We Make Our Way by Walking

Al andar se hace el camino.

(We make our way by walking.)

-Antonio Machado

After work last week I rushed over to the library in San Francisco’s Mission District to work on my blog. I’ve been trying to launch it for some time now – fussing over what it should be about, reading old textbooks for ‘essential background,’ listening to podcasts and reading online articles to learn just a little bit more about the subject I’d chosen for my first post.

With about twenty tabs open on my browser (videos of Javier Sicilia, a profile of Mexican president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, the US State Department’s drug war policy…) I decided to grab a bite to eat before diving back in for the last hour until closing time, promising myself I’d finally just start writing!

I walked out the door and headed for Taquería El Farolito. Between the library and the restaurant lies the 24th Street BART station with its benches and open space – an inviting stage for all sorts of community activities. This particular evening my screen-burnt eyes fell on a group of people talking animatedly in Spanish in front of large posters reading ‘Remember Tlatelolco’ and ‘Yo Soy 132.’

The first poster refers to the Tlatelolco Massacre, which occurred in the days preceding the 1968 summer Olympics. A corrupt and abusive Mexican Government had spent millions of dollars preparing for the games, so university students began protesting what they saw as a misuse of public funds as well as a law that criminalized ‘social dissolution.’ The day I found myself at the BART station was the same day that, 44 years earlier, a large crowd of the Mexican protesters had been surrounded by police and military and shot indiscriminately.

Yo Soy 132’ is a student movement that began during this year’s Mexican presidential election. After students at the Universidad Iberoamericana protested a campaign visit by candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, his conservative political party (the PRI, back in power after a 12-year interruption to 71 years of rule) as well as the mainstream media dismissed the demonstration as the work of rabble-rousers from outside the school. The 131 participating students responded by displaying their school IDs online to refute the mischaracterization of their political action.  Supporters of the movement rallied around the phrase ‘Yo Soy 132’ (I am 132) to show solidarity with the protesters. The election is over, but the movement is still active.

I approached some of the participants and asked if someone could explain to me what was going on. A dark-haired man with glasses who had a camera hanging from his neck turned and answered – they were trying to raise awareness of the 1968 massacre and call attention to the continuing oppression and violence that is going on in Mexico today. He pointed out that it’s very important for people here in the United States to understand what is going on in Mexico – our two countries are so intimately linked, and violence there makes its effects felt here. Sooner or later, in one way or another.

I had a great conversation with him about how he thought Peña Nieto’s government would affect the country, about corruption and the drug war and immigration. He mentioned that the local cell of Yo Soy 132 has regular meetings and gave me a flier before I left.

In other words, I emerged from my library research session only to find myself in the midst of a manifestation of the very movement I had been trying to learn about on my computer.

With every bite of my burrito, my conviction that travel is important grew stronger.

I have spent hours over the last few weeks trying to get up to date on current events and movements in Mexico and Latin America. Time well spent, I believe, because of the familiarity I am developing with the basic vocabulary of modern Mexican society, the who, what, where and when. But it was the personal interaction with people whose lives are shaped  by those events that made them real and meaningful for me, that gave me a palpable sense of the importance, beauty, and horror of the things that until now I’d only read about.

Travel – leaving the familiar and engaging the other – is a motivating force for progress. When I step out the door and talk to someone who perhaps I think I know something about, I learn a great deal more and care a great deal more about our mutual well-being and our society.

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