Danielle House examines creative and effective methods of memorialization in Mexico that address a variety of live issues related to enforced disappearance
On 26 September 2014, students from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college in Guerrero, Southern Mexico, were attacked by municipal police. Three students and three bystanders were killed, 25 were wounded, and a further 43 were forced into police trucks. The 43, however, were not taken to a police station and there was no record of their arrest; they disappeared.
The Procuraduría General de la República (PGR, Mexico’s Office of the Attorney General) has since declared the ‘historic truth’ of the event: the Mayor of the local town, Iguala, ordered the police to attack the students, to prevent them from disrupting an event his wife was hosting that evening. The police handed the students over to local cartel members, who then killed the students and disposed of their bodies. However, this record of events has been highly contested.
Mexicans are currently coming to terms with extremely high levels of disappearance and missing persons – and the enforced disappearance of the 43 students has triggered a new national awareness of the problem. In 2013 the Mexican government released figures showing that between 2006 and 2012 more than 26,000 people in the country were reported as missing or disappeared. These, however, represent just those cases that have been reported to the authorities, and it is believed that fear of reporting disappearances has masked the full extent of the problem.
In the face of the state’s “historic truth” about the disappearance of the 43 students, relatives and their supporters have begun to engage in a discourse on memory. Representing and memorializing the missing has been a huge challenge for many relatives in a variety of contexts. Relatives must balance memorializing in a way that might encourage a symbolic “moving on” without answers as to the whereabouts of their loved one, with a need to uphold memory as a means of sustaining the demand for truth and justice. Relatives and civil society in Mexico are engaged in a wide variety of temporary, performance and artistic memorial initiatives that represent a protest and at the same time commemorate the disappeared by rejecting attempts to forget or to make the official “historic truth” the accepted record at the expense of a thorough record of the facts.
On the seven-month anniversary of the enforced disappearance of the students, relatives and supporters constructed a monument to the 43 in the center of Mexico City. The monument, an imposing, bright red “+” sign and the numbers “43”, at least 10 feet high, was erected in the Glorieta del Caballito on Avenida Reforma, one of the main avenues in the city. The location of the monument is central and visible, claiming public space for the memory of not just the 43 students but all of Mexico’s desaparecidos. The monument, named ‘Anti-monumento 43’, was pushed into place collectively, after which the relatives, displaying images of their missing children, gave speeches.
The erection of this monument subverts the idea of traditional monuments in public space. The physical “setting in stone” of a monument in public space serves to narrate a particular history and contains an intrinsic power, both in the act of its construction and in its continued presence. (Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” and Michael Billig’s “banal nationalism” suggest how monuments instruct and construct national identity and memory). Katharyne Mitchell explores this point quoting Ladd: “Monuments are nothing if not selective aids to memory: they encourage us to remember some things and to forget others. The process of creating monuments […] shapes public memory and collective identity”. The Anti-monumento 43 plays into these ideas, at the same time subverting them, using the power of public memorialization to challenge the state and the passer-by, acting as a constant reminder of the missing.
Memorialization is, therefore, political and as James Young points out, monuments can serve to bury a pluralism of memories of events. This point is an important one; monuments and memorials can create cultural amnesia and mask contested narratives. Young suggests, drawing on Mumford, that a memorial’s fixedness in space causes its death over time; “a fixed image created in one time and carried over into a new time suddenly appears archaic, strange, or irrelevant altogether”. The memorial could be ignored by the passer-by as it blends into the architecture of the city. This critique of static memorials is continued by Katherine Hite and Cath Collins, who dissect the “funerary functions” of memorials particularly contested in cases of disappearance and missing persons for four reasons: alluding to unproven death; focusing on the absent victims rather than the survivors or perpetrators; conveying what happened but not why or by whom; and their tendency to reinforce a peripheral geography.
Yet the Anti-monumento 43 seems to subvert and memorialize because of its representation as a “traditional” static monument. In the context of the state’s “historic truth” – claiming the students are dead, not disappeared – creating a monument like the many other installations of public art in Mexico City (most famously on Avenida Reforma where the Anti-monument has been placed) gives a sense of permanence to the cause; the students are there, represented. The communication published online by the group that organized the installation said they named it “anti-monument”, “Because it is an act of transgression and a claim against a State that wants to forget”. They continue:
“If a monument refers to a past event that is necessary to apprehend (in Latin ‘momentum’ means ‘memory’), the project +43 is the construction of an ‘Anti-monument’ because it does not aspire to perpetuate memory but to alter the perception of this event as fact. +43 can be defined as a permanent protest and demand for justice from the State in public space. +43 aims to demand attention from passers-by who cross through the area daily”.
This monument was erected just a matter of weeks ago, and the families did not have permission to install it so its permanence is uncertain. However, its permanence is not necessarily the most important thing. With this installation it seems there is an overt sense of fixing the memory of the 43 and Mexico’s many other desaparecidos, there will be a legacy however temporary the monument is. The collective erecting of the Anti-monumento, the participation of a group of people pushing these giant structures upright and into place, provides another layer to a sense of memory being constructed. This element, and the potential of its removal and illegality, moves this seemingly ‘traditional’ memorial towards a counter-memorial, blurring the division between the two. Due to its illegality yet ability to ‘look like any other monument’, the Anti-monumento has the potential to haunt passersby with the memory of the disappeared.
As Mexico continues to confront the issue of disappearance, and as relatives continue to demand the return of their loved ones, a negotiation and politics of remembering is taking place. Similar to other countries in Latin America where widespread disappearance has occurred, demands for memory are developing alongside demands for truth and justice. Memorials such as Anti-Monumento 43 both commemorates the students in a traditional sense, claiming their right to visibility in the city alongside other memorials that narrate Mexico’s past, and contests the states “historic truth” that the students are dead, and its attempt to move on and forget them. In the many performances and memorial acts taking place in Mexico, a collective memory of contemporary disappearance is being constructed.
 Noticieros Televisa, ‘PGR: Normalistas secuestrados, asesinados e incinerados es la verdad histórica’, 28 January 2015, online: http://noticieros.televisa.com/mexico/1501/pgr-declara-muertos-43-normalistas-ayotzinapa/
 The Guardian, ‘Experts question Mexican investigation of 43 students’ disappearance’, 8 February 2015, online: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/08/experts-question-mexican-investigation-of-43-students-disappearance
 Amnesty International, (2013) Confronting a Nightmare: Disappearances in Mexico, London: Amnesty International. Available at: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/AMR41/025/2013 [Accessed 10 December 2014]
 Anderson, B., (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso
 Billig, M., (1995) Banal Nationalism, London: SAGE Publications Ltd
 Mitchell, K., (2003) ‘Monuments, Memorials, and the Politics of Memory’, Urban Geography, Vol.24, No.5, pp. 442-459
 Young, J. E., (1992) ‘The Counter-Monument: Memory against itself in Germany today’, Critical Inquiry, Vol.18, No.2, Winter Issue, pp. 267-296
 Hite, K. and Collins, C., (2009) ‘Memorial Fragments, Monumental Silences and Reawakenings in 21st Century Chile’, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, Vol. 38, No.2, pp. 379-400
 Nuestra Aparente Rendición, ‘Comunicado Antimonumento 43’, 27 April 2015, online: http://nuestraaparenterendicion.com/index.php/biblioteca/colaboraciones/item/2782-comunicado-antimonumento-%2043