Professor discusses Mexico’s role in global Cold-War era politics

By KATERINA FRYE | November 15, 2018

Alan Shane Dillingham, assistant professor of Latin American Studies at Spring Hill College, discussed his recent book, México Beyond 1968 in Levering Hall on Tuesday. The book reexamines the tumultuous politics of the 1960s by exploring indigenous peoples’ perspectives and evaluating Mexico on a global stage. 

The event was hosted by Latin America in a Globalizing World (LAGW), a project in the program of Latin American Studies at Hopkins that aims to analyze the role Latin America plays in global policy.

During his talk, Dillingham focused on Mexico during the Cold War, citing the student massacre at Tlatelolco in 1968 as evidence that Mexico was a part of the turmoil that characterized the post-WWII world. He described how the government’s massacre of Mexican students galvanized their peers in the fight for greater democracy against the repressive regime.

“People have started to decenter the violence of 1968 to say this is part of a much broader pattern, that maybe Mexico isn’t as much of an outlier in the Cold War as we once thought,” Dillingham said. 

He then elaborated on the four processes central to rendering 1968 an internationally explosive year: demographic growth, expanding education, ideological polarization and globalization. The latter allowed Mexican students to connect directly with youths across the world, especially because of the worldwide spread of TV and music. 

“The traditional narrative is about the global youth culture that can consume together, think together and speak to each other,“ Dillingham said. “So these are ways in which Mexico, particularly Mexico City and the student movement, fits into that broad narrative.”

Dillingham’s research includes the political activism of indigenous youths in Oaxaca, Mexico. He explained that his interest in non-Western activism stemmed from witnessing a social movement by indigenous teachers in 2006. Though the movement began over salary negotiations, it culminated in teachers calling for the Oaxacan governor to be overthrown. 

As he researched the origins of indigenous teachers and their labor unions, Dillingham explained that he stumbled across the role of the indigenous youths. 

“I came across these indigenous youths who were originally contracted as agents of development. They were contracted to do public health campaigns, vaccinations and Spanish literacy instruction,” he said. 

He added that these activists became development brokers and enrolled in Oaxaca institutions, emphasizing that it was through exposure to literature and academics that the youths became politicized. 

“They are fighting for positions as bilingual teachers — their demands are not student demands but are demands about the professionalization, the creation of positions for themselves,“ Dillingham said. “The Oaxacan state is one of the few agents of employment, so they are in direct confrontation and dialogue with state development agencies.” 

This created conflict, according to Dillingham, because though the Mexican government was modernizing indigenous education and agriculture, its policies did not align with indigenous customs. He described how one farmer from Mexico City pitched a project to the indigenous Mixe peoples, but it was not implemented until the farmer incorporated indigenous methods.

“He doesn’t understand that it is a consensus process, that it is the Mixe’s custom, and they reject his proposal for this education initiative,” Dillingham said. 

On a broader scale, Dillingham recounted the controversial presidency of Luis Echeverría in relation to both the traditional student movements and the indigenous youth movements. 

Though he emphasized that the decade was marred by violence towards dissenters, he also added that Echeverría introduced some policies beneficial to both movements. These included shared development, investment in social programs and boosting Mexico’s international presence. 

“There is this Janus face of Echeverría’s administration, in which he has this official democratic opening, and he is also violently repressing dissidents who won’t fall in line,” Dillingham said. 

He concluded his talk by opening the floor for a conversation about Mexico’s role on the global stage and the struggles that indigenous activists face. 

Katie Hindmarch-Watson, an assistant professor of History with a focus on modern Britain and the British Empire, attended the talk because she finds decolonization in the post-war era fascinating. 

“The trade union movement — the radical student movement — it’s all part of this anti-colonial leftist-center constellation of ideas. It’s an idea about fighting inequality and imperialism,” Hindmarch-Watson said. 

Assistant Professor of Iberian Studies Bécquer Seguín is a part of the Latin American and Globalizing World project. He thought that the event was important because it analyzed a critical time in Mexican history.

“What [Dillingham] is doing is de-centering Mexico City from the story about 1968 in Mexico, which is important, because there are lots of political moments that led up to ‘68 and that massacre, and ‘68 is seen as a shift in policy from the pre-government,” Seguín said.

He elaborated how after 1968, the political climate became more diverse with the mobilization of more activists and the emergence of indigenous trade unions.

“[Dillingham] is trying to connect indigenous history to the typical story of 1968 that we get, which is a very North Atlantic, France-centric story, or with the U.S., a Kent State centric story. So what’s interesting is that he is bringing in a completely different perspective that doesn’t often get spoken about,” Seguín said. 

Senior Linda Krasniewski appreciated Dillingham’s alternate perspective about Mexican history.

“I found it interesting hearing about how historians go about doing their work and how they go about realizing the limitations of their work but also what their work can do to give us more perspectives,” Krasniewski said.

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