In September of last year, forty-three students in Mexico disappeared on their way to a protest. This evening, an audience just shy of that number fill, on their way to their seats, a room in the Mitchell Library lined with old books and bookcases, hung low with lamps, and, outside, touched by falling leaves. At the front of the room stands an altar for the Day of the Dead, a mixture of blossom and bone, of life and death – and it is the meeting of these two forces that we’ve come to explore, celebrate, and commemorate tonight.
Jean Rafferty, the evening’s host, is a writer and journalist committed to freedom of expression and campaigning for those who are victims of the governments that disregard it. Though Mexico presents an image of peace, plenty, and progress to the world’s media, four journalists have been killed in the country this year alone, and around seventy are thought to have been murdered since 1990. This disconnect between official statistics and the human truths behind them is something that is probed and examined repeatedly throughout the course of the evening by our panel of speakers, who share studies of persecuted journalists, excerpts from interviews, and their own personal experiences.
Ruby McCann began by sharing details of the life of Lydia Cacho, the famous Mexican feminist and journalist who has conducted studies into sex trafficking and the sex trade, uncovering shocking links between official institutions, criminal perpetrators, and unwilling victims. Lydia’s life was threatened constantly throughout her research in Cambodia and Guatemala, with Ruby sharing details of Lydia having to flee casinos, barricade herself in her hotel room, and even an incident in 2005 in which she was kidnapped and tortured by the police. Despite these frequent threats to her life, and despite being offered asylum in numerous other countries, Lydia has always chosen to remain in Mexico, despite the risk, because she ‘wants to stay to see the change’.
Nik Williams’ piece on Anabel Hernández, a journalist who investigated Mexico’s drug cartels and found similarly disturbing links between the state and the criminals it purports to oppose, resonated with related details of personal risk and organised violence. Nik began by deconstructing the term ‘war on drugs’, a phrase used frequently in reference to Mexico’s extensive culture of criminal narcotics, and the alleged efforts of the government to stop it. That it should be called a ‘war’ is misleading, he said, because a war implies clearly defined sides and, similar to the liminal space that exists between governmental statistics and real truth, the sides of Mexico’s drug culture are not clearly defined, but are rather fluid, interrelated, and impenetrable to all but the most sustained investigations. It was this kind of investigation that Hernández carried out for her book Narcoland, and which allowed her to uncover shocking evidence of the corrupt Mexican system that seeks not so much to destroy the drugs cartels, as it does control them. Certain cartels were found to have been given government protection, and a gallery of blind eyes previously turned was now uncovered. It was this kind of corruption that led to the disappearance of the forty-three students in 2014, Nik said, and such corruption can occur only ‘because nobody talks about it’.
The importance of the act of speaking out, then, this emphasis on the individual voice as an instrument of dissonance and liberation from the drone of the state is a tale that recurred time and again over the course of the evening. Robin Lloyd Jones shared details of Javier Sicillia, a famous Mexican poet who, after the murder of his son, gave up poetry for activism. Robin shared an excerpt of an interview in which Javier said: ‘I am a poet, and poets are better known for working with more obscure intuitions… but my chief intuition then was that we had to give name and form to this tragedy, we need something new… new institutions, a new state… we need to make visible the face of our national pain, and the drug war statistics were hiding those faces.’
Again we saw the subversive possibilities language offers those who seek to use it to alter fact and obscure truth. Works shared by Carla Novi and Jan Nimmo both investigated the disappearance of the forty-three students using primarily visual media – documentary film and portrait photography respectively – and both succeeded marvelously in combating the numbness of numbers, in showing powerfully the humanity behind the mystery. Particularly striking was the moment Jan handed out portraits of the forty-three students to the audience to hold in a photograph, an act of solidarity to let the families of the students know that they are not alone, that there are others who have heard their story, and who are listening.
And this is the duality of the possible power conferred by language: for every insidious institution using it to blur fact and drown out truth, there’s an inspiring individual brave enough to raise their voice against it. The final speaker of the night was Bernardo Otaola, a student from Mexico on a gap year who currently writes for a multidisciplinary football website, and who hopes to become a journalist in the future. ‘People often look at me like I’m insane when I tell them I want to be a journalist in Mexico,’ he told us with a smile. ‘It’s a job with a poor salary that does not seem to be worth the time it demands or the risks it poses. But journalists,’ he continued, ‘do not work for the money. They work for ideas. Journalism is important so that we can know the truth – and, by knowing the truth, we can be free.’
As the evening drew to a close, then, as well as a new awareness of the limitations of freedom of expression in Mexico, there came an understanding that, ultimately, while The Day of the Dead may be a celebration that commemorates the deceased and the past, it’s really an event that focuses on the living, the present, and the future. The uncertainty of fact, the liminality of language, and the unknown fate of the forty-three students who disappeared last year may all have been interstitial spaces we passed through over the course of the evening, but what emerged as a certainty was the humanity of the victims of oppression, and the bravery of those who choose tell their story – no matter the risk.