A Poet Rewrites the War on Drugs

After the death of his son, poet Javier Sicilia gave voice to the anguish of the Mexican people—and started a powerful movement of moral indignation against the senseless slaughter of the war on drugs.
Poet Javier Sicilia, photo by sari dennise

Photo by sari dennise

Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Greece, Spain…all these countries’ popular revolts have captured our attention for very good reasons. From Mexico, in contrast, we get only images of a vicious drug war.

But something remarkable is happening in Mexico.

On March 28 this year, the prominent poet Javier Sicilia lost his 24-year-old son, Juan Francisco, to senseless assassination, allegedly by a drug gang leader, just weeks before he was to graduate from the university. Javier transformed his pain—“this is my last poem," he wrote; "I no longer have poetry in my heart”—into a movement of moral indignation against the mass killings of innocent people.

His public letter to both politicians and criminals gave voice to the nation’s anguish. Like the Zapatista cry: Basta ya! in 1994, Javier summarized the unbearable with Estamos hasta la madre (an untranslatable expression to say what can no longer be borne or suffered). Javier’s pain moved people to join his call for dialogue and transparency with the politicians, police, drug lords, and all those paralyzed by fear into silence. In these short weeks, he has become a source of inspiration for millions. Thousands marched from Cuernavaca to Mexico City, ending with a massive rally in the capital’s main square. Later, this march turned into a caravan that traveled to the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez and then crossed into El Paso, Texas, for a rally with supporters.

Those who find hope in this peaceful, democratic mobilization are describing it as a new kind of revolution.

Madhu Suri Prakash, a contributing editor to YES! Magazine,interviewed Javier in July.

Madhu Suri Prakash: A few days after the death of your son, Juan Francisco, you wrote a poem for him, which you said would be your last poem. Everything you’re doing, however, is pure poetry. Because of your poetics of peace, women who were terrorized into silence by the loss of their children are now moved to speak out and share their anguish. Your poetics of peace are nourishing the courage we need to overcome the fear that keeps us silent and hidden.

Their dead—the pain of the nation—was rendered naked. Now we know that we are all part of the same pain.

Javier Sicilia: The dream of any poetic tradition is to be transformed into action. Jacques Maritain, a Catholic philosopher, said: "The poet making poetry mimics the Creator." In that sense, he gives back to the tribe its reality; its meanings.

When people begin drawing from their moral reserve, when people express truth and fairness—the qualities that make us human—we are mimicking God’s being. In such moments, we become poetry in action.

Our peaceful movement is that kind of poetry—it has brought out the best of our people.

Madhu Suri Prakash: What is amazing about this grassroots movement, I am told, is that people are organizing themselves without leaders. People who are moved by your peaceful response, your letters and interviews/speeches, they are not being lead by anyone. They are organizing themselves to come to plazas, to walk to Cuidad Juárez and to Mexico City. Do you think this is true?

Javier Sicilia: Yes. I believe that all we did was to name a truth that is evident and yet hidden behind interpretations and ideology.

Suddenly, with the death of my son, it could no longer be denied. People started pouring into the streets and plazas in response to this naming. Their dead—the pain of the nation—was rendered naked. Now we know that we are all part of the same pain. This recognition has brought us together to begin organizing to end this war being waged on us—to find peace.

Now, despite their fear, people are finding the courage and the solidarity to come out and show their faces. Our movement has no leader, only voices that speak out and organize.

There is poetic truth and poetic mystery in all this. The poets, as Mallarmé once said, are the voice of the tribe. Poets and prophets give back to their tribe meanings that get lost. That is what is happening here. When you give back the lost meanings to the tribe; when you name those meanings, the tribe emerges, the mobilization emerges, the moral reserve of the people surges. Once the pain is spoken and cannot be hidden, people begin organizing themselves; they begin moving.

Madhu Suri Prakash: Our conversation brings another poet to mind: John Berger. He wrote, years ago: "To name the intolerable is itself hope."

Another poet, Ivan Illich, declared during the last ten years of his life: “What I need to say now can only be said in poetry.” He also said: “Through argument you can only get conclusions; only stories make sense.”

Javier, people in the North know that they are implicated in the violence of Mexico’s drug wars. Some of them are now talking of decriminalizing drugs. What would you say in response to that suggestion?

in the name of abstractions, our politicians and war policy makers have committed the most atrocious crimes on human beings, who are not abstractions, who are bones and flesh. 

Javier Sicilia: I believe that something like that should have been done from the very beginning. The politicians are formulating the drug problem as an issue of national security, but it is an issue of public health. If from the very beginning drugs were decriminalized, drug lords would be subjected to the iron laws of the market. That would have controlled them. That would have allowed us to discover our drug addicts and offer them our love and our support. That would not have left us with 40,000 dead, 10,000 disappeared and 120,000 displaced…

The war is caused by puritan mentalities: like those of [Mexican President Felipe] Calderón and [former U.S. President George] Bush. In the name of abstractions—the abstraction of saving youth from drug addiction—they have brutally assassinated thousands of young people, while transforming others into delinquents.

Albert Camus spoke a terrible truth. “I know something worse than hate: abstract love.” In the name of abstract love, in the name of God and Country, in the name of saving the youth from the drug, in the name of the proletariat, in the name of abstractions, our politicians and war policy makers have committed the most atrocious crimes on human beings, who are not abstractions, who are bones and flesh. That is what our country is living and suffering today: in the name of an abstract goodness, we are suffering the opposite: the horror of war and violence, of innocents dead, disappeared, and mutilated.

Madhu Suri Prakash: Ivan Illich, Gustavo Esteva and others have distinguished between expectations and hope. Today Mexico is classified by the U.S. State Department as a “Failed State." It’s foolish, then, to have expectations, but you couldn’t be doing what you’re doing without hope. What gives you hope in this time of suffering? And what wild hope guides you to share so much with millions?

Javier Sicilia: On hope… well… I’d like to share a beautiful phrase of George Bernanos, a Catholic writer whom I love. He said that true hope is born when you have learned to despair of everything. To name the intolerable is to name the fact that we have now arrived at the depths of despair. We can go no deeper into our darkness. That is the moment in which true hope emerges.

Hope grown in the depths of our darkest despair is what is moving people in Mexico.

Hope grown in the depths of our darkest despair is what is moving people in Mexico.

Our answers in search of peace are to be found in the hearts of our people. In the profound moral reserve of our people. This is no longer an ideological path. It is the path of the heart. As the Zapatistas said: “We are making a world in which many worlds can be embraced.” Through the human heart, we can escape our differences of ideology, which prevent us from seeing our shared humanity.

Hope lives there. Our shared hope takes us beyond our differences into the shared realm of our humanity.


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