On September 20th, 2012, Aleph Jiménez Rodríguez went missing. He was the spokesperson for the Ensenada, Baja California division of the Mexican student movement #YoSoy132. He had been one of 20 students arrested a few days earlier for protesting alleged electoral fraud in the July presidential elections. The rumor of Jiménez’s disappearance spread quickly on Facebook and Twitter and was soon picked up by more traditional forms of media. Disappearances are, unfortunately, the regular subject of news in many parts of Mexico. The disappearance of Jiménez led to some unease because he was one of the faces of a pacifist group critical of the authorities. When he turned up alive in Mexico City on September 26th, his father explained that he had felt physically threatened by authorities and had gone into hiding.
What is #YoSoy132?
#YoSoy132 was born on May 11, 2012 when students at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City began protesting an appearance by Enrique Peña Nieto, the presidential candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Peña Nieto was giving a campaign speech at the university but was drowned out by hecklers. The heckling evolved into a demonstration, and students from all over the city and the country joined forces quickly, thanks to the almost instantaneous spreading of information via social media. The hashtag thread #YoSoy132 organized and coordinated students who allied themselves with the 131 students who had earlier posted a YouTube video criticizing Peña Nieto, who was later elected president of Mexico in June. Meaning “I am number 132,” the movement sparked protests in Mexico City and in cities across the nation, beginning in mid-May. The movement proclaimed to be non-partisan, although many of its constituents were supporters of the leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Some consider it to be a thinly veiled campaign movement in his favor. Nonetheless, its proclaimed focus has been to promote freedom of speech and the press. It has denounced the television news monopolies of Televisa and TV Azteca, and decried the traditional media’s skewed version of events and unbalanced coverage of presidential candidates. Naturally, the group has turned to unorthodox media and forms of expression.
Jiménez’s recent disappearance underscores the fact that, although the movement may not be receiving much sustained media attention, it is still an active force in Mexican politics. Although Peña Nieto was elected in June and traditional media outlets have mostly stopped covering the movement, the incensed youth have already been aroused. Students have clamored for free speech, and they will not give up easily. Like the Arab Spring, it is a social network movement that became a social movement. Unlike the Arab Spring, however, it has not resulted in a complete upheaval of the government, a goal of at least a few of its participants. Despite these setbacks and internal conflicts, #YoSoy132 continues its political struggle, not least by way of artistic expression.
The Art of #YoSoy132
Much of the artwork that has arisen from the movement reflects the tension between humanistic creativity and propaganda. While #YoSoy132 may have unleashed a flurry of quick and fiery rhetoric that consisted of a necessary release, like air from a pressure valve, it does not seem to have allowed young, angry artists to express themselves with complete freedom. Too often, the artwork is simply propaganda, valued for the ideals it represents and not primarily as art.
#YoSoy132 has been a sort of volcanic eruption of pent-up frustration with the violence, the kidnappings, the unfulfilled promises of change. Its soundtrack is upbeat music with angry but confident lyrics that attempt to offer an alternative to the lies they perceive that the government, authorities, and mainstream media are feeding to the general public. One cumbia, a dance song in the Colombian style, states radically, “Ya no es suficiente cambiar de partidos, cambiemos la forma de gobernar” [“It’s no longer enough to change parties, let’s change the way of governing”]. Like many of today’s politically charged music, such as the songs of Rage Against The Machine, Molotov, and many others, the music born out of #YoSoy132 is meant to put the listener on her feet, to spur her to action with quick pulsating beats. While this cumbia is angry, there is hope in the rhythmic dance music; the actors in the song’s video smile even as they shake their heads, “Fíjate que no, fíjate que no” [“No they don’t, no they won’t”], asserting that the government, the authorities, and the press neglect the Mexican people, lie to them, and do not have their interests at heart.
The musical, visual, and literary arts that have come out of the movement reflect some of its internal tensions. The cumbia is on the more radical end of the spectrum. Most of the movement’s art and rhetoric reflects a wish for freedom of expression and freedom of the vote within a democratic system. While the movement purports to be nonpartisan, many of the artistic renditions of its message are blatantly anti-Peña Nieto. A motif of his hair as a piece of excrement runs through some of the visual representations, a reference to an incident during the May 11 protests in which Peña Nieto was cornered in a restroom by a mass of students at the Universidad Iberoamericana.
Many of the slogans and visual representations that have arisen, often in static meme form, conflate the message of freedom of expression with the freedom to vote against him. Other artistic renditions, such as the cumbia and images calling for simply “un voto libre y responsable” [“a free and responsible vote”] do not invoke the PRI candidate and allow for more ideological liberty within the movement. Others take aim not at Peña Nieto but at Televisa. As a result of these conflicting messages apparent in the art, the movement has been difficult to categorize. Its divisions and lack of consensus have weakened it. Many of its original leaders have found that it sprawled like the tentacles of a wayward squid and have extricated themselves from the tangle.
The art, or propaganda, is a manifestation of the tension between the calls for democratization of expression and its consolidation under a single banner. The act of marking the movement’s very title with a hashtag categorizes it in a way that has not been unequivocally defined. Despite the variety and creativity of the various visual representations, many of them bear the #YoSoy132 “logo” which standardizes the images. Hashtags have this very purpose and effect: they serve to funnel a wide range of information into a single feed. Hashtags are shorthand and therefore leave no room for nuance, while acknowledging no complexity; anything categorized under a hashtag is so distilled that it is devoid of all meaning not involved with the hashtag label itself. As is the case with any standardization, the visual message becomes co-opted by its categorization and the viewer’s understanding of this categorization. Just as the meaning of a television commercial becomes distorted when the viewer is made aware of the product it advertises, so these visual mini-narratives take on a different meaning when they are stamped with #YoSoy132.
The “mainstream” media in Mexico has understood that #YoSoy132 is still an important movement that has already had a lasting effect on the country’s politics and media. After Televisa was lambasted by Antonio Attolini, the vociferous and charismatic spokesperson for the ITAM (Autonomous Technological Institute of México) division of #YoSoy132, the television monopoly offered him a position on the new program Sin Filtro [“No Filter”], which he accepted. Shot in a brightly wallpapered studio, the program is supposed to provide a forum for young Mexicans to discuss the issues of the day each week. Attolini’s acceptance prompted outcries from the movement, which almost unanimously accused him of being a traitor. In an interview on October 25th and again during the program’s first transmission on October 28th, Attolini defended himself, saying that his actions are congruent with his efforts to promote the democratization of the media. Traitor or not, Attolini is among the leaders who identify with the initial bubbling spirit #YoSoy132, but who have realized that their own views are perhaps not best encapsulated in a split-second hashtag label.
Going forward, where will #YoSoy132 and its art lead? Will mainstream and traditional media swallow it up? Will social media continue to have substantial subversive effects? And what will be the fate of the artistic #YoSoy132 movement? The problem of categorization and standardization has largely overshadowed the artistic potential and message. The pent-up anxieties and frustrations of the Mexican youth found a premature outlet that was pigeonholed from its very formation. In order for art to convey a truly complex, human message to capture the spirit of young Mexican rebellion, it must be freed from tethers of political and social categorization that can easily devolve into propaganda. Perhaps #YoSoy132 was just the precursor to something larger and more complex that will give free rein to artistic expression.