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The War on Both Sides: The War Against Pain

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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.

Translated by John Pluecker as Antena

"I live in a country where violence patrols the streets."


"Kill was a verb," Elmer Mendoza tells me as he recalls growing up on his grandfather's rancho in Sinaloa, when he would go out with his cousins to kill rabbits and hares. Later, he began to relate that verb with what could happen to human beings, and that was part of life, but "the violence was not overwhelming, because when the violence is overwhelming, there's fear, anguish, apprehension, a lack of safety, a profound pain, the feeling is very different." This is the way life is lived in Mexico today.

My conversation with Elmer Mendoza took place a few days after the binational gathering "The War on Both Sides/La guerra de los dos lados". It wasn't a mere coincidence. When violence is unleashed, it dances all around us. Elmer Mendoza was in Cuernavaca to give a talk on the motivations and the passion behind his writing, behind his detective novels. In this talk, among other things, he said:

"I live in Culiacán, the birthplace of industrial drug trafficking, probably the region with the most investment of black market money, and I ask myself, how did we get to this point? I ask my elders, my friends who are 80 years old, how did we get to this point? And all of them keep silent, because all of us, each and every one of us, is guilty, for allowing it to happen. I myself was hounded at the beginning, after publishing my first novels: "You can't say this about our city." Why not? I've written all this so that we might reflect on where we stand and what we are going to do. And in many ways, this is applicable to the whole country. Why are we such a corrupt country? Why are we such an under-educated country? Why are we so fearful?"

We are all guilty, for allowing it to happen. Elmer Mendoza's conclusion seems radical to me. But this is not a story of the good and the bad, of the innocent and the guilty; rather, it's a situation that we have all ended up in together. When and how did these painful times of violence begin? Not just yesterday with drug trafficking. The story is ages old: a succession of crimes without punishment over a long period of time, within a society that has become inured to the belief that corruption is a necessary evil.


Thinking that wars are always someone else's is a very human misunderstanding. In the United States, when the violence in this country comes up in the media and in conversation, it's often referred to as "the war against drug trafficking waged by Mexico and by Mexicans." But in fact, this story is much more complex and moves far beyond borders. Foreign policy, drug consumption, and the ease of acquiring weapons are elements that make our neighbors complicit in this story.


On May 5, 2011, the same day that Javier Sicilia led the first national mobilization marking the birth of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, I received a message from my friend Rubén Martínez in Los Angeles: "here, following the news of your pueblo, as always greatly disturbed..." After that, he told me about the performance to be presented in Los Angeles, California a week later, for which he'd brought together a group of artists and musicians. The war against drug trafficking, a war on both sides, is what inspired this dramatic work so reminiscent of teatro de carpa [tent theater]: Variedades. drugs: mexico. america. me muero mi amor!

I met Rubén Martínez during the last century. If my memory is not mistaken, it was in Tijuana in the home of our mutual friend, the journalist and commentator Maria Eraña, next door to the legendary cultural center "El Nopal Centenario." It was 1993 and Rubén has just published his book "The Other Side," in which he compiled stories on graffiti and gangs in Los Angeles, the guerrilla in El Salvador and the boom of rock en español in Mexico City. We did an interview that was transmitted on Radio Bilingüe, a network of community-based stations, where I was already working at that time. That encounter was the first of many more, occurring repeatedly over time and growing more intense; we have spoken about so many things: borders, migrations, friends and their ever-changing tendencies to come together or move away, fate, drugs, Leticia Servin and her songs with Sor Juana Inés, La Maldita Vecindad, binational artistic activities...and the violence, above all about the violence in recent years, because there is no way to escape it: no one -- not even people who think they aren't its victims -- can escape the violence.

But while it is not possible to escape the violence, it is possible to build other worlds within the larger world we traverse. To this end, art, creativity and imagination work as shamans that calm our savage side and propel us to more noble ends. That was one of the inspirations for organizing this gathering, whose very name sums up its goal. If we do not understand that war, like life and peace, inevitably makes us all complicit, and that the situation only gets worse when people look the other way, the suffering will continue to spiral out of control.

Mexico City | Photo: Raquel Gutíerrez


"To reflect on where we are and what we are going to do." Elmer Mendoza describes this as the intention of his novels; for this same reason we gather together for four days in the Museo del Chopo in Mexico City and for one day in Cuernavaca, Morelos. Poets, visual artists, musicians, journalists, performance artists and documentarians speak about their work and how they have honed it as they attempt to interpret this painful reality. Some of us already knew one another, either in person or online; others met for the first time through this gathering, in a series of dialogues during which certainties were constantly dissolving: to speak of a reality that has been imposed on us by excessive violence means allowing contradictory thinking. The gory details of uncensored tragedy or censoring so as not to be afflicted by more pain, the stigma of the killer and exploring the killer's psychology in order to understand him, the urgency of journalism and the perverse pleasure of artists... Certainties and doubts coexist, within the search for the shaman we all need.


"Imagine the voice of the murderer," said the poet Gabriela Jauregui, so as not to accept the discourse that makes the killer into a devil, as if we were free of all blame. Trying to find that voice is provocative and would seem to be an impossible argument, but it is part of this way of thinking that does not accept that the war is someone else's: "We are all implicated, even if you have never snorted a line, we are all on the inside."

And if we look at it from the place of pain? How do we measure the pain? Is it possible to measure it? How to do we find the breadth of a reality that is only understandable when experienced through the immense loneliness of the individual? How large is the pain of a mother who lost her child, a student in the crossfire? How large is the pain of a mother who lost her son who was a killer? And the pain of brothers and sisters, the pain of the girlfriends and all the relatives and close friends? Beyond blame, beyond the horror of "they were involved in something" or "they're just killing each other," we find the afflictions of the soul. How many of these people will join the cause of the more than seventy thousand dead in this war?


Each person has their own individual story of what they experienced in this gathering. There were moments of revelation, brought on by the way that art and journalism create meaning out of these violent times. Our vision and our feelings are changed by what we do, whether journalism or poetry (or sometimes both at the same time), whether performance or translation, whether music or graphic art. Listening to the journalist Daniela Pastrana, after César Martínez's presentation (describing and showing images of his performances and installations that have broken out of the museum), I realized that she herself had been the protagonist of performances in her own journalistic practice; this realization was a direct result of what our collective dialogue had wrought. Life is a performance that involves all of us far beyond what we are able to imagine.

"Acción 40 mil almas" by César Martínez. 1000 balloons, each representing the dead from the drug violence, were released into the sky above the Zócalo. | Photo: César Martínez
"Acción 40 mil almas" by César Martínez. 1000 balloons, each representing the dead from the drug violence, were released into the sky above the Zócalo. | Photo: César Martínez


Neither art nor journalism can change the world, but they help us to change our way of seeing the world, paraphrasing the Chilean poet Héctor Hernández, speaking of poetry. "The War on Both Sides" unfortunately did not bring us together to change the world, but rather to listen to each other and to search for other ways to embrace life and its diverse expressions both through our creative work and in our visions for the future.


Language as an artistic material. "If we cannot imagine another way to use language, we cannot imagine another world," says Jen Hofer. A language that allows us to interpret the wars that afflict this planet. Listening to one other is more important that speaking, Jen thinks, but with the belief that poetry and art can function as a new grammar, recognizing the world in order to remake it, translating it, creating new structures of thought. That is the tremendous riddle: to know how to translate the world, each person with their own spirits and forms of expression.


Only a person who has lived through this surge of violence knows what that suffering entails. The numbers can seem overwhelming, signs of unleashed barbarism, but we aren't able to perceive the devastating effects of this immense pain. Art and journalism are witnesses, but there is no alphabet able to transmit the dimensions of this tragedy.

At various points during the conversation, there was mention of a book that brings together ways of approaching the afflictions of this country. Language, once again language, the word that is said and is heard, longing to find answers. The word, that possibility that the world could be otherwise, wrote Cristina Rivera Garza in "Dolerse: Textos desde un país herido" (To Be in Pain: Texts from a Wounded Country).


The dilemma is what to do with "a useless ghost that doesn't want to leave" writes John Gibler in a book whose title evokes Oliverio Girondo and his "20 poemas para ser leídos en un tranvía" (20 Poems to Be Read in a Streetcar), adapted to today's awful reality: "20 poemas para ser leídos en una balacera" (20 Poems to be Read in a Gunfight). The title is not rhetorical; John Gibler practices journalism and poetry with a boldness that aims to chase away that "useless ghost" in texts where the gunfights resound, the silences interrupted by a precarious reality. Is this the search for that new language suggested by Jen Hofer?


Violence. Language. Distance. Border. Fear. Translation. Silence. Boldness. Empire of the narco. Gunfights. Narcomantas. Migration. Cruelty. Disappeared men. Disappeared women. Dead women. Dead men. Stigmas. Bleakness. Indifference. Orphans.


Confront the effects of the war through interventions that attack U.S. sensibilities and stereotypes, suggests Daniel Hernández. The naked reality so as not to guess at it. The border is not a space where each flag flies on its own territory, says Daniel: "It is a portal through which drugs, money and people move with the complicity of thousands of corrupt agents."


"We shouldn't stop at the violence brought by drugs, though it is horrifying and it must be considered, but it shouldn't obscure violence committed by the State," said Sylvia Marcos in her contribution to "The War on Both Sides." She also talked about the repression of the community of Atenco in the State of Mexico, about the 26 women who were raped by the police, about the refusal of the then-governor of the State of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, to accept his responsibility in the chain of command that led to those deeds. Violence, she said, is the expulsion of indigenous communities in places where there are precious metal mines, State-sponsored violence through the alliance of the government with the corporations.


Two young men in balaclavas with submachine guns intimidated her friend Gabriel in Huitzilac, Morelos. They went to the community center where he was working and, with a boot in his face, asked him what he was doing there. He answered that he was helping to set up a service center for the elderly. Tania Barberan told this story, commenting on this tragic moment in which our beliefs about the kindness of humanity are being destroyed. "Good people don't exist," the armed young men told her friend.


"We are living through violence that is bloody, excessive, unprecedented. It's a period inaugurated by the Nazis that can be seen very clearly in this country, where what's being erased are our tracks, the very vestiges of the existence of human beings on the earth."
--Javier Sicilia


The will that yields, finding in the other that primitive gesture of solidarity the knowledge of what to do with affection that is not foreign to us. Forms of a performance staged by Rafa Esparza in the Jardín Borda in Cuernavaca, Morelos.


To be in more pain. Those images hurt. They are frozen fear. Sadness in the face of the incomprehensible. Terrible barbarity. The absence of soul. They are human beings that could be our human beings. They are silences that ask questions for which there are no answers. Art. Journalism. Each moment a possibility of translating the world, longing for the world to be more legible, for human beings, this one time, to be truly human.

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.

Antena is a language justice and literary experimentation collaborative founded in 2010 by Jen Hofer and John Pluecker, both of whom are writers, artists, literary translators, bookmakers and activist interpreters. Antena activates links between social justice work and artistic practice by exploring how critical views on language can help us to reimagine and rearticulate the worlds we inhabit.

John Pluecker is a writer, interpreter, translator and co-founder of the language justice and literary experimentation collaborative Antena. His work is informed by experimental poetics, radical aesthetics and cross-border cultural production. His texts have appeared in journals in the U.S. and Mexico, including The Volta, Mandorla, Aufgabe, eleven eleven, Third Text, Animal Shelter, HTMLGiant and Literal. His work extends off the page to text-based improvisational performances in collaboration with experimental musicians and performance artists, as well as projects at the intersections of visual art and poetry. He has translated numerous books from the Spanish, including "Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border" (Duke University Press, 2012) and "Feminism: Transmissiones and Retransmissions" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). He has published three chapbooks, "Routes into Texas" (DIY, 2010), "Undone" (Dusie Kollektiv, 2011) and "Killing Current" (Mouthfeel Press, 2012).

Read more of "The War on Both Sides"

The War on Both Sides: Art, Violence, and Healing in the Drug War
What is the role of the creative community in the context of the drug war that is taking such a horrific toll on both sides of the Mexican-American border?

The War on Both Sides: 10 Mexican Days
Is it possible to translate the culture of violence into an aesthetic site of healing?

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