Javier Sicilia: Leading His Caravan to Washington

After his son was murdered, a Mexican poet took the helm of a new movement challenging the War on Drugs.

Joel Bleifuss

Frances Fox Piven speaks at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, where she has taught and mentored graduate students for more than 25 years. (Photo by: Peter Waldvogel of the CUNY Grad Center)

Last summer, the eyes of the Mexican people were fixed upon Javier Sicilia, a poet, columnist, and the spokesman of a new social movement, the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity. As Sicilia and his fellow activists toured through Mexico in a Caravan for Peace,” they called for fundamental political and social reforms and for a radical reassessment of Mexican (and U.S.) drug policies. In August, he will lead the Caravan from San Diego to Washington, D.C.

Hope is always an opening to the possibility of something miraculous happening, to something happening that allows for the transformation in the hearts of human beings, to allow for life to change.

Sicilia was propelled into his new role when his son Juanelo, 24, was murdered in Temixco, Morelos, on March 28, 2011. Juanelo is but one of tens of thousands of Mexicans who have lost their lives to the rampant violence that has gripped Mexico in recent years. In the wake of his son’s death, Sicilia wrote his last poem, which began, The world is no longer worthy of the word.” He has no intention of writing poetry again.

Prior to Juanelo’s death, Sicilia was a writer at Proceso, an independent magazine not unlike In These Times, based in Mexico City.

On April 28, Proceso journalist Regina Martinez was murdered in Xalapa, Veracruz. According to authorities, she was found in her bathroom with signs of heavy blows to her face and body.” In These Times spoke to Sicilia earlier that month, when he was visiting Chicago.

What is your assessment of U.S. drug policy?

It has led to a war in Mexico that has cost us almost 60,000 lives, more than 18,000 missing and 230,000 displaced. And these numbers keep growing.

How does the crisis factor into Mexico’s upcoming elections?

As we say in the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, these are the elections of ignominy. There can’t be valid elections in a country with 60,000 deaths, with nearly all crimes committed with impunity, with areas of the country completely Balkanized.

What role do the social movements of Mexico play in the elections?

The two movements with transformative potential are the Zapatistas and the Movement for Peace. The Zapatista movement is besieged by the military, and the Movement for Peace is at risk of being dismantled by the absence of media attention, and by the scorn of Mexico’s political class who consider us a pebble in their shoe.

When you say that the Zapatista movement is besieged,” what do you mean?

It’s trying to survive in handcuffs, localized and enclosed. The state of war that Mexico is in gives the state the pretext to declare that we have a national emergency and need to control the social movements, the political movements, the ones that are truly legitimate and important for the life of the nation, like the Zapatista movement.

What can people in the United States do to support the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity?

If the people of the United States were to take notice of what is happening, they could put pressure on the Obama administration, or whoever comes next, to change the current, absolutely failed policies. When other possibilities have been proposed, like legalizing drugs, controlling guns and attacking money laundering, the U.S. government hasn’t wanted to try them. Instead they respond to violence with more violence.

What are you hoping to achieve with the Caravan north of the border?

First, to raise consciousness of the cost that this war is having on our political life, our national life. Families are being destroyed, as in my case. There is a large number of people who are in the United States illegally not because they want to be, but because there is no longer any security in their communities and they have been targeted by violence. But they get here, and they are not secure here either. They are isolated. They are refugees, depending on the kindness of safe houses.

What role do artists and writers play in social movements?

An important role. The two great social movements of the last 20 years in Mexico, the Zapatistas and the Movement for Peace, are both the product of a poetic discourse. Subcomandante Marcos is a poet. The power of the Zapatistas is rooted in the manner in which that man was able to translate social demands into poetry, and break through the unilateral discourse of the political elites – a fundamental change in the national consciousness was achieved. Similarly, the Movement for Peace disrupts the one-sided political discourse – it breaks it. And this has to do with the structures of culture, of poetry. These movements have their own poetry. And they rejuvenate the life of the country, at least at the discursive level. What’s needed is for these discourses to become incarnate in terms of real justice, peace and dignity. So it’s essential that the poets and the artists erupt into public life.

What role does the media play in the drug war and the Caravan?

It was thanks to the press that we were able to mobilize and demonstrate this new discourse and give visibility to the victims. Unfortunately, once we started threatening the press with demands for the democratization of the media, they began to erase the discussion, to erase the victims from reality. Now we almost don’t exist in the media. Newspapers, television and radio imply by their lack of coverage that we are no longer there, that the victims are no longer there.

People get tired. It’s old news.

Exactly. There’s no depth. They don’t report on the depth of political corruption. The victims disappear because they are no longer news. Political discourse freezes.

How has the Caravan been received in the battleground of Mexico’s northern cities?

With a lot of affection, a lot of respect, a lot of hope. The people there are really in a state of despair, forgotten by the state and totally defenseless. When we arrived in these communities, the streets were once again full. The people in the towns came out. We did something very important. We said, Ladies and gentlemen, this is a suffering country, and we are here to embrace you.” The movement did something that was very important for human dignity. We have picked up victims who have been reduced to pieces. Not simply because narco-crime killed their children, but also because the government criminalized them, because there is no justice, because they are threatened. And many of them have become activists. Their fight, like mine, becomes the fight for others. The fight for personal justice becomes the fight for justice in the country.

Why did you stop writing poetry?

I wrote my final poem for my son. For me, poetry is the most sacred of the languages. I write in my poem to my son, El mundo ya no es digno de la palabra” (“The world is no longer worthy of the word”). As Theodor Adorno said, To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” I didn’t understand this until I lived through my Auschwitz. When they kill your child, it feels like Auschwitz. When one feels the pain of so many victims who have died in this war, it’s an Auschwitz. It’s not about the quantity; it’s about the intensity and the horror. And in Mexico, there’s an unnatural intensity. I think that ultimately my words aren’t capable of speaking, re-establishing, or resuscitating a language degraded by crime and political imbecility.

Are you hopeful about the future?

I’m very pessimistic about the prospects of mankind. There’s a blindness, a deafness, a need to protect political interests, and a scorn for humanity. I’m hardly optimistic. I have an optimism in the order of my faith – in a miracle. Hope is always an opening to the possibility of something miraculous happening, to something happening that allows for the transformation in the hearts of human beings, to allow for life to change. But it’s a theological hope because of the reality I live in: the rotting of the institutions of my country. I don’t see a future.

You have some hope. If not, you wouldn’t be organizing the Caravan.

I move a bit in this territory of theological faith and hope. It’s a hope that’s difficult to live out because one always hopes for a hope and a faith in human beings, like the shadow of hope in God. There is a lovely anecdote about Martin Luther, in which Luther is planting a tree. One of Luther’s students approaches him and asks, What would you do if an angel of our Lord appeared before you and told you that the world would come to an end in five minutes?” Luther responded, I would plant my tree.”

That is what I am doing. Hoping against hope, I keep trying to plant a tree.

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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