“Con los padres de las víctimas, sostengo:
no hay nada peor
que estar enfermo de incertidumbre.
Y vivos los queremos.”
[“With the families of the victims, I affirm
that nothing’s worse
than to be sick with uncertainty.
And we want them back alive.”]

––Enrique González Rojo Arthur

When I first met the family members and classmates of the 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa, I almost felt I recognized them. In April 2015, the families and advocates of the students arrived in New York City as part of their caravan across the United States. They were seeking international support in their search for justice. The brutal attack on September 26, 2014 had left three students dead, 43 disappeared, and about fifty who had survived by hiding or running for their lives. As a member of an International Jury for the People’s Permanent Tribunal (PPT), I heard them tell of the anguish of disappearance and blame the Mexican government for obstructing justice: “Fue el Estado” [“It was the State”].[i] The testimonies resounded amidst a sea of faces—the 43 enlarged photographs of the serious young men who were now missing. At the end of the session, everyone shouted in unison: “¡Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos!” [“They took them alive, we want them back alive!”] and “¡Presente!”

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Photos of the 43 in Washington Square Park, 2015

The photos, the grieving mothers, and the chants making political claims were very familiar to someone who has followed mothers’ movements since the Madres of Plaza de Mayo started protesting in Argentina during the late 1970s. This staging in New York therefore pointed to disappearance as part of a continuum of ongoing criminal politics. The photos, the grieving family members, and the chants demanding justice were signs of a political haunting—making visible how the state can “disappear” its opponents. The families’ anguish at not knowing where their loved ones were or what had happened to them, combined with the signs and chants demanding truth and justice, have become part of an immediately recognizable form of protest since the late 1970s. Other groups desperate for information about their disappeared have taken it up. The Turkish Saturday Mothers sit in a central square in Istanbul surrounded by photographs of their missing with the dates of their disappearance inscribed on them. Photographs in the exhibit Yuyanapaq: Para recordar (to remember) document the violence of Peru’s internal conflict (1980-2000), showing women holding small photo IDs of their missing in their hands.[ii] Meanwhile, mothers from Central America search for their missing children, who left as migrants headed toward the United States. These mothers travel through Mexico wearing and carrying their photos, calling for justice. Each variation contributes something of its local context while remaining immediately identifiable. Always, however, these stagings speak to the very specific violence of disappearance. While this particular kind of protest is usually associated with women’s (specifically mothers’) groups, in the case of Ayotzinapa, the fathers joined the mothers. The classmates of the 43 were also male, given the gendered separation in the escuelas normales (rural teachers’ colleges). Each iteration transmits an emotional punch: the now, again, and seemingly always of disappearance.

The attack on the students shocked Mexico and the world. About a hundred students from Ayotzinapa went to the nearby town of Iguala to commandeer buses that would take them to Mexico City for the commemoration of the 1968 state massacre of students in Tlatelolco. In Iguala, they were viciously attacked by municipal police, federal agents, and members of a criminal drug gang, Guerreros Unidos. The 43 became a rallying call for millions of people throughout the country, just as Tlatelolco and “el 2 de octubre no se olvida” [“never forget October 2nd”] had before.

Murder might be a straightforward act of brutality, but disappearance is a political project. It entails the purposeful mangling of bodies and evidence beyond recognition. Disappearance names the black hole of systemic cover-up. Gone are the facts, the people, and the circumstances leading to the death or capture of a person. As Mexican theorist Roberto González Villarreal makes clear, “disappearance is not an excess, not an error; it is a specific repressive technology.”[iii] Disappearance, he continues, “is not an event but a process, an assemblage of actions, omissions, confusions, in which many agents participate.”[iv] So, those shouting “Fue el Estado” were right. The President did not order the killings, tortures, and disappearances; the state­­––from the president on down––created the “disappeared” by allowing all evidence to go missing and by threatening those who searched for facts. Those involved in the efficacy of disappearance include social actors from the military and security forces, the executive and judiciary branches of government, the technicians who handled evidence, the bureaucrats responsible for filing documents, the compliant members of the media, and on and on.

In the face of disappearance as an ongoing political practice, witnesses and photography play a vital role in bringing these atrocities to light. Emily Pederson has accompanied the families and classmates of the 43 almost since the beginning of their struggle to find their loved ones. Accompanying, here, means not just being with, crucial though that is. It means listening to, watching, and documenting the events as they unfold, even as she both helps and supports those who continue in their painful search for justice. Taken between January 2015 and March 2016, Pedersen’s photographs become part of that search. As Dori Laub writes, the witness to trauma becomes a “co-participant and co-owner” of the traumatic event.[v] If, as Laub argues, “massive trauma precludes its registration…[the] record has yet to be made,” Pederson is both witness and chronicler. She is a record maker.[vi]

Until We Find You allows us to share this record, not only of the brutality of the attack on the 43 and their disappearance, but also of the attempts by family, friends, human rights activists, and witness-chroniclers like Pederson to bring perpetrators to justice. As in the late 70s, now again we continue to hear the cries, “¡Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos!”

What can the demands for “back alive” and the performance of the photo do against the processes of disappearance as a political strategy? These protests instantly mark the continuities of criminal practices and performed resistance. People keep disappearing, and contesting, then and now. The social movements by mothers and families of the disappeared now span forty years. The Madres de Plaza de Mayo remind us that protest is a durational performance. Their resistance affirms the force of bonds that unite: love, care, loyalty, and perseverance. Although they were originally dismissed as the “crazy” women of the Plaza, their persistence contributed directly to the trails of the perpetrators initiated by Cristina Kirchner’s government. Protest, these groups show, can work. The symbolic, and at times actual, power of the “powerless” inspires others to keep demonstrating, even though the odds against them seem overwhelming.

Works Cited

Dori Laub, “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening,” in Testimony: Crisis of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, edited by Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (New York: Routledge, 1992), 57.

Roberto González Villarreal, Ayotzinapa: La rabia y la esperanza (Mexico: Editorial Terracotta, 2015), 140.

The non-binding Permanent People’s Tribunal (or PPT)––started in Bologna in 1979 to bring charges against governments for egregious crimes that their countries will never persecute––has been the only “court” to hold Mexico responsible to date.

The non-binding Permanent People’s Tribunal (or PPT)––started in Bologna in 1979 to bring charges against governments for egregious crimes that their countries will never persecute––has been the only “court” to hold Mexico responsible to date.