Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Unsolved disappearance of students in Mexico hits uncomfortably close for LA immigrants



Angel Neri de La Cruz, center, describes to an audience at Cal State Northridge what he witnessed the night fellow that fellow students from his teacher training college went missing in the Mexican city of Iguala, last September 26.
Angel Neri de La Cruz, center, describes to an audience at Cal State Northridge what he witnessed the night fellow that fellow students from his teacher training college went missing in the Mexican city of Iguala, last September 26.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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In a crowded auditorium at Cal State Northrige, Angel Neri De La Cruz talked about the night of September 26. That’s when he says he narrowly escaped being killed by gunmen who attacked his fellow students.

"That night, being out on the streets of Iguala was like a death sentence," he said in Spanish.

The students, from a teacher training college in the state of Guerrero, went missing last year after they traveled to Iguala to protest what they said were discriminatory hiring practices for teachers. There, they clashed with police.

Speaking through a translator on Thursday, Neri described how he and others later saw a bloodied and bullet-riddled bus that some students had been traveling in.

"When we tried to enter the bus, from the steps was when we saw all the bloodstains, and blood all over the aisles," he said.

The disappearance of the students has hit a raw nerve for Mexican immigrants in the U.S.

Among those in the audience were immigrants who live with fear that relatives could be affected by drug and police violence - and some who have been affected directly.

In the audience were people like Mario Avila, who fled Guatemala in the early 1980s after he survived imprisonment and torture during that country's civil war.
 
"When I first learned about the disappearances...I couldn't sleep," said Avila, a one-time union organizer in Guatemala.

For Nansi Cisneros, the Iguala incident strikes uncomfortably close, even though she grew up in Southern California. Her brother has been missing since October 2013, when he was abducted outside the family home in the Mexican state of Jalisco.

She said the family has received a few calls from police in recent months, but her brother has yet to turn up.
 
The Iguala disappearances are  "not the same thing as with my brother," Cisneros said, "but it’s the same pain.”
 
The incident sparked massive protests in Mexico. The Mexican government has claimed the students were murdered by a drug gang that acted together with local authorities. But critics have been skeptical of the way the government has handled the case, and have questioned the delay in  solving it.

The body of one student was identified late last year by a forensic team; the body was among charred remains found near a garbage dump.

Lidia Resendis of Winnetka brought her 10-year-old son with her to the Northridge campus. She said the tragedy stokes the fear that many Mexican immigrants like her feel, miles from home.
 
"I'm afraid, because I have family there," Resendis said. "I’m very afraid to get a phone call saying you know what, something happened to my brother or mom or some other relatives.”
 
Survivors and relatives of the missing students have been on a speaking tour of the United States as part of an awareness campaign called Caravana 43; they will be speaking at events in Southern California throughout the weekend.