Standing for victims of disasters in Mexico

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In a somber display of remembrance, the AFT, with the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, held a vigil for the victims of the recent earthquakes in Mexico and also lifted up the 43 teachers in training who were disappeared from the Mexican state of Guerrero on Sept. 26, three years ago. Holding photos of the missing young men, demonstrators read each name into the microphone and placed their pictures along the brick wall of the Mexican Embassy in downtown Washington, D.C.

Honoring the hundreds who died in the three massive earthquakes that hit Mexico in just two weeks this month, damaging more than 210 schools and toppling countless buildings across the southern part of the country, AFT President Randi Weingarten also praised the rescue and relief efforts of those working to aid victims of not just the earthquakes but also the hurricanes in Texas, Florida, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and the fires in the Pacific Northwest.

Group of protestors at Mexican Embassy

"But there are man-made disasters, too," she said, as she outlined the story of the missing students whose lives and futures were snatched away. "This is another disaster that has to be rectified in the same way we are working to create stability and rebuilding from the natural disasters."

"This is a message of solidarity," said Hector Sanchez, executive director of LCLAA (pictured above with Weingarten and the AFT group). "This is a message of unity. We're going to do everything we can to find justice for these 43 students."

The AFT, along with LCLAA and others sponsoring the demonstration, is calling on the United Nations Human Rights Council to conduct a thorough investigation. "We are demanding justice for those involved in the disappearances of the student-teachers," Weingarten said in a statement. "Since the disappearances of these 43 young people, it has been reported that the students were subjected to atrocities, yet there is still much that families do not know. The families of the disappeared deserve to know that justice will be served."

The students, who attended the Raúl Isidro Burgos Ayotzinapa Normal School, a teacher training college in the southern state of Guerrero, were traveling to and from a demonstration to demand more funding for public schools—the sort of demonstration many AFT members might attend here in the United States. Details are still unknown, but it appears they hijacked a bus (not an uncommon occurrence in this area) and were attacked by police. More than 130 people have been arrested in connection to the incident, including the ex-mayor of Iguala and his wife, local police officials and members of a drug cartel.

Protest sign at Mexican Embassy

AFT affiliates have long been involved in promoting labor and human rights in South America, and they rallied again to commemorate the Ayotzinapa students. Members from Albuquerque, Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City and other cities joined Education International and others from around the globe to tweet a "thunderclap" demanding justice for the 43.

For some members of the Professional Staff Congress, the AFT affiliate that represents faculty and staff at the City University of New York, the action felt more personal. They met some of the missing students' parents when they hosted them for breakfast during an informational tour of the United States in 2015. Anthony O'Brien, secretary of the PSC International Committee, says the students have much in common with those who attend CUNY. "We educate students who are from poor communities, immigrant communities," he said, explaining that the missing students were from poor communities in Mexico.

The Ayotzinapa school was founded just after the Mexican Revolution to raise literacy and improve the standard of living among the poor, and has become known for its left-leaning politics. "We have a particular connection with the teachers college in Ayotzinapa," said O'Brien.

"What binds us is greater than what separates us," added Nivedita Majumdar, PSC secretary. The students were asking for more funds, and they were asking for autonomy, she said. "Those are two demands that teachers make everywhere."

The PSC first encountered the story of the Ayotzinapa students at a protest that one of its members witnessed during an international conference in Mexico City. Other locals also learned about the tragedy, passed resolutions of solidarity and eventually crafted an AFT resolution calling for further investigation.

Back in Washington, Weingarten concluded the vigil: "May their memory be for a blessing, and may we, as we have this vigil outside the Mexican Embassy, fight as soldiers for justice in Mexico and everywhere."

[Virginia Myers]