The Encampments Spread to Mexico


The Palestine Solidarity Camp at UNAM in Mexico City: An Interview


On May 2, students from a number of schools and student organizations across Mexico City launched a Palestine solidarity encampment in the heart of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), within view of the Okupa Che, a 24-year-running anarchist squat that once served as the UNAM’s largest auditorium. They established the encampment as an expression of solidarity with the wave of university encampments taking place in the United States against the Israeli state’s genocide in Gaza. By the end of the encampment’s first day, it already involved fifty tents, a free kitchen, and the visual redecoration of the space around it with messages of solidarity with Palestine.

We conducted this interview in person with a well-connected participant.

Tents in the Palestine solidarity encampment in the center of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The banners read “Stop the genocidal imperialism in Gaza—long live the struggle of the Palestinian people—break off relations with Israel!”

Outside the Okupa Che, a longstanding anarchist squatted social center in the heart of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Q: Let’s start with the basics. How long has the encampment been here?

A: It started today, at noon.

Q: Oh shit, today?

A: Today. The original decision that we took in assembly was to camp out until Sunday, but now my understanding is we’re going through until at least next week. We’re going to have another assembly to take stock of how it’s going and decide whether to extend the encampment longer or continue along another course of action.

I feel like there were more people in the assembly than came to the encampment, but lots of people passed by today and found out about it, and went home to gather supplies, so I expect more people will come to spend the weekend here.

Tents in the Palestine solidarity encampment in the center of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Tents in the Palestine solidarity encampment at UNAM.

Q: How did it start?

A: Well, I can tell you how I found out about it: I saw a flier posted by various collectives—I think Juventud Anticapitalista (anti-capitalist youth) made it—calling for an inter-university assembly about how to take action in solidarity with all the Palestine solidarity camps happening in the United States. The idea was for the camp here to be a center of organizing that other actions can emerge from, as well as a space to talk about what’s happening in Palestine. The assembly involved students from different high schools and universities, even schools on the outskirts of the city, and also art collectives, political collectives, a little of everything.

The goal is to pressure the university to break its ties with pro-Israel entities, because UNAM has a certain degree of political weight on the national level. Also, the presidential election is in June, so its electoral campaign season right now, and we thought we could extend our demand to the national level: that the government should break its ties with Israel too. However, it’s not like there’s a single political line here, there are many, and at some point, we may have disagreements about what actions to take to achieve our goals.

A banner at the Palestine solidarity encampment at UNAM. The text reads “Until what is essential becomes visible,” a reference to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and likely to graffiti that appeared during the uprising in Chile in 2019 depicting the Little Prince with the inscription “What is essential is invisible to the state.”

Q: So the camp isn’t only for UNAM students?

A: Right, no one’s checking your student ID here. It’s mostly students, but we intentionally wanted it open to the public in general because we think that’s part of this being a public university. Personally, I’m in the philosophy department and majoring in Latin American studies, but I’m not here just as an individual. I’m participating with my direct action-based activist film collective.

Q: Can you speak to the specific location of the encampment and the meaning and history of this location?

A: To the north, we have the central library of the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) system. It’s the symbol of the school: people take their graduation photos here because of the enormous Juan O’Gorman mural on the building.

On the other end of the encampment is the main administrative building of the university, including the chancellor’s offices, which also features historic and widely recognized murals. By planting our encampment between two of the most emblematic buildings of UNAM, we’re projecting our message right from the symbolic heart of the university.

Tents in the Palestine solidarity encampment at UNAM.

The Palestine solidarity encampment at UNAM.

Q: And the Okupa Che is, like, right there [gestures]. Does the fact that there’s a 24-year-running anarchist squatted auditorium next door make the encampment more viable?

A: Since the student movement in 1968, which has a whole history and context of its own, the law has given universities autonomy from police—they’re not allowed to enter. Even so, it’s peculiar to have a squat in the middle of a university, and Okupa Che is an unusually protected space for the amount of activity that comes out of it. On the other hand, Okupa Che doesn’t define itself as an exclusively student space, and it rejects certain forms of what can be understood as “student activism.” However, even if what we’re doing doesn’t emerge directly from working with the Okupa Che, there’s that sense that they have our back because we’re also occupying space autonomously.

Outside the Okupa Che, a longstanding anarchist squatted social center in the center of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

The unpermitted street market outside of the squat is another extension of those values and practices, even if it’s not directly tied to the Okupa Che. During the pandemic, students needed a way to cover their costs without abandoning their studies, and the Tianguis street market was born. There were attempts to establish a street market before the pandemic, but it wasn’t until COVID-19 that there were organized, mass calls to have people set up and sell their goods. There were conflicts over whether it should just be for students, but personally, I think it’s better for it to be open to the whole public. This is a “public” institution, after all.

So having these two unpermitted, collective uses of university territory next to us offers a kind of informal network of protection, because we know that if something happens to the encampment, there are people who will fight for us—not even because they are involved in our movement, necessarily, but because what we have in common is the collective occupation of public space.

Artwork calling for solidarity with Jorge “Yorch” Esquivel, an anarchist prisoner targeted for his involvement in the Okupa Che squat.

Q: From what I can tell, what’s happening in the United States is an explosion of ad hoc student organizing. In contrast, the student movement here seems to have a more consistent tradition of struggle. As someone involved in student activism in Mexico, are there any lessons for the students taking action now?

A: If there’s one important difference I would highlight, it is the fact that what is happening in the United States is capturing the attention of the public. The student rebels there should take advantage of that. One of the privileges of the United States is that when something noteworthy happens there, it’s news for the whole world. In that sense, while I know there is persecution happening against the encampments, there is also a kind of unique protection in the United States, because the whole world is watching.

There’s a tension there: the importance of not losing that attention, but also of connecting it to international networks. That’s the kind of support that can make a meaningful difference for international movements and struggles, because imperialism and racism are not just limited to Palestine. Now is the time, so push—push with everything you’ve got.

The Palestine solidarity encampment at UNAM.

Graffiti at the Palestine solidarity encampment at UNAM.

Graffiti at the Palestine solidarity encampment at UNAM.

The Palestine solidarity encampment at UNAM.