Last year I visited a friend of mine, journalist Raúl Silva, in a working-class neighborhood of Cuernavaca. A popular destination for tourists and students of Spanish, the city, about 60 miles south of the Mexican capital, was on edge. Only a few weeks before, a drug gang had audaciously displayed its power, issuing a curfew one Friday night, warning that anyone out after 8 p.m. might be “mistaken” as an enemy and killed. A terrified public huddled indoors, and although no serious violence occurred, the incident left a deep scar.
Raúl and I spoke for hours, and I realized too late that I faced a taxi ride on a dark two-lane road to return to my wife and children in a nearby town. I asked Raúl if he thought it was safe. “You should be OK,” he said, without much assurance in his voice.
It was a 30-minute ride with a gregarious cabbie who lectured me about (what else?) la guerra del narco, the drug war. “They” were all implicated, he told me, the cartel bosses and the mules, of course, but also the business elites, the governments, the addicts — on both sides of the border. In other words, there was no border.
There was a long stretch on that ride during which we passed not a single car. I asked the cabbie if he was worried. Not exactly; in Spanish, he invoked the classic fatalism: “When your time’s up, it’s up.” I made it back to my family without incident.
A year later the road is dark as ever. Nearly 300 bodies were discovered in April in narcofosas, mass graves of victims of the cartels. For Mexicans on both sides of the border, the Cinco de Mayo celebration, like last year’s centennial of the revolution and bicentennial of independence, has been overshadowed by the violence.
And yet an unlikely spark of hope has been lighted in recent weeks, and it began with the death of a poet’s child. Javier Sicilia, of Cuernavaca, a well-known author and regular columnist for Mexico’s leading political weekly Proceso, penned an anguished manifesto after his son, Juan Francisco, and several of Juan Francisco’s friends were killed in a narco-related crime (the victims had no known connection to the drug trade). Sicilia’s open letter is as lucid as it is piercing, a cry in the desert and righteous denunciation.
“What I want to tell you today about those mutilated lives,” wrote Sicilia of his son and by extension all victims of the drug violence, “about that suffering, about the indignation that these deaths has provoked, is simply that we have had enough.”
That italicized final phrase is an imperfect translation of the highly colloquial “estamos hasta la madre,” which invokes “mother,” as Mexicans often do in Spanish, in an elastic and metaphorical way. We are up to our “mother” in this suffering; we can take it no more; it has violated the most profound and sacred spaces of our spirit. The phrase becomes a mantra in Sicilia’s letter.
“Estamos hasta la madre,” he addressed the politicians, “with your struggle for power that has torn apart the fabric of the nation,” and likewise to the cartels, “with your violence, loss of honor, cruelty, your senselessness.”
Sicilia’s words galvanized the public and gave Mexicans a real-life, mad-as-hell “Network” moment. “Estamos hasta la madre” appeared on signs held up by grandmothers and children in protest marches nationwide, on countless Facebook pages, on the lips of people across all social strata. On Cinco de Mayo, Sicilia led several hundred protesters out of Cuernavaca on a march scheduled to arrive in Mexico City today, just one in a weekend of promised demonstrations.
Skeptics wonder exactly how a simple plea for peace and justice can stop the cycle of violence and impunity. But Sicilia is facing death and despair the only way he knows how, with the poetry of protest.
What is missing in all of this is us — I mean those of us on this side of the border who don’t live
in immigrant neighborhoods. (There, there is already great distress, the perennial longing for the homeland becomes tragically poignant. There is no homeland to return to; the risk in too many cases is too great.)
Among the broader American public there has been no “Network” moment, no eloquent call to action. The drug war is perceived as Mexico’s, not ours, never mind that the weapons doing the bloodletting are in great part supplied by the United States — and not just through private dealers. We are implicated in the violence through the Mérida Initiative, a U.S.-led program that provided $750 million in technical support in 2009 and 2010 for the Mexican military, which promotes itself as above the corruption of state and local police but which has had thousands of human rights complaints logged against it, according to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.
And of course Americans have a more personal connection with the “Mexican” drug war. There is no innocent recreational drug use. Most of the cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine consumed in the United States is produced in or transported through Mexico. Almost all the blood spilled in the war has been in Mexico, but perhaps our bloodshed is the devastation experienced by addicts, their families and their communities.
I am years clean, long finished with the cocaine that I was once addicted to, but I cannot claim that my hands are clean. I was part of a global market, played my role as a consumer, entered the vast constellation of relationships that pushes and pulls drugs, money and guns across the border — and takes its toll on both sides.
There must be a language of “we” in this war because we are all its victims and victimizers. Let us listen to Javier Sicilia: “Estamos hasta la madre.” Or we should be — all of us.
By Rubén Martínez, a professor at Loyola Marymount University who hosts a “performance salon” at the Echo in Echo Park, which on May 14 will feature artists and musicians addressing the issue of the drug war.