For the most part, she doesn’t dwell on her memories of that day. She will let today’s 35th anniversary, like many before it, pass unmarked by the lighting of candles or prayers of remembrance. Clearwater resident Anita de Palma prefers it that way.
It was on Oct. 2, 1968 that de Palma escaped death when soldiers opened fire on more than 5,000 students protesting in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. Scores of students and passersby were killed at the behest of a government concerned about political embarrassment in front of the world’s media during the upcoming Olympic Games. After so much time, de Palma’s recollections of the Tlatelolco Massacre seldom surface, but she is still sometimes haunted by the image of raised white-gloved hands that signaled death for so many.
In October 1968, de Palma and her husband Sergio de Palma were working around the clock to finish building a motel outside of Mexico City in time for the Olympics. On their one day off a week, they typically ventured into the capital.
“We came into town and my husband said to me, ‘They’re going to have a demonstration at La Plaza de las Tres Culturas.’ I said to him, ‘I want to go to a movie.’ Those were my very words,” de Palma said.
But Sergio’s cousin, Javier de Palma, and many of his student friends were also keen to join the crowd protesting against the Army’s occupation of the campus of Universidad Nacional AutÃ³noma de MÃ©xico, the country’s largest university. Against her better judgment, de Palma found herself among students, young professionals and curious local residents inside the crowded plaza.
Throughout the day, the mood in the plaza was good-humored and peaceful as people listened to speeches and enjoyed the afternoon sun.
“It was like an entertainment,” de Palma said. “Mothers were coming down with children that had just come out of school. The children were sitting on the ground all around us. Then we saw the trucks coming in.”
From the trucks, hundreds of troops emerged and fanned out round the plaza. De Palma did not initially perceive the troops as a cause for concern, believing that the soldiers had simply arrived to prevent further people from entering the square. Unbeknownst to much of the crowd, other troops were positioned on top of the buildings surrounding the square.
It was her husband who first realized that something was wrong, alerting de Palma to the presence of plainclothes men wearing white gloves on their left hands — the trademark of the Olympia Battalion, a special-forces unit responsible for security at the Olympic Games.
“My husband spotted it first, and thank God he did because he moved us back just far enough for us not to be in it,” she said. “All I could see was the white gloves. You knew immediately that something was going to happen. You looked up and all these hands went up in gloves. You knew that was a signal.”
Even after so many years, the tears come easily as de Palma, her voice thick with emotion, recounts the moment an afternoon of protest turned into an evening of tragedy.
“We looked up, and (above us) there were (soldiers) with white gloves. They just started shooting. We were lucky we were on the perimeter,” she said. “I started screaming for my husband’s cousin Javier. His best friend fell next to him and was grabbing him and falling, bleeding. He had been shot. (Javier) was trying to help him and get away at the same time. His friend hung on to his belt as he was falling.”
Over the noise of the gunshots, de Palma said she could hear women screaming. The shooting continued for almost 15 minutes. Finally, her husband grabbed her and pulled her between the trucks to safety. But not before she had seen the resulting carnage.
“Not even in a movie could you imagine this,” she said. “Bodies were falling everywhere, so many young people falling. They didn’t have any arms. They didn’t have anything in their hands. They weren’t doing anything wrong. There was nothing militant about these people.”
In the aftermath of the massacre, while the ruling Partido Revolutionario Institutional government, led by President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, was blaming the violence on communist agitators, the survivors of Tlatelolco were left to count the cost. The trauma of the massacre left Javier de Palma unable to speak for three months.
“He was not hit, but he had the blood of his (dead) friend on him. He has never been the same again, never, never,” de Palma said.
While the brutal repression was effective in ending student protest, the event crystallized the general disenchantment that had fueled student protests in Mexico all summer long. Jorge Nef, director for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies, said the protests paralleled student protests in London, Paris, Prague and Berkeley, Calif.
“1966-68 was a falling out of the myth of modernity and all the rationale that entailed. It was a rebellion of the young. There were drugs. There were the Beatles. The rebellion was not only against the established institutions, but was also a deeper questioning of institutions such as family and religion,” he said.
For Nef, Tlatelolco served as the metaphorical death of the Mexican Revolution, ultimately leading to the modern reform of the PRI.
“What happened in Tlatelolco is symbolic in terms of the stabbing of a myth,” Nef said. “It changed the nature of protest. It had a chilling effect. But of course, it began the process of the integration of the PRI. When governments have to resort to violence, their claim to legitimacy begins to erode.”
For the de Palmas, a normal life in Mexico proved impossible. The couple concluded they had to leave. They were able to move to the United States in 1969 thanks to New York-born de Palma’s U.S. citizenship.
“I erased it, I tried to anyway,” de Palma said. “(But) it affected my husband, who had been the calm one. He would cry at night. That’s when he decided that he was going to leave Mexico. He started proceedings to come to the States almost immediately.”
In the years following the massacre, numerous protests have claimed the government covered-up the massacre. Protesters circled in chalk some of the many bullet holes in the pre-Hispanic, colonial and modern buildings from which the Plaza de las Tres Culturas derives its name. De Palma contests government estimates tolling the number dead in the dozens.
“The bodies were thrown one on top of another, you couldn’t even find them, you couldn’t recognize them,” she said. “Mothers were trying to go in there and find their kids and they couldn’t find them. It was like a cover-up for the amount of people that died. Women who were pregnant were killed. There’s just no question about it.”
Many Mexicans were optimistic that the defeat of PRI in 2000, their first electoral defeat since the party was formed during the Mexican Revolution, would allow the truth to emerge. According to Nef, new President Vicente Fox’s dependence on PRI support in the Mexican Congress, however, has meant the government has only paid lip-service to its pre-election pledge to uncover the truth.
“The government is careful not to unearth things as it could be politically unwise,” Nef said. “They still have to count on the more law-and-order types within the PRI to sustain themselves in power.”
De Palma now serves the Hispanic community in Florida, working as state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, an organization dedicated to improving civil rights, working conditions and education for Hispanics. The group currently sponsors several scholarships at USF. The woman who wanted to go to the movies on Oct. 2, 1968, is now happy to describe herself as an activist, a life-change she traces back to that day 35 years ago.
“After reflection I began to think that if we could, we should try to change things, try to make them a little better,” she said. “(We should) try to have something like that not happen again on this continent.”