. And in Buenos Aires, activists showed their solidarity by doing the same. It’s not the first time President Peña Nieto has gone up in smoke; in June 2012, his image was also burned by members of Yo Soy 132, a movement by students at Ibero-American University who believed election coverage was biased toward the then-candidate.
The protest tradition of “burning in effigy” has wide-reaching historical roots. Since the 17th century, some Britons have celebrated November 5 by setting ablaze a newspaper effigy of political dissident Guy Fawkes. These autumnal bonfires later began to include a statue of the pope, his belly filled with shrieking kittens. In 1841, Americans angered by certain policies of President John Tyler set his scarecrow double ablaze outside the White House. Effigies of other leaders — including South African President Paul Kruger, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and President Obama — have suffered the same fate.
Throughout Latin America, such burnings are also performed as religious rituals. During Easter Week in several countries, revelers wrap fireworks around a papier-mache Judas. On December 31, many also blow up a sawdust-stuffed effigy symbolizing the old year. And in Guatemala in particular, Quema del Diablo every December 7 presents an opportunity for believers to burn evil out from their midst. Their origins are religious, but these rituals often devolve into social protest. In 2008, Guatemalans replaced their devil with George W. Bush. The same year, Venezuelans protesting against oil giant Exxon dressed their Judas puppet as a company representative.
What does burning these effigies accomplish? Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that such acts have no aim: “we just behave this way and then we feel satisfied.” But watching a YouTube video of a furious Mexico City crowd burning President Peña Nieto’s effigy, it seems unlikely that the crowd will be abated anytime soon — certainly not until real change happens. And for many who have suffered through Mexico’s Drug War, that change — despite all the government’s promises to clean up corruption and impunity — seems a world away.