Something about Mexico reminded me of Turkey. It wasn’t just the taco joints at every corner grilling what any Turk would recognize as döner: Mexicans call it al pastor, prepare it from pork, and serve it on corn tortillas.
In Istanbul, I woke up in the middle of the night from an acappella of muezzins from different mosques using megaphones as if competing with one another; in San Miguel de Allende it was a mix of church bells and firecrackers celebrating each night a different Saint’s day that disrupted my sleep.
The daily advances of my neighbor Carlos, who spends his days staring at a construction site atop a disintegrating 1960s Volkswagen beetle, reminded me of many Mehmets and their sweet, polite creepiness that make me smile rather than run screaming.
A drawing of the face of a young student missing since the mass kidnapping in Iguala, Mexico (September, 2014), reminded me of Berkin Elvan, the boy who died from a can of pepper gas fired by Turkish police and became the symbol of Turkey’s Gezi Protests of 2013.
The parallels were there but after two months in Mexico, I was still not convinced that I understood the true nature of the two countries’ similarity. Until something clicked a few days ago.
I had returned to Mexico City for a weekend getaway from San Miguel’s firecrackers. A few hours after I visited the memorial museum built to commemorate the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre, my Facebook newsfeed informed me of the July 20 massacre in Suruç, in Southeast Turkey. An ISIS suicide bomber had claimed the lives of more than 30 young volunteers who had arrived in Suruç to help rebuild Kobane, the Kurdish town across the border in Syria that had seen its share of destruction and death in the past few years.
I had been thinking about the 1968 massacre of the Mexicans ever since my first day in this country. It intrigued me that 47 years later, Mexicans still remembered that horrid night as if it had happened yesterday.
No one knows how many people were killed that day in 1968 in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas [Plaza of the three cultures], named as such for the pre-Hispanic ruins that that coexist next to a Spanish colonial church and modern buildings that represent the independent nation. They say the death toll was between 30 and 300 (I repeat, between 30 and 300!) mostly university students peacefully protesting against repression and violence. The government of the time, which had carried out the massacre, made sure the exact details of what happened would neither be understood nor properly reported.
The memory of the violence creeps up at you out of nowhere: On city’s buildings in the form of graffiti, in passing references at museums, in contemporary protestors’ invocation of the past on the streets of the city.
The Night of Tlatelolco became a symbol. A symbol of oppression, of corruption, of social movements deprived of oxygen, of bereaved mothers tired of waiting for explanations. And the symbol only gained more power over the decades as government censorship only continued to deprive those grieving any sense of justice.
I was struck by the stark similarities between the creative representations of 1968 and the most recent massacre perpetuated by Mexico’s government. In September, 2014, 43 students studying to become teachers went missing in Iguala on their way to protest discriminatory hiring practices. All around Mexico City were tiny installations of protest art or words scribbled on walls demanding that the government end its silence and disclose what it did to the students. Walking around the city, I couldn’t always tell whether the graffiti referred to Iguala or Tlatelolco.
In 1968, the government had used traditional forms of censorship to keep from its citizens the truth about what happened on the Plaza of Three Cultures on that October night. Since the Iguala mass kidnapping, nearly constant protests demand justice but the people have little hope from a government that they believe to be the definition of corruption and the very body responsible for the event.
Like Mexicans, Turks hold on to their suffering and use it to demand justice. They use their grief, their creativity, and when all else fails a tragic sense of humor to continue resisting. And to laugh to our tragicomedy we don’t lack material. We have our “Van Canavarı” [Lake Van Monster]; they have their “Chapucabra.” We have recordings of politicians admitting to stealing millions; they have drug lords that magically escape maximum-security prisons. We have Yeşilçam, they have telenovelas.
Since the July 20 massacre in Suruç protesters have spilled to the streets of Turkey. Many hold the government responsible and believe that it assists ISIS under the table. Pictures of violent suppression of protestors are flooding twitter, which the Turkish government briefly censored on July 21.
With Suruç and Tlatelolco in my mind, I arrived in my AirBnB and my Mexican hosts offered me tea. Pepe and Sejen, a couple with two bulldogs, were excited to hear that I hailed from Istanbul. One of them had even been to my native country. Walking around Istanbul, Pepe had felt the way I feel in Mexico City.
“I don’t know what it is, but I think Mexico and Turkey are very similar. I think we are like cousins,” Pepe said.
“I think we like to suffer the same way,” I said.