Josna Rege

212. ¡Viva la Literatura!

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Britain, history, Inter/Transnational, Media, Music, places, Politics, reading, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, writing on June 3, 2013 at 2:59 am


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.

Opening of Summer Olympic Games,  Mexico City, 12 October 1968 (photo: Sergio Rodriguez)

Opening of Summer Olympic Games, Mexico City, 12 October 1968 (photo: Sergio Rodriguez)

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?

New photos that demonstrate the complicity that existed between the police and the military (from

New photos that demonstrate the complicity that existed between the police and the military (from

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.




Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. The Mercedes Sosa song lyric made me cry & I listened to the powerful song, thank you Kristin. I have typed out the words & may read them at the folk club tonight. As I was digging ‘graves’ to plant roses in memory of dead pets today, I was thinking that even an unloved barn cat deserved to be remembered in this way. Will I have ‘done sufficient.’ E

    • I love it too and feel that it’s a song that should be known more widely—although I expect that it’s already very well-known in the Spanish-speaking world. May pain and injustice never leave us indifferent, however small or powerless the sufferer. And may your roses flourish. It’s delightful to think of you gardening by day, declaiming poetry by night, and somehow managing to write so much in-between.
      P.S. I’ve only just realized that (sadly, the late) Mercedes Sosa was none other than the famous singer known as La Negra, “the voice of the voiceless ones.”

  2. Also the History category. I feel yr work merits a wider readership of intellectual, documentary, writers.

    • Thank you very much for the suggestion, E! I have gone right ahead and implemented it (see latest post). The category is pretty broad (just about every story could fit into it!), but I’ve left it like that for now.

  3. I recently saw a film about those two black athletes; they (& their team member fm Australia – who supported them – were sent home in disgrace & suffered life-long negative consequences). I didn’t know about the massacre but nothing much surprises me now!
    I hope you placed this in the ‘political’ category did you Josna? Formidably researched as ever. E

    • Thank you E, I had almost added the info about Peter Norman, but left it out. I have corrected that omission now. I’ve also checked out the documentaries on the event and on Norman (who died in 2006) and added links to the story.
      And thank very much for giving me the idea to add a Politics category. I’ve just done that, too, assigned some 25 stories to that category, and also added several more stories to the listing in my Note, “A New Kind of TMA Story.”

  4. I don’t remember when I found out about the massacre in Mexico in 1968. I didn’t know at the time. I didn’t realize how much was happening all over the world just at that time. I was 22 and graduated from University in Dec of 1968. It was only in the past several years that I read about movements all over the world and how so many of them came to a screeching halt by 1972. I thought it was just the group that I was involved with that sort of faded away.

    Thank you for the link to Mercedes Sosa singing Me Gustan Los Estudiantes. She is one of my favorite singers but I’ve never heard that one before.

    • I remembered how I found out about the massacre. 5 years ago, I went with an old SNCC member to a photo exhibit at the High Museum of photos of the freedom movement in the south. Part of the exhibit included a timeline of events that were happening around the world at the same time. There were photos of massacre at Tlatelolco.

      • It is eye-opening when one realizes that something that one has seen as specific to one’s own experience was in the air at the time, and was a widespread and global phenomenon. As you well know, that year, 1968, wasn’t by no means just marked by the May uprising in France, but it’s easy to get that impression in some quarters.

    • Yes, that is so true. I always felt that I came to the U.S. a bit too late, since we arrived in 1970 (which was a time of fever-pitch activism), and by the time I entered university in 1971, it was already the beginning of what came to be known as the Yuppie era or the Me Generation. Another shift of that kind came in 1980, with the election of RR to office. The anti-nuclear movement, which had been active and growing, similarly went into rapid decline.
      This was my first introduction to Mercedes Sosa. Now I will look for more of her songs.

      • One of my favorites is ‘Sólo le pido a Dios ‘

        • Thank you! Listening to it now. . .
          What a rich and powerful voice! Just looked up the English translation of the lyrics–super-inspiring:

          All I ask of God
          All I ask of God/That pain does not leave me indifferent,
And that parched death will not find me
/Alone and empty not having done sufficient.
          All I ask of God/
That I not be indifferent to injustice
/That they won’t slap my other cheek,
/After their talon has scraped away my luck.
          All I ask of God
That I not be indifferent to war,
/It’s a big monster which crushes/
All the poor innocence of the people.
          All I ask of God
That I am not indifferent to deceit,
/If a traitor can do more than the masses,
/Then let not the masses forget him easily.
          All I ask of God
/That i am not indifferent to the future,/
Hopeless is he who has to go away/
To live a different culture.
          All I ask of God/
That i am not indifferent to war,/
It’s a big monster that crushes/
All the poor innocence of people.

  5. yo! howl on. bine

  6. Wonderfully enlightening and brings back so many memories, both good and bad.Thanks Josna.

    • Thank you, Don. Yes, this one is a memory that I don’t have but have belatedly learned needs to be remembered. My conversation this past weekend has led me to go back and research that horrible episode in recent Mexican history that ought to be as infamous as Tiananmen Square.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: