In April, Maria Rivera stood in Mexico City's main square and read "Los Muertos," a poem that for one of the first times in public dared name those killed in the country's government and drug cartel violence war. Our innocent dead, the poem said, not all low level drug dealers who had it coming to them.
I first saw the poem a couple of months ago projected on a sheet in a Glassel Park literary salon hosted by L.A. poet and translator Jen Hofer. Maria stood on nearly a thousand years of memories of the dead under that Zocalo. In the 16th century racks of skulls mesmerized Spanish explorers who entered the Aztec holy precinct. No far, to her right, the steps of the Templo Mayor were carpeted in the deep red, wilting blossoms of the blood of people sacrificed to keep the world turning.
The current way of things in Mexico, the creation of a large, poorly-educated underclass, the rampant warring of drug mafias also needs the blood of sacrificial victims.
Maria Rivera was there to denounce, to point a finger, to stand nearly under the threshold of Mexico's presidential palace to blame and empower. Everyone shares the blame for the killings. Everyone has the power to recreate it into a better one.
Jen Hofer joined UCLA literature grad student Roman Lujan to translate the poem into English so that people in the United States could hear an account of what this country's drug consumption is doing to a society. Lujan read the first draft at the literary salon. He took the mostly English speaking crowd in the darkened room straight to Mexico City's Zocalo.
"This has to be a point of reflection of American society," Lujan told me sitting next to stacks of poetry books in his second story West Hollywood apartment, "hey this problem, we are part of the problem, the only way to stop this is to legalize drugs or we produce them here, so we don't have to import them or we fight together against the bad guys, whoever the bad guys are."
What was the process of finding the right English word? What was the back and forth translating Rivera's poem? I had to know more. Until I talked to Hofer and Lujan I'd thought of translation as the act of creating a work that stood parallel to the original, with the spirit of the original but freestanding as its own new work of literature. Hofer has translated many poems form Spanish to English, and doing so she always tries to make obvious the debt of the original.
"The langugage in this poem is extremely, extremely straightforward, and simple," Hofer said, "and I don't mean that in any way as a negative critique in fact it's very difficult to write, in my opinion, strong work using simple language."
Even though Maria Rivera is a well known poet in Mexico, with plenty of awards, the poem only netted her rejections. I'm including my phone interview in this post as a document of her effort to get it published. She thought that if no one in Mexico would do it, maybe it could get published in the United States and find its way as a mojado south to Mexico. Rivera said people reacted to the escalation of violence with black humor. Then they stopped talking about the violence. That created a pressure cooker effect and her poem has led to many more people talking about the toll of the current violence.
Watch the video of her reading the poem. Follow along with the English translation on an open window next to the video. This is Allen Ginsbeg reading "Howl." It's a colonial Spanish priest challenging the abuses of the Church.
You're watching and reading a poet empowering those around her to find the language to speak that which they felt they could not say, that the dead have mothers, fathers, and kids still waiting for them to return. And Maria Rivera has taken it upon herself to speak their names and give them the dignity absent when they were killed.