Rojo Amanecer and the struggle against catastrophe

1 day after the 42º anniversary of the October 2 Tlatelolco massacre

NB: The following contains discusses the events depicted in Rojo Amanecer


Jorge Fons’ 1989 film Rojo Amanecer cannot be said to be a film about the 2 October 1968 massacre carried out by the Mexican military against unarmed protestors in the Tlatelolco district of Mexico City in its totality—if the production of a film depicting such a totality were to be a possibility. It rather focuses on one day in the lives of the members of a middle-class Mexican family that resides in the Chihuahua building which overlooks the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco: October 2, 1968. It is on this day that the university student-led Comisión Nacional de Huelga (CNH) calls for a mitin, or mass-rally, to be held in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas; the mitin in question, attended by between 5,000 and 10,000 people1—students, mothers, children, elderly—is brutally assaulted by (elementos de) the Mexican military, who commence/which commences firing on the assembled following the launching of red and green luces de bengala, or flares, at approximately 6:10pm. The balacera lasts 29 minutes; employing 2 helicopter gunships and 300 armored tanks, the military fires some 15,000 rounds on the protestors, though autopsies show that many of the dead were killed by bayonet-attack.2 The Chihuahua building in which the family resides was the vantage point from which paramilitary snipers—referred to as guantes blancos for the white gloves they wore on their right hands to distinguish themselves in the crowd—opened fire on protestors and soldiers in the plaza, thus ensuring the military’s fierce response against the assembled. The number of victims left by the massacre is to this day still unknown; official government estimates place the tally at around 40, while oppositional groups claim the number to be between 300 and 400. The renowned Spanish-Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II, for his part, seems to hold the total killed as being even higher than these latter estimates, given that he gives credence to the rumors asserted in the aftermath of the killings which claimed that the military placed the dead into cargo planes, ejecting them during flights over the Gulf of Mexico.3

The barbaric act of 2 October is not directly shown in Rojo Amanecer, for the film’s action is mostly contained to the apartment of the family in question, save for a scene which shows guantes blancos beating students they have detained in the stairwell adjacent to the family’s apartment, in addition to the film’s final scene. The massacre itself takes place off-screen, in the Plaza below: Carlitos—at 9 years old, the youngest member of the family—witnesses the firing of the red and green flares at the beginning of the army operation, and Jorge and Sergio—university students, the two eldest sons of the family—peer out the window once the firing has stopped to behold the multitude of corpses produced by the military. Alicia, mother and housewife, comes to take in four students fleeing the balacera while Humberto, the father and husband—a civil servant—is prevented by the military from entering the area during the return from his work-day; Graciela, Alicia and Humberto’s daughter, is stranded by the assault at a nearby friend’s home, where she encounters a number of individuals who plead for the doors of residences adjacent to the Plaza to be opened for them in an attempt to escape the fire. Hours after the massacre, the family-members, reunited and safe, share a meal together and subsequently turn on the television to listen to the news. As is to be expected, the available news-media claims the assault to have been a military response to a fire-fight between two student groups and vastly under-estimates the number killed by the military, presenting this to around 20—as the reactionary national media in fact did shortly after the massacre.4 At this point, with the disenchantment of the family-members reaching a total, they decide to go to sleep, having agreed to continue giving refuge to the refugee-students until the following morning. Prior to this, Sergio, Jorge, and the rest of the university-students discuss the happenings of the day: one passionately declares that the revolution would surely come the following day, thus mirroring the testimony of the actual student and survivor of 2 October, Enrique Vargas, who expected the Mexican people to commence an armed insurrection once they found about the massacre.5 Jorge melancholically tells his comrades that “the people will not abandon us; they cannot abandon us.”

In the middle of the night, then, after the family-members and students have gone to sleep, they are all awoken by a group of guantes blancos searching the Chihuahua building. Initially, the four students are successfully hidden by the family, and the guantes blancos, though hysterical in their domination, seem not to find the family particularly suspect, until one of them subsequently discovers the Che Guevara poster in Jorge and Sergio’s room, together with a copy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto; this leads the intruders to carry out a further search of the apartment, which ends in fact with the discovery of the four refugee-students. Matters then come to a head between the pistol-wielding guantes blancos and the defenseless family-members and students; one of the latter attempts to escape the apartment through the open door, only to be shot and killed by the paramilitaries. Following this, the students and family-members courageously attempt to overpower the armed men, only to be systematically shot down and murdered. Graciela and Sergio manage to escape the apartment, but they too are killed by the guantes blancos on the exit stairwell. The sole survivor of the invasion-cum-massacre is Carlitos, who had been told to hide under one of the beds as the family rashly prepared the apartment for the guantes blancos. Devastated, he emerges from his hiding-place to find his loved ones murdered.

Rojo Amanecer’s thoroughly brutal close in the Chihuahua building can itself be taken as a metaphor for the unshown 2 October massacre carried out in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas below, as well of course as for a great number of other historical massacres. Both the genocidal attack on the students and the near-extermination of the principal characters of Rojo Amanecer represent fascist interventions aimed at crushing the promises of history—in the former case, a fairly broad-based, left-wing student movement that perhaps might have been able to challenge prevailing power relations; in the latter, the newly-born subject, forged by the disenchantment and displacement that the government-sanctioned massacre comes to mean for the film’s various characters: the activist students, the children-witnesses, the horrified housewife, the shattered bureaucrat. That these actors should meet their end while exercising their legitimate self-defense against fascist perpetrators of barbarism should be unsurprising, for it itself is a comment on the brutality of constituted power.

At film’s end—similar, in this sense, to the close of Francisco Vargas’ 2005 El Violín—only the child Carlitos is left. It must be said that the only hope that exists against the specter of a relapse into barbarism—the 24,000 killed since 2006 by Felipe Calderón’s war on narco-traffickers, the millions murdered in Iraq by successive U.S. administrations over the past 20 years, the 300,000 annual victims of climate change, the billion who today starve—is the child, as shattered and traumatized as he must be, cognizant of the world’s horror.


1Elena Poniatowska, La Noche de Tlatelolco (Mexico City: Biblioteca Era, 1971), p. xx; Diego Cevallos, “Para no olvidar el 68,” IPS, 14 January 2007

2Poniatowska, op. cit., p. 167, 168, 242, 225

368 (Mexico City: Planeta, 2008), p. 59-60

4Poniatowska, op cit., p. 164-6

5Ibid, p. 236

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