Tlatelolco . . . the haunted Plaza of Three Cultures and Two Massacres

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

One Summer in Mexico – Part 2 – June 24, 1970

My journal notes continued for three more pages! I had missed my appointment with the Museo Nacional de Antropologia because of food poisoning. I had to visit Relaciones Culturales to be interviewed, photographed and fingerprinted for an INAH ID card, which would give me access to all archaeological zones in Mexico.
Plaza de los Tres Culturales at Ciudad Tlatilolco – scene of blood baths in 1521 and 1968. The tan-colored plaza is beyond the old church. Notice that there is nobody walking on the plaza in the photos. The only time that Mexican people walk on its central portions is when there is a ceremony honoring those who died here. It is truly haunted.

If you were alive in 1968 and watching the evening news on one of the three TV networks in the United States on October 3, 1968,  you would have been briefly told that 12 Mexican soldiers were seriously injured, when shot at by Communists during a riot.  Walter Cronkite alone tried to pronounce the name of the location, but failed . . . Tlatelolco.  In the back pages of some North American newspapers on October 4th, a brief article told readers that “some” students may have also been shot by the Communists.

A week after the end of the Mexico Olympics in October 1968, there were brief mentions in the media that actually the student bystanders were accidently shot by the soldiers at the Plaza de Tres Culturales.  The US State Department announced that the reports in leftist European newspapers of many students being injured were grossly exaggerated.  An expert on Latin American Affairs quickly announced a press conference where she said that no more than 30 or 40 Marxist students had been “killed in the confusion of the riot.”  

October 2, 1968 – Mexican Army Light Tanks enter the Plaza de los Tres Culturales to surround the student demonstrators. Photographs of the massacre have only become available since 2001, when an opposition party defeated PRI in Mexico’s first honest national elections in many decades.
Officially, 12 students were shot by the “Communist terrorists.”
A government official weeps over the bodies of his son and son’s girlfriend. (Frame from the movie, “Tlatilolco . . . El Verano de 1968.”)

We now know that 300 to 500 students and labor union members were killed . . . many shot in the back at close range . . . and that several thousand people were wounded by bullets or beaten with rifle butts.  An unknown number of survivors were later picked up by police to be tortured and never seen again.  We also now know that CIA agents were involved in the planning of this massacre, but they were not getting their orders from CIA administrators in Langley, VA. They were coming from the White House.

We now know that plain clothes Mexican federal police sharp shooters were positioned on the roofs of the buildings at the Tlatelolco Complex.   When three green flares shot up into the sky,  the sharp shooters fired on the Mexican Army soldiers, who had just encircled the 5000+ peaceful demonstrators.  The soldiers then went into a killing frenzy with assault rifles, machine guns and cannon mounted on light tanks.  Most of the students there were somewhat on a lark . . . to them no more serious that a sports pep rally.  No one intended to be violent or damage property.  That pep rally turned into a horror story that the people of Mexico will never, ever forget.

What no one in the United States knew at that time was that at least 80 students had also been killed at the Politecnico  . . . Mexico’s MIT . . .  when armored police and soldiers surrounded the prestigious institution then opened fire, while students were in classes.  The only reason I knew was that my new surrogate Mexican father, Professor José Angel Soto, was there  . . . teaching a biology class . . . when bullets started shattering the windows of the classroom.

José was an interesting man.  His father had fought for Poncho Villa.  José could best be described as a free-thinker and humanitarian, rather than political ideologue.  As a college student, he was very much a rebel.  He first joined the Masons, hoping to be kicked out of the Roman Catholic Church.   That didn’t work, because it turned out that many members of PRI, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, were Masons. He then switched to being a member of the Communist Party.  That did the trick.  He was quickly excommunicated.  As luck would have it, he fell in love with Guadalupe Quinard, whose family was descended from a French officer under Emperor Maximillian, who decided to stay in Mexico.  She was a devout Catholic, so José had to do all manner of penances to get back into the Church to have a Catholic wedding.

A thorough description of the violent events of 1968 would require a 15-page article, so I have attached a short video in English at the bottom, which explains the Student Demonstrations before the 1968 Olympics.  Below it is a very accurate docu-drama movie, produced by Argentine Television and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).  It is entirely in Spanish with no subtitles.  It is well-crafted.

The mural, “Tlatilolco” by the famous Mexican artist, Diego Rivera

The first massacre at Tlatelolco

Tlatelolco gets its name from a Nahua tribe that settled on an island near the Mexica (Aztecs). Their name roughly means “mound builders.” The other city in this alliance was Texcoco, which actually founded the alliance. The government of the Aztec empire was a triple-crown constitutional monarchy in which the councils of priests, elders and warriors had extensive influence in the empire.  Gringo students are not told this in their history books, which primarily emphasize the conquering of the Aztecs by the Spanish.

At the time of the Spanish Conquest (1519-1521) Tlatelolco contained the largest market in the Americas.   After first arriving in Tenochtitlan, Hernán Cortés traveled the causeway to Tlatelolco and visited this market.  He stated that it was larger and had more variety of vegetables and fruits than any market in Europe.

Tlatilolco Market – Architectural model in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia
Each year a young man would be chosen to be the Sun God for a year. He could have anything and any woman he wanted for 12 months then would have his heart cut out. His flesh was then made into a stew to be fed to the elite of Tlatilolco.

The last decisive battle against the Mexicas took place on the site on August 13, 1521, when the defeated Cuauhtémoc was forced to capitulate to Cortés. The chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo describes the slaughter of the Mexicas: “… that day was so bloody that it was impossible to walk the place due to the number of corpses piled up”. It is estimated that more than 40,000 indigenous people died that day. “

The stone ruins that visitors see today at the Plaza de Tres Culturales were revealed in the early 1960s, when the federal government undertook construction of several high-rise apartments, plus the office buildings for Relacciones Exteriores (Foreign Relations) and Relaciones Culturales (Cultural Relations).  Later in the 1960s, three office towers were built along the famous boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma, which serve as a gateway to the Tlatelolco Development Zone.  

As noted in my journal, what you mainly see today are the foundations of ancient indigenous buildings, not the structures themselves.   The church was built on the base of the main temple pyramid at Tlatilolco.  You can see that the pyramid was enlarged several times.  There is a succession of stairways.  

At the time that I visited the site of the massacre, next to the apartment towers, the president, who ordered the mass murder was still in power.  It was illegal for any newspaper or TV station to discuss any version of the events at Tlatilolco other than the official government version . . . 12 student on-lookers had been shot by Communist terrorists.   However, a new generation of students were still trying to make the truth known.  While Gionela, Ruth and I were there, police were tearing down a display, which showed photographs of the many dead bodies on the plaza that terrible night on October 2, 1968.

This is the plaza in 1970, where so many young people died on October 2, 1968

3 Comments

  1. Truly fascinating discussion. Really no words to adequately compliment the accounts but all due respect. Good to have reminders of how collectivism of many ages, kills. I live in Savannah where I’m continually reminded of layers on layers of history in one place or building. As I often remark to my tour guests, “we are the ghosts, mere guests of these buildings and public spaces and they have all seen their fair share of bloodshed.”

    Liked by 1 person

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