ST. GEORGE — To mark the seventh anniversary of the disappearance of 43 students, who went missing after visiting Iguala, a city in the state of Guererro in Mexico, Steve Lee, the Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Services at Dixie State University is producing a series of events at the university.
The students, who attended Raul Isidro Burgos Teachers’ College, went to Igaula on Sept. 26, 2014 to secure buses to Mexico City.
Instead, after attending a political rally in the town square, they were allegedly forced into police trucks and never seen again.
Seven years on, the students have joined tens of thousands of other Mexican citizens who have disappeared, and whose whereabouts remain unknown.
Filmmaker Lee got the idea to produce an art installation that will be staged in nine buildings across the campus.
The idea for the installation, which includes 43 figures with the pictures and biographies of each disappeared student, came while Lee was at Santa Clara University, in California. But his connection to the material, he said, took root long ago.
“I grew up in El Paso, Texas,” Lee told St. George News. “I worked at a wrecking yard that was situated 200 feet from the border. I could see the cardboard shanties across the border. It made very clear the boundaries that separated the haves from the have-nots.”
As Lee tells it, one of his coworkers was a Mexican man. One day, Lee asked the man, who spoke little English, where he came from.
“And he pointed at the shanties,” Lee said. “In that moment, I decided that I would try to find a way to use education to avoid poverty.”
But as Lee became a filmmaker, and earned his own degrees – a bachelor’s in economics from the University of San Francisco, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees in communications from the University of Texas – Austin – he felt a sense of kinship with his neighbors to the south.
That sense of kinship, he said, compelled him to prepare students to be global citizens. That’s why he took a group of 40 students to Salt Lake City several months ago to urge lawmakers to vote on a bill to change the name of Dixie State University.
While the reasons behind the rallies in Iguala and Salt Lake City may not be comparable, Lee said that the outcomes should be considered carefully.
“Our students were allowed to speak their minds without fear of death or imprisonment,” he said. “While those students that disappeared seven years ago were not.”
Lee and others are trying to draw attention to what happens when elected officials become corrupt, and citizens remain silent. His team includes Mexico-City based journalist John Gibler who has covered the disappeared students extensively.
“We’re talking about people who were powerless,” Lee said. “In some cases, they are displaced. In more extreme cases, they’re murdered, or disappeared.”
Silence, Lee said, may become a form of acceptance when violence is used as a political tactic.
“And that’s why we can’t allow leaders, regardless of where they are, to act with impunity,” he said. “Through this series of events, I’m trying to get students to see with their heads and hearts. They may be American, but we still must speak out when injustices occur.”
Mexico City-based journalist John Gibler has been reporting from Mexico since 2006. He focuses on issues of social movements and political violence. Prior to that, he worked as a human rights volunteer in Guerrero state since 2000.
“When I saw the headlines about the Sept. 26-27, 2014 police attacks against the Ayotzinapa students, I literally couldn’t believe what I read,” Gibler told St. George News. “The first, incorrect, headline on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014 said: ‘6 dead, 57 disappeared students.’
On Oct. 3, 2014, Gibler took a bus to Chilpancingo, Guerrero and went to the school the next day.
“Because of the confusion in the press and contradictory official statements about the events, I decided to focus my reporting on interviewing survivors and witnesses,” Gibler said.
Since then, he’s published numerous articles, like this one, as well as an oral history published by City Lights. Gibler said that the initial investigation, carried out by former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government, was itself an act of administrative forced disappearance.
“The government lied, tortured, invented false evidence and false testimony and destroyed real evidence,” Gibler said, “all to describe a series of events that never took place and thus conceal, or cover up, the logic, the motive, the chain of command, and the full list of participants in the attacks.”
“We know that more than 100 municipal, state, and federal police all coordinated to attack, murder and forcibly disappear students,” Gibler continued. “We know that the Mexican Army was monitoring the attacks in real time and took full control of the city shortly after the police drove off with the 43 students. We know that the Federal Attorney General’s office carried out the above-listed atrocities in order to conceal government involvement in the attacks.”
The current administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has completely distanced itself from the previous administration’s investigation, Gibler said. They’ve issued arrest warrants for many of the federal officials and at least one military officer for their involvements in the crimes.
“The current investigation has located two more small bone fragments belonging to two students in a place 800 meters away from the trash dump that was the center of the cover-up narrative,” Gibler said.
Lee reached out to Gibler to ask if he could use some of Gibler’s text in the original installation in Santa Clara. Gibler will discuss the events and his coverage with Vince Brown, director of Dixie State University’s Institute of Politics, in the Gardner Center Ballroom on Sept. 23 at 4 p.m.
When asked why these events are important to him, Gibler said that he cares about the world.
“I care about justice,” he said. “I care about people and about people’s stories. I believe that it is important to investigate and share stories that reveal violently hidden truths about our world.”
Gibler said that he feels that people in the United States would do well to care about Mexico, a neighboring country that shares 1,954 miles of borderlands. Utah was part of Mexico until the Treaty of Hidalgo in 1848.
“Mexico shares an incredibly deep, and often fraught, history with the U.S.,” Gibler said. “I hope that people are inspired to learn more about what happened to the students and about their families’ struggles for truth and justice. I also hope that people are inspired to think critically about issues of police brutality and social struggle in their own communities.”
Dixie State University senior Keilani Young works in the university theater’s scene shop. Young, who graduated from Tuacahn High School for the Arts, splits her time between working in the Tuacahn Center for the Arts costume shop, and the Dixie State University Theater scene shop. A scene shop assistant, she will have put roughly 40 hours into painting and making hardware that will enable the figures to stand in their places around campus.
“What excites me about a project like this, is that I get to use my skills to build something that serves a story,” Young told St. George News.
Young grew up near Logan, Utah, so she’s not all that familiar with the events that inspired the installation. When the figures arrived, Young said that she called them “shadow guys,” which feels apt. After spending over 30 hours cutting and assembling their stands, she has come to call them figures.
In some ways, she’s the first audience for the installation, as she moves the figures around the shop. After assembling a figure, which displays a picture of Martin Getsemany Sanchez Garcia, one of the disappeared, she moves it near the center of the shop floor. She plants the stand, then steps back to appraise her work. Once satisfied, she moves the figure into shadowy recess near the shop lift.
“With a project like this, it feels like I’m building a world,” she said. “As I learn more about the figures, the more I feel like I’m building to set a mood and tone. If I feel it, I can make it.”
Visit their site for a list of special events that will occur throughout the next two weeks.
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