Articles

Mexican Poets Give Voice to the Country’s Disappeared Students

A mural in the nearby town of Tixtla shows the State of Guerrero riddled with bullet holes, and says "They can murder the people, but never their ideas."
A mural in the nearby town of Tixtla shows the state of Guerrero riddled with bullet holes, and says, “They can murder the people, but never their ideas.” (photo by Livia Radwanski)

MEXICO CITY — On September 26, 2014, more than 100 students, often referred to as normalistas, of the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa in the rural hills of Guerrero, attempted to travel to the city of Iguala. To this day, the facts of the case are still debated. The only certainty is that three students and three civilians were dead by the morning, and 43 students were never seen again.

The official version of events by the Mexican government is that in and around Iguala the students were attacked by municipal police with connections to a local cartel, which resulted in the six confirmed deaths. During the assault, police abducted 43 students and turned them over to the cartel. The 43 normalistas were systematically shot then thrown into a large fire that allegedly burned for fifteen hours. Then the gunmen gathered the incinerated remains in garbage bags and threw them into the nearby San Juan River.

However, even this horrible tale told by the government has been widely criticized by human rights organizations and many major news outlets have published and revealed massive flaws with the official version. Now, just over nine months later, many still believe that state and federal police, as well the army, were directly involved in the attack, disappearances, and ensuing cover-up.

The serene surroundings of the Guerrero countryside where the students once had classes
The serene surroundings of the Guerrero countryside where the students once had classes (photo by Livia Radwanski)

Massive protests took place throughout the country. This incident and phrases like “Ya Canse” (“I’m Tired,” or possibly more effectively translated as “I’ve had enough”) and “Fue el Estado” (“It was the State”), along with the number 43, have become new rallying cries representative of the disappeared in Mexico. In a country notorious for unreliable statistics, it’s estimated between 20–30,000 people have disappeared in Mexico in the last six years; however, the number could be much higher.

Mexico City Lit, a bilingual review and publishing house based in the nation’s capital, released a free digital poetry anthology titled Poets for Ayotzinapa in early June as a response to the unrest within the country.

“When the normalistas disappeared they left a huge void. In the months that followed, people took to the streets all over Mexico and poets started getting together to read and write about the disappeared,” María Cristina Fernández Hall, an editor at Mexico City Lit told Hyperallergic. “We noticed this and thought their work needed to be translated. The anthology was just a way to put all their work in one space, in English and in Spanish.”

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Cover of ‘Poets for Ayotzinapa’ (photo courtesy Mexico City Lit)

The poems in the anthology illustrates the range of emotions encompassing the Mexican psyche after the tragic events of September 26 — from anger and shock, to hope and hopelessness.

Horacio Lozano Warpola is a Mexican poet and schoolteacher and the killing of 43 students hit him particularly close to home.

“The young victims were teachers, they were learning to transmit knowledge. Eliminating them is eliminating all possibilities of education. And that’s a dirty blow to the future of Mexico,” Warpola told Hyperallergic.

“I wrote those poems in a moment of anger, they were spat out, and I was sad to finish writing them because sometimes I feel like they don’t generate a real change. However, it’s part of my nature, and for now it’s my way of fighting,” he said.

“It seems that our most powerful weapon is the language, and there is a dire need to use it. It’s essential to write about what happens, to leave a record, in any way, through any medium,” continued Horacio. “We must act, take to the streets, write poems, whatever, but do something.”

The holes that have been punched in the government’s version of events have only made the public more skeptical. For example, the location of where the students were supposed to have been burned has been mathematically deemed far too small to complete such a thorough incineration in the time that was claimed; and the theory that the only place capable of burning that many bodies so quickly would have been the large incinerators in the army base in Iguala, which have never been investigated by the government.

“Rumors spread almost immediately, and the investigations into these rumors only intensified initial suspicions: ‘Fue el Estado,’ people started to say,” explained Cristina Arreola Márquez, a poet and managing editor of the bimonthly literary magazine, Monolito.

“It’s important to remember that those who now govern us and those who are behind them, are not the same as the Mexican population,” Márquez told Hyperallergic, referencing the widespread protests that occurred after the 2012 national election that was alleged to have been stolen by current Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto.

“The poem that is included in the anthology Poets for Ayotzinapa, I believe, is about manifesting a closeness with pain, to be intimate with the ‘other,’ and to become part of their remains, to try to speak from their absence, from the possible murmur that’s still in the wind and that will never be erased, and that feeling of mist that comes after a catastrophe, an earthquake,” she said, regarding her poem that imagines itself from the perspective of one of the country’s disappeared.

For many Mexicans, including poet Carmen Zenil, the disappearance of the 43 normalistas brought back painful memories of past atrocities committed by the Mexican government, like the 1968 massacre of an unknown amount of protesting students in Tlatelolco, and the government’s ‘Dirty War’ which left thousands of political dissidents, students, and activists dead or disappeared in the 1960s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s. According to Zenil:

In 1968 (the Government of Mexico) killed students in Tlatelolco, and throughout the ‘70s they continued the genocide because there never was justice for that act. That wound has continued throughout the history of Mexico. It’s outrageous that today these killings happened again with the same characteristic abuses of power, impunity, and cynicism.

Armed and masked community members protect the remaining students of the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers' College of Ayotzinapa
Armed and masked community members protect the remaining students of the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa (photo by Livia Radwanski)

“43 normalistas from Ayotzinapa sought to defend their constitutional right to education, and to not even know what exactly happened to them after being arrested creates an atrocious uncertainty. What kind of people are in power that can commit these violations of the law without penalty?” Zenil asked.

If there is no justice in our present, writing is exercising an act of justice, for the future that will be the present for other generations. That’s the vital importance of writing poetry for the case of the 43 normalistas, among others.

These voices and commentary — on what will no doubt be remembered historically as a crucial moment in Mexican history — make the work of Mexico City Lit all the more important as one of the few outlets translating modern Mexican poetry. Without this anthology, those of us in the English speaking world would not have the opportunity to read this critical documentation of Mexican feeling.

“Mexico City Lit arose out of a desire to use writing and translation in particular as a tool to promote cultural openness and exchange,” said Mexico City Lit editor, Fernández Hall, explaining the origins of the publishing house.

Translating is a way of redressing imbalances of representation. Most of the time, English literature is translated into other languages, rather than the other way around. We’ve all heard of the 3 percent statistic, where Bowker claims that only 3 percent of books published in the U.S are translations.

At the end of the day, though, English is the lingua franca and does constitute the best way to get your message across to the world. At the same time, translating makes English less of a hegemonic world power and more of a vessel. English should be influenced — and often. But more plainly, we translate to give English speakers access to the literature emerging in Mexico today.

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The poets featured in this article have allowed Hyperallergic to publish their contributions to Poets for Ayotzinapa below.

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43 chairs with the faces of the disappeared students taped to them are piled in remembrance inside of a classroom (photo by Livia Radwanski)

Three Poems

By Horacio Lozano Warpola

I

Where I’m from it’s normal to vanish.
One day, as you make your way to school or work,
somebody decides your freedom’s worth a damn.
After this, it’s normal never to be seen again.
Shooting-star type of thing.
So where do the disappeared go?
The same place as shooting stars?
Where I come from it’s normal
to hope you’ll see those stars again.

II

Where I’m from bodies turn up in secret graves.
The rains drag their smell over hillsides.
Their neighbours know this smell well
And so they go put some tortillas on a pan
And heat these to ash patties
Until one smell cancels another
For a little while.
Although of course the first smell
soon creeps back again.

III

If I were a riot policeman I’d name every one of the little
shits I hit for work
If I were a riot policeman I’d go live in the forest and swap
my nightstick for a flannel shirt
If I were a riot policeman I’d cultivate a yen for peaceful
marching
If I were a riot policeman I’d sell my badge and hat, buy a
few chickens on a spit, polish my C.V.
If I were a riot policeman I’d take up ballet to learn that my
body is mine and mine alone and not like anybody else’s
If I were a riot policeman I’d conduct torrid affairs with anarchist
girls
If I were a riot policeman I’d write smoke poems with tear
gas
If I were a riot policeman I’d hit the nearest beach, feel the
sand between my toes, feel proud to wear Speedos
If I were a riot policeman I’d pinch myself to make sure I’m
not dreaming
If I were a riot policeman I’d use all my gear to re-enact Star
Wars
If I were a riot policeman I’d be covered in bruises shaped
like desert islands
If I were a riot policeman I’d cry every night after work
If I were a riot policeman the thoom of Molotovs would
shake my inner child up out of his nightmares

Translated by Tim MacGabhann

 

Memoirs of a lost voice

By Cristina Arreola Marquez

i’m searching
inside this affronted body
there must remain a voice
i’m searching
for the cry that cannot rise
from this indelible stain
Impossible to know how many years this fugue has been
playing. All I remember is being handed this trampled nationality
at birth. I lay there naked as the disintegrated cobwebs
of a rusted nation rained down about me.
there is a muffled cry
insistent
that buries itself in my ribs
it comes up from the earth
these ashes
it’s drying out my mouth
a bitter wail
They say we are hundreds; they say we are so many that
we’ve become indistinguishable for our putridity. They say
that now they are weighing us en masse, they say I died a
month ago. They say the day I disappeared, my mother’s
eyes gave up and sank, as though getting a head-start on
the inevitable. They say I was washed away with the rain,
that for weeks people saw my photo stuck up on a lamppost.
They say it was the same rain that erased my face.
They say I lost my face before I died, they say I am unrecognizable.
They’re saying now it was in this street that they
killed me, but perhaps it was just where I left my last footprint.
They say that torture leaves a mark; I believe it did
cause my mother’s eyes to sink, my mother who since the
kidnapping hasn’t been able to stifle her tears, her cries,
her drowning.
/how many more?/
/why are they burying us?/
when they found the first of us
they gave him my name
but I’m still here
nobody could find me
i listen to footsteps
and hear voices
nobody can hear me
how absurd my pleas
/i’m down here!/
when they found the second one
everybody panicked
i wasn’t me anymore
now names didn’t matter
suddenly we became numbers
dates of death
distinguishing marks of violence
soon they didn’t know who to look for
we were hundreds
when they found the sixth pit
the pain
asphyxiating…
they lost their nerve
/i’m down here!/
i insist
maybe one day somebody will find me
and give back
my mother
her dark eyes

Translated by Johnny Crisp

 

here, the wind turns

By Carmen Zenil

i prefer eclipse
i can’t stand the sight of blood
i can’t cry in human words
words beat themselves quiet
against a wadded gag
no turn of phrase can jink past

*

freedom’s a beaten child standing
in a burned orphanage
but her manuscripts won’t burn

*

from her notes:
the behind-the-back tricks
death pulls on life
the eyes that wince from light
this body that flinches at heat

*

i wanted words on a new page
while this moment held
while my country trembled in the cold
while my hand could keep steady
so the cry went inwards,
crossed hills and valleys,
walked through a besieged city
i work until i thaw, burn

*

here, places shed their names
ashes drown
the hills are graves
here, the gods are stone
and there are no phoenixes

*

here, the wind turns
among vanished faces

*

but here, too,
poems don’t burn
love won’t burn
these ties can’t burn

*

the words’ hot quick sting
coming out
might die like sparks
when the wind lifts

*

the wind is like an animal

*

here
there are words
you mustn’t say
and mustn’t hear

*

i hope this wind will turn
and lift
and chase

Translated by Tim MacGabhann

*   *    *

Poets for Ayotzinapa is available for free download here.

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