Maria de Jesus Tlatempa sat quietly in the pew at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on the south side of Milwaukee. On a brisk April 2, she is thousands of miles away from her home in Guerrero, Mexico, but her college-age son, Jose, is missing, and she has traveled to the United States to advocate on his behalf and on behalf of the parents of the 42 other students who went missing along with him.
Tlatempa and a teacher of the mission students are part of Caravana 43, a project developed to bring to theUnited States the parents and classmates of the missing students, to raise awareness about the 43 Mexican students who have been missing since Sept. 26, 2014, and to shed light on U.S. foreign policy, specifically the Merida Initiative and its connections to socioeconomic conditions and violence in Mexico.
The 43 students, teacher trainees from Guerrero, were abducted in September by police acting on the orders of a corrupt mayor and were turned over to a criminal gang, according to the Mexican attorney general’s office and reported by Catholic News Service, Feb. 19.
The case has prompted mass protests in Mexico.
After Tlatempa was introduced, she stepped to the microphone at the front of the church. Parishioners stopped fidgeting in their seats and whispering to those sitting next to them. She had the congregation’s undivided attention.
She began telling her story of what happened on Sept. 26. Various media outlets have reported that a corrupt local mayor ordered the attack on the students, using drug cartels and corrupt police officers, because the students were going to attend a protest at a community event.
Several students were killed, many more were wounded, but 43 were reportedly forced into buses and haven’t been found.
After each detail of the event, she let out a sigh of grief with tears rolling down her cheeks.
“We do not know why they did this to our children,” she said. “We don’t know why they did this and that’s why we came here from Mexico.”
Tlatempa, along with friends of the missing students, were brought to Wisconsin with the help of Voces de la Frontera, a Milwaukee nonprofit organization that focuses on rights of immigrants.
She told parishioners that in spite of the fact Mexican authorities are insisting the students were killed and had their bodies burned in a garbage dump and the ashes tossed into a river, she believes her son and the other students are still alive.
But too many Mexicans are dying because of drugs cartels; corruption and the lack of action by the Mexican government allows those events to continue, she said.
“Imagine how many parents are crying, how many families are crying,” she said. “Behind all of these deaths there is a family.”
After the event, a line of people stretched through half of the church with parishioners offering their personal support, a hug and whatever cash they had.
Tlatempa and the other members of the caravan continued their mission the next day with an event on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus organized by the student branch of Voces called Youth Empowered in the Struggle.
As soon as Tlatempa sat down for the panel discussion and a microphone was put in front of her, she grabbed it with her left hand and put her right fist in the air and began chanting what has become the battle cry of the movement, “Vivos se los llevaron! Vivos los queremos!” Which means “You took them alive! We want them back alive!”
Tlatempa asked the students, who are much the same age as her missing son, to imagine what their mothers would do if they went missing.
“For us, it’s very difficult,” she said. “It’s very difficult for us to live day by day and not know where our sons are.”
After a final event in the Waukesha, Tlatempa and the caravan headed to Michigan and Washington D.C., before culminating in New York on April 24.