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The War on Both Sides: Art, Violence, and Healing in the Drug War

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Artists from Los Angeles travel to Mexico City and meet with their counterparts to ask a simple yet devastating question: What is the role of the creative community in the context of that drug war that is taking such a horrific toll -- on both sides of the border?

Lea este artículo en Español, haga clic aquí.


The purpose of "The War on Both Sides/La guerra de los dos lados" is to turn distance into proximity, alienation into intimacy, to build an ethical bridge across the border that divides the United States and Mexico and makes the violence and impunity south of the line seem somehow disconnected from us north of it -- a Mexican thing.

With the support of the Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Los Angeles, el Museo Universitario del Chopo in Mexico City and Artbound, we decided to approach the violence through the work of practicing artists and journalists who confront it in their everyday lives. We do so because the violence is not just a matter of drugs and guns and borders and laws and lawlessness. It is also the singularly powerful way in which these are represented. Through language and image the war is made real and unreal, is erased and revealed, simplified and complicated, contextualized and torn from its context.

The first event of an ongoing encounter between artists on both sides of the border was a series of "tertulias" (salons, in Spanish) that took place during May in Mexico City and Cuernavaca and included some 30 practitioners of different disciplines: literature, music, visual art, performance and journalism.

A delegation of three artists from Los Angeles (playwrite-performer-activist Raquel Gutíerrez, multimedia artist Rafa Esparza and myself) along with our colleague, the cultural journalist Raúl Silva of Cuernavaca, coordinated these dialogues, which culminated with a public presentation at el Museo Universitario del Chopo (one of the premier cultural institutions of the public Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, UNAM), whose director, José Luis Paredes Pacho, has a long history of involvement in art-as-activism.

Our delegation posed a series of questions to begin the conversation:
In societies wracked by extreme violence, is there an ethical way to represent it, and if so, how?

Do representations of explicit violence run the risk of re-victimizing bodies? Can art play a role in healing social trauma?

And, very particularly for our presentation here at Artbound: how might a trans-border dialogue among artists and journalists help create a broader conversation between the U.S. and Mexico about the violence?

Rafa, Raquel and I arrived in Mexico City and took up residence in the quaint and somewhat haunted Hotelito San Rafael, a 19th century mansion not long ago occupied by the late influential French expatriate art critic Olivier Debroise. We were within walking distance of el Chopo and just a couple of blocks from the frenetic scene on Ribera de San Cosme, a major boulevard with street vending stalls two, sometimes three deep on the sidewalks. It was Rafa's first time in the city, and Raquel's first as an adult. For both of them the trip was something of an unknown in terms of navigating social space as openly gay and lesbian. Mexico City is among the most progressive world capitals (gay marriage was legalized in 2009), and yet sexual violence -- bodies punished for their perceived difference -- is still common, as is impunity for its perpetrators.

For me it was a complicated return to my one-time home. I lived here in the late 1990s and left under difficult personal circumstances that are intimately related to the theme at hand. I had arrived in Mexico City "clean" after years of substance abuse in the United States and eventually fell off the wagon, hard.

Raquel, Rafa and I spent a couple of days getting used to the altitude, the smog and the mesmerizing immensity of the city. My friends had some sightseeing to do -- Frida's Casa Azul in Coyoacán, the Zócalo and the Templo Mayor downtown, the bohemian and gay-friendly nightlife of Colonia Roma. A part of me just wanted to continue playing tourguide with Rafa and Raquel, but we couldn't pretend the war away. In spite of the fact that Mexico City is considered one of the safest places in the country (very ironic, given that for a good part of the 20th century it was considered just the opposite), the violence is still present, most often in the farflung working class suburbs. But it also "occurs" in the heart of the city: mutilated corpses bleed into the newsprint of the tabloids sold at streetcorner kiosks. In everyday conversation, there is the ubiquitous vocabulary of the Mexican body in crisis: secuestro (kidnapping), extorsión, desaparecido (disappeared), mutilado, sicario (assassin)...

We arrived wondering about the distance between our experience of the violence from our vantage point in Los Angeles and that of our colleagues in Mexico.

Our conversations convinced us that it wasn't that far at all.

Mexico City | Photo: Raquel Raquel Gutíerrez
Mexico City. | Photo: Raquel Raquel Gutíerrez.


Like the relationship between art and violence, the relationship between art and drugs (including libations) reaches deep into antiquity, a narrative that was waiting for my body to occupy it and, I suppose, also waiting for me to write about it. I never could have imagined when I dragged on my first joint in high school that I would be doing so today in the midst of a war that has claimed the lives of up to 100,000 in Mexico, with tens of thousands more disappeared and hundreds of thousands displaced -- an increasing number of the latter incresingly seeking political asylum in the United States, a stunning turn of events in which the Mexico of today, erstwhile bastion of "stability" in the region, suddenly resembles Central and South America in the 1970s and 80s.

I recently published a book whose story turns on drug addiction, my own and that of my neighbors during the years I spent in northern New Mexico with my wife Angela Garcia, an anthropologist who conducted research on addiction there. We lived on the road between Santa Fe and Taos in Velarde, a farming village of 800 people, a place that at first glance appears to embody American (Western) pastoral. Velarde is set alongisde the Rio Grande and in view of iconic mountain ranges like the Jemez and the Sangre de Cristos, landscapes that have captivated American artists for generations. The sublimity of the landscape hid the human experience of dispossession and poverty, both of which are intimately tied to colonial history and embodied in a region registering the highest rate of herion addiction and death by overdose in the entire country. Two of my immediate neighbors died of overdoses, and we recently received news of another drug-related death a few hundred yards from where we lived. We were addicts and neighbors -- sharing the same affliction and yet incapable of breaching the literal and invisible walls that separated us.

The Española Valley, in which Velarde lies, is part of the old Camino Real, the trade route that connected Mexico City to the northernmost outposts of New Spain. The road is called I-25 today, and along it runs traffic transporting products assembled in the maquiladoras of Juárez, as well as Mexican black tar heroin produced in the poppy fields of the Sierra Madre. My neighbors in Velarde are among the victims on this side of the border, which are intimately tied to the victims on the other.

As a young adult I ventured to Mexico City on a very self-conscious "roots" journey. But ultimately I forsook the pyramids of Teotihuacán for an expatriate exploration of the city and its legendary nightlife. A few decades before I arrived it had been the playground of the Beats, who were captivated by the bohemian vibe, an essential element of which was the readily available sex and drugs. This Chicano kid discovered his American-ness in the proto-hipster scene of Colonia Roma -- the very neighborhood William Burroughs and friends hung out in. Where drugs, especially cocaine, were as cheap as ever.

I ultimately fled the most populous city on earth for one of the loneliest places, California's Mojave Desert, where a close friend of mine had joined a small clique of low-rent bohemians in the late 1990s to make art. In the desert I began a long, slow process of recovery. I did not realize at first that by walking into the desert to purify body and soul I was undertaking a pilgrimage with profound spiritual symbolism, embodying traditions that reach back millennia in the three great desert religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

But on that sublime landscape I also encountered precisely that which I was fleeing. I lived in Twentyine Palms, a village sandwiched between Joshua Tree National Park and another, equally iconic tract of public land: the Marine Corps Air and Ground Combat Center. The line between these two deserts was quite thin. Even in remote areas of the park, you could hear the detonations from the live-fire excercises on the base. Among my neighbors were young Marines, many of who used methaphetamine and cocaine to deal with the demons of the battlefield in their minds. And throughout the borderlands migrants and drug mules faced not the spiritual desert but the deserts of human trafficking and addiction. The emptiness was filled with the bodies violated by the drug war, by the war perpetrated on the body in the name of fighting drugs.

Javier Sicilia | Photo: Ricardo Torres
Javier Sicilia. | Photo: Ricardo Torres.


I had not read Javier Sicilia's poetry when the murder of his son Juan Francisco made headlines at the end of March 2011. (Made headlines in Mexico, that is; it would take weeks for the story to be covered substantively in American media). Juan Francisco and six others were killed by sicarios associated with the Cártel del Pacífico Sur, then headquartered in the state of Morelos. Juan Francisco and his friends -- some of whom he'd known the better part of his life -- died because they had the temerity to demand the return of a cell phone and camera stolen from one of the group at a local nightclub that had ties to organized crime.

Up until the death of his son, all of Sicilia's poetry had been about the desert in the tradition of mystical experience. The very "emptiness" of the place speaks to the ineffable, the union with God that is beyond language. In Catholicism, that journey necessitates a descent into the "dark night of the soul," St. John of the Cross' arduous path towards mystical love, or the torment of St. Anthony's battle between spirit and flesh in the terrifying solitude of the fourth century Egyptian desert.

With the murder of his son, Javier Sicilia was thrown into the most traumatic of deserts. Because he was a public figure -- poets occupy a far higher cultural plane in Mexico than in the United States, the term "el poeta" commanding great respect -- the media swarmed him and he instantly became the most visible "víctima" of the violence. (In Spanish, victim -- a word infused with Catholic symbolism -- is often used for both the target of the physical violence as well as to what in English we usually call the "survivors," the next of kin.) Sicilia made the instant decision to make his pain and rage public.

He penned an open letter that quickly went viral, in which he called for an end to the bloodshed and impunity by invoking the colloquialism "Estamos hasta la madre" (literally, we have had it up to our mother), which became a nationwide rallying cry for a civil society so exhausted from living in terror that it finally -- inspired by Sicilia -- began to lose its fear. Within days a group of activists had coalesced around the grieving poet and staged a march in Cuernavaca, and then a caravan to Mexico City that culminated in a massive demonstration in the Zócalo. Thus was born the Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad. Caravans followed, one to the southern border with Guatemala, then another to Juárez, and finally one that crossed the border at Tijuana and visited over thirty American cities before arriving in Washington, D.C. in September of 2012. Wherever Sicilia and the MJPD went, family members of the disappeared, most often mothers, greeted him with tearful embraces. These wrenching scenes recalled a previous generation's reckoning with violence and the haunting presence of its víctimas, the dead and the living: las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the survivors of the Pinochet regime in Chile or the military extermination campaigns of El Salvador and Guatemala.

Sicilia wrote an anguished, splintery ode to his son and declared it his final poem. "La poesía ya no existe en mi," he said, seemingly a response to Adorno's famous dictum that "poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." Sicilia has kept his word about not writing poetry, but he always begins his public presentations by reading verses appropriate to the occasion by his favorite authors. And in a profound way, Sicilia remains a poet -- just one who happens to make his verses through the protest that he embodies through speeches and marches and caravans.

The fact that tragedy had befallen a poet seemed to mobilize Mexico's creative community, which heretofore had responded in largely scattered fashion to the violence. With a bona fide mass movement to collaborate with, painters and photographers and performance artists and writers were soon at the forefront of the mobilizations. The initial political (and aesthetic) impulse was simple: visibilizar a las víctimas, make the victims visible. The official discourse of Felipe Calderón's administration (2006-12) held that the vast majority of deaths were the result of turf battles between cárteles. "En algo andaba" was the mantra: the víctimas had been up to something, they were, in other words, deserving of their fate. But Juan Francisco Sicilia stood for an innocent víctima: a victim of official impunity, which has nothing to do with the war on drugs and everything to do with a history of corruption and impunity within a historical context of colonial domination.

When I started reading about Sicilia in the early days of the movement, I found myself spurred to act out of a sense of political responsibility -- but there was also an element of existential guilt. I felt partly responsible for the poet's unfathomable loss because of my Malcolm Lowry-esque tour through Mexico City's party scene, an addiction that had begun "innocently" as I grew up in the 1970s with the echoes of the American counter-culture and its offer of nirvana through drugs. Innocent, that is, within a set of relationships that were anything but innocent.

In the spring of 2012 I helped coordinate a series of appearances by Javier Sicilia in Los Angeles whose goal was to pave the way for the cross-country caravan later in the year. For the opening event we chose La Placita Church in the Old Plaza downtown, a site with substantial political history. A generation ago víctimas who'd lost family members to the death squads in El Salvador held posters with the faces and names of their loved ones alongside Fr. Luis Olivares, the activist priest who opened the doors of the church to refugees, day laborers, the homeless -- the city's unwanted. When Sicilia arrived to give a press conference (attended almost entirely by Spanish-language media, in spite of our best efforts to cross over into English), today's víctimas were awaiting him -- immigrants living in Southern California who mourn the loss of family on the other side of the border. They approached the poet with posters of their disappeared loved ones and their tears; he kissed and embraced them. Sicilia is not merely a spokesman. He is a víctima too.

The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity's Caravan for Peace crossed the border at San Diego-Tijuana on August 12, 2012 and traveled nearly 6,000 miles. It was a transformational event for those who undertook the journey and for the many thousands encountered along the way, but major national media was spotty and mainstream political actors were reticent to embrace the cause. Call it real politik, or call it moral and political cowardice: at the time the Obama administration was in fullswing re-election mode and would spend no political capital on supporting the MPJD's sweeping vision of ending support for Mexico's military offensive on the cárteles, drug decrminalization, and solidarity for undocumented immigrants.

But the caravan succeeded in visibilizando las víctimas -- for the first time, on this side of the border. At least for those willing to look.

Ampersand | Photo: Ricardo Torres
Ampersand.  | Photo: Ricardo Torres.


I have had a constant relationship with drugs over three decades. Taking the philosophy of recovery seriously, I will remain an addict the rest of my life even if I never use again. The relationship exists in my body and through art as well. Over these many years I sang along with everyone else in the borderlands to Los Tigres del Norte's "Contrabando y traición," often cited as a foundational "narco-corrido." At the mercados populares I noted the ubiquitous altars to Jesús Malverde, a.k.a. the "narco saint." Now and again a gringo cultural production nodded in the direction of the border, such as Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic." But most American drug stories tend to stay firmly north of the line, a la "The Man with the Golden Arm."

As a young adult I never thought of the drugs I was consuming as assigning me "co-responsibility" in murderous cártel battles. The violence from the 1970s to the 1990s was largely confined to specific smuggling corridors; it all seemed very distant, in spite of the omnipresence of narco-pop. Today "Contrabando y traición" is a quaint relic of an innocent time. It tells a smuggling adventure in which the heroine, Camelia la Tejana, shoots her lover and business partner Emilio when he announces that he's leaving her for another woman in San Francisco. Seven shots ring out at the end of the song:

"Sonaron siete balazos,
Camelia a Emilio mataba
la polecía sólo halló
una pistola tirada
del dinero y de Camelia
jamás se supo nada."

(Seven shots rang out
Camelia killed Emilio
The police only found
The discarded pistol
Of Camelia and the money
No one ever heard anything)

This is the corrido at its best -- vivid characters and hard-boiled, brilliantly compressed narrative based on popular experience. But the form cannot accommodate today's violence-as-spectacle. There are few mutilation corridos; among the notable exceptions are the "Scarface"-like renditions of Movimiento Alterado. Tellingly, the banda musical collective is based not in Sinaloa but in Southern California. Life tragically imitated art imitating life when a musician formerly associated with the group was attacked while on tour in Mexico, resulting in the deaths of his driver and his business manager.

The media space that easily accommodates all manner of barbarity is of course the Internet, such as in El Blog del Narco, which seems to function as a listserv for cártel sicarios sending each other grisly taunts. There are many other sites that contain utterly graphic videos, most of which document interrogations that inevitably lead to torture and execution. I have found myself drawn to these dark virtual corridors, unable to stop myself, experiencing a mixture of terror and guilt. These bodies are real. And they are also víctimas -- no matter whether they were mixed up in the business ("estaban en algo") -- of a vast history of exploitation and I, as lurid voyeur, re-violate them every time I press "play."

Then there is the work of a handful of artists that approach quasi-corporeal representations of the violence, such as Teresa Margolles, who presented at the 2009 Venice Biennial an installation titlted "De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar" (What Else Could We Talk About?). The work included fabrics soaked in actual blood from sites of deadly violence in northern Mexico and the floors of the gallery rooms were mopped once a day in a solution of water infused with the blood of víctimas. In other works, Margolles takes built structures from the killing fields and re-assembles them in the museum space. A wall perforated with bullet holes transported from Culiacán, Mexico's mythic drug capital and birthplace of the Sinaloa cártel. An entire house from Ciudad Juárez, abandoned by its owners, reconstituted in radically different form. Margolles' works can evoke ambivalent reactions. Is she exploiting the (usually) nameless víctimas? Or is she somehow making them whole again in a symbolic, even spiritual sense, transforming the exhibition space into hallowed ground?


In Mexico, the conversation about violence and art has been above all an embodied one. Perhaps the initial lag in representation of the violence was a matter of the creative community needing time to find its voice -- to have an idea of how to approach the subject. By 2011, the bottled up energy seemed to explode. The year began ominously, with the death of poet and anti-femicide activist Susana Chávez of Ciudad Juárez, who coined the slogan "Ni una muerte más." On the evening of January 6 she made plans to meet up with girlfriends but never arrived. Under obscure circumstances, she fell in with a group of drunken adolescent males who strangled her and mutilated her body. Because the case, given Chávez's public persona, received some media attention (a premonition of what was to come with Sicilia), authorities quickly made public statements that the murder had nothing to do with Chávez's activism. But how could it not, given that it occurred in a place of femicide aided and abetted by impunity? (The fact that Chávez's death did not become the national tragedy that Juan Francisco Sicilia's murder did also speaks at least partly to the sense that Chávez's death was predictable -- she lived in Juárez, after all, and authorities inferred the "andaba el algo" theme.)

Susana's killing and Juan Francisco's a few weeks later inevitably summoned the idea of violence so extreme as to kill poetry itself. But it was precisely in that darkest place that another kind of poetry was born.

There were no immediate road maps for Mexican artists to approach what was both a social and aesthetic crisis. For better and for worse, Mexico City is a centralizing force politically and artistically and the art world had long had the reputation of being a formalist stronghold. It's not that today's Mexico City artists aren't politicized -- they are famously and almost uniformly Left, like their modernist progenitors Diego and Frida et. al. -- but overt political art has long been frowned upon in mainstream and official circles (which, given Mexico's longstanding statist model of artistic production, amount to the same thing).

The situation cried out for a manifesto, a set of guiding principles, and one of Mexico's foremost public intellectuals obliged. Cristina Rivera Garza, novelist and essayist, child and now adult of the border (born in Tamaulipas, today a professor at UC San Diego), published an extraordinarily influential rumination on violence titled "Dolerse: Textos desde un país herido." (So influential that her publisher, Sur + Ediciones of Mexico City and Oaxaca, plans to release an anthology solely of Mexican writers, artists and thinkers responding to the book and its impact.)

Dolerse, from the verb "doler" in its reflexive form (used more expansively in Spanish than in English), is very difficult to translate because the pronoun becomes one with the verb (doler-se). A subject immersed in, embodying, aware of its pain. As Los Angeles-based poet, translator and activist Jen Hofer puts it: To be in pain.

"De ahí la importancia de dolerse. De la necesidad política de decir tu me dueles y de recorrer mi historia contigo, que eres mi país, desde la perspectiva única, aunque generalizada, de los que nos dolemos. De ahí la urgencia estética de decir, en el más básico y también en el más desencajado de los lenguajes, esto me duele. Porque Edmond Jabès tenía razón cuando criticaba el dictum de Adorno: no se trata de que después del horror no debamos o no podamos hacer poesía. Se trata de que, mientras somos testigos integrales del horror, hagamos poesía de otra manera."

And in Jen Hofer's translation:

Hence the importance of being in pain. The political necessity of saying you pain me and of taking stock of my history with you, you who are my country, from the singular -- though generalized -- perspective of we who are in pain. Hence the aesthetic urgency of saying, in the most basic and also the most disjointed language possible, this pains me. Because Edmond Jabés was right when he critiqued Adorno's dictum; it's not that after horror we should not or cannot write poetry. It's that, while we are integral witnesses to horror, we must write poetry in another way.

And we make that poetry as víctimas, or with las víctimas, those who lost their lives but also the ones who survive in dolor -- remember that a life lost in México very, very often means, because of migration (since the border is sometimes a wall and other times a sieve) that someone will be mourning in the U.S. Rivera Garza goes on to define the "aesthetic urgency" as one that asks for us to be eminently political, but not in any traditional partisan or crudely ideological sense. Rather, it is to make the poetic political (public), and the political poetic (intimate), by molding language with the power of the pain itself -- textos dolientes, texts in pain. These texts do not ask for mere empathy, and certainly not pity. They also avoid speaking for or usurping the voice of other víctimas -- that would be another kind of violence.

Cristina Rivera Garza urges us to take up representation so that the violence might pass into a pain that that can "paralize and silence" but that can also publicly "liberate, producing voices... that invite us to visualize another life, one fully implicated with others."

This follows the contours of Javier Sicilia's journey: from tragedy to silence to action. MPJD marches are not sloganeering affairs, but utterly quiet (the silence of death and absence, but also of reverence for what the dead were in life), and he always asks for a formal minute of silence before a rally or press conference or declaration before a legislative committee.

In this gesture, the silence is anything but empty -- like the mystical experience of the desert, it renews our commitment to life, makes the invisible visible, prepares the body to speak again.

Discussion at el Chopo
Discussion at el Chopo.


During the week that we visited with artists at el Chopo and Jardín Borda in Cuernavaca, there were a few common denominators in the conversations. We returned again and again to the idea of finding an ethical mode of representing the violence, over which there was consensus, if not unanimity. The majority favored eschewing graphic violence, but several held out for using it in specific contexts, such as Daniel Hernández, a journalist and author based in Mexico City, who feels that brutal representations are redundant in Mexico but may be necessary in the United States, which tends to sanitize or ignore depictions of the drug war. (Notwithstanding the recent pop culture innovations of televsion series like "Breaking Bad" and "Weeds," endeavors that deserve careful critical attention.)

There was also the recurring idea of the unique circumstance of artists facing a moment of crisis as an ethical responsibility impossible to turn away from. Jen Hofer Skyped in from Los Angeles (Cypress Park to be exact) for our first tertulia and summed up the sense of urgency. "We are in a state of war," she said. "And not just the 'narco war' but multiple wars. Iraq, Afghanistan, and the permanent extra-official wars of racism, class conflict... and our work, like it or not, must be a response to those conditions."

Jen suggested that one response might be to invert the artist's longstanding (ego-driven? market-driven?) desire "to speak" with the opposite impulse of "to listen," which, in her practice as translator (she served as Javier Sicilia's live interpreter in several cities during the Caravan for Peace) is a stance with ethical, political and aesthetic dimensions. Seeking to break the old, rigid phenomenlogical border of self/other, Jen conceptualizes a space between English and Spanish in which "I-am-I and at the same time I am not-I," in a sense allowing the other to enunciate through the self or destabilize the self enough for a more fluid, "horizontal" dialogue. Given global migration and its particular impact in borderlands like Southern California, we are surrounded by opportunities to create discursive spaces that expand, contest and subvert the language of power that dehumanizes the subject and reifies the border.

"Artivist" and critic Mónica Mayer, who with her partner Victor Lerma runs the Pinto Mi Raya workshop in Mexico City, talks of "haciendo eco," making an echo, as her aesthetic practice: picking up civil society's political gestures and replicating them through the age-old aesthetics of of street protest: placards, banners, buttons.

And "echoing" Mónica is Edith López, among the youngest of the cohort we met with, still in her twenties, whose own mother was kidnapped during her militant youth (and miraculously surivived the ordeal). Like many of the artists that we spoke to, Edith is not particularly concerned about authorship -- or more accurately she is radically set upon deconstructing official authorship in favor of a collectivist aesthetic at the service of political action. One of her projects consisted of rechristening streets named for former president Luis Echeverría, who has been implicated in Mexico's "dirty war" against leftist activists, including the infamous "halconazo" massacre in 1971. The performance consists of covering street signs bearing Echeverría's name with the name of a disappeared activist in full collaboration with the residents of the neighborhoods where the official street signs are located. Re-naming is another kind of "visibilización," or as Edith puts it, "changing 'memory' from a noun into a verb."

The violence also has a profound impact on the way artists conceptualize their relationship to audience. Art begins to reach beyond its traditional, elite spaces. (This is obviously not the first time; we need only mention the revolutionary murals of Los Tres Grandes deeply woven into Mexican public space.) Today art is in the marches and demonstrations, in public parks and even the Zócalo, Mexico City's grand plaza and political stage. The Zócalo is at once a profound historical, multilayered symbol of the indigenous, colonial and revolutionary past as well as a seat of political and religious power that is continually contested by popular movements that set up "plantones," Occupy-style encampments, on the lavastone before the Palacio Nacional and Catedral Metropolitana.

Among the artists to arrive in the Zócalo is María Rivera, who was invited to write a poem for a Día de los Muertos anthology and found herself writing of the extremely dangerous route Central American migrants take across Mexican territory to arrive in the U.S. Extortion has increased dramatically in recent years, given that the smuggling of humans is as lucrative as drugs for the cárteles. Rivera was distraught over one of the worst massacres of the war, the killing of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas in 2010.1 Her poem "Los muertos" is narrated in a cry-in-the-desert prophetic voice. She uses documentary sources to "visibilizar" the horror of violated bodies, arguing that the artist must represent at least some of the corporeal violence, since to hide it would amount to complicity in government strategies of suppressing the death toll or manipulating the public into thinking that all víctimas "estaban el algo." But the poem also functions as a kind of metaphorical funeral rite which we as readers attend, visibilizando not just the deaths but also the lives -- giving each body back its its name, age, hometown. The dismembered body is made whole again.

Rivera read the poem in the Zócalo during the first major rally in the wake of Juan Francisco Sicilia's murder and through the human megaphone of YouTube it quickly went viral (with the help Jen Hofer's and Román Luján's translation). The poem, like Javier Sicilia's invocation of "Estamos hasta la madre" echoed across the country transcending the singular voice of the poet to become, as Sicilia puts it, "la voz de la tribu," the voice of the tribe.

The imperative is to Listen, and to Look. Tania Barberán teaches photography at the Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México and recently published her first novel (with Sur + Ediciones, which has published several works on the violence, including Cristina Rivera Garza's Dolerse). Tania came of age during the Mexican student uprising of the late 1980s and dedicated years of her life to the Zapatista movement -- no one needed to prod her about the political import of art. She asks us to look in places in which we are not accustomed to finding meaning. During her tertulia presentation, she shared with us her photographic series "Cuando nadie te ve" (When No One Sees You), a collection of photographs of street writings (she does not call them "graffiti" to avoid the largely reactionary and dismissive discourse surrounding the term). Tania asks us to consider the intimacy of the act of furtive inscription: when was the last time you actually saw someone spraypainting a message on a wall? Some of the writings Tania discovers are intensely private musings and others are more obviously ideological. All of them expand the meaning of the space around them -- the particular building, street, neighborhood, city -- as would a caption for a photograph.

The idea of text/context recalls Susan Sontag's "Regaring the Pain of Others" (Cristina Rivera Garza prominently cites the book in "Dolerse"), which reminds us of the fundamental truth that photographs manipulate -- even and perhaps especially those images that purport to "document" a horror in the name of ending it. (In the essay, she singles out Sebastiao Salgado's work as making the suffering of the subject so vast that there is little room for the audience to imagine how to begin to heal it.)

Sontag tells us that the image--its raw power so often unleashed to lure spectator by prurient or morbid means--is always swept up by larger discursive forces. Only with context--with the emphasis on text that not only creates a historical frame but that helps build an ethical stance--does it have a fighting chance of avoiding the trap of co-optation.

So we, from the United States, listen and look. To Jen Hofer's voice echoing with eery digital reverb through Skype as she talks to us about speaking in tongues. At César Martínez's slides that capture the simple beauty of releasing a thousand white balloons into the cloudless sky above a Zócalo filled to capacity to receive Javier Sicilia and his fellow víctimas marching in from Cuernavaca. To Sicilia's friend, philosopher Jean Robert in Cuernavaca speaking of the far-reaching impact of the violence, "the psychosis, the fear, that tend to erase life itself, and create a type of life-without-history, what I call a 'naked life.'" And just a few minutes later to Gregory Berger, an American expatriate filmmaker whose preferred form is satire, responding that "my practice is anti-fear." Indeed, to laugh in such circumstances can be among the most radical of performances.

Multimedia artist (is there any artist these days that is not multi-?) Julio Torres of Mexicali, recently relocated to Mexico City, told us of unfurling a banner from a pedestrian bridge over a busy boulevard in his home-border-town. It read: En este pueblo ya no cabemos los jotos ("in this town the fags no longer fit," which doesn't quite capture the scary/funny ambiguity: they might not "fit" because of homophobia--or because there are so (too?) many of them. To many viewers, the work immediately brought to mind the infamous form of cártel communication, "narco-mantas," banners that broadcast threats between rival cárteles (and that sometimes accompany mutilated bodies). Julio said he only thought of that particular "echo" in hindsight. No matter: his work was born in his marked body and in his political passion to make room for it beyond homophobia and misogyny and the state of impunity.

Mexico City | Photo: Raquel Guiterrez
Mexico City. | Photo: Raquel Gutíerrez.


Artistic representations of violence are as old as human consciousness, of course; they appear with the birth of representation itself, in cave paintings and in the "Epic of Gilgamesh" and in Greek tragedies and in the Old Testament. The debate over how to represent violence must ponder works like "Los desastros de la guerra" and "Guernica" and, for that matter, Cronenberg's "A History of Violence." The poetry of César Vallejo and Paul Célan, the novels of Toni Morrison.

And Los Tucanes de Tijuana. And 300. And el Blog del Narco.

We end where we began: with the body--our distance from, and our proximity to, the body-víctima.

It wasn't until we sat together that we realized how close we all were to the violence. Among us there was the father of a slain son. Two kidnapping victims. A daughter of an activist who'd been "disappeared." Another daughter who for the last three years had been nursing her mother back to health after a beating that nearly killed her. Jen Hofer's close friend and partner in artivism Dolores Dorantes fled Juárez after receiving death threats and applied for political asylum in the U.S. In Cuernavaca feminist scholar Sylvia Marcos (Jean Robert's partner) spoke of a neighbor's kidnapping. Journalist and "cronista" Magali Tercero spoke of recent "operativos," police operations in her middle class Mexico City neightborhood in the wake of two deadly incidents. A couple of weeks after our tertulias, Raúl Silva answered the phone at home in Cuernavaca, a voice telling him to pay money or face deadly consequences. Two years ago I received a phishing call upon returning from Mexico, the voice addressing me by name and claiming membership in the Familia Michoacana cártel.

And then, just as Rafa, Raquel and I returned to Los Angeles, I noticed an item in el Blog del Narco. It was about us, the tertulias at el Chopo, a reprint of an article that appeared in Mexico City daily La Jornada. There was no citation or link to the original, and the blog's editor had come up with a new headline, perhaps to throw copyright infringement detectives off the trail: "El arte no recupera una muerte en la guerra contra el narco," Art does not undo a single death in the war against the narco. This is a fragment of a quote from singer-songwriter Leticia Servín, who accompanied us virtually in a tertulia by sending a YouTube clip of her performing a searing Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz poem that she set to music, an ode to Javier Sicilia upon the death of his son Juan Francisco. In the La Jornada story, Leticia goes on to say that although art cannot bring back the dead, it can "help to heal the wounds of the nation as it suffers so from violence and death." The fragment alone says that art can do nothing in the face of such violence and death.

There we were, our story, in El Blog del Narco, right alongside the nameless mutilated bodies and the invisible, equally nameless victimizers, their faces invariably covered by ski masks.

We arrived in Mexico wondering about our distance from the subject.

We left Mexico knowing that we would be no further away from it even after we crossed the border back into the United States. And we knew that we had no choice but to represent the violence, even as we wondered how we would.


1 Author, longtime New Yorker contributor and Mexico City native Alma Guillermo Prieto brought together a broad spectrum of Mexican writers for a virtual "ofrenda" (offering) to the 72 migrants. It is a moving example of the aesthetic and ethical impulse of "visiblizando."

Rubén Martínez is the author of several books, including, most recently, "Desert America: A Journey Across Our Most Divided Landscape." He is Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University.

The War on Both Sides/La guerra de los dos lados is made possible by the generous support of a City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department Cultural Exchange International grant and the hospitality and logistical assistance of the Museo Universitario del Chopo. In particular we would like to thank Chopo director José Luis Paredes Pacho and his team: Claudia Manzanilla, Dalila Silva Ortíz, Blanca Espinosa, Javier Marín, and Amaranta Marentes. In Los Angeles, Carol Jacques and Dalila Sotelo of Amigos de Siqueiros and activist-publicist Martha Ugarte helped make possible our first public presentation of this material in Los Angeles, at the América Tropical Interpretive Center on Olvera Street. Our dialogues in Cuernavaca were generously hosted by the  Secretaria de Cultura de Morelos and its director, Cristina Faesler and her team. Special thanks to Hernán Osorio of the Secretaría de Cultura and Alicia Reardon, who were responsible for the coordinating our events.

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