|English | Español||August 15, 2018 | Issue #67|
Pilgrimage to the Sources of Javier Sicilia, the Poet Who Is Shaking Mexico
The Philosophical, Literary and Political Roots of the Man Who Has Converted Many Struggles into One: to End the Violent War on Drugs
By Marta Molina
Javier Sicilia addresses the School of Authentic Journalism on May 20 in Mexico City. DR 2011 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.
Conversing with them we discover that Javier was born in Mexico City in 1956 and unexpectedly we learn that his last name, “Sicilia,” isn’t precisely of Italian origin but, rather, Spanish. His father, Oscar Sicilia, came from the Canary Islands and it seems he is a descendant of Spain’s Asturia region.
According to Jean Robert, Javier is a man who has always “pulled the devil by the tail,” a Mexican expression that means he has always lived hand to mouth. When his two children were young he had to work month in, month out to pay the bills. “He did receive some grants that gave him some freedom of movement but this was a man who lived day to day.” This reality has nothing to do with what the Washington Post reported on May 8, describing Javier as “well to do.” “When I met him he worked as a copy editor in the Mexican Institute of Water Technology,” Jean Robert tells us. Imagine, a poet and writer in a public bureaucracy working as a corrector of texts. Had he been rich, maybe he would have dedicated himself entirely to poetry, or maybe he would never have been a poet.
In 1994, Javier founded the magazine Ixtus where, until 2007, he published his critique of modern society based on the Christian Gospels and the spirituality of personalities like Gandhi, Ivan Illich and Guiseppe Lanza del Vasto, the “apostle of nonviolence,” thinkers who influenced Javier and the way he addressed his struggles.
There are currently four Ark communities in France. Javier had visited one of them together with his Flamenco Belgian friend Georges Voet. Javier was left with a nostalgia from having lived in a community that is not a monastery but which did have a strong spiritual and meditative element. That experience led him, in his thirties, to found, together with a group of young people, an Ark on a plot of land in the south of the state of Morelos, in Mexico.
Jean Robert attended the final meetings of those who tried to found the Ark community, but by then they were well into their adult years, with university degrees, spouses, some already with children… and it had become difficult to continue the project. Javier, he says, told him that it didn’t work, that “all our attempts to cultivate fruits and tomatoes failed.”
The project dissolved. It was then that Jean Robert began to collaborate in Javier’s Ixtus magazine, writing about Ivan Illich and Javier became interested in Illich and his philosophies. “One day I brought Javier to Ivan’s house and they got along very well. They began an immediate and profound friendship and saw each other until Illich’s dying day.” Javier was the first to translate Illich’s texts into Spanish and edited a compilation titled Reunited Works, in Spanish, with Valentina Borremans, executor of Illich’s literary estate.
One of the issues of Ixtus was titled “The Poetics of Action,” a very Gandhian title. Jean Robert tells us that Javier was inspired by a disciple of Lanza del Vasto named Pierre Soury, who believed that there was a primitive language that had to be recuperated. “From there, we go to the etymology of the word, poetry (poiesis, poieo), which means ‘I do,’” he says.
Poetry is action, and in Javier it has become a nonviolent action created by words. Sicilia said that he would not write any more poetry after the brutal assassination of his son. But he is writing poetry although without a pen; he is doing, he is taking action.
The German poet Friedrich Hölderlin said that “man inhabits poetically,” and, as such, to inhabit a place is to be a poet. But that is not sufficient. One has to find the way to inhabit that place. Javier has done that. He has achieved a realization of poetry converted into action. And as the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem said, poetry seldom occurs in poems, it only occurs when words stimulate action.
How can society be humanized? According to Lanza del Vasto, it begins with each one of us. Perhaps another reason that Javier has succeeded at mobilizing so many people is because many of them observe he has done that job.. Like Gandhi, he sees life as something that surges from a unity of being, in which there is no division between spirituality and practical activity and because he has tried to live that way. Gandhi spoke of a spiritual principle for that effort. It had a practical value: Ahimsa, or life force. That if someone cannot express an absolute knowledge of the truth (satyagraha, Gandhi called it), no one could use violence to obligate others to act against their sincere and distinct understanding of truth.
Ahimsa has deep roots in Buddhism and Hinduism, but in Javier Sicilia’s words during a May 19 press conference, we find a deep expression of the same concept when he said that the first march, from Cuernavaca to Mexico City, May 5 to 8, was, according to Christian philosophy, “an expression of the Kingdom.” Also there is Ahimsa, the life force, together with what Gandhi called Satyagraha, or truth, the two principles necessary for the New Pact and the Resurrection of Mexico.
Javier is an intellectual formed by Catholicism and has long been committed to social causes. His father, a textile manufacturer, was also a poet but in solitude. Perhaps that’s where Javier got his vocation. Although according to Jose Gil Olmos, journalist of the weekly Proceso magazine, Javier once wanted to be a Jesuit priest, but opted for poetry instead, “because he couldn’t commit to the vow of Papal obedience.” His spiritualism merged with social struggle when he joined with Sergio Méndez Arceo, known as “the Red Bishop” of Cuernavaca, pioneer of Liberation Theology, and “one of the first to bring that kind of politics into the Church,” remembers Rubén Flores, an old friend of the late Bishop. In the 1980s, Méndez Arceo began to form the Ecclesiastic Base Communities (CEB, in the Spanish initials) that tried to foster the democratic and social transformation of Mexico and Latin America.
In 1994, when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, in its Spanish initials) appeared, Javier supported its proposal to transform the country through a national dialogue, and he traveled to Chiapas to defend the San Andrés Accords for the rights of indigenous peoples.
This was surely one of the reasons that the Zapatistas and the organizers of movements and actions with which they have been identified trusted Sicilia and his demand for justice enough to unite immediately with it.
In 2001, he joined the ecological and cultural movement to defend the Casino de la Selva, a building in the Morelos capital of Cuernavaca whose murals and archeological ruins would be damaged by a supermarket and mall. And it is that Javier surely believed in what Albert Camus wrote, that in the labor of the writer, or in his case, the poet, there is always a commitment.
For more than thirty years, Sicilia has written poetry, essays and articles that analyzed the situation in the country, the injustices committed by those who governed it, and has always defended the struggles of citizens and grassroots communities. He continues doing so in the present day, as a columnist for the weekly Proceso, where he began signing his columns with a closing comment borrowed from the speeches of Cato in ancient Rome when he ended his remarks saying, “And, additionally, I opine that Carthage must be destroyed.” Javier used that literary technique to bring attention to the old and new social demands as they arose.
Which of these demands were met? Surely, as alluded to in these lines, the Zapatistas marched on May 7 in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, in solidarity with Sicilia’s call to Stop the War, but their original demand has not been resolved: The peace agreement of San Andrés Larráinzar, that should have been the basis for a Constitutional reform of indigenous rights, to which then-President Vicente Fox had promised at first, but which continues to languish. The struggle to save the Casino de la Selva was another failure, without diminishing the importance of the struggle even though it didn’t arrive at its goal. The shopping mall and supermarket have now been there for a decade. The assassinations of Juárez remain unsolved. Some of the political prisoners of Atenco and the APPO have been liberated and many members of those movements were in the recent marches to stop the war that were held nationwide at Javier’s call on May 8.
Like many Mexicans who struggle, Javier lived recent years in a life with too many social demands on many fronts of national politics, perhaps too disperse to become one demand and gain coherence and traction. In the end, the demands formed an extensive list of petitions that seemed impossible to achieve, but which formed part of Javier’s profile as a social fighter, or community organizer: a shopping list of demands, that upon the assassination of his son, all rolled into one sole demand: “We have had it up to here! No more bloodshed. End the violence. Stop the War!”
The assassination of his son was a turning point in Javier’s life, a before and after that suddenly changed a shopping list of demands into a unifying exigency. It is worth repeating: All the many unsolved demands by Mexican society have now found a single blanket to cover them.
Javier almost never travels. But on a day not unlike today, two months ago, he awoke in Manila, Philippines, to the worst of news: His son, Juan Francisco, whom he called Juanelo, had been brutally assassinated with six of his friends and neighbors. This happened on March 27, but disgracefully, stories like this have been repeated thousands of times in Mexico during the past five years, bringing pain and indignation to many Mexican families while the war on drugs has been escalated.
In 2006, when Felipe Calderón gained the presidency of Mexico illegally, millions of Mexicans demonstrated against a government they did not elect. What followed was his first and almost only policy: to use the weapon of fear against his nation’s own citizens, sending the Army out into the streets supposedly to protect them. Thus began the latest phase of the “War on Drugs,” which has since created at least 6,000 orphans and 40,000 deaths; Juanelo, one of them.
This was the turning point in Javier’s struggle. The death of his son became the motor that drove the forces trying to change Mexico to unite. In Jean Robert’s analysis, there is a Christian parallel: One man’s search for the resurrection of Mexico through the blood of his son.
Jean Robert speaks to us of Javier, today. “I believe that Javier discovered, by surprise, that he is a political animal, in the positive sense of the word.” Even the journalist of opposite political tendencies, Enrique Krauze, wrote in his syndicated column on May 15, “Gandhi could not have better written or done what Javier Sicilia has accomplished.” Krauze asked Javier to make the movement grow. He wrote, “Sicilia, a great admirer of Gandhi, has the inspiration to make this movement last.”
Javier demonstrates political astuteness. He spent years in journalism and politics, yet without offending anyone. Sylvia Marcos observes that he listens while he speaks, that he can be criticized from the right and from the left, without becoming angry. It is part of his personality, and what gives him this role of leader and the political power that he has at this moment. His friends insist that there is a “Javier from before” and a “Javier of the last two months.” When they see him in private, without the microphones and the press that hound him, he returns to the Javier of before, that which does not exist in public, and he says, “Oh my, all this has fallen atop of me… What shall I do?” But when he is acting in public, he drinks it in, he reveals, he transforms, and this gives him strength. He is a man who historic necessity put in a new place to act using his talents. This has to last.
Sylvia insists that Javier already had his political talent. “We have always known his skill with people. He has always been very diplomatic, and a great communicator. And now he is a national personality, but this was not a flower that bloomed in just one day.”
It should not go unmentioned that among his close friends he counts with an admirable partner: Isolda. She is an architect and a poet who also lost a daughter. The both of them have lost children. “She is co-author,” says Jean, “of the transformation of Javier.”
Javier Sicilia, poet whose son was assassinated, poet who stopped writing poetry because they strangled his word the same way in which they suffocated his lungs. He has stopped writing poetry because the world is not worthy of the word, and the same pain is in the heart and the daily life of the Mexican people.
Javier has decided to turn his grief into action and put all his indignation and pain at the service of the demand for change. The people follow him, they share his struggle because it is that of all the people who “have had it up to here” of living under the yoke of violence and war.
His way of speaking, of being, of looking, of listening attentively, reveals his spirit in every word he pronounces, and in those words, his concern for everyone else. Although we know this world is formed by the indignant and the undignified, and that this is a defiled world, people like Javier give us hope. It won’t easily be born, but another world can be born of this, and his words give wings to that hope and makes us think anew, as Eduardo Galeano said this month from Plaza Catalunya of Barcelona (one of the epicenters of the incipient revolution of the indignant ones of Spain against the structural violence of the system, where people demand Authentic Democracy Already, “this world of shit is pregnant with another one that we believe in, and therefore it can be born.” And if Javier has this strength, why not the rest of humanity?
He has a big responsibility, and he knows it. And he also knows that he is not alone. And this also gives him strength. When he comes home each day he can hug his partner Isolda and ask once again why he has become one of the motors that motivate this mobilization. But now he is at the front of a national movement that on May 8 brought marches in 38 cities all at once. Javier has felt the horror, lived the pain. But he is a poet and a father with a mission to complete.
“The pain caused by the sinking of this nation is so great that it surpasses any ideology. We unite ourselves in what makes us human. We come together in the search of a soil where political problems can be talked about and benefit the nation. This is a war against the Mexican people, and that is why we are all united.”
That was Javier’s response to the journalist Greg Berger on May 5 in Cuernavaca, before the march to Mexico City, when he was asked why so many people of different ideologies, backgrounds, cultures and economic classes were in the march.
We can see Javier as key piece of a puzzle that tries to reconstruct Mexico’s social fabric. His words are inclusive and he has achieved an unexpected cohesion among peoples: from the EZLN to businessmen to the middle class, a cohesion to end the war on drugs. The left identifies with him. He is a journalist and the profession identifies with him. He is a poet and all kinds of artists also identify with him. He is a Catholic and the Catholics have shown their solidarity with him. His son was of the middle class and it seems the entire middle class, with or without children, has come out into the streets.
During the May 19 press conference, Javier reiterated that “This was unexpected for me, but I deeply appreciate it. We have been able to hug each other and accompany each other naming our pain. And we have been able to begin to demand that the State be reconstituted in the name of society.”
Javier did not expect this. He did not expect the uniting of classes, but he offers appreciation for it daily. “We cannot lose sight of the moral of the story nor of the victims. We cannot lose sight of the heart. Ideological and political speeches impose themselves over human dignity.” Thus, he asks that the government stop its “statistic-itis” and give names and faces to the victims of this war. One of the first actions of this movement was to hang plaques with the names of the dead in the central squares of the citiies and and towns “to rescue the spirit of every one of the victims of this Rotted State. These victims have names. They are not statistics.”
According to Javier, ideology does not matter, the differences between people do not matter. “What unites us is the heart to return the dream to this nation. At the heart of it, everything depends on whether we keep loving the poetic word, listening to the heart, to the deep human within, listening to what life is, and forget about the ideological differences or that political differences or those between the political parties. The human being and the human heart have to be the reference point, no matter where it comes from.”
We learn from Javier that we cannot wait for the government to bring us this transformation. We cannot wait for the government’s magic wand solves the problems. In his words, “The transformation comes from society. This is what this movement means, like countless others that are occurring around the world.” After Tunisia came Egypt, now Europe – where many of the protagonist of the revolution have savings accounts, but are tired of living under an obsolete State. We are indignant. And only creativity, constant love and poetry will get us out of this spiral of violence that attacks the world in all its ways and means.
From the outside looking in, it could be that some see a weakness in how the movement brings together so many people from different origins and tendencies. It might be seen as diffuse, or too much “a little bit of everything.” Nobody said it would be easy to break the barriers between classes or political tendencies. It will cost a lot. But this is something that accompanies all struggles. Maybe it is the fruit of generalized disillusion that is born from exclusionary struggles that define themselves by what they exclude.
But, to repeat, the violence doesn’t understand economic class. Even though we know that the movement that Javier Sicilia has inspired would have been unthinkable had it come from the death of a construction worker and son of peasant farmers. Yet Javier has been a teacher to many people. He inspired students and poets and has infinite networks at so many levels of the Mexican fabric that they stand with him, they enter into solidarity with him.
This is an unexpected union, but it follows what came before it. Al Giordano, journalist of Narco News, saw in the march of May 5 to 8 a big part of what was hoped for in the Other Campaign of 2006. Without a doubt, the EZLN is behind this model but “no one has been able to bring together this wide spectrum of society. This is the only inclusive struggle that I have covered in 14 years in Mexico.”
The Spanish poet Gabriel Celaya said that poetry is a weapon loaded from the future: “We sing like he who breathes. We speak of what we do each day. Nothing human can remain outside of our work. In the poem there must be clay, with apologies to the famous poets.” And it is that Javier has taught us something: that poetry is not an end in itself. Poetry is an instrument, among others, to respect human dignity and transform the world.
Javier became a mutilated poet, and wrote that he would not write more poetry after the terrible murder of his son until he sees “the resurrection of Mexico.” But he is making poetry nonetheless, without pen nor paper, but he is doing it. And maybe the poet in this case is his son, Juanelo, dictating the verses to his father that they can be made into action to cause the change that he never got to live or see.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism