Ayotzinapa’s 43: How to Respond to Social Unrest as a Traveler

September 28th: the afternoon we boarded the bus, we heard murmurings of a protest: something about poor, rural students and injustices in the government. The details were unclear. Protests are a fairly regular occurrence in that region, so we didn’t give it much thought at the time. It wasn’t until a full week later that the story lifted from the fog of rumor and mounted into a full nation-wide movement. Rose like a phoenix from the ashes would be a more accurate description, but in the early stages of rebirth it’s not new life that you notice, but only pain.


We had left Chilpancingo, Guerrero – my husband’s hometown – only a day and a half after the horrific event: 43 students of a teacher training school in Ayotzinapa had been detained by the police during a protest in the nearby town of Iguala, and were now missing – presumed to have been burned in a mass grave by the drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos. That such a level of sanctioned corruption and psychotic violence happened in a country as stable as Mexico is so shocking, at the time it seemed more fiction than fact. As the weeks passed, and we found ourselves immersed in protest after protest, the truth became glaring.


In the month that followed, my husband and I were in Oaxaca, one of the most activist cities in the country. There were multiple calls to join the marches. My husband, a native of Guerrero, and well familiar with the racism, corruption, and violence of his home state and country, was ready to pick up arms and join a revolution – should someone decide to organize one. I, however, was not permitted to so much as step into the crowd of banner-waving students. (In Mexico, foreigners can be arrested and deported for participating in political protests).


On an evening one month later, my mother and I were at a third floor internet cafe near Zocalo in Mexico City when we heard the chanting of voices. Looking out the window we saw thousands upon thousands of citizens marching, demanding the return of the 43 students; crying out angrily for the resignation of the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto. What had begun as sporadic protests had rapidly built momentum and become a nation-wide roar for justice.

Thousands of people take to the streets on November 5, 2015 demanding Ayotzinapa's missing 43 students to be returned alive.

Thousands of people take to the streets on November 5, 2015 demanding Ayotzinapa’s missing 43 students to be returned alive.


We walked slowly along the side of the stream of protesters in awe. I’d never experienced anything like this. I didn’t know how to react. I felt separate from them – an outsider. Yet I wanted to bleed with them – to offer myself to their cause. Being barred from that, both by my husband’s warning and my mother’s presence, I did the only thing I could: I pulled out my camera. If I couldn’t join them, I could at least document their struggle and share it with the world.


It felt cheap at first – like I was playing tourist when thousands around me were bracing for war. When no one scowled at me, and one solitary protester invited me to take his photo, I realized they knew this wasn’t for my scrapbook. I realized I was doing what I could.

After consciousness, pictures and words are the most powerful weapons we have when waging peace.



Protester outside Bellas Artes, Mexico City

The next day we found another protest in the form of performance art. Portraits of the 43 missing students were placed in a line in the Zocalo (the main city square). Scattered amongst them were living students, holding various agonizing poses. Again, I took out my camera, weaving my way down the line.


The night before the protesters had brought the power of the masses. This day they brought the power of the personal. These were not students numbered 1 through 43; these were people: your brother, his son, her boyfriend. Now nothing left of them but a pile of ash and memory, their lives snuffed out by the greed of political psychopaths.


As I made my way along the line I was met by a man on stilts. He was dressed in a black suit and tie with dark sunglasses, accompanied by a similarly dressed woman carrying a bucket. He stopped at a young woman, pulled her up off the ground by her hair, and dipping his hand into the bucket, splattered and smeared blood across her face and down her back. He moved from one to another, spilling blood on each of them before leaving them half naked and wailing on the cement in front of Mexico’s National Palace.


Intense. Surreal. Profound. With tears in my eyes I joined my husband as he spoke with the student organizers on the side. I had nothing to say but “Gracias.” Thank you for speaking out. Thank you for choosing a peaceful protest over a violent one. Thank you for creating such an incredibly powerful message.


I was left with the question “What can we as travelers or foreigners do when we find ourselves in the midst of political or social unrest?” In some cases it may be appropriate to join the movement, such as when a South African I met was so moved by Obama’s first campaign, he flew to Ohio to volunteer his time. Often, however, it is illegal or simply unwise for us to jump into a protest, either for safety reasons or because as outsiders we don’t have a strong grasp of the myriad causes and effects. Yet when an injustice is so pronounced and we feel we must participate in some manner, what can we do?


As travelers, one of the main reasons we make the journeys we do is to break down the very borders we cross. To open minds to new perspectives and to foster understanding and compassion – within ourselves and others.


Student poses with portrait of 1 of the “missing” 43

How many times have you heard someone speak in fear, disdain, or miseducation of a country, basing their judgment only on news reports and stereotypes – a country that you’ve experienced directly and had an utterly different view of? Have you ever heard someone say they would never travel to (fill in any non-white country here), because it’s too dangerous, when you know from experience that is as absurd as saying the state of California is unsafe for travel because of gang shootings in an L.A. ghetto? (Side note: I once had an entire class of Vietnamese teens tell me they wouldn’t travel to the U.S.A. because all Americans carry guns).


We as travelers have the opportunity to show a side of the story that the media doesn’t cover. We have the opportunity to present a human face to an international headline.


We have our words and our photos to share with those who haven’t been there. More importantly, we have our personal experiences and can provide a glimpse – free of vested interest – into international affairs. Perhaps we can even emphasize to others why they should give a damn.


The next time you find yourself in the midst of social upheaval in a foreign country, don’t just snap a few photos to post on Facebook. Dive into it. Talk to the locals and find out what they think. Yes, Facebook spreads awareness, but only if we use it consciously can it help to bring about conscious change. Dwell on the subject a while. Write an article for your blog, for a local publication, or even just for your friends and family.

Our responsibility as travelers is not just to educate and enlighten ourselves through our experiences, it is to be a force for compassion and understanding, and in our own small way, for peace and equality.

What happens in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Mexico does concern all citizens of the world, because at the end of the day, money, crime, and hatred don’t obey borders. So why should our sense of humanity?


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A video posted this morning of the protest on November 20th (Mexico’s Revolution Day), in which hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered at the Zocalo and demanded the renunciation of their president, Enrique Peña Nieto. They then burned an effigy of the president. I’ve never seen anything like this:


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