Mario González Contreras doesn’t like speaking at universities.
The students who fill the lecture halls and seminar rooms are about the same age as his son, César. He notices his son’s features in their faces. Or maybe, he looks for them. And that’s when it hits him the hardest.
On Sunday evening, González stood behind a lectern at Saint Louis University’s Center for Global Citizenship. About two dozen students listened intently as he talked about his son.
César González Hernández turned 19 the spring before he left home to study at Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Guerrero, Mexico. He was bright and idealistic and eager to serve as a teacher in Mexico’s indigenous and marginalized communities. Communities like his.
“He was a human being,” González said in Spanish. “With dreams and with flaws. But with more virtues than flaws.”
The last time González heard from his son was at 5:35 p.m. on Sept. 26, 2014.
That night, about 100 students from the Ayotzinapa school commandeered a handful of buses to get themselves to the capital. They hoped to attend a march marking the anniversary of a student massacre carried out decades ago by the government.
It’s not uncommon for students in the area to steal buses to get themselves to events, a “mostly tolerated” practice that always ended in the safe return of the buses.
So it was a surprise when local police in the city of Iguala opened fire on the students. They set up roadblocks to stop the buses and fired tear gas and bullets. Six people, including bystanders, were killed. Dozens were injured. And 43 students were whisked away in patrol cars and never seen again.
Felipe de la Cruz Sandoval – whose son escaped from one of the ambushed buses – has become a spokesman for the families of the 43 kidnapped students, who have helped spur a national social justice movement. He stood alongside González at Sunday’s event – one stop of many on a 21-city college speaking tour – and encouraged students to continue to use their voices and social networks to spread awareness about the Ayotzinapa 43.
“The government is not going to punish themselves,” he said. And while federal authorities have jailed dozens of local officers who they say handed the 43 students over to a drug cartel, an independent international report found that both state and federal police likely knew about or worked with corrupt local officials on the night of the attacks. Investigators also found that forensic evidence disputes the official account that gang members killed and burned the students. With no scientific evidence that their children were killed, families continue to search.
The students at Saint Louis University, brought together by the school’s Latino student group and the St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America, asked what they could do to help. Protesting at local consulates, de la Cruz said, shows officials that the world is watching. Even making and sharing videos demanding justice can add to the growing chorus of international pressure.
“The fact that you’re here gives us certainty that we are not alone,” de la Cruz said. “Today we know that we are not 43. We are millions.”
And for González, the same bright, young faces that remind him of his pain also comfort him.
“You can do a lot for us,” he added. “Because every time I see a student listening to an old man who is hurting because he can’t find his son – it feels beautiful.”
Follow Carolina on Twitter: @carolinahidalgo