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Portes Gil, Emilio, and the 1929 National University Strike

© 2001 Donald J. Mabry

The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) has had its share of student strikes, including the infamous one of 1968 that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, but the beginning of the phenomenon in Mexico is more recent that often assumed. It was not until 1929 that UNAM underwent a general strike, one that closed the entire university. Thus the 1929 strike is important for a number of reasons. First, it set the precedent for all future strikes. Second, the university was granted partial autonomy from the state. Third, this new status institutionalized the ongoing university-state conflict, an important one in 20th century Mexican history. Fourth, the strike supplied training for a number of young men who would become national politicians. Fifth, the handling of demonstrates that Emilio Portes Gil was a strong and clever president and not the puppet of Plutarco Calles as it commonly asserted.
In 1928, President-elect Alvaro Obregón had been assassinated by a Catholic fanatic. He and his co-conspirators were tried and executed but the death of Obregón split the ruling coalition. Some obregonistas suspected that the murder was a plot by the incumbent President, Plutarco Calles, to perpetuate himself in office. To avoid an open and perhaps bloody battle to settle the secession issues, Calles created an umbrella party, the Partido Nacional Revolucionario, to include all potent politicians. This party, or confederation, was to allot the political spoils based upon the relative strength of its membership. The success of this move depended upon selecting an interim president satisfactory to all factions but especially to the obregonistas and then a presidential candidate who met the same qualifications with the additional one of not having a personal following. Emilio Portes Gil, governor of Tamaulipas and a cagey politician in his own right, took the interim post. The presidential candidate was Pascual Ortiz Rubio, a virtual politician unknown.
At the time, there were no assurances that this tactic would work and plenty of indications that the government was in serious trouble. General José Gonzalo Escobar revolted against the government in March; although the revolt ended in April, it reminded Portes Gil's government that not everyone accepted the PNR candidate. The cristero rebellion and Church-State conflict continued until June 22nd when Portes Gil and Archbishop Ruiz y Jiménez announced a modus vivendi. The presidential election scheduled for November 17th loomed down a road potentially mine with a number of unpleasant surprises for decision makers. The opposition coalesced around José Vasconcelos, ex-rector, ex-secretary of public education, leading intellectual, and a man with a strong following among the urban middle class and university students. Meeting resistance to their campaign efforts, the vasconcelistas began talking of a possible revolt. The Mexican Communist Party supported the Ortiz Rubio candidacy but quietly tried to instigate peasant revolts, which the government easily put down. In short, the government which faced the student rebellion in May and June had to do so with one hand tied. That some of the students were vasconcelistas complicated matters.
Students had begun to oppose the government before May, 1929. At the 1928 meeting of the Confederación Nacional de Estudiantes (CNE), student leaders had opposed the re-election of Obregón and declared Vasconcelos the "Benemérito" of the student class. Mexican student activists suspected government complicity in the January, 1929 assassination of their friend Antonio Mella, a Cuban Communist leader. Students marched through the streets of the capital in March, 1929 demanding the fulfillment of the Revolution and accusing Calles and Portes Gil of having betrayed it. Several students were injured by police.
Nothing so important as high national policy tripped the wire leading to the student bomb in the national university. Instead, students exploded over more common and mundane issues: examination policy and the length of the preparatory curriculum. That the administrators were government officials meant that the state would inevitably drawn into the conflict, but it was the bumbling of the administration that created the problems. The Rector, Antonio Castro Leal, had taken office on December 10, 1928, the law school director, Narciso Bassols, on January 3, 1929, and the preparatory school director, Antonio Caso, at about the same time. Thus inexperienced administrators were trying to make fundamental changes during a time of national tension.
When the academic year began in February, Caso announced that the prep curriculum was being extended a year to total three years so that students would learn more archeology, paleontology, and other subjects. Students grumbled during the first two months of classes but took no decisive action. Alfonso Guererro Briones, Ignacio Galvadón, and José Vallejo Novelo unsuccessfully protested to Education Secretary Ezequiel Padilla. The University Council refused to hear a student delegation. Caso broke the strike that followed by sending mounted police into the school's patios. Galvadón and Vallejo Novelo were expelled. Students formed a defense committee, but the issue appeared lost and administrative authority confirmed.
Law students had their own complaints, and their actions would demand the attention and resources of the administration and, later, the government. Law students protested the institution of the examination procedure known as reconocimientos (written exams) in pace of the final oral exam before a three-person tribunal. Rector Castro Leal had announced on February 27th, before classes began, that reconocimientos would be used in the law school that year. Law director Bassols pushed the issue. The students, however, assumed that they would be able to avoid them as they had done since 1925.
The reconocimiento system threatened the less serious law student. Under the examen or prueba system, the student faced a tribunal composed of the professor of the course and two other professors. The judges found it difficult to flunk such a student and few did. Under the reconocimientos, the student would have to face written exams three times a year.
Students protested but Castro Leal stood fast. The University Council rejected the student appeal that the system be abandoned. Castro Leal, in a press statement on April 27th, detailed the history of the issue and reaffirmed the intention to begin in May. The battle line was drawn.
On May 4th, the law students began preparing for a strike, declaring that they would strike on the 12th if the reconocimiento system were put into effect. They named a strike committee to use direct action against any student who tried to take the exams. Alejandro Gómez Arias headed the committee; a number of committee members played important roles in this and future strikes. By a 328-27 vote, the law students decided in favor of the old system. The delegation sent to talk to the Rector met instead with the Secretary-General of the university, Daniel Cosío Villegas, who ordered them to obey the rules. Students then invaded the Secretariat of Public Education building. Arcadio Guevara asked Padilla to intervene to stop the reconocimientos. He only agreed to send the issue to the University Council. Castro Leal and the Council, however, backed their earlier decision to give the exams as scheduled. On May 6th, Bassols posted a notice that any student impeding classes would be expelled. His antagonistic attitude provoked the students.
By the 7th of May, the law students resorted to violence and were met by intransigence from the government. Students seized the law school building and posted guards but firemen ran them out that night. Padilla announced to the newspapers that the government was more interested in educating the masses than university students and, if the conflict was not resolved, the school would become a polytechnic institute. The students also resorted to the press; Guevara and Antonio Damiano declared that the new system was a Yankee invention unsuited for the Latin race, thus trying to appeal to Mexican nationalism. Further, they argued that the new system destroyed private initiative. Two students who refused to obey the strike edict were stripped, doused in a pool, and ridden through the University quarter on a rail. Faced with such behavior, Portes Gil closed the school that day and warned that, if the academic year were lost through a prolonged closure, the unexpended funds would be given to polytechnic schools. Efforts to get the support of the medical, engineering, and national prep schools failed. Students in those schools had been using the reconocimiento system for years.
When the law students tried to retake the law building on the 8th, they found that firemen had occupied the building hours before. Padilla argued that students who did not like the national law school system could create their own private law school (as he and his friends did in 1912). The government then could spend the money saved on rural education. Portes Gil refused to make any deal. The strike was stymied unless the students could find something to spark the issue.
In part, Alejandro Gómez Arias was that spark. Gómez Arias had been expelled from the national prep school in 1923 for his participation in the student upheaval of that year. Afterwards, he studied in Michoacán and worked in both student and state politics. He returned to the National University in 1929 as a law student but also was very active in the Vasconcelos presidential campaign. The strike gave him an excellent chance to try to embarrass the government. As CNE president, he would use his championship oratorical skills and contacts throughout the nation, to get a declaration from the CNE on May 9th that its 130,000 members would support the strike and demonstrate on the 14th.
The strike directors knew, however, that no single individual could defeat the forces arrayed against the law students. Somehow, they had to get public support, a difficult task since their demands were so self-serving.
Thus, on Thursday the 9th, the strikes met and listened to rallying speeches from Gómez Arias, Azuela, and others. The speakers excoriated Bassols and Castro Leal. Finally, they adopted a manifesto and appointed a ten-person propaganda committee to publicize their version of the issues. They declared themselves "revolutionaries at heart" and "against all tyrannies." Bassols, they said, could never empathize with the students. The attack on Bassols represented an effort to focus their barbs on a single individual in the hope of forcing his resignation or removal would save the students from disciplinary action.
The government and the administration, for their part, put pressure on students to return to school. They thought the possibility of a general strike slight, but took precautions to prevent one, threatening severe sanctions if the students misbehaved. By the 16th, the government, believing-that the strike had virtually ground to a standstill, announced plans to reopen the school with the re-enrollment period scheduled for May 20-25. If not enough enrolled., the school would be closed permanently.
The University Council considered the reconocimiento issue during its May 16th meeting, but made only minor concessions to the"strikers. To give the students more time to prepare, exams were scheduled for the first ten days of July, and the second series set for November 18 to December 14. The exams would last two hours each and would not be comprehensive. Students would be notified of the exams eight days before they took place. The class attendance requirement was reduced to fifty percent for the first exam and sixty-five for second. These concessions were the best the students could hope to get. The university administration sat back and waited to see many law students re-enrolled during the May 20-25 period. On the 21st, the Rector announced that 113 had re-enrolled the first day. The strike appeared broken.
Students of the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria joined the strike on May 21 and quickly turned events around. Prep students had their own grievances concerning addition of another year to their studies, but it was the combined efforts of prep and law students that created the 60-10 vote in favor of the strike. This represented a minority of the some 1,500 prep students and did not represent the night prep students who refused to join. When the ENP group went to tell the university authorities that the day ENP was on strike, they found the doors closed and guarded by soldiers. They went to the medical school night to try to get those students to join but firemen opened their hoses on the students; students threw stones from the roof the building; the Rector ordered the firemen to leave; and mounted police burst onto the scene, breaking up the demonstration medical students voted against joining.
The strike leaders realized that they had to get the medical students to join if they were going to close the university, for medical students would bring all the more conservative schools -into the strike with them. Somehow, the strike leaders to polarize student opinion and create martyrs in order to rally support, For weeks Gomez Arias and Baltasar Dromundo had been going to the medical school in an effort to convince students there to join up, but they had failed because the medical students could not identify with either the law or prep school complaints. Director Ocaranza was popular in the medical school and his cool head and light hand had preserved order.
Two separate events on May 23rd turned the tide. Students. on the one hand, and police and firemen, on the other, clashed violently in front of the law school in the afternoon. In spite of student and news reporters' testimony to the contrary, rumors flew that six students had been killed by the firemen and police. Later that day, police invaded the medical school to rescue a student and, while inside, fired their pistols into the air. The Rector has sent more police and ordered the director, Ocaranza, to use them. Ocaranza got the Mexico City regent to intervene and calm the situation, but he then led the medical students into the strike. The schools of dentistry, vet medicine, and chemical sciences quickly followed. Within a few days, every university school, almost every technical school, and almost every secundaria in the Federal District had declared themselves on strike. In the states, other schools and universities declared strikes or stops in support of UNAM.
Still more violence that night increased student support. Within hours after the medical school confrontation, two or three hundred students fought police and firemen near the Hotel Regis in downtown Mexico City. Pistols were fired, probably by both sides, skulls cracked, and some twenty-six persons, including Guevara, arrested. Newspaper reports on the 24th erroneously reported between two and six students killed on the 23rd. To prevent further violence, Portes Gil withdrew all police, firemen, and soldiers from the university precincts, expressed regret at what had taken place and asked the student to present their petitions to him in person or in writing.
Student ire against both university and governmental authorities could not be deflected so easily. On the 24th of May, orators mounted the tribune in the patio of the law school to attack the university administration and the public authorities. Previously uninvolved students such as Adolfo Lopez Mateos (future president of Mexico) joined the militants. Strike committees were formed in each school, inside and outside the university, and delegates selected to form part of the Comité Central de Huelga, to meet that night to draft a response to Portes Gil.
When Brito Rosado and his fellow committee members finally met Portes Gil on the afternoon of the 27th, the list of demands they gave him demonstrated a desire for revenge and a total reorganization of post-elementary education in the Federal District. First, the demanded the dismissals of Padilla, his undersecretary Moisés Sáenz, Castro Leal, and the police chiefs. Next, they wanted the resignations of all employees responsible for reprisals against the students. Further, they demanded a full investigation to identify and punish those responsible for the events 6f May 23rd to the present. Their demands on educational matters were equally extensive. The government was to create a council of technical schools and a council of normal schools. The secundarias were to be reincorporated into the ENP. Co-government (parity of student-professor representation) was to be instituted in the University Council and the new technical and normal school councils. The University Council was to nominate three persons from whom the Mexican president could choose the university rector. The Rector would lose authority, being able to. vote only to break ties.
The next day, the students backed their demands with a massive demonstration. Over 12,000 students, from different schools in the District, paraded for three hours through city streets to the National Palace. Portes Gil watched from a balcony but did not speak, pleading illness, but he promised an answer for the next day.
Portes Gil's reply to the petition was a political masterstroke for he preempted public attention, yielded little, and split the strikers. After stating his sympathy for students and the university, he rejected the demands for the firings on the grounds that he could not allow students to dictate who his collaborators were; governmental authority would be severely compromised. Instead, he offered the student's university autonomy on the grounds that it would produce long range solutions and take academic disputes out of the political arena. He offered nothing to the non-university strikers, however, knowing that their interest in the strike would quickly wane.
Portes Gil was giving up little. It cost the government little or nothing to give students parity on the Council and in the academies of professors and students for each school or faculty. Henceforth, he declared, the university community was to govern itself. Nevertheless, he would name the ternas (three candidates) for the rectorship and the directorships; the Council would have to choose one of the president's nominees. In short, these university positions remained political. He promised that the university would have full control over academic matters and be given a general appropriation each year. The document sent to Congress would substantially circumscribe this freedom, however.
Participants still debate the origin of the idea of university autonomy at this time. Portes Gil contends that the idea was original with him, that it had been floating around university circles for twenty years (which was true), but that the students considered it too utopian to suggest it. Students, writing later, claimed they had drawn up an autonomy proposal and sent it to Portes Gil; he said he never received it. There is no doubt that some students had been discussing the idea for months; prep school students had wanted to propose it but had been unable to write a plan in time or submission. The specific proposal that was sent to Congress seems to have come from Portes Gil, however. In the university archives, there is a typed copy of the 1924 autonomy proposal which has been redated June 3, 1929, indicating that it was the model for the Portes Gil bill.
The autonomy proposal immediately split the student ranks. The strikers, meeting on May 30th, tried to close ranks by seeking to add non-university students to committees working on academic problems. Strike leaders hotly debated the next step. Teodosio Montalván, a Cuban, summed up their situation well: Portes Gil had shown his ability to divide the student class. The debate degenerated into an argument over who had sold out and why. At the end, the leaders decided to accept autonomy in principle but to continue the strike.
Following two days of lengthy discussions, a student delegation met with Portes Gil on June 2nd to present their list of objections to is autonomy proposals The theme of their objections was that more power over a larger university should be put into student hands. They wanted to deny the vote to the secretary-general of the university, the treasurer, and those directors who did not head faculties or schools. They wanted the Secretariat of Public Education representative removed permanently. No more than two alumni would be allowed to serve on the Council and neither would have a vote. On the other hand, both the local student federation (FEM) and the CNE would be given a voting representative. The law should guarantee student representation on key committees. They wanted the terna for the rector to come from the Council. The Council should elect the directors and name and remove professors based on the proposals of the respective academies. Rectors would have to have lived in the country for one year immediately before taking office (a slap at Castro Leal who had not), but directors would only have had to live in the country for one year in their lives. Further, they wanted the student societies to continue as the official governing bodies for the students inside the university. Finally, they wanted to remove the President's power to veto student admissions. Portes Gil asked them to put their requests~in writing so he could study them.
These efforts failed. The government had conceded as much as it planned to do. During the congressional session in the first week of June, various functionaries testified on behalf of the bill, but its passage was a foregone conclusion. On June 5th, Congress authorized Portes Gil to issue an autonomy law. Now the university had to await the promulgation of the new law by the President.
Having failed to get a concession from Portes Gil before Congress acted, the students:- now concentrated on continuing the strike and maintaining student solidarity while they lobbied to get the desired changes as well as somet1hing for the non-university students. They abandoned the original idea of ending the strike on June 8th. The non-university students began to pull out of the strike, however, On June 8th, the central strike committee agreed to allow the technical and secundaria students to return to school on the 19th, as they requested.
In desperation, a group of strikers decided to force Castro Leal out of the rectorship before the new autonomy law initiated. On the 11th of June, 2,000 students marched on the university. some went into the rectory to demand Castro Leal's resignation, but he stepped out a side door. Angered, the students seized secretary-general Cosió Villegas and ENP director Caso in an attempt to get Castro Leal to return, but then discovered that they were locked in. After two and one-half hours, they let the two men go but decided to occupy the building until the Rector resigned. After two days, during which they were left alone, Portes Gil agreed to send a representative to receive custody of the building. The Rector sent his letter of resignation on the 14th, saying that, after helping draw up the autonomy law, he had done all he could, It is also likely that Portes Gil advised him to resign.
Splits in the strikers' ranks continued. Women students, organized as the Sociedad de Universitarias Mexicanas met on the 14th in an effort to unite all women students and present a united front to insure that they would have de jure and de facto representation on the University Council and the FEM. The next day, medical students began circulating a call for a return to class, arguing that the goals of the strike had been achieved, thus forcing a general meeting on the 17th. On the 18th, however, the strike committee had to meet again; this time Gomez Arias received a vote of confidence after having been accused of betraying the strikers
The Portes Gil law, announced on June 21, officially converted the university into the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The University Council was named the supreme internal authority and was to be composed of ex-officio members (the Rector, chief administrators, and a non-voting delegate from the Secretariat of Public Education) as well as elected members two professors and two students from each school or facultad, "us their alternates; a male and a female from the FEM; and a delegate from each alumni association recognized by the Council). If twenty-five percent of the students of a school were female, one of that school's representatives had to be female. Although important for the university, these details were not as important for the immediate future as the sections which gave the Mexican president ultimate control.
The resident retained both direct and indirect control, He sent a terna to the Council from which it could choose the Rector. The President could name extraordinary professors, charged against his own budget, veto any Council resolution concerning the closing of a facultad or school, the admission of students, the revalidation of studies, eligibility requirements for scholarships funded by the national government, purchases of 100,000 pesos or more in a single instance or 10,000 or more pesos annually, and veto any Council resolution within thirty days of passage. In short, the purse strings, the choice of the Rector, and the admission of students remained in the President's power, a far cry from autonomy.
The law effectively broke the strike. On July 2, the Federación de Escuelas Secundarias voted 13-10 to continue the strike but then reversed itself in face of strong opposition from some of the secundarias. The student society of public administration withdrew its recognition of the strike committee that same day. Professors in each school began organizing their own societies. The strike committee denied on July 3 that the strike was broken, but it.was, ending officially on July 11. At the end, the secundarias questioned their fate, but the strike committee could only offer the empty promise that they would get their own autonomy law.
Portes Gil emerged the victor with his prestige and authority intact, for he had seemingly granted the University what its members had long demanded, autonomy from the State. By making.the promise in late May, he had calmed a volatile situation; by delaying the fulfillment of the promise, he had given the strikers ample opportunity to argue among themselves and his government the peace important to the pursuit of more pressing business. The strike committee members knew they had been outsmarted, for the President had changed the issue into one he could manage, but there was little they could do. Henceforth, the contest would be between the State and UNAM not between the State and students in the streets.
Having received the right to govern itself, the university community had to reorganize as the autonomous university. The first step was to install an interim administration until the Council could be elected and make more permanent appointments. Ignacio García Tellez became interim rector. The autonomy decree also apparently meant that all professors lost their posts and would have to named by the new Council. Thus, the students would have ample opportunity to influence the administrative and professorial composition of the new university.
Council and academy elections filled the last two weeks of July and provided a test of the ability of strike leaders to retain power. From the general strike committee, Gómez Arias, Julio Serrano, Guerrero Briones, Vallejo Novelo, Brito Rosado, and Guillermo Alvarez were elected to the Council. Antonio Damiano and Dromundo were elected to law academy posts. Most general and law strike committee members, however, failed to get Council seats.
Portes Gil shocked the new Council on August 1st by sending a rectorship terna composed of politicians close to himself. His primary choice, García Tellez, the interim rector, had been a federal deputy and oficial mayor in Gobernación before assuming the rectorship. Salvador Urbina, a Supreme Court Justice, had been treasury undersecretary during de la Huerta presidency. José A. Cuevas, an engineer, had just been defeated for the directorship of the Engineering school; his nomination was a direct slap at the University.
On August 2nd, the Council rejected all three nominees as being unqualified.
The Council and the President locked horns, for Portes Gil refused to back down. In his View, all the nominees had the necessary prestige and Revolutionary qualifications for the post; he refused to send another list. The Council recognized that UNAM had not escaped political partisanship, so, on August 7, the members elected Urbina by a 53-9 margin over García Tellez. One additional vote was annulled and Cuevas was ignored. Urbina was seen as the least politically partisan of the three and the most adventuresome. Because he had been elected to spite Portes Gil, Urbina publicly refused the post and told the Council to show more respect for the President's terna.
The government began politely to threaten the Council to elect one of Portes Gil's candidates. Excelsior reported a rumor on August 23 that the President was going to nominate a more political terna. In the same story, the newspaper also reported that the Chamber of Deputies was thinking about cutting the UNAM budget.
Portes Gil soon denied the terna story, but its origin appeared to have been calculated. The Council quickly elected José López Lira as interim rector so the university could function. Nevertheless, the same deputies in the Chamber on August 24 began suggesting that they would not approve UNAM's budget, putting the money instead into rural schools. On the 29th, Portes Gil told the Council to choose from the two remaining candidates. The next day, the Secretariat of Public Education announced that 460,000 pesos would be cut from the budget because the national agricultural school was not in UNAM. The Council unanimously approved a motion requesting a new terna. On the 31st, Excelsior reported that the,budget cut would be 680,000 pesos. In case the Council was not getting the message, some deputies suggested that the President appoint the Rector, who, in turn, would appoint the directors from ternas supplied by the academies. The Rector would be able to reject a terna, however, giving the President's man enormous power. The President would become the final arbiter of Rector-Council disputes.
The pressure worked, for, in a tempestuous three hour session on September 3rd, the Council elected García Tellez. Cuevas got only two votes; Portes Gil's two votes were treated the same as the three blank votes. The vote was easy to understand; as Gómez Arias put it, it was to prevent the suicide of the university.
UNAM entered a period of relative peace in the fall of 1929. García Tellez would complete his three year term, a feat rarely repeated by rectors. The assassination of Germán del Campo, student leader and vasconcelista, on September 20th, deeply disturbed many university students but they did not start another strike. Vasconcelos went down to defeat in November, crying fraud and hinting at a possible revolt, but nothing happened other than his exile, So much time had been lost that most students tried to prepare for exams. The students found they had to take the .reconocimientos after all. The ENP curriculum change was killed by the strike, but the plan of studies was changed in 1930 and changed again in 1931. Castro Leal and Bassols were driven out of their posts, but Bassols would return to haunt UNAM in the 1930s as Secretary of Public Education . Gómez Arias, the single most important strike leader, almost immediately became part of the UNAM establishment and thus uninterested in causing more trouble
Easy as it might be to focus upon the activities of student leaders or upon street tactics, the most important lesson from the strike must be learned from examining the role of the government. It was the decision of government officials to use force on 23rd that drove Medical School students and with them thousands of others into what had been a localized event, one that promised to peter out soon. The use of violence by the government was counterproductive for it was polarizing. It was the government, in person of Portes Gil, that stopped the violence, defused the situation, split the strikers, and isolated UNAM from other educational institutions in the Federal District. Had the national situation not been tense, the national government might have acted differently. Regardless, Portes Gil emerges from the events as an extremely skillful politician who stepped in to save a situation created by his less competent subordinates. He deserves more credit as a molder of contemporary Mexico than he usually receives. Whether one credits Portes Gil or other officials, it is clear that the government was responsible for both the course and the outcome of the strike.