Back in 1968 I was unaware of the student movements breaking out all over the world. Only distant ripples of those storms made their way to me, mostly through popular songs. Those songs, in turn, reached me through the distorting medium of television (See TMA 119. Top of the Pops 1968-69). At 14, new to the medium and not yet trained to talk back to it, I swallowed its version of reality hook, line, and sinker. The 1968 Olympic Games were a case in point.
Just about all I knew about the 1968 Summer Olympics (although they were the first Olympics to be held in a Spanish-speaking country, the first in Latin America, and the first in a developing country), was in Long John Baldry’s Mexico, a song in the top 40 that Autumn which entered the charts at #30 in late October and reached #15 at its height in mid-November. It turns out that it was the U.K. Olympic team’s theme song, but I didn’t realize this then. It was a catchy little tune, with a watered-down Latin rhythm of the kind one might expect to find in a video made by a British travel agency for British tourists. But that is a cynical comment made by the jaded older me, not something that I would have thought at the time.
Fast-forward forty-five years to New York City’s Howl! Festival 2013, the only public event I know that is dedicated to a poem. Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 Howl is now an anthem of the Beat Generation and the counterculture in general. (Here’s an audio recording of Ginsberg reading it and here’s the text of the complete poem.) Held in the East Village’s Tompkins Square Park, the festival’s kick-off event is a group reading of the poem by a lively gathering of poets, conducted by the redoubtable Bob Holman, founder of the Bowery Poetry Club, father of slam poetry. One of those poets was Sarah Murphy and, sharing stories afterwards in the Odessa Café, I learned from her the terrible truth behind the façade of the 1968 Mexico Olympics.
Many people will remember that two African American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, supported by Australian athlete Peter Norman, caused a big stir at the 1968 Olympics for silently raising their fists during the medal ceremony to symbolize Black Power and Black Unity in the face of racism in their home country. In the year when Martin Luther King had been assassinated, this doesn’t seem such a shocking action. At the time, though, they were expelled both from the U.S. Olympic Team and from the Olympic Village and widely criticized for having violated the Olympic spirit by drawing politics into the Games. But how many people are aware, even today, that the biggest civilian massacre in modern Mexican history, a massacre on the scale of the one in Tiananmen Square, had taken place in Mexico City itself just ten days before the Games were to begin?
In the Year 2000, President Vicente Fox came into office having campaigned to get to the bottom of government political secrets, chief among them the events of the night of October 2nd, 1968 in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, Tlatelolco, Mexico City. A short account can be found at Machetera, an extended audio story, Mexico’s 1968 Massacre: What Really Happened?, on National Public Radio, and a video in Spanish, Masacre en Tlatelolco, 2 de Octubre 1968. The official cover-up had been so successful that more than thirty years after the massacre we still had no idea (and still haven’t, according to Kate Doyle, principal investigator of The Mexico Project) how many people were actually killed on that night, when the army opened fire on a large group of students demonstrating against police brutality and demanding greater political freedom, as were their peers the world over. At the time the official line was that the students themselves had started it by firing at the military, who had shot back in self-defense, so that there were casualties on both sides. However, it has recently come to light that in fact another branch of the military had planted snipers in a nearby building to fire the first shots as if they were from students, so as to provoke the army into opening fire. Although reports of the number of people killed vary wildly, from 200 t0 2,000, even as high as 5,000, the official Mexican Government word that went out to the national and international press set the death toll at just twenty-nine. According to Sarah Murphy, who was living in Mexico and translating for Sports Illustrated at the time, the U.S. media parroted these figures unquestiongly, eager to get on with the real story, the Olympic Games, which must, at all costs, not be contaminated by politics.
It sickens me now to think of myself singing “Mexico (Underneath the Sun in),” so soon after cleaners had literally been sent out to wash the blood off the streets. Parroting that happy little promotional jingle, I was unknowingly helping to perform the same whitewashing function.
Mexico! You gotta be in so much to see in Mexico!
Take it from me you’re gonna see the greatest show
Underneath the sun in Mexico.
It was the greatest show all right, as in the greatest cover-up.
While TV viewers in Britain were happily sing-songing along with “Mexico,” students in Mexico were singing Chilean singer-songwriter Violeta Parra’s Me Gustan los Estudiantes (“I like students,” sung here by Mercedes Sosa), a song that became a movement anthem throughout Latin America, learned from each other in the streets, not from a telescreen. You can find its lyrics here, in both Spanish and English. One of my favorite lines in it is “Viva la Literatura!” When, I ask myself, did I last cheer for literature in the open air, making history shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow lovers of literature and life? The answer comes: just last weekend, at the 10th Annual HOWL! Festival, where hundreds of people paused for poetry and howled for the state of our humanity! There’s hope yet.