Saturday, August 04, 2007

"Book Report" '68 by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

One of the advantages to surviving and getting older (take if from the highway scribe) is that your not-so-distant experiences of youth become worthy of recounting to those whose perspective holds them to be quite distant.

the highway scribe, fortunate enough to still be chugging along, has strong memories of the 1960s and 1970s and, unlike most everything else he thinks about, people are wont to probe that particular set of recollections.

The reason is clear, regardless of your position on the virtue of same. The generation was - and it cannot be contested - a vibrant and revolutionary one that changed many small worlds it touched and many countries, too.

Today’s book covers the version that went down in Mexico and is simply entitled: "68" by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

Taibo II, is a scribe and historian who has apparently made a career of writing detective novels and an award-winning biography of Che Guevara.

By the by, “’68” was obtained through the Web site at Labyrinth Books for the grand total of $2.98 along with the gripping “Life of An Anarchist: The Alexander Berkman Reader,” about which a patented highwayscribery “book report” will be produced in short order.

The total cost was about $12 with most being attributed to postage, which, you know, is-oh-so -digital. Both were put out by Seven Stories Press, a charming generator of radical texts that also cranked out “Targeted” by highwayscribery friend Deepa Fernandes.

Anyway, this book is short and thin, picked from Taibo’s diaries and other scribbled observations from the student rebellion of that distant year in Mexico City.

There could be more, or should be more, but there isn’t. The author confesses to having many, many pages of remembrances on what was obviously the critical chapter of his life, unfolding at the tender age of 18, but has never been able to write the novel he thought the whole thing deserved.

So here we have a disparate collection of vignettes still useful, because we know so little about all of this. In fact, we still don’t know much, because this book is written in Spanish.

Now where would you be without the highway scribe?

Today the term “globalization” conjures thoughts of an unstoppable flow of capital (even the French capitulate), tainted Chinese food, and a monoculture spread like lumpy peanut butter across every outdated boundary marking the old nation states, binding us together in a nonbinding agreement of commercial flux.

But Taibo claims that the student movements of the ’60s, and certainly that of Mexico, were forged in a new environment of shared music, news, and politics...of globalized information.

For all their left politics and social concerns, he is quick to point out that the students never really succeeded in connecting with the workers and the “people” so much as forced a despotic government into crushing them with demands it could not, by its very nature, assent to.

While the 123 days of rebellion drew up to 500,000 students and hangers-on in Mexico City to some of its demonstrations, the nucleus was perhaps 8,000 students from the education department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, “constructed in the stew of political/cultural cultivation that had a global virtue. That integral madness surrounded us at every turn of our lives. It had to do with readings, heroes, myths, rejections, cinema, theater, love, and information.”

At the center of it all was El Che whose mini-skirted adherents were a source of constant sexual agitation to Taibo and his compa├▒eros.

“His death in ’67 left us with an enormous void not even his ‘Diaries from Bolivia’ could fill. He was the number one ghost. He who was there, and who was not, moving through our lives, the voice, the personality, the command from above to throw everything aside and get moving, the mocking dialogue, the project, the photo that looked out at you from every corner, the anecdote that grew and grew accumulating knowledge that seemed to have no end, through whom expressions worthy of boleros such as ‘total commitment’ did not seem laughable.

"But more than anything, El Che was the guy who was everywhere even in death. Our dead.”

Mixed-in with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and other American exports were France’s Charles Aznavour and somebody named Cuco S├ínchez. The rebels were also hooked on poetry, specifically anthologies from the Cuban revolution and the anti-Franco resistance in Spain.

There was, towards the end on October 2, when the government lost patience and cared not that the world saw it for the vicious, heartless entity it was, a massacre in a square called Tlatelolco.

“Radio Rumor,” the system of street level communications, mimeographed flyers, and roving “brigades” so crucial to the amorphous and adaptive rebellion, said 200 students were killed, that their bodies were taken out over the Gulf of Mexico in airplanes and disposed of.

Shades of Pinochet in Chile five years later.

Tlatleloco became the symbol for whole thing so that semi-aware observers of Latin American history like the highway scribe are often left with the impression that was all there was; that one night some students got crazy, started marching through the streets and got shot.

Taibo’s book is valuable for the way it divests a degree of importance from the graveyard that was Tatlelolco and restores it to many other positive events in which the students’ genius for organization shines, and to smaller clashes no less important to those shot, captured or tortured for their participation.

It went on for months, the kids hunkering down in the universities, the question of whether to continue striking the university in the face of fear and increasing repression always reaffirmed by the many student councils organized around their particular fields and schools of study.

Taibo’s book gives names and faces to the players of Mexico ’68; some who went on to star in the a growing democratic intelligentsia, and some who died, disappeared in ensuing urban and jungle insurrections, or just kind of faded in the duller lights of later years.


There was David “el ruso” or the Russian who, many years before Tiananmen Square, in the absence of photographers, “grabbed a pipe and moved toward an armored car entering [Mexico City’s main square]. Eye to eye he remained stuck on the fucking machine as it advanced growling. The soldier who manned the machine gun was locked into a stare with David, who, suddenly, lurched forward and unleashed a flurry of blows against the tank, denting it in numerous places. The machine halted. We pulled him out of there, dragging him, the soldier fixed upon him. Later, David said he had no memory of the occurrence.”

And one more, Arlette, the daughter of a stationery store owner who’d helped the rebels rob 150,000 sheets of paper from her father and for the cause. Her pseudonym was La Quinta, a brand of cigarettes, and she was remarkable for her capacity to unleash a string of epithets unmatched by other comrades.

Taibo and a clandestine group of which he and La Quinta were a part, had set a date to meet in a park, Parque Hundido. As were a lot of public places, Hundido was occupied by two companies of grenadiers; the government’s tool of choice in combating the future of the country-- the students.

Anyway, Taibo recounts, “The very irresponsible one came dressed in a suit made of a short cut white vest and mini-skirt, quite content eating a mango on a stick.” Walking right past rows of armed men, La Quinta was suddenly accosted by one, who grabbed her booty. “She turned and slapped him with the sloppy mango in the face. The grenadier fell back shocked. I closed my eyes. It was far enough away so that I could not hear anything. I counted to ten. She crossed the street looking for me. I did not dare raise my hand in recognition. When she reached me, La Quinta apologized for being ten minutes late, cleaning herself with a tissue of the sticky mango. We didn’t even talk about the incident. Each of us utilized a specific brand of lunacy in those days and if anything was the source of respect it was that, that personal lunacy.”

It was serious business. The school was cordoned off. The public transportation system, once painted in the black and red of the strike, strewn with slogans, was off-limits. The kids were hiding in anonymous homes and living in fear of kidnap by government agents and certain physical abuse.

The kids knew that the wick on a Molotov cocktail must be cut short to work, not because it was cool and exciting, rather a matter of self-preservation and a sign of recalcitrance.

The mass media joined with the government spreading lies and fear about the students that even the organic flight of Radio Rumor could not combat completely. But the people were with them; in Mexico City and in a little town called Topilejo.

Mexicans for the first time since the revolution were demanding accountability from their government.

Taibo’s story is about what they got instead.

You can probably guess, but read it anyway.

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