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MEXICO CITY — Following the forced disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in the embattled southern state of Guerrero last September, enormous and sometimes violent protests broke out in the capital and continue today. The city’s art and public spaces have been caught in the conflict, providing a constant visual reminder of the bloody events.
Tens of thousands marched peacefully on multiple occasions last fall, hand in hand, carrying banners and waving revolutionary flags. Families, students, teachers, and seniors loped along Mexico City’s main artery, Reforma avenue, chanting and singing. The somber but festive atmosphere turned quickly when masked “anarchists” appeared with baseball bats, molotov cocktails, and spray paint cans, smashing windows, spraying graffiti, and clashing with police around the periphery of the crowd.
In the new year, as the protests have quieted down, the government has mostly succeeded in sweeping Ayotzinapa under the rug — it claims the case is closed. But the city bears the scars of a disillusioned people. The #YaMeCanse (I’ve had enough) hashtag may be absent from social media after it took the internet by storm, but there’s no ignoring the angry graffiti that’s only just beginning to be power-washed away.
The most heartbreaking reminders are some of the simplest. The number 43 appears all over the city as a reminder of the still-missing students who were taken by allegedly crooked police and supposedly incinerated in a heap of trash and tires. The search for the students led instead to the discovery of multiple mass graves in the state of Guerrero and beyond, uncovering hundreds of unidentified missing people and the realization that Mexico’s problems go much deeper than the 43 disappeared young people.
The number has come to represent not only the students, but 22,000 missing people in Mexico, millions living in poverty, government impunity and corruption. It represents the public anguish of the student’s parents, who continue to call for answers and justice. Spray-painted on sidewalks, buildings, and statues, the symbolic number hangs over Mexico City citizens’ heads as they go about their daily lives.
“If there is no rest for us, there will be no rest for the government,” Felipe de la Cruz, one of the missing student’s parents, said at one march. “There must be a deep change in Mexico. We must recuperate the fundamentals of the constitution.”
During that particular megamarcha, protestors placed paper bags bearing President Enrique Peña Nieto’s likeness over busts and life-size monuments to revolutionary and independence military leaders. The president was illustrated with a clown nose. The public display of affliction demonstrated a seeming consensus that the government isn’t to be taken seriously. The action also recalled images of kidnapping victims or Guantanamo Bay prisoners with bags over their heads.
Stencils and tags have expanded on the number 43 and the president’s perceived incompetence. One popular phrase in the graffiti and banners carried during marches was, “No estamos todos, nos faltan 43” (We aren’t all here, we’re missing 43). Many, many spray-painted protests have called for Peña Nieto to resign or portrayed him as death, with his unmistakable signature hairdo affixed to a skull. “Renuncia EPN” (resign Enrique Peña Nieto) and “gobierno asesino” (murderer government) have appeared in multiple variations throughout the city. On the sidewalk along Reforma avenue, one particularly intricate stencil read, “Llueve rabia” (It rains rage); another called for “Justicia para Ayotzinapa” (Justice for Ayotzinapa).
At the Museo de Arte Moderno, a sculpture by one of Mexico’s most internationally renowned sculptors, Enrique Carbajal González, known as Sebastián, has been accumulating layers of spray paint for six months — florescent red 43s and tags like “El poder pudre la sangre y oscurece el pensamiento” (Power rots blood and obscures thought). The imposing, royal-blue piece of modernism is made more relevant by the vandalism. Many public works that represent times past have been violently projected into the present by protestor interventions.
It’s a mystery why the city government has fallen behind in cleaning up the graffiti and continues to let the layers build with each protest. The crude slogans and symbols put a grave face on a country that’s trying so hard to dig out of its own mass grave.