For our first November event, Scottish PEN in partnership with the SWC observed the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos as part of their ‘To Absent Friends’ series. Hosted by PEN’s very own Jean Rafferty, local writers including Robin Lloyd Jones, L. A. Traynor, A. C. Clarke, and the host herself came together to honour and celebrate the bravery of writers and journalists, both living and dead, who challenge the status quo of brutality and corruption in the modern Mexican political and judicial systems. During the evening, each speaker read from Sorrows of Mexico, a new collection of essays written by eminent Mexican journalists – including Diego Enrique Osorno, Juan Villoro, Anabel Hernández, and Marcela Turati – to reflect on the instability between justice and oppression that exists in the country.
With the candy skull decorations and carnivalesque, fiesta atmosphere, the ‘Empty Chair’ that sits squarely before the speakers and writers – a mainstay motif of PEN International’s campaigns against oppression – acts as a jarringly poignant reminder of the absence and separation of imprisoned or exiled writers from their colleagues. The symbol of the ‘Empty Chair’ is emblematic of Scottish PEN’s platform: to champion freedom of expression in lands of oppression and challenge all efforts to silence writers through their campaigns and programmes.
For journalists in Mexico, the atrocious treatment they receive at the hands of the systems design to protect them means that campaigns such as those held by the branches of PEN International are crucial. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there has been 89 journalists and media workers killed in the country since 1992, with 12 of those occurring this year alone; the most recent being on September 15. It is those journalists whose beats cover crime corruption that are targeted most, with 76% of victims investigating law-breaking and 30% reporting on local and state government inside dealings. Furthermore, although the country introduced legislature in 2013 to enable federal authorities to prosecute crimes against journalists, 90% in the last 14 years have gone unpunished. It is this ‘censorship by bullet’ that Scottish PEN challenges.
On the evening, the rousing readings from Sorrows of Mexico given by the troupe of speakers extended a message of solidarity with Mexican journalists who write in these dangerous conditions. Robin Lloyd Jones narrated ‘Collateral Damage -Living in Mexico’ by Juan Villoro, while L. A. Traynor recited ‘In the Dungeons of the Mexican Government’ by Anabel Hernández – an essay on the wrongful arrests of several police officers accused of facilitating the abduction of 43 students in Iguala, 2014. A. C. Clarke delivered Marcela Turati’s ‘War Made Me a Feminist’ and PEN’s Jean Rafferty discussed Diego Enrique Osorno’s ‘The New Manifesto of Infrarealist Journalism’, with the powerful line ‘It’s not that there is barbarity in our democracy:/ Barbarity is our democracy’ resonating throughout the room. This part the event was followed by a lively open mic night with participants including Juliette Lee, Finola Scott, Brenda Carson, Rona Fitzgerald and Sheila Templeton bringing the evening back into a festive mood, showing that like Mexico’s bloody tragedy, there will always be its carnival.
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Sorrows of Mexico is available to buy here.
Words by Abigayle Brown.
Top image by Jennifer Janviere (‘Ofrenda detail…’, Walker’s Point [Milwaukee]. October 2010); Centre image courtesy of Lesley Traynor.
 ‘Journalists Killed in Mexico’, Committee to Protect Journalists [https://cpj.org/killed/americas/mexico/]
 ‘Getting Away With Murder’, Committee to Protect Journalists [https://cpj.org/reports/2015/10/impunity-index-getting-away-with-murder.php]
 ‘’Journalists are being slaughtered’ – Mexico’s problem with press freedom’, Nina Lakhani in The Guardian [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/04/journalists-mexico-press-freedom-photographer-ruben-espinosa-murder]