Antonio Tizapa Legideño leaned on the podium, eyes downcast, head bent downward.
“I miss his voice,” said Tizapa. With his voice crackling, he began to wipe away his tears with his shirtsleeve, like a lost child. “I never changed my number… I’m waiting for a message… a phone call from him.”
The room fell silent, with only faint sniffling every now and then. The woman by Tizapa’s side, whose job it was to translate his native Spanish into English, was motionless. There was no translation needed. This was the look of a grieving father.
More than 30 months before, 43 students, all male, went missing in the rural city of Iguala in southern Mexico. Amongst those students, who are in their late teens, was a stocky, 19-year-old man with slicked-back hair. His name was Jorge.
Jorge was a newlywed, and had just welcomed a baby daughter into the world. He harbored dreams of becoming a pilot so that he could travel to America and see his father, Tizapa. On Sept. 26, 2014, Jorge never returned home from school.
“That day, while all the parents were waiting, the bus never came,” reminisced Tizapa. “It was the hardest day of our lives — to know our kids are not going to be home any more.”
There is much controversy over the details, which are as blurred and dark as the confrontation that ensued that night. Investigations of the incident later revealed not only evidence of a police shootout, but the involvement of a local gang, the “United Warriors,” in the kidnapping, torturing and alleged incineration of the students.
Five mass graves of charred corpses were discovered nine days later.
According to official reports, the students were ambushed on their bus by local police as they traveled from their home school, the Ayotzinapa Teachers College, to the city-center for a memorial protest of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre, which saw the killing of dozens of students and civilians.
The Ayotzinapa movement, born out of the bloodshed in Iguala, manifested itself soon after in the form of nationwide protests. It led to the resignation of local officials, numerous condemnations of the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, by foreign leaders, and the arrest of more than 80 suspects, half of which were police officers.
Yet like those unfortunate students, evidence of the mass kidnapping and the alleged involvement of the Federal Police and Army was buried, and some have fled, leading to what many consider the biggest political and social scandal in modern Mexican history.
“Mexico is dangerous when it comes to who they choose to kill,” said Tizapa. “They’ll shoot kids and women who are pregnant. It should be stopped. There are laws in Mexico, but actually there are no laws because people can do what they want. There are many problems and a lot of corruption.”
Tizapa arrived at the Brooklyn College Student Center wearing a haggard green sweatsuit and a black beanie. He was invited by Nicole Rojas, president of the Mexican Heritage Student Association, to speak to a small crowd of young college students of what turned out to be more than 50 individuals. They included one olden Mexican couple seated on the margins, leaning on each other’s shoulders, listening in grief.
Tizapa was accompanied by three of his friends, all activists. Though probably of the same age, the keynote speaker for the night looked significantly older, aged with exhaustion, the dim lights doing little to hide the deep wrinkles of sadness marking his face.
He began by laying out across the hall 20-or-so large, spray-painted posters of the victims. They each read, “43 MEXICAN STUDENTS WERE KIDNAPPED BY THE STATE.” Below that sentence, in the center of those weather-scarred placards, was a large fragmented depiction of a face painted in sad blue.
Each had a distinct stare of innocence, an image of discontent frozen in time. On some of them were dry drips of paint that looked to stream down from their eyes like tears. Below each of their names was a phrase in red. “THEY TOOK THEM ALIVE, WE WANT THEM ALIVE!”
Tizapa stood right over his son’s poster, and spoke not only of the political climate in Mexico but also of his activism as a runner, having competed in the Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and New York marathons. For the last two years, he has been running for his son, protesting in silence and sweat.
“What I have in mind are the words of my son,” read the English subtitles over Tizapa’s voice in a video screen at the talk. “I remember him in his childhood. So that’s a way to feel that anger; that helplessness. And overall the love you have for your son. You’re doing everything for him. So that’s the feeling behind every race I run.”
Tizapa insisted that he didn’t represent a political party and didn’t want money. His role was to raise awareness and counter the silence in Mexico City, Washington and the major Spanish-language television networks. On every anniversary of the kidnapping, he leads a rally in front of the Mexican embassy. “We want our sons, that’s all,” he said.
The story of Tizapa is the story of 42 other families, and many battling corruption and immorality — it is a story of loss, trial and despair. But it is also a story of hope. “The students don’t want to know what a gun is,” Tizapa reminded those before him. “All they want to know is a notebook and a pencil.”
“It’s sad and hurtful for all of us involved. The school is waiting for the kids to return. We too, the parents, are waiting for the bus to come and drop off the kids so that we see their faces light up, because they’ll know that we’ve been waiting for them.”
Note: The voice record of Tizapa’s talk was translated by Jonathan Lopez, a Mexican-American student at Kingsborough Community College.