Hotel Mexico: Dwelling on the '68 Movement

Hotel Mexico: Dwelling on the '68 Movement

by George F. Flaherty

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In 1968, Mexico prepared to host the Olympic games amid growing civil unrest. The spectacular sports facilities and urban redevelopment projects built by the government in Mexico City mirrored the country’s rapid but uneven modernization. In the same year, a street-savvy democratization movement led by students emerged in the city. Throughout the summer, the ‘68 Movement staged protests underscoring a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement. Just ten days before the Olympics began, nearly three hundred student protestors were massacred by the military in a plaza at the core of a new public housing complex.
In spite of institutional denial and censorship, the 1968 massacre remains a touchstone in contemporary Mexican culture thanks to the public memory work of survivors and Mexico’s leftist intelligentsia. In this highly original study of the afterlives of the ’68 Movement, George F. Flaherty explores how urban spaces—material but also literary, photographic, and cinematic—became an archive of 1968, providing a framework for de facto modes of justice for years to come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520964938
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/16/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

George F. Flaherty is Assistant Professor of Latin American and U.S. Latino Art History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Hotel Mexico

Dwelling on the '68 Movement

By George F. Flaherty


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96493-8


City of Palaces

Mexico City, City of Palaces. Frequently misattributed to Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist, the appellation was coined by Charles Joseph La Trobe, an Australian colonial official who visited in the 1830s. The city's core is dense with palaces from the colonial era: the Palacio de Hernan Cortes, Antiguo Palacio del Arzobispado, Palacio de Iturbide, and Palacio de Mineria, among others. Adapted for new uses after Mexico's independence from Spain in the nineteenth century and, in some cases, again after the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), these palaces serve as rich records of Mexican architecture, art, and society. Mexico City's most notorious palace is not one in the conventional sense. The Palacio de Lecumberri was a penitentiary that housed common criminals as well as enemies of the state. In 1913 President Francisco Madero, who had launched the rebellion against Porfirio Diaz's thirty-six-year dictatorship two years earlier, was assassinated en route to Lecumberri amid a military coup. David Alfaro Siqueiros, the militant artist, was imprisoned from 1960 to 1964 on charges of social dissolution. Leaders of the prodemocracy '68 Movement arrested in the wake of the Tlatelolco Massacre were dispatched there. When it was built at the turn of the century, the penitentiary's design and practices incorporated modern notions of crime and punishment. But as decades passed with little investment and much corruption, it became as infamous for its abject living conditions as for its roster of inmates. By the 1960s Lecumberri was a microcosm of Mexico's degraded democracy and the state's biopolitics, which ensured the lives of its citizens only nominally.

However, it was at the Black Palace, as Lecumberri came to be known, that some of the earliest testimonies of the '68 Movement and massacre at Tlatelolco were pieced together from fragments of memory exchanged among inmates in the crujia (cellblock), visitors, and later readers of their narratives. The movement leader Luis González de Alba wrote a novelistic memoir, Los dias y los anos (1971), while imprisoned. Jose Revueltas, a faculty supporter, wrote many letters and articles as well as the novella El apando (1969) there, solidifying his role as the movement's political philosopher. Borrowing from the '68 Movement's street savvy — and from one another — these writers established urban space as a key instrument for assigning culpability for the massacre and ensuring collective memory of the movement that exceeded the confines of 1968 and the state's denial and censorship. They partook in the tradition of remaking palaces built by the old regime to suit their present needs. Although the modern penitentiary was intended to enclose and discipline bodies, Lecumberri was quite permeable in practice, with visitors, information, and contraband flowing in and out — a symptom of the state's failure to care for these bodies even as it claimed to do so.

González de Alba and Revueltas, in particular, put forward a sensorial and even visceral experience of space, linking Lecumberri to the rest of the city as a mode of survival but also to question the incarcerated status of all citizens. Indeed, Revueltas offers a specific mode of perception, al nivel de la crujia (at cellblock level), that deconstructs the apparent solidity and immovability of penal as well as political architecture to foreground the social relations that give them form but may also be transformed. The two authors' phenomenological and also affective techniques — hauntingly visceral description, claustrophobic literary composition — hail their readers, positing memory as an embodied practice. At the same time they posit memory as a collective enterprise occurring in the here and now of the audience, which is treated as a supplemental witness with attendant ethical obligations. As such, the reader serves as a body of knowledge for the events of 1968 in their own right, carrying memory forward in time and space so long as these narratives continue to circulate, whether as text or interpretation (or reinterpretation). In 1976 Lecumberri was decommissioned and retrofitted for the national archive, the Archivo General de la Nacion (AGN). It would serve as the repository for government documents pertaining to the '68 Movement and subsequent state terror against leftist insurgents. These documents served as the foundation of the state's failed bid to prosecute those responsible in the early 2000s and recent revision to our understanding of the period by journalists and historians. As González de Alba and Revueltas propose, however, there are bodies of knowledge that may exceed or circumvent disciplinary institutions such as the penitentiary, or even the national archive. González de Alba's and Revueltas's architectonics for collective memory and recourse is permeable and open-ended rather than master-planned or managed, and would serve the narrators of the '68 Movement well amid the failure of Mexico's legal and political institutions to pursue justice for those killed by the state and for survivors. This chapter relates four cases in the history of the Black Palace, from the twentieth century's Lecumberri Penitentiary to the twenty-first's AGN, that have shaped collective memory of the '68 Movement and its search for truth and justice that extends beyond the confines of 1968.


When Lecumberri was inaugurated in 1900 it represented a departure from existing penal institutions in Mexico. Its chief advocate and first warden was Miguel Macedo y Macedo, part of a generation of elites who tied their fortunes to the Porfirian technocracy, calling for modernization based on scientific (and pseudoscientific) principles. Macedo y Macedo was a disciple of Gabino Barreda, who introduced August Comte's theories to Mexico from France. Working with the engineer Antonio Torres Torija, Lecumberri's architect, he drew from what came to be known as the New York System, piloted at the Auburn State and Sing Sing penitentiaries in the United States. These facilities moved away from constant confinement toward daytime labor groups that promised to rehabilitate prisoners by teaching them work and time and property discipline, all cornerstones of capitalist citizenship. Like Auburn, Lecumberri housed workshops, a clinic, and other welfare facilities, early components in a social-welfare infrastructure that would be expanded after the Revolution to produce such citizens. By the turn of the century Comte's positivism had been stripped of its (idiosyncratic) spiritual components and more closely resembled Herbert Spencer's theories of social evolution (i.e., survival of the fittest). This shift is evident in other facets of Lecumberri's design.

Perhaps the most striking feature was its watchtower, thirty meters in height, located in the central, circular courtyard (redondel). From this perspective guards could supervise the seven two-story crujías that radiated from the courtyard, with passage between them controlled by a series of gates. The watchtower recalled Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, the late eighteenth-century prison prototype that took its name from a hundred-eyed monster in Greek mythology. Bentham envisioned a prison monitored by minimal staff using a circular cellblock that backlit prisoners so that a single "inspection house" at its center could observe their movements. The watchman remained invisible to the prisoners, who would be led to believe they might be being supervised at all times. Revueltas described Lecumberri's watchtower as "an elevated polygon of iron, built to dominate every angle of the prison from up on high."

Studying the shift from public, if not spectacular, forms of punishment to prisons and other spaces that sought to discipline bodies, Michel Foucault understood designs like the Panopticon to enact regimes of "compulsory visibility." The Lecumberri watchtower presumed instant, total, and ceaseless identification and quantification of inmates. This assumption was not limited to Lecumberri but served as a foundation and perpetuation of the postrevolutionary state. The PRI presumed to represent and care for all citizens, with or without their consent. This was the basis of its biopolitical claim of sovereignty. Modernizing states, Mexico included, increasingly turned toward administering life (birth, illness, etc.) in addition to deploying its monopoly on violence. In practice, however, the PRI offered monumentally scaled and technologically sophisticated but ultimately partial gestures of "hospitality." This was a hospitality that welcomed and accommodated citizens not out of virtue or responsibility but as a means of asserting sovereign power. The state also did not rule out the use of violence, although it was normally out of sight of most citizens or so naturalized that they could not recognize it. For all its "compulsory visibility," the PRI's sovereignty depended on certain strategic blind spots. After failing to recognize the insurgency of the '68 Movement or suggesting that it was driven by foreign provocateurs or childish whim, the PRI also refused to see leaders of the movement as political prisoners even as it housed them in a separate crujía. To recognize them as such was not congruent with the image of a modern and liberal democratic Mexico that it promoted at home and abroad, especially during the Olympics.


González de Alba's Los dias y los aos opens not with the Tlatelolco Massacre but violence inside Lecumberri. A hunger strike launched by the political prisoners in December 1969, attracting international attention, was crushed forty-two days later when inmates from the general population were allowed to invade their crujía. Most of their material possessions were destroyed, including small libraries and writing instruments. Readers are immediately confronted with the unhomeliness of the penitentiary when González de Alba describes their return: "It is a strange spectacle; there were always some doors [of the crujía] open but never before now have we been in the middle of the courtyard looking at all the cells open at once, all plunged into darkness." Readers' eyes adjust not only to the dim of night but also to the carceral environment. Employing a collective "we" in the first pages that includes fellow prisoners as well as readers, they stand trying to make sense of the event. The attack may have erupted in a flash, but material traces remain: broken glass, lemon peels, books with the covers ripped off, unwound typewriter ribbon — not unlike photographs from Tlatelolco on October 3 that show shoes, purses, and other items abandoned in the massacre's chaos. The spaces and artifacts presented by González de Alba (and other narrators of the '68 Movement) aspire to more than straight documentation, literary atmospherics, or even the gritty authenticity of prison memoir. They insist that collective memory is an embodied, shared, everyday process that can override the burst and apparent historical rupture of violence.

Los días y los anos very quickly built a case for the '68 Movement's historical significance as well as its moral virtue. Contradicting media reports, González de Alba made it repeatedly clear that the state was at fault for the Tlatelolco Massacre. The movement, he argued, was not the product of a foreign conspiracy "seeking the ruin of souls" but a native and autonomous response to an ossified political system. He also identified what he saw as the state's collaborators inside the movement. Most prominent: Socrates Campos Lemus, who, among other allegations, stole the microphone and convinced the tens of thousands assembled at the Zocalo on August 28 to stay put until President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz agreed to address them in person. This impossible demand — Díaz Ordaz would cede jealously guarded authority, in effect — forced a confrontation with the military early the next morning. The president escalated his use of violence against the '68 Movement thereafter, convinced that the public saw the students and their supporters as unreasonable troublemakers.

Los días y los anos also offered an insider perspective on the workings of the movement's coordinating body, the CNH. For González de Alba the meetings were long and boring, if not infuriating, but they corresponded with its democratic intent, in contrast to the PRI's authoritarianism. Their primary tactic, public demonstrations, offered a modicum of security from the riot police and, moreover, were a means of addressing new supporters, circumventing ambivalent coverage by the press. Well aware that they needed to build alliances beyond campus, the strike coordinating council discussed holding meetings in factories and marches through working-class neighborhoods. González de Alba writes, paraphrasing one of the CNH representatives: "There was our future strength." The CNH was also aware that Mexico City's socioeconomic geography, which fragmented the city's residents, was not accidental but a direct result of uneven capitalistic development. Furthermore, cross-class solidarities were also discouraged by the PRI's corporatist political ecology, channeling demands into unions and other groups controlled by the party.

González de Alba also offered an insider perspective on the writing of the '68 Movement's history. He recreated several conversations between himself and his fellow prisoners, including Raúl Alvarez Garín, Gilberto Guevara Niebla, and Eduardo Valle. They compare notes, correct one another, and even police memory among themselves. Piecing together the details of the movement's multiple marches:

Do you remember when we saw the rector [of the UNAM] to ask him to head the manifestation of August 1 ?

Was it Wednesday? — he asked Gilberto.

— No, it was Tuesday the 30th of July. — You're right.

Another voice interjects to sketch another chronology. They went so far as creating a shared document consolidating their experiences to release to the press, although they abandoned it once Campos Lemus signed on, rendering it null to their eyes. This process of dwelling in Lecumberri and on the events of that summer were a matter of survival for the prisoners as much as the movement's memory. It reinforced social bonds among them, helping them cope with an unhomely environment. To this end, they continued their studies as best they could, teaching each other and treating it as a space of intellectual exchange and perseverance of political commitments rather than confinement. Eduardo Valle remembers studying music, economics, and history. He saw Lecumberri as a "school of ethics," an offshoot of the UNAM or IPN to the south and north of the city. The prisoners' efforts were echoed in Lecumberri's design and function. As a product of late nineteenth-century prisons reform, the penitentiary was already a machine for gathering and storing information. As new inmates entered Lecumberri, officials collected data (physical description, family tree, psychological condition) multiple times, and prisoners were classified and held based on this information.

In his Lecumberri documentary, El palacio negro (1977), Arturo Ripstein filmed the intake and release of inmates as an elaborate ritual that demarcates the transition from outside world to inside the penitentiary and back again. Although Lecumberri may have been designed to hold prisoners separate from society in order that they might be rehabilitated in a rational, panoptic space, the penitentiary was by no means hermetic. It was a microcosm of Mexico City; with comparable geographic, social, economic, and ethnic continuities and divides. Indeed, prisoners understood Lecumberri's design in urban terms, referring to the open-air crujías as neighborhoods and the passages in between them as streets. Some prisoners were allowed to travel between the cellblocks to peddle sandwiches and paletas like ambulant vendors downtown. Family members and friends visited some prisoners regularly with food, laundry, and other supplies. Among the regular visitors was Elena Poniatowska, a journalist who although not a participant in the '68 Movement had reported on it favorably. Poniatowska took part in the early hash-out sessions described by González de Alba and would go on to write La noche de Tlatelolco (1971), which drew in friends and family to this memory work, especially women.

González de Alba's spatial imagination, propelled by phenomenological description, further dissolved the boundary between Lecumberri and the rest of Mexico City (and the nation). Sitting in his cell, he describes hearing the sounds of the gears of trucks changing and the smell of their fumes as they pass by, transporting him elsewhere. He already knew the city to be a potent medium of communication. During the August 13 march from the IPN's Casco de Santo Tomás campus toward the Zócalo, the demonstrators passed through narrow streets of the city's core. The densely packed buildings were the perfect medium for their chants, with their voices bouncing off the facades serving as "a marvelous loudspeaker." After the hunger strike Gonzalez saw the cells as "holes, secret passages that lead to other jails," a reference to torture inside Lecumberri but also to Mexico's wider carceral environment. Much of Los días y los anos takes place outside Lecumberri, focusing on ordinary middle-class life. By moving freely inside and outside the penitentiary he underlined the continuity rather than opposition of these spaces. As Foucault suggested, spaces of discipline are networked, extending from obviously restrictive ones like prison and asylums to everyday social relations.


Excerpted from Hotel Mexico by George F. Flaherty. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations

1. city of palaces
2. revenge of dust
3. urban logistics and kinetic environments
4. gestures of hospitality
5. satellites
6. mobilization and mediation
7. dwellings


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