A Night of Protests: Ayotzi 43

In New York, the first Wednesday after Thanksgiving is typically reserved for the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting ceremony. But this year, the event shared the spotlight with two other separate events fueled by outrage – events that eventually merged right in the heart of the city.

That day, Dec. 3, New York was one of 43 cities across the United States to adopt the face of a Mexican student from a school in Ayotzinapa who went missing in Iguala, Mexico – one for each of the 43 missing students – a sign that protests against the Mexican government have been steadily spreading since their disappearance on Sept. 29.

The vigil was set to start at 7 p.m. at Times Square. Organizers were there early, and so was the media, but for a different reason. Earlier that day, a grand jury decision had been rendered on the Eric Garner case, and Times Square was one of the meeting points to protest the verdict. While some people left to join the Eric Garner protesters, many passersby stopped to observe what the “Ayotzi 43” demonstration was about.

Some onlookers got word through social media. Three weeks ago, USTired2 was created in response to the hashtag “ya me cansé” (Spanish for “I’ve had enough”). Others learned about the vigil through Facebook and word of mouth. But most of the attendees were there because they happened to be passing by the busy intersection on Seventh Avenue.

Protests about the Ayotzinapa 43 and the Eric Garner decision merged in Times Square on the night of Dec. 3 (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

Protests about the Ayotzinapa 43 and the Eric Garner decision merged in Times Square on the night of Dec. 3 (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

One of these people was Salvador Ávila, who works in the area.

“I didn’t know this was happening today, but it’s a good thing I finally came across it,” he said. “I’m very disappointed with the lack of response from the Mexican and American governments.”

A native of Mexico, Ávila said he learned about the occurrence through the U.S. media, and wanted to supplement his information through friends in Mexico on Facebook.

“I don’t know if it’s because they weren’t informed or just scared of speaking out against what happened, but it’s not okay that no one said anything for a week.”

Speaking to the United States’ role in the matter, organizers like Angela Hernández criticized the government for funding what she called state-sponsored terrorism. She added that through the Merida Initiative, which began in 2008, the United States has allocated more than $2 billion to Mexico to fight the “war on drugs” and has ignored human rights violations.

According to some estimates, more than 60,000 people have been brutally murdered and 25,000 have gone missing since the plan began.

“The world needs to understand that Mexico is a repressive state. Big media there is censoring what’s really happening and the government is punishing anyone who speaks up. Social media is our alternative. We are the voice of our people,” said Hernández.

Diego Ayala, a 17-year-old tourist from Coahuila, Mexico, was sightseeing in the area when he came across the vigil. He said that while there hasn’t been much of a response in his hometown, he along with millions of Mexicans have strong opinions about what’s happening in his country.

“We can see here that Mexicans living abroad are really angry. That’s why they’re making so much noise, and I think it’s a good thing,” said the teenager.

In Mexico, there have also been mass gatherings of people to protest the lack of accountability for the missing students, as well as discontent with the government. Last week, President Enrique Peña Nieto announced reforms to stop collusion between police and criminals.

“Mexico cannot continue like this,” Peña Nieto said in a speech to an assembly of Mexico’s political leaders. “After Iguala, Mexico has to change.”

Despite these remarks, many protests have been recorded since Dec. 1, which marked his two-year anniversary in office. According to the blog Grupo Reforma, the president’s latest approval rating is 39 percent.

For Joanna Katz and her husband, the unrest in Mexico has hit close to home. A rabbi and meditation instructor, she has taught in Mexico over the past couple of years. One of her students sent her an email urging her to not forget what was happening. Although she lives upstate, she extended her stay in the city to attend this vigil.

“The U.S. has to stop blindly sending funds,” she said. “It needs to make the connection.”

The vigil continued for almost two hours when hundreds of protesters began to flood Times Square from Rockefeller Center. The demonstrators from the vigil were quick to join the incoming chant.

Hands up, don’t shoot!

As a reporter was interviewing Roberto Lovato, one of the organizers who spearheaded #USTired2, he stopped speaking as the choir of voices filled Midtown.

“Do you hear that? It’s like an echo.”

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