Reporter's Notebook from Atenco, Mexico

Part 4: The Rebel Youth of Atenco

by Sabra and the Atenco Project Writing Group

Revolutionary Worker #1183, January 19, 2003, posted at

Last summer, an RW writing team traveled to Atenco, Mexico, to learn about the struggle of the campesinos to defend their land. The following is the final part of a four-part report on the fighting peasants of Atenco. Part 1 appeared in RW #1174, Part 2 in #1176, Part 3 in #1178. The series is available online at

San Salvador Atenco is a small town, worlds away from the blaring, choked metropolis of Mexico City some 20 miles away. Meandering streets surround a town square; horse- driven carts share the road with taxicabs; backyards and vacant lots give way to patches of corn, alfalfa, and verdolagas (greens).

But from July 11 to July 14 of last year, the people of this small town stood up in a struggle that riveted the entire country. (See accompanying article for background.) During those days, encampments had sprung up all over and around Atenco. Our team arrived in Atenco a few weeks after the people had won a victory in August--when Mexico's Fox government was forced to back down from his threat to seize the land in Atenco from the campesinos. At that time, the last camp left was just at the edge of town, in a neighborhood called La Magdalena.

We visited this camp our first night and went back several times to talk to the students who kept the camp going. We talked for hours around the campfire, rubbing our hands together against the cold and sipping mugs of coffee. The students had played a vital role in this encampment and had made it their home. They played soccer in the street as children darted around their feet or sat at the picnic table discussing politics with the older generation. At night they slept on donated mattresses or took turns doing security, keeping watch of the police cars that drove past the camp.

The weekend of July 11-14 was a defining moment for the people of Atenco. On July 11, during a march by a group of campesinos to the nearby town of Acolman, the government forces brutally beat many of the marchers and took several key leaders into custody. One of the leaders later died of his injuries.

If the government thought this attack would frighten the people of Atenco into submission, they failed miserably. One youth from Atenco told us, "The worst mistake the government made was to hit us, and that we saw blood. When you see blood, it's like you change." His friend, sitting next to him; added, "You get fired up when they hit your people."

When the people learned what had happened to their compañeros, they sent a delegation to demand the release of those arrested. The government refused. And the people came back to Atenco with government employees as their "guests"--to be held until the compañeros were released. They blockaded the roads and all the entrances to the town. Coca-Cola trailers were overturned and set on fire. Barricades were set up all around town.

The government amassed riot police at the entrance to the town. Throughout the weekend of July 11-14 the people lived under the constant threat that the government forces would launch a major attack.

One youth told us, "Bulletins were coming in that the Fuerza Pública [riot police] was going to enter. That was when the people got more fired up--instead of calming down, this got bigger." The people prepared themselves for a fight: "When the government called on the phone they didn't say anything, so that was when we took the initiative.... We weren't afraid. We were willing to give our lives."

One of the most inspiring things about this struggle was the way in which so many different kinds of people joined together to fight. Housewives, farmers, children, teenagers, college students, and artists all joined together to stand up to the government of Mexico.

Students from UNAM--Mexico's largest university and one with a long tradition of political battles-- organized a support march that took Avenida Insurgentes, one of Mexico City's main avenues. On the morning of July 12, a contingent of more than 200 UNAM students headed for Atenco. When they met government roadblocks, they got out of their buses and walked the remaining five miles on foot.

The youth were a powerful force during the weekend of July 11, jumping right into the thick of struggle. They did everything from taking care of the "guests" to guarding the barricades, keeping the encampment clean, and looking after the children. The youth and people of the town developed strong bonds.


When we arrived in Atenco several people told us we had to talk to the crew of youth that hung around the auditorium. These youths were known for their fearlessness and dedication in the struggle. Some were from Atenco or the surrounding towns, and some had left Mexico City to be part of the struggle. They now made Atenco their home. During the day they could be found hanging out at the auditorium which often served as the movement's center, and at night they slept on its stage.

We found the auditorium still buzzing with stories of the struggle. In the front of the building, behind a wooden stage, a beautiful color mural stretched behind us, full of images of the revolution of 1910, Zapata, and Ignacio del Valle, one of the leaders of the airport struggle. All around us were graffiti reading, "Ni hoteles ni aviones, la tierra da frijoles" ("No hotels, no planes, the land gives us beans") or "La revolución no se hará sin las mujeres" ("The revolution will not be made without women").

Oscar, a 12-year-old from Mexico City, told us that when he saw images on TV about the airport battle in Atenco, he felt that was the place to be. He said, "I want my life to be different. I came here when I heard about the struggle in Atenco. I'm not trying to criticize my friends, but all they do is they get high, sniff glue, and sometimes they steal. Not because they're bad, but they don't know anything else. There's no future for them. I don't want that."

Oscar told his mother, "I'll be back, mom," packed his things, and headed off to Atenco.

One afternoon, as the youth drove us out to the fields, we told Oscar and his friends that they reminded us of the youth in Palestine. Oscar said, "Yeah, I've seen them on TV. They're cool. They throw stones at the Israeli army. I understand what they're going through. Here in Atenco they want to take the people's land away, and over there they want to take their homeland away. If I was there, that's what I'd be doing. I think I'd like to go to Palestine."

Oscar paused before continuing, "But I don't speak the language." Then he smiled and said, "But in the struggle, things like that don't matter. I'm sure we would find a way to understand each other."

The youth were full of questions about other struggles around the world and life in the United States. They wanted to know all about the anti-globalization movement. They also wanted to know about the 1992 L.A. Rebellion. They had seen the TV specials about the 10th anniversary of the Rebellion. They really identified with the resistance of Black people and their fighting spirit in the Rebellion.

Several of the youth had seen TV coverage of the case of Donovan Jackson, the 16-year-old Black youth who was beaten by Inglewood cops while handcuffed--and we got onto the subject of police brutality on both sides of the border. David is 19 and looks like he could've come straight out of East L.A., with his baggy pants, shaved head and backwards baseball cap: "They grab him, they beat him and they start to hit him, to slap him, really ugly, and it's the same thing that really makes me angry. We're living beings that think the same. I wouldn't like it if they oppressed me because I was Black--because I say we are all equal."

David said that he and his friends are used to being harassed all the time by the cops: "If you didn't have money with you for your fine, they'd say, `All right, your backpack then, that'll pay it.' They'd viciously take your stuff--your backpack, your hat, if they liked your pants they'd take them."

During the weekend of July 11, some of the youth got a chance to give back a tiny portion of what had been done to them. "We put three policemen against the wall. I said, `Get out of the car. Take off your belt, your pants, and your hat, because now you're going to feel how you repress the people'... We made him take off his clothes and we disarmed him. That made me really happy. That was my first struggle, and it feels good when you disarm a policeman."

We asked the youth to tell us the story of the trucks that sat parked in the town square, some with cracked windshields or still showing the outline of a torn-off police siren on their roofs. They told us that after President Fox decreed that the land of the Atenco peasants would be seized, authorities were unwelcome in the town. Those that did enter would often find that if they had come in a car, they might find themselves running away on foot. David said that during the days of the struggle, the people had forged a kind of unity and were less inclined to fight each other. With no police around, David said, "The police are us, from the same city, we're now the people. And we know what to do."

Some of the confiscated trucks, 15 in total, were distributed to other areas that needed them, and others stayed in Atenco. The people use them collectively, for when a ride is needed to a nearby meeting or celebration. During our visit, these trucks were our taxis and the youth were our drivers.

The youth of Atenco feel that what was being threatened by the airport project was not just the land, but also an entire way of life. Roberto is 17 and along with his mother works a small plot of land. "We all eat from the fields. We're born of the earth too. We're of the earth." Another youth added: "Here people fought for our cultural heritage, for the material heritage that is the land. But more than something material, it's life."


Countless organizations for social justice and other campesinos' groups from throughout Mexico signed banners and hung them in the plaza in solidarity with the people of Atenco. Many people in the town commented that a decisive aspect to their victory was that people from outside Atenco supported their struggle.

Outside of the encampment at La Magdalena hung a number of flags and banners. We saw a Mexican flag, an anarchist flag, and a flag with the symbol of the Revolutionary Internationalist Move- ment--the world breaking free of its chains. During the days of the struggle, youth reflecting different ideas and different organizations were fighting together, right alongside each other, against the common enemy. And that heady mix carried its way right into the discussions that we had over campfires or in the main square.

People wanted to know, why was it that even though the campesinos of Atenco worked so hard to make the land rich and productive, some were still forced to take jobs in Mexico City or immigrate to the United States?

They also got into whether the problems facing Mexico were due to the corrupt government, or if there was something bigger involved. Many of these youth have a healthy distaste for the government and see it as corrupt and incapable of serving the needs of the people.

Adriana, a UNAM student, talked of the international effect of the struggle of the Atenco peasants: "It brought awareness on a world level of the problem that the farmers all over the world face. We all focus on seeing the workers, laborers, but we don't see the farmers. Recognizing the peasant movement not just on the national level but on the international level [is important]."

Every conversation with the youth was deeply intense. They have been active in struggles against globalization and are searching for answers about how to change the world. As the conditions of life for the masses in Mexico increasingly become more miserable for the people, they are lifting their sights to the possibility of things being different. They are looking for answers and are influenced by various political trends such as Zapatismo, trade unionism, Che Guevara and anarchism. But they are all looking beyond Atenco to the rest of the world and trying to answer larger questions--for example: How to fight against Plan Puebla-Panama, a monstrous plan that aims to turn all of Mexico into a concrete-paved sweatshop and indigenous peoples and native lands into raw material for exploitation.

Some of the youth we spoke to looked to Maoism for answers. We remembered seeing footage of youth wearing Mao shirts at an anti-globalization demonstration in Cancun. As Maoists, we wanted to know about other youth who share our communist vision.

When we talked to youth with different ideas and politics, the Maoist youth of the MPR (Movimiento Popular Revolucionario) always entered the debate with their ideas. Some were veterans of the UNAM student strike in 1999, and they had organized contingents that traveled to various protests as part of Mexico's growing anti-globalization movement. They had supported the airport battle as part of fighting U.S. imperialist domination of Mexico and the forced march to capitalist free market "progress" dictated by the U.S. They are inspired by the people's wars in Nepal, Peru, and the Philippines.

They were tireless and dedicated to bringing their revolutionary politics to the masses in Atenco. As we interviewed people in the town, it became clear that the Maoists had earned the respect of many in Atenco.

We spent long hours with these Maoist youths, drinking coffee, smoking Delicados , and fighting off sleep. They asked us about what it's like to be revolutionaries inside the belly of the beast. We asked them about the revolutionary possibilities in Mexico.

We mentioned that we had talked to a campesino activist who said that what was needed in Mexico was a "revolución más chingona que la de 1910" (a revolution more bad-ass than the one in 1910). The young Maoists agreed that the Mexican people have a long history of rebellions and revolutions--but they said what the people need is a thorough-going revolution to free themselves from their oppression. They talked about the need for a vanguard party that is able to lead the masses in a New Democratic Revolution to lift the three mountains that weigh down on the people: imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism, and semi-feudalism.

* * *

As we made our way through Atenco we met with campesinos, housewives, students, youth, revolutionaries, and other people who had stories to share about the struggle in Atenco. They wanted their story to be told to people all across Mexico: si se puede contra el gobierno! (it is possible to defeat the government). Many also talked about the importance of sharing their victory with people outside of Mexico.

Some of the campesinos of Atenco are beginning to not only demand their right to the land but to dream of fighting for an entirely different world. In the days before we left, one young woman talked about having read the RW series by Li Onesto on the people's war in Nepal. She told us that she feels a deep connection with the people in Nepal and their struggle. And now she's thinking of how everyone on earth can rid themselves of all forms of oppression. After she shared her thoughts with us, she gave us a lesson in how campesinos sharpen their machetes.


One night we met with a singer and songwriter, Cayo Vicente, who traveled to Atenco to join in their struggle and write songs in the midst of it. We talked about how influential and powerful this struggle has been in Mexico and in el Norte . We unfurled a bright red banner, several feet long, full of signatures and messages of support for the people in Atenco from people in the U.S.

It was late at night, and the youth gathered around Cayo Vicente and Ignacio del Valle to read the messages on the banner. Afterwards, we sat and listened as Cayo played for us the beautiful protest songs that he had sung for the people of Atenco.

He said, "All the compañeros that were here played an important role, absolutely everyone... Everyone--from the compañero who can't walk, to the child that delivered a message, to the punk with all the trimmings--lent their support... Those were moments that left a big mark on me. It's a mark that I'll have for life."


There are people you meet that never leave you. They leave their mark indelibly. It's several months after our trip, and we can still vividly remember the late-night conversations over cups of coffee and tamales. We remember the walks to the corner market to buy tortillas. And we remember the smiles of the people as they told us about la lucha por la tierra --the struggle for the land.

The people opened their homes and their lives to us--so long as we promised to write the truth about what happened in San Salvador, Atenco.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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