And then everything changed. In less than a month, the largest student movement since 1968 has swept Mexico, changing the course of a presidential election and sparking the first popular opposition to the country’s television duopoly. To say that political events in Mexico are moving quickly would be an understatement. In the final days leading up to the July 1st presidential election and the aftermath that continues to unfold, the story develops at Twitter-speed.
The movement known as #YoSoy132 (“I am 132”) was born as a hashtag on the social media site in the days following May 11th, a day that will surely be remembered as a key moment in the 2012 Mexican presidential election. That day, the candidate Enrique Peña Nieto visited Ibero-American University in Mexico City, a campaign stop that turned out to be unlike any other in his march towards Los Pinos, the Mexican equivalent of the White House.
Peña Nieto was the candidate hand-picked by the old guard behind the Institutional Revolutionary Party (commonly called the PRI, an acronym of the party’s name in Spanish), who ruled Mexico for 70 years, until 2000. The PRI’s rule was characterized by wide-spread corruption, intimidation and physical violence, especially in the rural areas of the country. As a young and charismatic former governor of the state of Mexico, Peña Nieto was obviously thought to be the perfect face of the “new PRI” as the party planned to retake power.
However, to place Peña Nieto at the center of this story would be to repeat the same error made by the mainstream media. It is not the candidate who deserves attention for his ineptitude in dealing with unscripted campaign stops, such as that of May 11th, but rather the students’ lightning-quick response to how the event was played in the media. The major media outlets––all of whom seem to favor the PRI––and some political commentators dismissed the protests at the Ibero-American by characterizing them as being initiated by 131 students who were trained and paid by a rival political party. In response, 131 students of the university posted images of their ID cards to the internet, asserting their identity as enrolled, politically-aware students and denying any outside direction. The tweet “I am the 132nd” instantly became a cry of solidarity among young people against Mexico’s media monopolies and the political class behind them.
But beyond the obvious, #YoSoy132 provides a nearly perfect case-in-point of how social media continues to change the relationship between media and democracies around the globe. Idea-sharing was coupled with old-school people power techniques with a quickness that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago: within a month of the beginning of #YoSoy132, multiple marches of an estimated 100,000 people each took to the streets in Mexico City and were echoed across the country.
But again, to talk about the movement exclusively in terms of numbers, technology and speed is also to miss the mark about why this is an important moment in Mexican––and hemispheric––history. It’s the feeling in the streets: empowerment, jubilation, awakening. It’s the poetry in the manifestos, that declare: We are sons and daughters of a new Mexico who are yelling––enough! Never again! … This movement is nourished … from the roots of respect between human beings. The movement has grown, and will continue to grow.
It would be easy to dismiss all of this as a brief flash, destined to suffer the same fate as the movements of 2006, which were poised to topple the current power structures and yet seemed to fizzle out in the end. That year, after the last presidential election, thousands occupied one of Mexico City’s largest streets for weeks in response to perceived electoral fraud. At the same time, the state capital of Oaxaca was taken over by citizens demanding the ouster of the corrupt state governor, and Mexico's political class was shocked by then-president Vicente Fox's use of violence against protesters in the city of Atenco––an incident in which Peña Nieto collaborated.
But just because these popular movements were successfully repressed by the ruling elite doesn’t mean that the rancor that spawned them was ever addressed or remediated. On the contrary, by relying on the timeless dirty political techniques of murder, disappearance, rape, torture, and biased reporting in the media, the ruling class in Mexico has only stoked the flames of popular indignation. Like a forest fire that continues to burn in the soil and later spontaneously jumps into the treetops, the push for a more democratic and egalitarian Mexico continues. And in an ever more connected world, direct political oppression becomes an increasingly risky game.
#YoSoy132 moves at a pace of hundreds or even thousands of individual messages per hour, pushed by a generation that is able to couple the hyper-literacy of the digital age with a political consciousness drawing on generations of struggle. They have organized their own marches, presidential debates, and have brought to the fore the anti-democratic tendencies of their country’s television duopoly.
But what will be the movement’s role post-election? Is this the “Mexican Spring,” following the example of the movements that swept the Arab world in 2011? Will this be the fire that burns the establishment to ashes, fertilizing the soil for the growth of a more democratic Mexico?
Stay tuned––preferably not to television, but rather to Twitter.