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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 617-660

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Defining the Space of Mexico '68:
Heroic Masculinity in the Prison and "Women" in the Streets

Lessie Jo Frazier and Deborah Cohen


Defining the Space of the Movement

In 2001 we attended a Mexico City conference on twentieth-century student activism featuring a plenary session with four prominent leaders from Mexico's 1968 student movement. 1 We were struck by how different these men's [End Page 617] narratives were from those told to us by women who had participated in Mexican radical student organizations. We wondered how these men had come to dominate public discourse about '68, almost as spokesmen of a generation. In this article we explore this public discourse by looking at the complex convergences and divergences between men's and women's accounts of the movement to reveal the gendered underpinnings of Mexican political culture. Narratives centered on the leaders' accounts have too narrowly defined the space of the movement; consequently, juxtaposing the accounts of male leaders and female participants breaks open these definitions and expands our understanding of historical agency and the possibilities for political subjectivity in this movement. 2

These '68 leaders claimed that student movements were central to Mexico's push towards democracy, which they attributed to the way in which the university as a particular kind of civic space brings together those who are—in their words—"informed," "intelligent," and trained to make decisions based on "reason"—all traits commonly associated with middle-class masculinity. Their description of a proper student movement, however, with its masculine qualities of intelligence and reasoned sentiment, disregards the unruly feminine emotion and uncontrolled spontaneity of the masses, which leaders, as a political vanguard, were supposed to mold into a disciplined revolutionary force. 3

This dual logic of masculine reasoning/feminine emotion is made more complicated in the presentation of Marcelino Perelló, who compared '68 movement [End Page 618] leaders to Evariste Galois, the nineteenth-century French mathematical prodigy. According to Perelló, Galois found his brilliance underappreciated by the French monarchy and, in the defining moment of Perelló's story, made an impudent toast at a banquet for King Louis-Philippe, for which he was drawn into a fatal duel. This story, which exalts the heroic masculinity of the youthful male body defying the patriarchal state, replayed itself, Perelló argued, in aspects of the '68 student movement. Although university students attempted to mobilize diverse sectors of society, the movement's core was still composed of privileged youth destined to assume key positions within the social and political elite. 4 Not surprisingly, then, public narratives of '68 have not only been predominantly male but also predominantly elite. This elite male leader version has become the lens through which '68 and subsequent movements have been understood and measured. 5

Male leaders' public narratives foreground strategic debates that took place within the movement's highest institution (the Consejo Nacional de Huelga, or CNH), negotiations between student leaders and the state, and major dramatic events such as large demonstrations and rallies. Indeed, most analyses of the movement have focused on leaders and the state in order to understand a struggle that both called attention to state authoritarianism and itself fostered political participation in a broad sense. Listening to these accounts at the conference, we asked ourselves: given the character of the movement, why have scholars concentrated on its upper echelons and its interactions with the state? Why have they not more thoroughly investigated base participation and its impact on [End Page 619] the movement, both locally and generally? 6 We left the panel amazed at the striking differences—and curious points of similarity—between the version of the movement described by these male leaders and the stories told by women participants, which we would present later at the same conference.

Cultural critic Armando Bartra has suggested that that, in fact, there "are many '68s." 7 Yetmale leaders' published narratives have reduced this multiplicity to just one of...


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pp. 617-660
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2004
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