Ciudad Juárez is the woman clinging to a wooden cross, a Christ-like figure planted at the foot of a bridge waiting for her poet-prophet. She presses her chest forward and casts a defiant gaze to the south, into the abyss from which he has come. He storms across the desert toward her, the sun setting behind the mountains to his left, racing toward the pink painted bridge and grieving mothers, toward Mexico’s ‘epicenter of pain.’
Javier Sicilia once found solace in his poetry but his rich words fell limp after his son was shot down, a casualty in the swell of violence that claims some 40,000 dead. Two months later in May 2011 Sicilia organized a caravan and set out from his home near Mexico City on a journey dubbed the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity fueled by indignation at a government led ‘war,’ in which battle-lines between the good and the bad were long ago obliterated, if they ever existed.
He set his sights on the border, and Ciudad Juárez, because the war to win is waged for control of ideas and perception. And Sicilia, a man of words, knowing this said: “We must not lose what Juarez symbolizes…it is the symbol that the country is torn.” The most apparent codes in Mexico’s war were written by killers in blood and strung from bridges, left in burning cars, and set to music, with the less obvious coded violence contained in the horrific silence of the disappeared and the din of impunity. And the grieving families, with no hope for restitution or even justice—fewer than 5 percent of violent crimes result in conviction, by the government’s own count—construct humble messages on cardboard placards that bear the names and images of the young boys and girls generally referred to as ‘the victims.’
With Sicilia’s arrival in Ciudad Juárez a new code emerged, a code constructed with symbols that transforms Christ into a woman, frees strong men to cry, and raises the lowliest factory worker to stand as an equal with a celebrated writer.
Sicilia reaches the top of the bridge where he finds the waiting factory worker, a woman with a spin top silhouette and a shy smile and he bows to her. Luz Maria Davila raises her arms and places a rosary strung together with mother of pearl beads, around his neck and they embrace. Davila’s two sons were killed after gunmen busted into a neighborhood party and shot down 17 students. President Calderón later dismissed the massacre as just another gang fight and the victims as mere hoodlums involved in the drug trade. Without warning anyone, Davila slipped off to confront her president and informed him he was not welcome in her city. (Usted no es bienvenido, señor Presidente.) And in her, Juárez gained a symbol, a weapon to battle the messages that their losses were simply the cost of war against the ‘bad ones.’ Davila was there at nightfall when the crowds gathered at the soccer field built in honor of the murdered children and began chanting her words, recast for the poet’s arrival: “señor Sicilia si es bienvenido. Mr. Sicilia, yes, is welcome.”
Davila was there the night the crowds gathered at the soccer field built in honor of the murdered children and chanted her words, recast for the poet’s arrival: señor Sicilia si es bienvenido. Mr. Sicilia, yes, is welcome.
In the recoding of war, men, discovering that fighting words fall short, shed tears and invoke the passion and force of birth as a source of strength. ‘El amor no es debil, es rojo, fuerza presenta en el parto.’ Love is not weak, it’s red, the strength present in the birth,’ Julian LeBarón—brother, Benjamin, shot dead—told the crowds in the shadow of the monument Benito Juárez. And a rebirth is needed, he said.
Young men show off their ink tattoos of butterflies and the word PAZ (peace). Older men speak of fragility and strength and women clasp their hands in gratitude that the men have, at last, joined them. “To see a man cry like that, for his son. I had never seen a man cry so much for his son, it moved me, it inspired me, because men are strong and, hard,” says Alicia Camacho, who holds a placard that reads: if I were a poet I would have justice for my husband. “And we need them standing with us.” Her husband had no chance for tears, he died covering his son’s body with his own, protecting the boy from a spray of bullets at the massacre and for her, justice never came.
Near the flatbed trailer, the stage testimonials always begin with a name and the date of death. Jose Rayas Flores stands behind a large photograph of his daughter, Viviana. “Men don’t join the marches, they don’t go into the streets because they are afraid. They are men, and as men, they feel they are more likely to be killed. Or worse, their efforts may fail. But after his daughter disappeared, Rayas’ union buddies formed search parties and they found, her. I found her, he repeats, over and over, his gaze drifting off. I found her on a hill, three months later. The animals were eating her. Anguish takes hold, his body shudders from its grip. My youngest daughter, he says, he eyes brimming red.
El amor no es debil, es rojo. Love is not weak, it’s red.
The cross country journey culminates with a signed ‘pact,’ a wide reaching set of demands that includes the obvious-withdrawing the military to indigenous rights and calls for an end to neoliberalism. A document written in haste, printed on paper, signed by a few, and sure to raise doubts about the enduring power of ‘the movement.’ Perhaps that explains why Sicilia introduced ‘the pact’ with a poem about long journeys and the fear of disillusionment.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.
But he needn’t have bothered, because the defiant mothers and grieving fathers who encountered each other, on the pink bridge, on the soccer field, on the abandoned streets had already begun to draft the living poem of Juárez.