Susana Draper. 1968 Mexico: Constellations of Freedom and Democracy. Radical América Series. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018. 272 pp. $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-0101-0; $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-0143-0.
Reviewed by Enrique C. Ochoa (California State University, Los Angeles)
Published on H-LatAm (July, 2019)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)
Mexico remains haunted by the October 2, 1968, massacre by the Mexican state in the capital city’s Plaza de Tres Culturas. Hundreds were killed, thousands wounded and jailed, and tens, if not hundreds, of thousands affected by the brutality of state repression on that day and in the following years. Since that fateful day, there has been a battle to define the meaning of the massacre and the student movement. One thing that is clear, however, is that the popular mobilizations and state violence revealed the lies behind the state’s claim of stability, prosperity, and exceptionalism. Susana Draper’s 1968 Mexico takes readers into the thick of the struggles during what many historians refer to as the long 1960s. Draper boldly seeks to conceptually reframe our understanding of the period by emphasizing the plurality of struggles connected to ’68. 1968 Mexico should be considered among the most important books written on the period.
Almost immediately following the pre-Olympic massacre, the state and right-wing interpreters sought to dismiss the students as communist agitators seeking to destroy Mexico’s image to the world. These maligning views were countered by the voices of activists and leaders of the movement who emphasized the movement’s power and righteousness in confronting a corrupt and brutal regime that betrayed the ideals of the revolution. In the process, the dominant progressive interpretation was captured by movement leaders who (directly or indirectly) reified their leadership and downplayed, ignored, and erased the multiple experiences that made up ’68. Subsequently, liberal scholarship emphasized the extent to which 1968 helped open the political system to party competition, which, it argued, ultimately put an end to nearly seventy years of one-party rule. While recent scholarship has done much to decenter the dominant voices and to place ’68 within the larger history of student and popular movements, the focus on 1968 as either a watershed in Mexican history or as a lost opportunity remains.
Draper’s 1968 Mexico challenges the narrow focus on movement coherence, protest, state violence, and political outcome. For Draper, such teleological approaches ignore the feelings of possibility, revolutionary praxis, and multifaceted radicalisms of ’68. Draper’s study is shaped by her own participation in the Occupy Wall Street movement, which, she argues, helped her to see 1968 as a liberatory rupture where Mexicans reimagined society. For Draper, “1968 emerges here as the name and locus of a series of revolts that seek a different language in which to discuss and perform modes of emancipation and liberation. It is a moment profoundly marked by changes to the way we understand the meaning and function of the word revolution, which we could see as in transition from noun (revolution as state takeover) to verb (revolutionize)” (p. x).
Draper’s study is a literary and cultural analysis based on critical theory, her deep readings as a literary scholar, and her 2012 creation of the oral history archive (with Vicente Rubio-Pueyo) México 68: Modelo para armar; Archivo de memorias desde los márgenes (https://www.mexico68conversaciones.com). To examine 1968 as a “constellation of struggles” (pp. x-xi), Draper divides her book into four chapters: “The Philosophical and Literary Configuration of ’68,” “The Effects of ’68 on Cinema,” “Where Are the Women of ’68?,” and “Remembrances from the Women’s Prison and the Popular Preparatory.” Each chapter explores particular literary or cultural movements that have hitherto remained below the radar in studies of ’68. Throughout the book, Draper examines how groups practice self-management, equality, horizontality, and creative forms of organization as they displace “the roles and functions performed by sectors of authority and of knowledge” (p. x).
In its own right, Draper’s first chapter on José Revueltas is a major contribution to our understanding of the period. Although Revueltas is one of Mexico’s intellectual giants of the twentieth century and one of Mexican communism’s leading thinkers and revolutionaries, with the exception of Sam Slick’s 1983 literary biography and articles by Roberto Crespi and, more recently, Bruno Bosteels, his work has received very little attention in English. In fact, his name does not appear in the indexes of the leading histories of twentieth-century Mexico. Revueltas was at the center of ’68, writing prolifically as he lived among student protestors in the halls of Mexico’s national university during the student strike of ’68. When the army took over the university, Revueltas spent nearly three years as a political prisoner writing and organizing.
Draper demonstrates “how Revueltas reconfigures ’68 as well as how ’68 configures Revueltas’s own thought” in order to “uncover myriad concrete and singular ways to access this event” (p. 37). Revueltas, in his many writings on ’68 collected by his daughter, places ’68 within the context of broader popular struggles in Mexico. Revueltas sought to dissect Mexico’s history of struggle because, he argued, “theoretical action, historical action, can only be understood in its flow [en su fluir], bound to a succession of moments that never offer a linear continuity and resist a unanimous definition. There is a kind of geology of historical currents in which these actions are subsumed; they run a subterranean and tortuous trajectory, only to emerge years later in different forms, acted out by different characters” (p. 42). For Draper, then, Revueltas reframes ’68 and links it to numerous movements in Mexico and beyond, underscoring a polyphony of voices and forms of self-management that were nonhierarchical. While these movements have often been cast in the linear teleological liberal discourse as “failures,” Revueltas (and Draper) recast them as part of the constellations of moments of liberation. Thus, Draper shows, that for Revueltas ’68 is a movement where many moments and a multiplicity of tendencies come together without a guiding party of unified dogma.
In chapter 2, “The Effects of ’68 on Cinema,” Draper examines the experiences and political reimaginings of militant film collectives that operated in Mexico during the early 1970s. Focusing on the work of Collective Super 8 film productions and the Cooperative of Marginal Cinema, Draper brings us into the world of autonomous film collectives that sought to document and reconceptualize popular struggle and state repression. She delves into the Marginal Cinema Cooperative’s History of a Document (1971), which was shot clandestinely in the infamous Lecumberri Prison by political prisoners in order to demonstrate that, contrary to official proclamations, political prisoners existed and resisted in Mexico. To avoid government censorship and repression, History of a Document was produced and aired in France. According to Draper, the cooperative reframed the 1968 struggle and massacre by linking the student movements to previous popular movements as a result of growing inequality and by linking the massacre to state repression influenced by US imperialism. Despite the political nature and content of the films, these collectives were not guided by an overarching vision and they were not producing propaganda. Collective members were members of diverse political movements, and “it is [in] the diversity of movements that coexisted in the different forms of participation that one can find the most salient characteristics of ’68” (pp. 122-23).
The final two chapters are important interventions in the struggle to recapture the participation of women from the hegemonic masculinist retelling of ’68. As Draper points out, this task has been largely left to women and many of these narratives have been marginalized in discussions of the period. Building on recent work that firmly documents the presence and activism of women in ’68 movements, Draper explores the various forms of participation and intellectual interventions focusing on the body of feminist philosophical work of Fernanda Navarro and the testimonies of Roberta “Tita” Avendaño in Of Freedom and Imprisonment (1998) and Gladys López Hernández’s Ovarimony: Me a Guerrilla Fighter: Memories of Self-management from Below (2013). In these chapters, she further shows that ’68 is “an instant of destabilization of prescribed and fixed social roles where an active redefinition of freedom is at play” (p. 139). Throughout she documents various ways women activists imagined freedom and the ways they participated on equal footing with their male counterparts.
In her discussion of López Hernández’s Ovarimony, Draper focuses on the formation of popular preparatory schools as a major experience in self-management and popular education. Established by students and professors to create a space for working-class students who were otherwise rejected from higher education, these schools emerged from the rebellion of ’68. They awakened López Hernández and others “to see other horizons, other paths, other ways of thinking, of living of knowing, like an awakening to a real reality ... not what they put on television, in the family” (p. 174). López Hernández’s experiences in a popular preparatory school carried over into her time as a political prisoner where she helped establish a secretarial school for the general prison population to help women develop a daily collective routine that sought to give them greater opportunities in their working lives when they were released. By centering “women’s remembrances,” Draper further underscores the diversity of radical experiments that have hitherto been marginalized in the dominating narratives of the period.
Draper’s powerful critical analysis of ’68 is crucial for a reframing of our understanding of this seminal movement and time. It provides the framework for seeing the period as a constellation of movements and not a hegemonic movement. Her work fits within the recent literature that complicates ’68 and places it within a larger historical framework. Draper’s layered analysis, however, helps to destabilize the progressive linearity of traditional historical analysis and demonstrates all that is missed in the process. 1968 Mexico is a refreshing and radical break from efforts to tell a unified history of ’68 that narrowly focus on what it accomplished or what it failed to do.
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Enrique C. Ochoa. Review of Draper, Susana, 1968 Mexico: Constellations of Freedom and Democracy.
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