Today’s stories hit close to home for me. They all surround an ongoing conflict at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, or UNAM, Mexico’s largest university. The UNAM campus, CU, is located a few colonias to the south of where I live, a short bus ride away. I’ve been to the campus, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to admire it’s museums, gardens, and towering library adorned with famous Orozco murals. I know people who study here.
First, I’ll explain what’s going on for anyone who hasn’t heard about. The story is all over the news here, of course, and is even reaching U.S. and Canadian outlets. Then I’ll approach it from two other angles I have not seen covered on the news, which came to me from those with firsthand experience.
Porros and Protests
On August 27, a small group of UNAM students gathered to protest the kidnapping and murder of a female student, and moreover, the reluctance of university staff and city officials to do anything about this and similar incidents. Violence is not unheard of on campus, and drug trafficking is rampant. One source tells me you can find pretty much any drug you want in CU, and you don’t have to be especially street smart to do it. It’s an open secret that the dealers have hung out in the same locations for decades.
While the protest was getting under way, a number of buses, travelling from the bordering State of Mexico, rolled up to the area and large groups of fellow students emerged. These students were not here to join the protest. In fact, they fell upon their peers with sticks, stones, knives, explosives, and Molotov cocktails. Fourteen protesters were injured and two were seriously injured to the point of needing emergency surgical attention.
The premeditated and highly organized attack was carried out by a student group at UNAM. Referred to as Porros, the nature of this group is tricky to pin down. They’ve been around since the 30s, and are sanctioned by the university despite a long history of violence and criminal activity. Porros were even involved in the infamous Tlatelolco Massacre, when the government gunned down student protesters who were making Mexico look bad during the Olympics.
The official purpose of the porros is to show university spirit at football matches. They were formed when existing groups–university gangs, the authoritarian government, and devious elements within the UNAM faculty and football teams–found their interests had aligned. Porros are firmly entrenched on campus, and act on behalf of politicians or institutions who pay them to suppress political dissent.
Imagine porros as an extreme version of a frat. Before anyone gets offended, I know there are many innocuous and law-abiding frats. I also know for a fact there are frats who act to cover up sexual assaults committed by their members, commit rampant acts of vandalism, and get involved in serious crimes like theft and trafficking. In some cases, university faculty are aware of foul play but will sweep it under the rug to protect the system unless and until the heat gets out of control.
UNAM reacted by expelling 18 of the alleged attackers. Sadly, this is an improvement over how such an incident would have been handled in the past, but was not nearly enough for this generation of students. A week after the event, another protest met at CU, and this time attendants numbered in the thousands.
Sor Juana’s Support
The massive movement organized by UNAM students sparked solidarity all over Mexico City, and students from a number of universities have staged their own protests. Even the faculty of 41 other institutes got involved–in exactly the wrong way.
My girlfriend, Venezia, attends El Claustro de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a relatively small yet prestigious university known for its programs in the fields of literature, science, and culinary studies. The student body is composed of what people would more-or-less-affectionately call chairos. The U.S. equivalent would be someone from Portland sporting a fedora and neck beard, sipping a vegan soy latte and getting stoned out of his mind while explaining how communism is a totally valid system, it just hasn’t been done the right way yet.
Basically, radially liberal, suspicious of authority, and not shy about speaking their mind (often through avant garde mediums such as street art or interpretive dance).
In response to the attacks, Sor Juana was among the schools issuing statements of support for UNAM and its students. The statement, written by faculty, was addressed from faculty and students, igniting fury in the student body. Classmates and friends of my girlfriend are now furiously organizing a march protesting their own school, and the movement has met with overwhelming support from fellow students.
The students of Sor Juana have no problem condemning the violence, of course. In fact, porros are exclusively male and, while they commit violence against everyone, more of it happens to women. Sor Juana is a sanctum for feminists in a city that isn’t always kind to them, so the attack struck a chord.
The issue is that the statement expressed support for the faculty of UNAM, who theoretically stand against this kind of violence. Despite the expulsion of a handful of porros–many of whom are registered with the university in name only and do not attend classes, making expulsion a meaningless punishment–the university has taken no steps to remove porros from campus. Porros are an institutional problem and they depend on UNAM for support. To many students, statements that express solidarity with the institution of UNAM are in fact expressing solidarity with the porros themselves.
To recap the story so far, we have students protesting institutional violence on campus, who are being lumped together and supported with the very people they are protesting in statements made by other universities, which are now being protested by those universities’ other student bodies.
You might want to read that over a few times to make sure you’ve got it. The next wrinkle takes this story to the realm of the surreal.
The Starbucks Angle
While all this is going on, another university, Tecnológico de Monterrey, is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Tec is the Mexican equivalent of an exclusive Ivy League school. In fact, our current-but-not-for-much-longer president graduated from one of its campuses. People feel about Tec students about how you’d expect. Chances are, none of them have specifically done any wrong to you, and many of them are even really smart and probably worked really hard to get in. Despite your best efforts, you still can’t help but vaguely resent them for the fact that they come from rich families and their lives are constantly being made easier by the fact their parents know the right people.
To celebrate their anniversary, the university partnered with Starbucks to launch a brand new beverage in their honor: the sugary blue Starbucks Frapuccino Tec.
UNAM students took note and began lambasting the university and its students on social media, for taking part in such a petty celebration of capitalism and privilege while much more important issues are going on.
I admit it seems like poor timing, although nobody planned for their anniversary to fall on such an unfortunate date. And no, there isn’t more to this story: the UNAM protests and the Tec celebration are in no way connected, and never would have been if a few enterprising students hadn’t decided to stir up controversy.
It is a perfect storm for generating controversy. The Tec celebration isn’t hurting anyone and has nothing to do with what’s going on at UNAM. Still, Starbucks being Starbucks, and Tec being Tec, the whole thing just feels like a case of capitalism and privilege run amok, even if no one can articulate why.
While the initial attacks were unprovoked, some members of the Tec student body were all too happy to clap back, playing right into the worst stereotypes by making fun of UNAM students for their lower class status. The common refrain has been that UNAM students are all too happy to use protests as an excuse to get out of classes and work. They aren’t politically motivated, they’re lazy.
That’s frankly awful, but certain UNAM students are doing their best to one-up their rival rival students in sheer cruelty. Almost exactly one year ago, Mexico City was rocked by a devastating earthquake, and the Tec campus was hit especially hard. Now some UNAM students are making the deaths of fellow students and the destruction of their campus into a joke at Tec’s expense.
The crime that started all this was horrible, and I’m glad people tried to take action. Now, as always seems to happen, we’ve reached the point where things have spiraled out of control. Battle lines are being drawn over petty and unrelated issues. This is no time for nuance, you’re either With Us or Against Us. It’s about proving you belong to a tribe and virtue signalling rather than making a difference.
How did we get to this point and what should we do about it? I couldn’t begin to tell you. Not only do I lack answers, this story lacks an ending. These events are ongoing, and I don’t know what happens next. No one does.