I Know My Son Is Alive, and He’s Going to Be a Teacher

The boy is hundreds of miles from the shrimp and the corn, from his placenta and from his mother. He may be, along with forty-two others like him, inside some strip of the state of Guerrero where the soil exudes the smell of death. Meanwhile, his father is hanging on.

"The authorities should pay for what they did, because they’ve done the worst thing to the most humble of people."

photo by Sapdiel Gómez Gutiérrez via flickr

On September 26, forty-three student-teachers from the school in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, Mexico, were kidnapped while passing through the Guerrero town of Iguala. Unnerved by their travel through his city, and apparently worried that the students would protest a speech by his wife, the mayor of Iguala appears to have ordered the arrest of the students, whereupon the local police engaged in their own acts of murder and torture (six students are alleged to have been killed by the police); the rest of the students were then turned over to the Guerreros Unidos criminal group—at which point they disappeared.

The first week of October, the search for the students led to the discovery of multiple mass graves in the hillsides around Iguala, containing charred human remains thought to be the students. The government held that these were the remains of other gang victims. On November 7, the Attorney General of Mexico announced that the burned remains of the students had been found in plastic bags, dumped in a river near Cocula in Jalisco, and that arrested gang members had confessed to the crime. An independent Argentinean study of DNA evidence did not connect the remains to the students. The parents of the forty-three, meanwhile, are determined to wait for conclusive evidence confirming the identity of the remains before they accept that their children are dead. This story, originally published in Sin Embargo on October 26, profiles one of the parents still waiting.

—Translator’s note

As soon as he turned 17, the boy left behind the south wind that blows through the Huave1 nation and took off towards Ayotzinapa, like his father Manuel Martínez had done two decades earlier.

Father and son had the same reasons for leaving San Mateo del Mar, Oaxaca. They would spend nights in the same dormitories crammed with dark-eyed and anxious young men. They would discover Marx and Engels with the same amazement and under the proud gaze of the same professors.

After four years, they would be reunited in the same house at the north end of which their placentas were buried when they were born. The years would revolve around the difficult droughts, the paltry rains, the appeals to the Virgin of Candelaria and San Mateo and the pleas directed toward Mount Bernal where—as everyone there knows—the spirits from the time before Hernán Cortés reside.

Many years later, their bodies would rest on the north side of the village cemetery, because the north is for the Huave men. They’re also associated with the right side and with thunder. The south, the left, and the wind are of the Huave women.

Except that fate took a turn, and now the boy is hundreds of miles from the shrimp and the corn, from his placenta and from his mother. The boy may be, along with forty-two others like him, inside some strip of the state of Guerrero where the soil exudes the smell of death. Meanwhile, his father is hanging on and is a man completely intransigent about two things related to his son: he refuses to tell the boy’s name, or to speak of him in the past tense.

The news came quickly, arriving the very day of the arrests. The father took off along the coast towards Iguala, hoping he would meet his son, one of the youngest of the students, there. One of the students was already known to have passed away, and, late that night, the deaths of two more were confirmed. There were others with wounds and fractures. At that time, there were fifty-seven students still missing, but that figure went down over the next few days to forty-three. The rest had escaped and managed to take refuge in the countryside. Some arrived at their homes in the small hamlets buried deep in Guerrero state, certain that Death had been let loose to stalk the streets like a wild dog.

One would think that a man who cries for his disappeared son would be an old man, but Manuel Martínez is barely over 35. His son is 17; he’s one of the youngest boys among the disappeared. He just started his first semester at the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teacher-Training School.

The young men who leave home to become teachers tend to hail from two of the poorest states in Mexico, Guerrero and Oaxaca. And they arrive somewhere where things aren’t that different. Manuel’s parents are even poorer than he is. They were born farmers and fishermen, and they’ll die the same. They’re huaves or mareños in Spanish, mero ikoots in their own tongue: Indians of the sea. Their language is  only spoken by 17,000 people, in isolated villages in southern Oaxaca.

The term huave has its roots in an epithet imposed by the Zapotec Indians. It means, “the people who rot in the humidity.” One version traces the origin of the Huaves to Nicaragua, before a migration to the north that dispersed them along the coast of Chiapas. Rivalries over the commercial significance of the area pushed them up further, until they were wedged between the seashore and the lagoons of the Gulf of Tehuantepec, at Mexico’s waist. The ecological devastation of the area reduced life to a survival dependent on the stingy rainy season; it coincides, at that precise point on the map, with the collision between the north and south winds.

Between October and February, the north wind blows hard enough to displace the dunes and carry them towards parcels of land that were once arable but now are just plains of sand and salt. The following months of wind from the south dry out the coast, and its revival depends on the irregular rains of June and September.

The Huaves pray for the rain in two senses: they ask for enough rain to make the lagoons and ponds overflow with shrimp, but to be spared the excess that comes pouring down in the hurricanes. Natives of San Mateo del Mar believe that the regularity of the rains depends on the offerings made towards Mount Bernal, in the coastal region of Chiapas; these are pleas related to the concept of monteoc, understood by the Huaves to refer to the bolts and streaks of lightning. In daily speak, teat monteoc means “Father Lightning.” His feminine counterpart is müm ncherrec, “Mother South Wind.” The south is the feminine wind; it comes from the sea, from the waves that the Virgin of Candelaria formed when her bare feet trod the Pacific Ocean.

Mount Bernal is the spiritual home of supernatural unions between the lightning storms and the winds, in essence the same as marriages between the Huave men and women of San Mateo del Mar. The act of burying baby boys’ placentas to the north of the house is, therefore, connected to the ritual of burying men’s bodies on the northern side of the cemetery. The placenta and the body of a woman are deposited in the same way: the first to the south of the house, and the latter on the southern side of the village burial ground. In the church, the women occupy the southern wing, which corresponds to the Virgin of Candelaria, while the men are on the opposite side, presided over  from the altar by San Mateo Apóstol.

At the end of the ’90s, brigades of teachers from Ayotzinapa went out recruiting in communities in every state. They made a visit to the school where Manuel Martínez, along with just twenty others, was then studying for his high school degree through a “telecommuting” program, in which students were instructed via television. Martínez understood that the teacher-training school was his only option for further education. 1,200 others applied along with him, but only 120 were admitted.

“I was used to surviving off of 50 or 100 pesos, and so boarding school was, for me, a joy and a triumph. I remember telling a relative that I was going and that, if I returned one day, everything would be changed. Unfortunately, reality is different.”

On the contrary, reality is no different than it was twenty years ago. San Mateo del Mar continues to be the same village of thatched roofs and sand floors, without running water or a drainage system. The electrical infrastructure that exists is badly damaged, and there’s no telephone infrastructure of any kind. The people still live on 50 pesos a day, and purchases are made in tiny quantities, 5 pesos of beans, tortillas, or cheese at a time. Martínez is one of the privileged ones, earning 4,200 pesos every two weeks.

“All of the schools are in bad shape. The state of education around here and in this country is terrible. It’s infuriating to even talk about it. The school where I teach has no electricity. The students live in the same conditions as ours, or even a bit worse because they survive off the corn, off the beans, off the tomato and chile pepper crops. In the afternoons they work planting or harvesting. They don’t have a single pair of shoes; they just use huaraches or other sandals. We look for a way for them to get ahead, but their lack of resources doesn’t help, and there are no jobs. They come to the middle school and then don’t continue their studies after that.

“For me, it has cost me too much work, and nobody needs to tell me what suffering is. We try to give something to our children, but unfortunately it’s not enough to support the family. That’s why the boarding school at Ayotzinapa is a good option for us. I recommended to my son that he study there in order to stand out, and I put the idea in his head that he could get ahead, and I made him see that there would be hardships, but at least he would be fed there and given support.

“The training program at Ayotzinapa is a boarding school that would give him, probably, a way to one day be a person with more advantages. He felt that he was fulfilling the dreams he’d set out to achieve since elementary school.”

“What were you hoping for your son?”

“I am hoping. I am still hoping. I am still hoping, because I know my son is alive. If they give our boys back to us, I assure you that my son will keep studying and will become a teacher.”

“What purpose will that serve for his life?”

“No, it’s not like that. It will serve as an experience. As we parents of the forty-three boys have been saying, this will serve all of us as an experience; it will help us to weather life’s blows, so that we can rise up and our young people can stand out.”

When Martínez’s son got in line to apply for admittance into the Isidro Burgos Rural Teacher-Training School in Ayotzinapa, he was among 319 other applicants interested in pursuing one of the three degree tracks available: Primary School, Primary School with Bilingual Intercultural Focus, and Physical Education. To understand just some of what Ayotzinapa has meant for rural education in Southern Mexico: in its eighty-four years of operation, 5,400 teachers have been trained to give classes in schoolhouses they themselves have constructed with spare lumber and sheets of metal, or even just beneath a tree if materials are lacking, and materials are still lacking in Mexico.

The state government provides the budget for the Ayotzinapa School, and the upkeep for the 532 students depends on public funds. The economic conditions at the school have always been difficult, except during the very progressive Lázaro Cárdenas presidency, between 1934 and 1940. The boys who are now missing used to fill their plates by raising pigs and hens and growing corn, beans, tomatoes, and chile peppers for subsistence. For many if not all of them, this is their only option for a university degree.

The political situation has also always been complex. Over the last decades, the school’s leftist reputation has often put the students in a precarious position. Manuel Ávila Camacho, President from 1940 to 1946, accused the boys of burning the Mexican flag and hanging a red and black cloth in its place. Multiple students were arrested on charges of sedition and criminal associations, charges that before the student uprising of 1968 were utilized by the Mexican government as a pretense to imprison political dissidents.

One of the teachers to graduate from the school was Lucio Cabañas Barrientos, student leader and head of the armed group Party of the Poor (Partido de los Pobres) during the ’70s. He was gunned down during the Dirty War, the counterinsurgency exercise employed by the Mexican State that encouraged collusion between drug traffickers and the soldiers and police who hunted Communists. Other combatants also passed through the school’s halls, some of them famous. Today Ayotzinapa is still considered to be—and this is both a positive quality and a defect—a guerrilla breeding ground.

This isn’t the first time Governor Aguirre, of Guerrero, has presided over a fatal encounter with the members of the rural school. Early in his term, in 2011, the students called for him to yield to a petition that demanded that repairs be made to the school’s facilities and its budget increased to improve conditions at the school. In December 2011, the kids blocked the Autopista del Sol highway that connects Mexico City to the port of Acapulco, and the federal and state governments deployed antiriot troops, who opened fire on the protesters. Two students died. Since then, there have been calls for charges to be brought against Aguirre.

Martínez’s son was accepted in June 2014, so he didn’t see those deaths. But he would see others: the deaths of the first six kids gunned down in the plaza in Iguala on September 26. Maybe, the next day, he saw his own.

“Would you say Governor Aguirre is the descendent of that Rubén Figueroa2, the governor that went after the guerrillas?” I ask Martínez.

“Perhaps yes,” he replies, warily.

“Is your son the descendant of Ayotzinapa’s radicals?”

“That’s right,” he says, not concealing his pride. “They are peasant people, village people. They always sought to end poverty.

“What does your son like? What does he like in life? Does he like the ocean, girls?”

“He likes the coast, he loves where he comes from. I can understand that, because we always adore our roots. He loves sports and likes soccer. He roots for América”— and Martínez gesticulates when he says this, to emphasize how he recognizes that, to prefer that team, implies a lack of political savvy3. “I always argued about it with him, but in the end I told him he was free to do what he wanted.”

On September 26, the day of the kidnapping, police, city officials, drug traffickers, kidnappers, and extortionists went after the youngest. The Ayotzinapa 43 were—are: Martínez demands they be spoken of in the present tense—between 17 and 19 years old. The majority of them were freshmen just starting their first semester, like Martínez’s son.

“My son likes all subjects, like I do: Spanish, History, Science, Civics and Ethics, Art.”

“What qualities does your son have? What are the characteristics that you as a teacher think are favorable to making your son a good teacher?”

“His education, his humility, his simplicity. His respect for other people and concern, always, for educating them, because that’s what gives you a boost in society. It’s not right what they did to them . . . The teachers aren’t criminals. They are young people with a dream. Many parents [of the forty-three disappeared] are farmers and don’t have a high quality of life. It’s not right that they did this to them. The authorities should pay for what they did, because they’ve done the worst thing to the most humble of people.”

“Is the violence in Oaxaca different?

“In some areas along the coast they’re going through a similar situation. In our area, though, you just don’t see things like this. One of the other fathers is from the state of Tlaxcala and he feels the same way, because over there they also have no experience with this sort of situation, and we find it just shameful; it’s just so sad what is happening in the state of Guerrero.”

“Ángel Aguirre has a son named after him, a local official. Do you think he can understand the pain you and the other forty-two families are feeling?

“If he was in our place, living out this situation, maybe he could comprehend. That’s the question they should be asking themselves; the politicians should be putting themselves in our position. They should be putting themselves in our shoes as farmers, as fishermen, as housewives. They should be putting themselves in the position of a father who has lost a son.”

“What has the suffering been like?”

“We trust that the boys are OK. We think that the boys are somewhere . . . Independent of whatever the politics these people have, these people who took them and still have them, we want them to give our boys back. Unfortunately, the graves they’ve found with the people that have appeared and their bodies—it’s shocking the level of cruelty that abounds in the state of Guerrero . . . Whether they’re all innocent or not, there are just so many dead bodies being found in the mass graves in the hillsides. It pains us, as parents, to know what we’re going through, what the state of Guerrero is going through. . . . It’s cruel, it’s infuriating that this is what our country is like and that the world is getting to know the reality of Mexico.”

“How is your wife doing?”

“Badly. She’s not doing well, at home. I’ve tried to keep her spirits up, to convince her not to give up and to still have faith that we’re going to find him. I’ve asked her not to come here. I hope to return to the house with our boy.”

“What would you tell Governor Aguirre if you were face to face with him?”

“To turn our boys over to us. He knows where they have them. And if the representatives and senators have any dignity, they should also resign. We can’t be represented by people like them.”

“And to Emilio Chauffet [Secretary of Public Education]?”

“I would tell him the same thing, that he should step down. They are the ones cultivating the countrywide corruption. The country is like this right now because of them. The political parties are shameful, embarrassing, because at the end of the day they are all the same. They used to upset my son for the same reasons, because he knows they are the ones profiting off the dignity of others.”

“Do you remember the moment when you decided your son would study at Ayotzinapa? Can you describe it?” I ask the man sitting before me on the sidewalk, on the side of the main drag in Acapulco.

“On one occasion we were chatting, and I asked him what he wanted to do with his life. ‘Girls, one day they’ll come along,’ I told him. He was young, real young,” he continues as if talking to himself, “and I tried to motivate him. ‘Your situation will be different and everything will come in time, son. Plan out a goal: do you want to go to Guerrero? Do you want to stay in Oaxaca?’ And he decided to leave Oaxaca. He always told me he wanted to be like me. ‘Make friends and, when I can, I’ll come visit you,’ I said. And then I never saw him again. I haven’t seen my son since.”

  1. One of the indigenous groups of Mexico’s Pacific Coast, local to just four villages on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the state of Oaxaca. 

  2. Elected Governor of Guerrero state in 1975, Figueroa’s administration oversaw the forced disappearances of at least a hundred activists, peasant farmers, teachers and students. This came in the midst of Mexico’s Dirty War, when government forces are believed to have kidnapped, tortured, and executed hundreds of leftists across the country. 

  3. Club América is one of Mexico City’s three local soccer teams, and it’s one of the most popular teams in the country. It’s owned by Televisa, the second largest media conglomerate in Latin America and an entity with a huge hand in Mexican society and politics. In general, soccer in Mexico is often criticized as being extremely corporate and linked to big power players in the country. For example, the team from the city of León is owned by the second richest man in the world, the Mexican telecom magnate Carlos Slim. After fans held up signs memorializing the forty-three students, and implicating the government in the murders, at a recent game, the Mexican Soccer Federation fined the soccer club for not censoring their spectators. 

—translated by Emma Friedland

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