I Carry Death Inside of Me Now

The human cost of former Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s six year war on drugs was tremendous, with tens of thousands of people murdered or disappeared. When his son was murdered by naroctraffickers, the Mexican poet and writer Javier Sicilia launched a movement to end the war on any terms. In this interview, he suggests that whatever their individual roles in the struggle between the Mexican state and narcotraffickers, the dead and the disappeared were human beings and their passing must be mourned.

Cuernavaca at noon boils with heat and tourists. In a place far from the noisy central square sits the home of Javier Sicilia. A small apartment, austere and a bit disorderly, shared with his second wife. The walls, white and nearly bare, direct the eye toward a little altar with candles and a few photographs of a young man, Juanelo. The son of the poet, murdered by drug traffickers two years ago now.

Seated at a wooden table, smoking one Delicado cigarette after another, Sicilia remembers the before and after of that day that changed everything for him. He talks about his mother, who taught him about Gandhi, about his unsuccessful stint in a seminary, and about how without wanting to, he became the voice of the victims of Mexico’s war. He is a central player in what has happened over the past two years.

The voice of the victims wears an Indiana Jones hat and a vest. He acknowledges it was simply “the first thing he found in the closet” when he launched that first march from Cuernavaca to Mexico City, nine days after the death of his son Juanelo. With time his dress became a symbol. As with everything else about him. Like Harrison’ Ford’s character, famous for tracking the Holy Grail across the world or chasing crystal skulls, the poet has struggled unceasingly since that ‘horrific’ day, for the acknowledgement of the nearly uncountable thousands of victims of this country. Victims and families of the 60,000 dead left by this conflict launched six years ago by Felipe Calderon against organized crime.

The conversation in the poet’s house is interrupted three times by calls from the Attorney General of Morelos state, to whom he has complained the day before because the vehicle in which he rode with his two bodyguards was left high and dry on the freeway. “It’s not the narcotraffickers who are going to kill me,” he says. “It’s the Attorney General’s office.” “If this is how they take care of a citizen who they supposedly want to protect,” he says with a laugh, hanging up, “what hope does the damned citizenry at large have?” The government imposed protection on Sicilia two years ago, when he put himself at the head of the Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity, which led marches of unprecedented numbers in Mexico’s capital, crossing Mexico and the United States demanding justice. “When I agreed to have the guards, I asked them to show me their weapons. I asked what would happen if we got ambushed, and they said that carrying these weapons we would be cut to pieces.” The laugh he releases does not really erase the sorrow on his face. “I can still hear happiness,” he says, “but I’m not entirely here anymore. I am carrying a bit of death inside of me.”

Question: Last September you announced that you were taking a step back, that you would no longer be the visible face of the movement. Why?

Answer: The moment had come to make it more horizontal. I believe it had become too focused on my own persona. Also, I am not really someone for consensus; I tend to think of something and just do it, and this too tended to hurt the Movement. And also I was very tired. I needed to be with my daughter and with my grandson, with my own solitude, gather my broken certainties, try to push myself back into the world, recover my life.

Q.: Was it worth all of the weariness?

A.: Yes. Such deaths as these have to have a meaning. This weariness, which cannot compensate for the death of a child, can perhaps give meaning and significance to what would otherwise have been nothing but pain, death and neglect. I did not want to make a political movement, I am not a political leader but a man who listens to his heart.

Q.: Were there problems in the organization?

A.: [laughs]I didn’t want to build a movement, I am no organizer, I am not a political leader, I am a man who listens to his heart, and this is how I responded. There was a lot of opposition to dialogue (with politicians and the government.) The hard Left was very opposed. They said that if I am an anarchist, why would I wish to have a dialogue? But I had always envisioned the movement as a body made up of victims, with two legs: Movement and dialogue. Without dialogue, who will take charge of the victims? It is not our place, and we do not have the capacity; we cannot of course substitute for the state. I said: Whether you want it or not, we will have a dialogue.

Q.: You have been in the media’s spotlight for two years. Have you been able to live your pain?

A.: Meeting others, sharing pain is part of mourning. It was simply mourning on a large scale, across the whole country, the mourning of many victims all together. Afterwards I had the break in France (at the end of 2012) and that allowed me to be with myself, and with my daughter and grandson. This kind of mourning, the death of a child, never ends really. There will always be an immense pain there, some unnatural truth. The death of a child, particularly in the way that I lost my son, shakes all of our certainties, all of the paradigms that we construct during our lives.

Q.: Months before the elections, you said that [now-President] Enrique Pena Nieto was the worst of the candidates. Do you still think that way, or do you take it back now?

A.: I don’t really know, but he is what we have now. I did not vote myself, I called on people to cast blank ballots, but they chose this candidate. He is here now, and it is with him that we have to try to work, and carry the country forward. He hit the right note, sponsoring the Victims’ Law, he has accepted the responsibility of the state to the victims in a way that Felipe Calderon never did. That is progress. When I said that he was the worst of the candidates, it was because the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party to power was not the best thing that could happen for us. But let us give him a chance.

Q.: Do you think he has been sincere in your meetings?

A.: I think he is tremendously pragmatic, which is troubling. He is an insecure person, but he has one virtue: He knows how to listen, and has surrounded himself with intelligent people, people who can relieve his insecurity. Up to this point, he made the right gestures, but the country’s tragedy is very large. The pressure has to be kept up, so that what he has promised is delivered, and so that the state’s war strategy is shifted radically to a march toward peace.

Q.: Are you still bitter at the former president, Calderon?

A.: No, I feel a certain amount of compassion for him. A man can refuse to take up his responsibilities, but a certain part of him, in his conscience, especially for someone like Calderon with a Catholic upbringing, would not be at peace. I told him in a meeting that the responsibility for the 40,000 dead and the murder of my son was his. I hope that he has the capacity to take up that burden with humility, and to cleanse his soul. It is something he will have to confront, something which I would not wish on anyone.

Q.: How do you look back on yourself, five years ago?

A.: I was writing poetry, planning on writing a novel about [theologian]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, some kind of profound drama. And I was trying to grow things in pots in this little apartment, trying to make it more homey. I lived here with my second wife, and my son lived with my mother. My ex-wife lived with my daughter and my grandson. All of us in Cuernavaca. We were trying to get by with this somewhat fractured life. Then it all happened. I left the writing, and these two years of activism followed; trying to bring the victims into focus, to work at sewing the country’s wounds up.

Q.: Tell me about the moment that you heard Juanelo was dead.

A.: I was in the Philippines, working on a project for restoring the cultural ties between Mexico and the Philippines. We were about to return. And that day, that morning, the call came, this horror that they had murdered Juanelo. The most terrible moment of my life, the one that changed everything.

Q.: Did you know from the beginning that you would react as you did?

A.: In the Philippines, the only thing I wanted was to get back to Mexico before they buried my son. When I got to Mexico, I was already very animated. The press was immediately harassing me; I told the journalists to clear out, promising them a press conference the next day. I am a man who confronts adversity as radically as I can, and I was very angry. I went to the press conference carrying all of my anger, and all of my love for my son. That was how I reacted. I am not a man to just accept an injury, much less an injury of this scale.

Q.: Did you plan the Movement for Peace or was it something that just emerged?

A.: I was always quite reluctant about the idea of a movement; it was put together by others. When the march from Cuernavaca to Mexico City started off, we didn’t really know what was going to happen. I thought: if I get there all alone, well, I will get there alone and see what to do then. We couldn’t have imagined what would happen after I pronounced my “We have had it up to here.” Juanelo’s death created some kind of civic miracle.

Q.: What was your relationship like with him?

A.: It was very close. He was not an intellectual, more of a jock who played football [soccer]very well. Half of his studies were paid for with a sports scholarship. That brought us together; football has always been one of my obsessions. He was a dignified boy, very sensitive. He had a strong sense of humor, and a capacity for reflection, despite his dyslexia and difficulties focusing. But his reflections would surprise me sometimes. He told me once: “Look dad, I don’t read, but I do know how to hear.”

Q.: You dedicated your final poem to him. You have never, even just for yourself, written another verse?

A.: I wrote a little poem in a cafe during the caravan to Washington once. I don’t remember where this was; something came to me about my son, I wrote it and put it aside. Really I realized that words no longer come to me. It is a difficult thing for a poet, the more so for a Catholic poet. For me, the word is life, and I cannot write, in the face of this absence, the living word that they tore out of me. Poetry is not a profession, just a gift or a curse. Literature is awful if one takes it seriously. You think and feel as a poet, and even if I am no longer doing the true work of a poet, which is writing verse, I am still doing poetry. My speeches are filled with this way of seeing.

Q.: Does death frighten you?

A.: There is a line by Miguel Hernandez: “If they kill me, fine. If they do not kill me, better.” This unknown thing never leaves us: what is death like? I had my certainties, but I do not know anymore. The erasure of a son, the severing of contact with him, it leaves you in a kind of darkness in the face of the sacred.

Q.: Only a victim can really understand another victim?

A.: I am convinced of this. A victim is someone who has returned from death, to a world he no longer entirely belongs to. Being in this world I can understand joy, but I am not entirely here. I am carrying a bit of death inside of me. This is difficult to share with others, but nor am I sure that others are prepared to hear the scale of what I am carrying.

Q.: Have you ever felt attacked for being too much the protagonist of all this?

A.: Definitely. When you make yourself visible, there is always a certain amount of comment, of suspicions. In this corrupt country, no one can understand that anyone would do something for free, out of love.

Q.: You compare the Movement for Peace with Zapatismo. How are they similar?

A.: They are the two great moral movements which have emerged from this country in recent years. They are movements caught up with poetry, and with ethical cores. They are both centered on the human being; they both make the human being the focus of the state’s moral responsibility.

Q.: What can the state really do for a mother who has lost her five children?

A.: There is not much that it can do, except try find them. It can find them, dead or alive, and give the mother the chance to either see them alive or live with her mourning. But while they are disappeared, neither alive nor dead, it is a crime for the state to leave a mother without knowing. A father doesn’t care whether they have arrested twenty suspects; he wants to know where his child is. Give us one or the other, alive or dead, but give some kind of hope to these people. A state that is unable to find 30,000 of its citizens is a state unworthy of being called a state.

Q.: What are your hopes for the future?

A.: I just hope that peace returns. It will be a long process, because first we must find the 30,000 disappeared. And then we have to find our way to the road to peace and I can see that there will be a very large obstacle to the reconciliation process. Whether we like it or not, these boys being corrupted by organized crime were not criminals; the state has a certain responsibility for abandoning them; it is the state that put them in this situation. We are going to have to forgive them and that process is going to be very painful. This has been a moral corruption which comes out of economic misery.

Q.: Do you ever get up in the morning wondering why you got involved in this?

A.: Every morning, I get up wondering why I even wake up in the morning…but I suppose someone had to do it, out of respect for these lives which should not have been ended.

Q.: You could never have done this without being a victim?

A.: I do not believe so. That is why I say that behind this immense pain which should never have been, there is a kind of civic miracle. I believe that this country has no debt to me; it has a very large debt to this boy who died and who gave a name to all of these others. I don’t think I could have played this role otherwise, unfortunately. I do not say this happily; I say it with profound disgust.

Ines Santaeulalia Fernandez