It took the death of a poet for me to sit up and wonder what the hell is going on in Ciudad Juarez. I'd talked to the L.A. painter Victoria Delgadillo at length over the years about the unsolved murders of women in Juarez. She'd told me about the local artist she'd taken to Juarez and the art they'd created to memorialize the women and to stop the killings.
About a month ago a friend from San Diego emailed me a Mexican newspaper article detailing that Susana Chavez - the 36 year old Ciudad Juarez poet and activist who'd coined the phrase "Not one more death!" in outrage at the unsolved murders - had been found dead, her hand severed and a plastic bag around her head. That's one of the signatures left in drug killings.
The city prosecutor said she'd gone out with some 17 year-old who'd consumed hard drugs, the veiled suggestion that Susana Chavez put herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
They're killing poets in Juarez???!!! WTF! It reminded me of the maddening story in Murder City by Charles Bowden. The cartels begin dumping bodies in a neighborhood park. A resident puts up a sign urging the killers to stop dumping bodies in the park. That resident is killed. The drug dealers know fear works.
What can we do? I asked the writer Gloria Alvarez when I ran into her a few days after hearing of the poet's killing. Let's organize a reading, we agreed. Eastside Café, the 8-year old El Sereno storefront community center hosted it last Saturday night. Delgadillo organized the event. "Daily, we are losing vital and important world contributors in these Mexican cartel wars, where there have been more deaths than in the Iraq war. Creating protest art transcends culture and gender. We are united in a larger community of like-minds and humanitarian goals," Delgadillo said about the Juarez-themed work she's produced in the last decade.
Performance artist Raquel Salinas opened the evening with a living Pieta; Salinas wore a red and green Virgen de Guadalupe cloak. She held Soraya Medina in her arms, representing the murdered young women of Juarez. Salinas wrote her monologue after interviewing several women from Juarez who'd lost daughters in the murder spree. "Because we want justice. All I have is her memory," she wailed to the audience.
Consuelo Flores read a piece about her mother. "I felt that Susanna Chavez was not only not oppressed, but through her words, was empowering others. I wanted to continue the literary journey she started for her and all the women in both Mexico and the US that have given audiences their strength while fighting oppression," Flores said.
Ofelia Esparza, who's well known on the Eastside for the Day of the Dead altars she's made in community centers for the past three decades, read a piece written in Gloria Alvarez's workshop. This was Esparza's first public reading. This is what she read:
Homenaje A Susana Chavez - Heroe, Activista, Poeta, Mujer ilustre
En el panteón de mujeres ilustres
Canta la paloma. cu-cu-ru paloma, cu-cu-ru paloma
Its woeful song mourns
A courageous heart that beats no more.
But that song belies that thunderous spirit
A spirit that rages on
Unquieted outrage, uquieted anguish and indignity
Unquieted hope and love.
Guerrera, your voice cannot be quelled
Canta, Grita paloma
Las que gritan por la dignidad y la justicia
Las Madres de las hijas de Juarez
The poets, the artists,
A world who cares.
Oh, Juarez moon above
Concrete and desert sand,
Bestows its softening glow
Not any less on desert- cast remains
than on mean city streets of la Ciudad
Ay, Luna bondadosa
Oh, bountiful moon
Cast your glow on Susana
Warrior Woman - Guerrera
Let her hear the outraged voices
Have they Picked up her gauntlet?
Questioning, knocking at law's door?
O Paloma. Palomita!
Sing it! Shout it!
Gritemos juntos sin cesar!
Ni Una Mas! Ni Una Mas! Ni Una Muerta Mas!
Vibiana Aparicio-Chamberlin - a retired L.A. Unified elementary school teacher - read Cuerpo desierto by Susana Chavez and one of her own poems. "The message of Susana Chavez is to be liberated because she did write about the murders, in very physical descriptions. The deaths are not colored in religious metaphor. The spirits don't rise in pink clouds with the angeles y santos. If we believed that the murdered from Juarez rest in peace, we wouldn't struggle. We wouldn't be outraged," she said.
Iuri Morales Lara, who grew up in Santa Ana and is now pursuing an MFA in poetry at UC Riverside, provided the heartbeat for the evening when she played an Indian drum. She read this piece:
Regards and Shout-Outs to Concha for Adriana, Social Worker with Female Sex Workers in Juarez
I want to speak to you sister. Complement you on the color of your burgundy-red lipstick, on the daily healing fires you manage through the daily work with the panther-butterfly maquila wombyn in Juarez; in constant motion for short change allowance.
Please give my regards to Concha- multi-task soldadera midwife without borders. Modern tlazoteotl coyota transportadora of pregnant wombyn cruzando la frontera 'pal Norte por medio de Juarez. Concha, strategist- earth deity, force of human waste recycling, protector of fetus bodies while life-water leaks out of thin layered nine month cacoon. Concha- madrina clandestina, transportadora de niños en agua de vida; who's had to vary the roads and angles for smuggling every time U.S. homeland security upgrades border military vigilant technology. I can almost hear her uttering the saying my grandmother's always used, Indigenous wombyn's knowledge, 'para todo hay manera y maña...' Thank you for many times walking miles of desert rock and sand while in negotiation with La Santa Muerte, prayer agreements with Tonantzin-Citlalli-La Mother Earth Virgensita, dialogue with doctor Santo Nino de Atocha, Huitzilopochtli and San Judas Tadeo, patron de las misiones imposibles. Tell her Thank you for walking wombyn across the most painful and valiant walk they'll probably ever have to make. Thank you for dropping them safely close to the entrance of the nearest U.S. Hospital, to the furthest peak her coyota Northern road reaches.
Please offer her my regards. I am sure she knows she is super woman. But because her route is clandestine, far beyond what my ur-ban-raised Xicana poet mind can imagine, I will probably never be able to thank her in person. I speak to her with tobacco smoke and this note. Thank you.
That feeling of helpless prompted me to write this poem for the evening.
Do I pick up the bass clarinet
Until the vocal chords snap?
Do I stand on one of those steel speed bumps
At the border
And burn my green card?
Do I break my pens?
Do I burn my books?
Do I stand up at commencement
La tortura es ilegal
El ambre es ilegal
Yo no soy ilegal
Do I retire to Guanajuato
To till the soil
Colored by my grandfather's blood?
¿Me cuelgo como el signo de interrogacion?
Do I wrap myself in the flag
And throw myself off the Fourth Street bridge?
Do I carry on?
It's a faraway land
In another country.
What good are the prayers
To the Virgen de la Cueva
If the only rain
Is that which falls from our eyes?
The reading ended. We chatted for a bit and we all got into our cars and drove into the night via Huntington Drive.