How Could They Disappear?

A haunting requiem for 43 “disappeared” college students in Mexico premiered at the Mission Church—and won’t soon be forgotten.

How Could They Disappear?
Lest we forget: Choreographer Sandra Milena Gómez dances as part of the Requiem in the Mission Church. Photography by Joanne Lee
The 43 students were under police custody in September 2014. Students at a teachers college in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, they were likely handed over to a drug gang for execution. The atrocity led to protests that rocked Mexico. It is a tragedy to mourn—and sear one’s conscience. That awareness is at the heart of XLIII: A Modern Requiem.

The crime appears to be a collusion between corrupt police and politicians—including the mayor of the city of Iguala—as well as a drug cartel. 

The students had commandeered buses and were on their way to organize a protest; they do this annually—in honor of students massacred by the military in Mexico City in 1968. In 2014, they were attacked by uniformed police and three unidentified gunmen; six were killed right away, 20 were wounded, and 43 disappeared. More than 100 people have been arrested. But the whereabouts of the 43 remain unknown.

The requiem was commissioned by Montalvo Arts Center and the Santa Clara University Center for the Arts and Humanities. Created as a site-specific performance in Mission Santa Clara de Asís, the requiem is a work of sound woven of electronic music, chorale, and the Mission pipe organ. And it is a work of dance that speaks to nightmare and hope alike, punctuated by stones and candles of remembrance—lest we forget. Which is all by way of saying that the premiere on Jan. 15 was, at least for the editor of this magazine, startling and heartbreaking and beautiful like few performances I’ve seen in my life.

The requiem was an international as well as local artistic collaboration. Sandra Milena Gómez, choreographer, who hails from Colombia and Mexico City, led a quartet of dancers, including Lauren Baines ’08. Andres Solis, a composer and sound artist also based in Mexico City, worked with organist James Welch and Scot Hanna-Weir, director of the SCU Chamber Singers, to create a sonic soundscape within the Mission Church: meditative rhythms and soaring polyphony and spare silence.

On campus, the requiem was the centerpiece of a series of January events produced by Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences Stephen Lee to honor the 43 and the plight of their families. An art installation consisting of life-size silhouettes lined the pathway along the Alviso Mall. Each bore a photograph and a story. Among them was that of Israel, a 19-year-old from Atoyac: “Israel’s brother Ricardo was on the phone with Israel during the police attack on September 26, 2014. Israel could be heard yelling ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, we are not armed!’ His last words to his brother were, ‘We’re OK.’”

Israel’s father, Israel Galindo, lives in East San Jose; he and another student’s grandfather came to a vigil held in the Mission Church.

The requiem also inaugurated the Center for the Arts and Humanities Salon 2016, “(in)humanity,” which examines how the arts can combat a world besieged by violence and misunderstanding.

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