Lucy Popescu

freedom to write, review, travel…

Posts Tagged ‘Mexico’

Book Review – Signs Preceding the End of the World & The Transmigration of Bodies

Posted by lucypopescu on August 27, 2016

Signs Preceding the End of the WorldTwo superb novellas by Mexican Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman and published by the pioneering indie publisher And Other Stories, herald a major new talent.

Herrera writes about the underbelly of Mexico today: violence, poverty, corruption and impunity. In extraordinary prose he creates stark landscapes and surreal scenarios which remain with you long after the final pages.

Signs Preceding the End of the World opens boldly with a giant sink hole threatening to envelop Herrera’s feisty female protagonist: “I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she flailed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.” Makina is instructed by her mother to go to the United States to bring her brother home. She has to enlist the help of various local gangsters in order to ensure safe passage. In return she has to take a package across the border for the reptilian Mr. Aitch, the type of person “who couldn’t see a mule without wanting a ride”.

There is an epic quality to Herrera’s tale. Herrera has said that Signs is partly inspired by pre-Hispanic myth where the afterlife consists of nine levels which have to be traversed by those souls not chosen by the gods; their destiny is decided by the manner of their death. For English readers not familiar with these legends, Makina’s perilous voyage across the Rio Grande in “an enormous inner tube” is more likely to recall Greek mythology — a journey across the River Styx with Makina’s indestructible trafficker, Chucho, reminiscent of the ferryman Charon.

As soon as Makina enters the US she crosses over into an underworld inhabited by illegal Mexicans, many of whom have given up their identities and everything they love and hold familiar. They may never see their families again. It is the end of the world as they know it and, Herrera suggests, a limbo between death and rebirth. There is a memorable passage when Makina is picked up by an American cop and utlilising her knowledge of anglo, she challenges his inherent racism, inhumanity and the demonisation of Latinos:

“We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet. We who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anemic. We the barbarians.”

The Transmigration of BodiesThe Transmigration of Bodies is a more direct critique of the violence of the drug wars that plague Mexico today. It’s set in an unnamed city where residents lives in fear of a deathly disease carried by Egyptian mosquitos. I was immediately reminded of when the H1N1 virus (also known as ‘swine flu’) hit Mexico. The government imposed a five-day shut down and Mexico’s capital became a ghost town. There was virtually no traffic, few people on the streets and many shops were closed. Those brave enough to venture outside their homes wore surgical masks. It was utterly surreal but you had to be there to believe it (I was). This is the apocalyptic world Herrera evokes in his opening pages:

“Buzzing: then a dense block of mosquitoes tethering themselves to a puddle of water as tho attempting to lift it. There was no one, nothing, not a single voice, not one sound on an avenue that by that time should have been rammed with cars. Then he looked closer: the puddle began at the foot of the tree, like someone had leaned up against it to vomit. And what the mosquitoes were sucking up wasn’t water but blood. And there was no wind. Afternoons it blew like a bitch so there should’ve at least been a light breeze, yet all he got was stagnation. Solid lethargy. Things felt much more present when they looked so abandoned.”

Things are not always as they first appear in Herrera’s novels. It is as though true horror cannot be contemplated until it is experienced. A similar moment occurs inSigns when Makina reaches the US desert:

“Off in the distance she glimpsed a tree and beneath the tree a pregnant woman. She saw her belly before her legs or her face or her hair and saw she was resting there in the shade of the tree. And she thought, if that was any sort of omen it was a good one: a country where a woman with child walking through the desert just lies right down to let her baby grow, unconcerned about anything else. But as they approached she discerned the features of this person, who was no woman, nor was that belly full with child: it was some poor wretch swollen with putrefaction, his eyes and tongue pecked out by buzzards.”

The precariousness of life, its lack of value, are recurrent themes in both novellas. In The Transmigration of Bodies feuding gangsters continue to operate despite the fear of deadly infection. Herrera’s opening chapter introduces us to a young man, hung over, and desperate to seduce his neighbour ‘Three Times Blond’. We learn his name is ‘The Redeemer’ and that he is a fixer of sorts who mediates between rival families in order to avert unnecessary bloodshed. The Castros and the Fonsecas are each in possession of a dead body belonging to the other family. The Redeemer and his cohorts, a bodyguard known as ‘The Neeyanderthal’ and a local nurse, Vicky (who has to ascertain the cause of death), are employed to help facilitate the exchange of corpses.

Herrera combines lyricism with wry, black humour and employs a range of registers, colloquialisms and neologisms. In Dillman’s Translator’s Note in Signs she explains how she had to find an alternative for the neologism, jarchas, from the Arabic kharja, meaning both ‘exit’, and the word for an ‘end couplet’ in Mozarabic poems. She final decided on ‘to verse’ as her neological substitute for ‘to leave’. Her reasons are illuminating: “[it’s] a noun turned verb, a term clearly referring to poetry and part of several verbs involving motion and communication (traverse, reverse, converse) as well as the “end” of the uni-verse.”

Herrera writes about liminal spaces, so it is fitting that the bridge between language and culture, the very art of translation, is foregrounded in his novels. In his brilliant, multi-layered narratives he captures some of the conflicting forces shaping (and distorting) Mexico today and the impact of violence and xenophobia on ordinary people’s lives.

Originally published in

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Book Review – La Lucha

Posted by lucypopescu on May 18, 2015

La LuchaMexico has long been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and human rights activists to work in. Critics are often abducted or murdered with impunity. Furthermore, over the past two
decades, gender based violence reached such epic proportions: Juárez city, for example, has become known as the “femicide” capital of the world. This is the chilling backdrop to Jon Sack’s graphic novel, part of a series published by Front Line Defenders (FLD), a Dublin based international human rights organization.

The book centres on a real life figure, Luz (Lucha) Estela Castro Rodríguez, a lawyer and campaigner for women’s rights in the state of Chihuahua, considered one of the most violent regions of Mexico. In 2002, Lucha cofounded the organization Justice for Our Daughters, and in 2005 the Center for Human Rights of Women. Through her work, Sack and Adam Shapiro, head of campaigns at FLD, gained access to the stories of ordinary Mexicans who have been devastated by the murder or disappearance of loved ones and of those who have fled to the United States.

These include the Salazar Reyes family. Josefina, a wellknown activist, protested against a proposed radioactive waste site in Sierra Blanca, opposed the militarization of
Juárez, and denounced the mass murder of women in the region. In August 2008, the military abducted her son Miguel Ángel. After being tortured for sixteen days, he was released. Three months later, Josefina’s other son, Julio César, was murdered at a wedding. Josefina continued her protests until January 3, 2010, when she, too, was murdered. Her
brother Rubén was killed seven months later. On February 25, 2011, the bodies of Magdalena Reyes Salazar, her brother Elias, and his wife Luisa Ornelas Soto were found dumped along
the side of a road in Guadalupe, Chihuahua.

By using black and white comic book art – arguably more effective at drawing the reader in than a block of text describing the violence – Jon Sack immerses the reader in his subject; his representation of shootings and torture powerfully conveys that violence is commonplace in Mexico. Employing light and shade to great effect, he presents the killers as shadows – a chilling reminder of how Juárez’s faceless murderers continue to escape justice.

Originally published the TLS

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Book Review – Write Against Impunity

Posted by lucypopescu on November 3, 2013

Freedom of expression is a noisy, uncomfortable, disorderly business. Emotional and intellectual discomfort is the characteristic of a healthy society. John Ralston Saul, President, PEN International, Write Against Impunity, 2012

The Day of the Dead (El Día de Muertos) is celebrated in Latin America from 31 October to 2 November. At this time, families remember their deceased loved ones by visiting graveyards, erecting and decorating altars in their homes, cooking their favourite food and lighting aromatic candles. PEN, the international association of writers, is using this mortuary festival to commemorate their fallen colleagues, murdered with impunity in countries such as Mexico, Honduras and Brazil.

To highlight and protest against the alarming lack of justice in the region, PEN has published a bi-lingual anthology, Write Against Impunity. A mixture of poems, essays and prose, the collection features the work of writers from all over Latin America, including Homero Aridjis, Gioconda Belli, Lydia Cacho, Ariel Dorfman, Carlos Gamerro, Elena Poniatowska and Sergio Ramírez. Former writers in prison, such as the Cuban journalists Jorge Olivero Castillo and Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso and Peruvian poet Melissa Patino, have also contributed texts.

As the second most dangerous country in the world to work as a writer it is no surprise that most of the contributions either come from or are about Mexico. Since December 2006, at least 48 print and internet journalists and writers have been killed there and at least nine others have disappeared. Many of the Mexican writers focus on the terrible wall of silence surrounding the femicides in the border town of Juárez. Carmen Boullosa dedicates a poem to Susana Chávez Castillo, a fellow poet and activist who led protests against the unsolved murders; her strangled and mutilated corpse was found in the city in early January 2011. Recalling the Greek myth of Philomena, Boullosa writes:

I am the mutilated tongue.
They severed me from a body to torment it,
they wanted to cause pain and leave my accusation of infamy mute.
To provoke fear.

The best pieces are those that tackle impunity head on. Authors from countries where human rights abuses are less endemic still want to offer solidarity to their neighbouring colleagues. Bolivian writer, Gaby Vallejo Canedo, rages against impunity with the lines:

I am the voice of all of them and I can’t stand it any longer to have been born with so much beauty in my hands, in my voice, and not to have found anyone to protect me.

Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world and 28 journalists have been assassinated since the June 2009 coup d’état. Erick Tejada Carbajal writes a concise, chilling account, reminiscent of George Orwell’s dystopian fiction:

The tentacles of impunity are so plump and numerous that they envelop people and public opinion on a daily basis…perpetual resignation has become our only defence mechanism… death is our daily bread and it travels around in little motorbikes, in big white vans, and along pathways and on noisy police patrols.

The only anomaly is that there is nothing about Brazil, where at least 11 print and internet journalists have been killed since 2010. But Cuban Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso surely speaks for all victims of impunity when he writes of an “association of shame”. He goes on to describe the victims: “men and women, some young, some not, that stand up to Power.” And concludes “Some time ago I heard someone say: ‘bravery is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it.'”

Write Against Impunity makes for a sobering read, but I cannot think of a better way to celebrate the Day of the Dead than buying this testament of writers’ courage. You know you are supporting PEN’s valuable work in the field of free expression at the same time as remembering those darker parts of the world in which writers are so brutally silenced while trying to expose corruption or effect change.

For further information, to read Write Against Impunity online or to buy a print edition visit International PEN.

Originally published by Huffingtonpost.

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Book Review – Quesadillas

Posted by lucypopescu on October 29, 2013

QuesadillasIn his acclaimed debut novel, Down the Rabbit Hole, Juan Pablo Villalobos explored the lawlessness and violence of Mexico as seen through the eyes of the young son of a drug baron. In Quesadillas, his second novel to be published by And Other Stories, Villalobos travels back in time to the 1980s and once again uses a child’s perspective to describe the corruption and economic volatility of his native country.

Thirteen-year-old Orestes lives on the Cerro de la Chingado – which Rosalind Harvey translates as “the hill in the middle of (fucking) nowhere” – in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The local town has “more cars than people, more charro horsemen than horses, more priests than cows, and the people like to believe in the existence of ghosts, miracles, spaceships, saints and so forth.”

From a large family and always hungry, Orestes measures poverty in quesadillas (savoury tortillas) and divides them into categories depending on the thickness of the filling – inflationary, normal, devaluation and poor man’s. Orestes and his six siblings have been named after historical figures from classical Greece by their high-school teacher father. As well as pondering their varying degrees of poverty and the merits of being considered middle-class, Orestes’ particular talent is poetry – reciting and writing – although he finds little opportunity for this to be taken seriously.

The town hall is occupied by rebels and during the unrest Orestes loses his younger twin brothers in the state-owned supermarket. Then a wealthy Polish family move into a palatial house next door. They are intent on developing the surrounding land which threatens Orestes’ family’s home. Meanwhile, his brother Aristotle is convinced that the twins have been abducted by aliens and persuades Orestes to join him on a mini-odyssey to find them.

Villalobos manages to pack in various political references. The twins’ apparent abduction and the ineffectuality of the police investigation recall the disappearances that occur with impunity in Mexico today. When the family’s tragedy is reported on television, it is treated like a telenovela (a melodramatic soap opera), with “a brief digression into Graeco-Roman mythology” before the presenter returns “to other news without a solution, such as the national economy.”

Quesadillas is gloriously absurd, celebrates the fantastical, and plays with notions of magic realism. But it is Villalobos’ quirky, laconic style that most impresses. The twins’ general inertia causes Orestes to liken them to “a couple of ferns in their pots”. After a petty crime, Orestes is forced to help his Polish neighbour who inseminates cows for a living, an experience he describes as “bovine eroticism”. It is this delight in language that marks out Villalobos as a writer of distinction.

A shorter version first appeared in The Independent

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Book Review – Slavery Inc. The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking

Posted by lucypopescu on November 17, 2012

Lydia Cacho, the Mexican writer and women’s rights activist, has endured intimidation, abduction and imprisonment because of her investigative journalism. Following the publication of Los demonios del Edén (The demons of Eden), an exposé of a Mexican child pornography ring in Cancún in 2005, she was tortured, judicially harassed and suffered numerous death threats.

This has not deterred her from continuing to write about the complicity of business men and other powerful people in criminal activities. Her latest book focuses on global sex trafficking. Such are the dangers of investigating this appalling trade in human beings that Cacho was forced undercover. She carried fake ID and dressed as a prostitute in order to infiltrate various nightclubs; on one occasion, she adopted a nun’s habit to enter La Merced, one of Mexico City’s most dangerous neighbourhoods.

Cacho’s research took her to Burma, Cambodia, Japan, Thailand and Turkey as well as Latin America. She concludes that it is the “inequality of cultures, economies and legal systems” that has helped this modern slavery to thrive. Cacho argues that the exploitation of women and children occurs because of their vulnerability – whether because of poverty or their subservient role in a male-dominated society – and because of weak sanctions against their mistreatment. Victims are often “enslaved by the cultural values of violence against women” or conditioned to believe that they have no alternatives.

Importantly, Cacho focuses on the clients who not only fuel demand but also contribute towards the normalisation of sexual slavery. Time and again she is told by men that they like Latin American women because they are “docile” and “obedient.” It is the clients who create the markets, Cacho argues, and men’s increasing willingness to pay for sex with trafficked victims is part of the backlash against women’s liberation. Even more devastating is the burgeoning trade in children and virgins. Cacho sees this as a means for men to exert control emotionally and mentally as well as physically; the younger the victim, the more compliant he or she is likely to be.

Cacho says that those who defend prostitution as “part of a liberal philosophy” ignore “the connection between trafficking and prostitution”, and that those who are enslaved, either through poverty or coercion, are not willing participants.

This courageous book comes with an introduction by Roberto Saviano who wrote a best-selling exposé of the Camorra Mafia in Naples. Both writers have faced terrible consequences for daring to point the finger at powerful men. Cacho has named names and further death threats have caused her to flee Mexico. She’s risked her life in order to report the truth.

Originally published in The Tablet.


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Writing against impunity – Latin America

Posted by lucypopescu on November 6, 2012

In Mexico, El Día de Muertos (the Day of the Dead), is celebrated from 31 October – 2 November. Although a mortuary ritual, the fiesta’s light-heartedness is expressed through the sale of sugar skulls, sweet breads and skeletal figurines. A table of ofrendas (offerings) is prepared with various objects, sweets, and drinks that were once enjoyed by the departed. To tempt them to return, their favourite food is lovingly prepared and laid out each night. Aromatic copal is burned, candles are lit, and the vibrant marigold flowers, known as cempasúchil, decorate and brighten their way. Religious images are placed alongside tequila and sugared skulls. A poem or hymn may be composed and left for them. Mexicans do not believe that the departed souls will consume what they have prepared, merely that the aroma will attract their spiritual presence and serve to remind them that they are not forgotten.

Mexico’s cemeteries also take on a carnivaleseque quality at this time. Mexicans visit their relatives’ graves for a nightly vigil, bringing with them food and drink and decorating them with flowers. They may even be accompanied by a mariachi band.

Newspapers join in the fun by printing satirical images of politicians and celebrities, drawn as skeletons, carrying on a tradition begun in the 1890s by Jose Guadalupe Posada. An engraver, based in the old heart of Mexico City, Posada started his career as a political cartoonist before becoming a commercial illustrator, drawing sensational events for broadsheets as well as depicting the daily horrors, murders, and tragedies of city life.

Today, journalists who attempt to investigate or draw attention to corruption in Mexico – whether engineered by state officials or the notorious drug cartels – are more likely to find themselves threatened for their work or even killed.

In 2011, PEN, the international association of writers, marked the Day of the Dead by remembering those journalists and writers who had been murdered in Mexico. Since 2000, over 80 writers, journalists and bloggers have been killed and another 15 have disappeared. Most of these crimes have not been properly investigated and there have only ever been a handful of convictions.

This year alone, nine print journalists and writers have been murdered in Mexico. Drug-trafficking is blamed for many of Mexico’s ills and while it is true that much of the violence against those journalists who attempt to investigate their crimes comes from these quarters, there is also corruption amongst state officials and powerful businessmen who have the money to buy complicity or silence. Another inherent failure of Mexico’s justice system is the apparent inability to punish and prosecute those in positions of power who abuse their office.

This year, PEN International and its centres have extended their campaign against impunity by launching a literary protest aimed at highlighting the escalating violence against journalists, writers and bloggers in Latin America. Self-censorship is a growing trend in Mexico, Honduras and Brazil.

According to PEN, in the first six months of 2012, more reporters were murdered in Latin America than in any other region worldwide. Mexico was the second most dangerous country in the world in which to be a writer or journalist, with Honduras and Brazil coming close behind.

Over 50 writers, journalists, students and PEN members from across Latin America and the Caribbean sent in poetry and prose in support of the campaign and to commemorate their murdered colleagues in the region. James Tennant, PEN International’s Literary Manager, said ‘the huge interest in and support for this campaign, and the fact that writers the calibre of Luisa Valenzuela, Sergio Ramírez, Gioconda Belli and Ariel Dorfman have contributed new texts, only serves to highlight the seriousness of the situation of impunity in today’s Latin America – a region that has become a vast burial ground for writers and journalists’.

You can support the campaign by reading the contributions to Write Against Impunity and spreading the word. PEN is publishing texts on their website every day until the anthology’s official launch on 23 November, the International Day to End Impunity.

Originally published by the  on 6 November 2012

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Impunity in Mexico – Lydia Cacho

Posted by lucypopescu on August 29, 2012

Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist – since 2006, 67 journalists have been killed and 14 have disappeared in the country.

Lydia Cacho, an author and women’s rights activist, has faced intimidation, abduction and imprisonment because of her investigative journalism. In 2005, she published Los demonios del Eden: El poder que protege a la pornografía infantil (‘The demons of Eden: the power that protects child pornography’), exposing a Mexican child pornography ring in the popular resort of Cancún. A businessman, José Kamel Nacif Borge, known as the King of Denim, because of his jeans factories in Puebla, accused Cacho of libel. He is cited in the book as having ties with Jean Succar Kuri, the owner of a hotel in Cancún who, at the time, had already been detained and charged with heading the child pornography and prostitution network. Kamel Nacif did not deny that he knew him but denied any involvementand claimed that his reputation had suffered as a result of Cacho’s book.

On 16 December 2005, Cacho was arrested at gunpoint by Puebla state officials. She endured a twenty-hour car journey from her home in Cancún to Puebla, where she was physically threatened. Upon arrival she was charged with defamation and faced up to four years in prison if found guilty.

In February 2006, taped telephone conversations between Kamel Nacif and the governor of Puebal, Mario Marín, were released to the local media. They revealed the extent to which Marín had been involved in Cacho’s arrest and detention. Kamel Nacif offered “two beautiful bottles of cognac” as a token of appreciation for the governor’s part in the arrest of Cacho. Following a year-long battle, during which she suffered repeated death threats, the defamation charges were dismissed. However, her acquittal was only the result of her case being transferred to another state where defamation is no longer considered a criminal offence.

After the tapes came to light, Cacho filed a countersuit for corruption and violation of her human rights. Disappointingly, the court in Cacho’s home state of Quintana Roo ruled that although there was evidence of arbitrary detention and torture it could not accept her case for jurisdictional reasons (it recommended that she take the case to Puebla) and closed the investigation.

In 2010, Cacho published Esclavas del poder, in which she revealed the names of people in Mexico she alleges are involved in the trafficking of women and girls. The English translation, Slavery Inc. The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking, is published at the beginning of September by Portobello Books.

In June last year, shortly after taking part in an event in Chihuahua, northern Mexico, Cacho received further death threats by phone and email which made direct reference to her journalism. She believes that they were issued in retaliation for her having revealed the names of alleged traffickers.

More worryingly, on 29 July of this year, Cacho received a call on her handheld transceiver, used only for emergencies. An unknown a male voice referred to her by name and said: “We have already warned you, bitch, don’t mess with us. It is clear you didn’t learn with the small trip you were given. What is coming next for you will be in pieces, that is how we will send you home, you idiot.”  Concerned by this breach of her security system, Cacho has since fled Mexico. Article 19 reported that she will remain out of the country while its Protection Programme for Journalists develops a strategy to provide her with adequate protection.

This courageous author will be in conversation with Helen Bamber OBE, who works with victims of trafficking, in London on 29 August

You can also send messages of support c/o: Fundación Lydia Cacho. Email:

Originaly published by the Independent online

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Mexico – PEN campaign for murdered journalists

Posted by lucypopescu on November 10, 2011

Maxine Young inspired by José Guadalupe Posada

Mexico’s El Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), dates back to indigenous times. However, many of the celebrations associated with the festival, which takes place from 31 – 2 November, have evolved over time.

The tradition of printing satirical images of politicians and celebrities, drawn as skeletons, was begun in the 1890s by Jose Guadalupe Posada. An engraver, based in the old heart of Mexico City, behind the National Palace, Posada started his career as a political cartoonist before becoming a commercial illustrator, drawing sensational events for broadsheets as well as depicting the daily horrors, murders, and tragedies of city life. But he is best known for the dancing skeletons and grinning skulls that lampooned the rich and famous during El Día de Muertos. La Catrina, his upper-class, elegantly attired calvera, was to become one of the most popular figures of the Day of the Dead celebrations.

Today, journalists who attempt to investigate or draw attention to corruption in Mexico – whether engineered by state officials or the notorious drug cartels – are more likely to find themselves threatened for their work or even killed.

PEN, the international association of writers, is bringing a more sombre tone to the normally jocular ritual by remembering those journalist and writers who have been murdered in Mexico in recent years.

Since December 2006, when President Calderón began his military campaign against the drug cartels, 35 writers have been murdered (33 print journalists, one author and one poet), while a further eight print journalists have gone missing. Others have been threatened, harassed, driven into exile or otherwise censored. A number of these increasingly gruesome crimes occur in states where organised crime has a strong presence, and particularly affect local journalists.

Mexico is now rated as one of the most dangerous places  in the world to work as a journalist and many see the National Human Rights Commission as inadequate to tackle the escalating violence. Drug-trafficking is blamed for many of Mexico’s ills and while it is true that much of the violence against those journalists who attempt to investigate their crimes comes from these quarters, there is also corruption amongst state officials and powerful businessmen, who have the money to buy complicity or silence. Another inherent failure of Mexico’s justice system is the apparent inability to punish and prosecute those in positions of power who abuse their office.

One of nine print journalists to have been killed between January and September 2011, was Susana Chávez Castillo, a prominent poet and activist who led protests against the unsolved killings of women raped and killed in Ciudad Juárez; her strangled and mutilated corpse was found in that city in early January 2011. Reporters Ana María Marcela Yarce Viveros and Rocio González Trápaga were abducted in Mexico City on 31 August 2011; their bodies were found the next day, naked with nooses around their necks and their hands tied behind their backs. Political journalist Angel Castillo Corona was murdered along with his 16-year-old son in Ocuilan, Mexico state, on 3 July 2011.

A recent report commissioned by Canadian PEN and the University of Toronto faculty of law’s international human-rights program, entitled Corruption, Impunity, Silence: The War on Mexico’s Journalists, suggests that Mexico’s journalists have to contend with laws that limit freedom of expression and effectively muzzle their attempts to expose corruption at both local and state levels. It claims that the Mexican government has delayed implementing reforms that could protect reporters, while continuing to prosecute citizen journalists under its complex communications laws.

The eminent Mexican poet José Emilo Pacheco has written some verses especially for PEN’s Day of the Dead campaign.

This atrocious month has finally passed

And left us so many dead

That even the air breathes death

And death is drunk in the water.

I can’t resist the wound of so much death.

Mexico cannot be the plural cemetery,

The enormous common grave

Where our hopes lie exhausted.

We already drown the future

In the abyss that opens each day.

 José Emilio Pacheco, ‘The Altar of the Dead’

Readers might like to send/emails appeals to President Calderón via your nearest Mexican embassy: Protesting the murder of 35 print journalists and writers and the disappearance of eight print journalists since the start of his term in office in December 2006; Calling for a full and impartial investigation into these crimes, focusing on the journalists’ and writers’ work as a possible motive, with the involvement of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression; Calling on President Calderón’s government to fulfil promises to make crimes against journalists a federal offence, by amending the Constitution so that federal authorities have the power to investigate, prosecute and punish such crimes.

Originally published in

Mexican PEN's Day of the Dead altar

Mexican PEN's Day of the Dead altar

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Laughing in the face of death

Posted by lucypopescu on November 1, 2009

altar to the dead at Sheraton Isabel Maria hotel

Altar to the dead at the Sheraton Isabel Maria hotel

As a Brit in Mexico, I am often painfully aware of my ‘difference’ and this is often accompanied by a strong sense of isolation. However, in embracing the clamour and chaos of the City, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that its tumult can actually combat loneliness.

I only have to open the window and there is the man selling water / gas / tamales / balloons / firecrackers and (on Sundays) ice cream outside our front gate. Every day I can enjoy the sight of Mexicans strolling, playing, trading, studying and courting in their numerous public squares which are used as an extension of their homes. In our local plaza, I am greeted by the old woman on the corner weaving baskets; the young girl in the newspaper kiosk is enjoying a brisk business in lottery tickets (she sells stacks of them, never as many papers – they’re old news whilst the national raffle offers tantalising hope for the future); the old men, wailing their wares, are sheltering from the sun under the colourful portales; the organ grinder has taken up his position outside the church, next to the child selling wooden rosaries; the middle-aged woman with dyed red hair and her over-weight daughter are dipping their boiled corn cobs into chilli and lime for a queue of customers. A tiny boy, he can’t be more than six, wends his way round the customers in a café, using his beautiful dark eyes to sell his miniature packs of chiclets.

Except for the cars, I wonder how much has changed in these plazas over the decades. Anything in one hundred years? Two hundred?

The main reason that solitude no longer frightens me is because Mexico City thrusts you into the here and now. The  past feels unimportant, the future no longer tangible. Sometimes I go for days without hearing from anyone back home. At times, I feel as though I live in a bubble, although much of what goes on around me is gradually becoming more comprehensible. Even in November, the sun can be scorching by midday causing the film of time to slow down. Instead of rushing from pillar to post, I linger over meals, stroll rather than stride through the leafy plazas, pausing to admire a pretty pair of earrings, an unusual clay pot or hand-woven shawl. Mexicans are always happy to talk to me; they want to find out where I are from, where I are headed, or just to laugh playfully at my Spanish.

Death at Dolores Olmedo museum

Death: Dolores Olmedo museum

Another powerful weapon against loneliness is an appreciation and understanding of the Mexican response to death. The writer who has come closest to explaining this is Octavio Paz. In his seminal book of essays, The Labyrinth of Solitude, he declared “Ritual death promotes a Rebirth.” To the ancient Mexicans, “Life, death and resurrection were stages of a cosmic process which repeated itself continuously.” Today, an innate love of ritual encourages Mexicans to continue in their celebration of death and, for many, it still “defines” “reflects” and “illuminates” their existence.

Whilst we celebrate Halloween, all over Mexico altars are erected in the name of the dead. Mexicans love the opportunity to dress up or to decorate something, but the preparation of altars for El Día de Muertos is phenomenal. The Day of the Dead actually lasts two days (on the first, the souls of children are honoured). On the nights of 1 and 2 November a family’s loved ones are tempted back to the land of the living.

Day of the Dead altar UNAM

Day of the Dead altar: UNAM

Like the very best theatre, all the senses are assailed.  A table of ofrendas (offerings) is prepared, aromatic copal is burned, candles are lit, and the vibrant marigold flowers, known here as cempasúchil, decorate and brighten their way.

Altar to Jose Vasconcelos UNAM CEPE

Altar to Jose Vasconcelos: UNAM CEPE

On the table itself are set various objects, sweets, and drinks that were enjoyed by the departed souls when alive. Their favourite food is lovingly prepared and laid out each night. Religious images are placed alongside tequila and sugared skulls. A poem or hymn may be composed and left for their perusal. Even a particular pan de muerto (sweet bread) is baked to commemorate the departed. It is best described as a sugary bun adorned with a cross, representing skeletal fingers seeking earthly sustenance.

Day of the Dead EAP book

Altar to Edgar Allen Poe: UNAM

Some of the best examples of altars are to be found in the grounds of Mexico City’s National University. This year, the various departments competed with one another to prepare the most imaginative ofrendas to American author Edgar Allan Poe, born two hundred years ago. The field resembled nothing so much as a Victorian fair-ground. As well as ritual and religiosity, there is a sense of fun. Many of the altars are the height of kitsch.

giant dolls UNAM

Giant dolls: UNAM

The fact that many of these miniature temples to the dead are works of art is recognised by the Dolores Olmedo museum, in the south of the City, renowned for its annual exhibition celebrating El Día de Muertos. This year it includes a stunning retrospective of ofrendas that have been displayed since it opened its doors in 1994. These include alters dedicated to muralist Diego Rivera, artist Frida Kahlo and engraver Jose Guadalupe Posada.

In Mexico, death is seen merely an extension of life and part of its immutable cycle. The lightheartedness of this annual ritual hits home. Surrounded by all the colour and vitality of the occasion, there is nothing left to fear. Laughing in the face of death proves a valuable lesson. When fear is absent, so too is loneliness.

gravestones UNAM

Gravestones: UNAM

candles Dolores Olmedo museum

Candles Dolores Olmedo museum

marimba Dolores Olmedo museo

Marimba Dolores Olmedo museum

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Paper monsters

Posted by lucypopescu on October 26, 2009

papiermache monsterThis weekend, it was surreal to witness a parade of giant papier mache monsters, looking like a spin-off from the psychedelic 1960s, rolling towards us along one of Mexico City’s busiest streets.  These wonderful sculptures are known as alebrijes and have been made in Mexico since the 1930s.

When I return home I usually have packed some alebrijes as gifts. These are smaller versions of the paper monsters, but are just as imaginative. Brightly coloured animal figurines, carved out of wood, they are most often found in Oaxaca, which has some of the richest folk-art in Mexico. The tiny village of Arrazola produces many of these animals, made from the soft wood of the copal tree; a few years ago we visited the artisans in their homes and bought from them direct.

The term alebrijes originates from the grand papier mache creations of Pedro Linares, a craftsman from Mexico City. Alebrije translates as “imaginary” or “fantasy” and is a fitting description for these bizarre creatures.bug-eyed

The story goes that Linares used to make traditional papier mache figures and carnival masks, for all the local festivals, including piñatas at Christmas, and life-size Judas dolls at Easter. After falling gravely ill, he encountered weird, grotesque animals in his fevered hallucinations. Upon recovery he decided to paint the animals of his dreams, little realising how popular these ugly monsters would become. As a result of the renewed creativity following his near-death experience, Linares and his family passed over the thin line separating craftsman from artists; a local legend was born and a novel form of art was brought into existence.

gory monsterRenowned muralist, Rivera Diego bought several huge figures for his studio and European and US enthusiasts started collecting the Linares family creations as artistic treasures. What was one man’s terrifying vision of death has become celebrated art.

In the 1960s, inspired by the success of Linares, a Oaxacan woodcarver, Manuel Jiménez, transferred the style to the miniature figurines he carved. Many followed suit and these brightly-painted wooden animals and monsters remain hugely popular and portable examples of this vernacular art.

The Alebrije procession took place in one of Mexico City’s main boulevards, Paseo Reforma. The giant creationsfish eat fish then came to rest overnight on the wide pavements. How apt that they should appear the week before the Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico, reminding us of the skill with which Mexicans circumvent horror and terror. They confont, make fun of and celebrate death. In their hands, the stuff of nightmares becomes colourful, hand-painted toys for the delight of adults and children alike.

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