This post will eventually lead to a utopian moment on the southern edge of Mexico City with a crew of artists that cut a new folk figure, an organic representation of the idealism behind the student uprising of the last few months. But first some context.
On the day I am writing about here, it is barely 72 hours after the most contested election in Mexican history since… the last election (2006, in which Andrés Manuel López Obrador lost to Felipe Calderón by a infinitesimal — and contested — margin). AMLO has not conceded and there are all manner of allegations of “irregularidades,” from ballot stuffing and media bias to the most often mentioned and sensational: the PRI buying votes with “dispensas,” basic pantry items paid for with “monederos,” essentially gift cards, at Soriana stores. YouTube clips showing people apparently cashing in just after the election have gone viral. Students and their umbrella movement, #YoSoy132, are restive and mobilizing across the country, participating as observers in the recount of massive numbers of votes.
No matter where you are in the city — at a bar, in a cab, in front of the TV — the talk is of the election. AMLO calls press conferences just about every day, making ever more emphatic allegations of fraud. Enrique Peña Nieto, crowned president-elect by Televisa and the old guard political class, calls AMLO a sore loser and accuses his team of doctoring the YouTube clips.
This is a bare-knuckled political battle, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The new administration will make decisions that may have an immediate impact on millions of Mexican lives, here and abroad, especially as to how the “drug war” is prosecuted. (I often use quotation marks around the term, because the conflict is only partly about drugs and smuggling: it is about geopolitics and public health, about the Obama Administration — as in so much of its Latin America policy — leaving Bush-era approaches in place, about globalization gone awry, about the human rights abuses of the Mexican military, about race and class and prohibition and corruption and yes about narco-corridos and mutilated bodies and my medical marijuana prescription in L.A.)
Peña Nieto has made a mantra of two basic Orwellian slogans. “No hay regreso al pasado” (no return to the past, when the PRI’s victory means just that), and “Ni pacto ni tregua,” neither pact nor truce with the cartels. But pacts and a truce is precisely what plenty of people want the PRI to re-negotiate, which also is, of course, un regreso al pasado, back to the PRI’s eternal rule that promoted stability through corruption.
I’ve come here at this particular moment for many reasons — to witness the election and its aftermath, to share my experience of the South with my partner Angela and our daughters Ruby and Lucía, to reconnect with old friends. And I’m also here to make initial contacts for a very specific project I’m starting work on — a dialogue among artists on both sides of the border about the role of art in times of crisis and violence. The inspiration for this came last year from poet Javier Sicilia’s singular response as a victim of the violence (his son Juan Francisco was murdered in a cartel-related crime) and as an artist-turned-activist. I’d spent the last few years increasingly disturbed by the violence in Mexico and Central America, which has had a direct impact on my family (radically limiting the geography of where we can travel) and in which I, as an American citizen, feel deeply complicit. When I first looked for a response from the arts community I found very little of one. It wasn’t until the birth of Sicilia’s movement, it seemed, that all manner of artistic representations began to flow — pop music, poetry, feature films and documentaries — in a dialectic with the political energy against the violence and impunity that had been gathering all along. (My initial thoughts on Sicilia’s gesture are here, and my recent live conversation with him at the Los Angeles Downtown Library’s ALOUD lecture series is here; find out about the Movement for Justice with Peace and Dignity’s U.S. cross-country caravan in August here.)
And now, if you’ll allow me to jump-cut to that scene here in Mexico City, where artists gather to break and conjure the country of their dreams…
I journey to the southern edge of the city to visit with singer-songwriter Leticia Servín, journalist and cultural commentator Raúl Silva, and several of their friends — musicians, poets, activists. We gather at Lety’s place in Colonia El Centinela. The modest sized apartment building she lives in is surrounded by an unlikely amount of open space (Mexico City has plenty of parks, but very little green in its inhabited space), especially since it’s only a couple of blocks off Calzada de Tlalpan, a major thoroughfare that clogs with traffic the better part of the day.
I’ve known Raúl por un buen — he stayed in touch with me even when I was beyond reach, in my dark days after leaving el D.F. in 1997 — and he introduced me to Lety via YouTube, through this astonishing performance of a Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz poem she set to music and dedicated to Javier Sicilia just days after his son’s death:
Sor Juana’s verses eerily and profoundly lend themselves to the context of violence and trauma — the vast desert of spiritual loss and corporeal disfigurement formed by six years of war:
Mira la fiera borrasca
que pasa en el mar del pecho,
donde zozobran, turbados,
mis confusos pensamientos…
Mira cómo el cuerpo amante,
rendido a tanto tormento,
siendo en lo demás cadáver,
sólo en el sentir es cuerpo…
En fin, te vas, ay de mi!
Dudosamente lo pienso:
pues si es verdad, no estoy viva,
y si viva, no lo creo…
Ay, mi bien, ay prenda mía,
dulce fin de mis deseos!
Por qué me llevas el alma,
dejándome el sentimiento?
Leticia’s composition and performance — with just her voice and understated jarana — capture the mixture of lamentation and desire of so much of Sor Juana’s poetry, the point at which spirit and flesh, space and time intersect.
And now I was in Leticia’s actual apartment. Raúl and I stood in the cramped kitchen, chatting with her as she patted masa into tortillas and placed them on the comal. More friends stopped by, Luis Rodriguez, a graduate student at the Universidad de Guadalajara, and Zindu Cano and Kevin García of the band Ampersan, several years younger than the thirty-something Leticia. (Raúl and I, forty somethings — ehem — were the elders, so we could count three generations in the room.) What bound everyone together was the loose “neo-folclor” (new folk) movement, a space that’s been reinvented several times since the 1960s and the birth of the Latin American “Nueva canción,” each generation depositing its idiosyncrasies and the political influences of its moment, but maintaining the primordial “onda” (literally wave, but more like vibe, a term coined by the generation of ’68), the lineage of “jipiteca” style that in many ways is also at the heart of the Occupy movement. We are naturistas and orgánicos, we are DIY and ready to march, we are sponging up a postmodern potpourri of art styles and, in perhaps the biggest difference between today and 1968, largely steering clear of essentialisms and hyper-partisan politics — if anything, hewing closer to (anti-) ideological anarchism.
I’ve been traveling to Mexico City as an adult for nearly three decades and walking into Leticia’s apartment felt like experiencing all that time simultaneously. There were CDs stored in student-style makeshift shelves, steel- and nylon-string guitars and jaranas, strings of colored beads separating the living room from the hallway, some of Lety’s lyrics written in magic marker on a window in her bedroom, a vintage cathode ray tube TV (now dormant, used as a pedestal). On the dining room table were the dishes of her freshly cooked meal — the tortillas hot off the comal, a potato stew, yogurt, a mild homemade salsa, pinto beans — the fixings for vegetarian tacos. Several caguamas, quarts of beer were passed around. In the corner of the living room which doubled as dining room there was a desk and what looked to be a 1990s PC with a massive monitor, but running a modem fast enough to capture live streams (at the moment tuned to El5antuario, an alternative information network hot with news from student participation in the electoral recount).
This was a true “reunión,” in good Mexican Spanish an informal gathering of friends, a temporal commune in which the communion was Lety’s wonderful food and an omnipresent joint. Lest anyone think that we were breaking any Mexican laws: the actual act of consuming pot was “depenalized” in 1978, and recent reforms of the public health code established that a person can possess up to 100 grams of weed for personal use. (Despite what the law says, critics maintain that in practical terms, modest drug possession and consumption remain “criminalized,” especially in marginal communities.)
We were smoking the herb that forms one of the veins of the bloody heart of the war raging across the country and across all the borders of the Americas. We were seeking peace from war.
The conversation flowed like la onda, passionate and hopeful and well-informed, mindful of the various possible conspiracies but refusing to be consumed by cynicism. Zindu and Kevin had just returned from visiting a couple of casillas (polling places) where votes were being recounted; there were so many other students and sympathizers of #YoSoy132 already hanging out that their presence wasn’t necessary, but still they were buzzing from the experience.
Raúl waxed ironic about voting in the election: “I know that I voted, that I went to my casilla and marked my ballot, that’s a reality, but there is another version of reality, and in that one, I have no idea what happened to my vote.”
Bearing out the new youth movement’s anti-partisan stance, AMLO was mentioned only a handful of times all afternoon, and never invoked as a hero. Raúl: “What I’d like is for AMLO to step aside and let the movement go on without his direct leadership.”
After the meal the guitars and jaranas came out. Lety sang another of her musicalized Sor Juana pieces, her full-throated acoustic rendition floating over the whoosh of Tlalpan traffic.
Then Zindu and Kevin played Zindu’s “Noche de fuego,” a neo-psychadelic tune whose central metaphor could adapt itself to all kinds of experience, light and dark. Here is a clip of Zindu performing the song with Los Fandangueros de Huayamilpas:
Now Lety brought out several herbal teas and the conversation started up again. The theme of documentation surfaced repeatedly. Zindu and Kevin spoke of the profusion of cell phone cameras wielded by students at the casillas, at the marches. The songs we sang were a kind of witness, too, and of course we were capturing them and the conversation on several different digital recorders. We were documenting ourselves documenting.
More friends stopped by — más músicos, poetas y locos. Franco Narro, a singer-songwriter with a voice reminiscent of a young Silvio Rodríguez, and Zaria Abreu, an intense chain-smoking poet-activist, the kind of woman I’ve met many times over the years in the D.F. beehive of art and intellectualism that is circumscribed by corruption and cynicism but that is also fed by it: like Sor Juana dreaming of love in a place so far from it.
I asked about the role of the artist in the time of the narco.
Lety said that she grew up with the cartels as a familiar part of the landscape in an isolated ranchería in Michoacán. “Actually what really scares me is the government,” she said, speaking of increasingly well documented abuses committed in the name of the drug war, some of which are leading to successful petitions for political asylum in the U.S. (which is supporting the Mexican military to the tune of $2 billion through Plan Mérida). “Instead of targeting the narcos, the army is targeting the people.”
Kevin spoke of touring with Ampersan in the northern states, which the media portrays as completely suffused with violence, and being received with sincere and generous hospitality, their hosts “countering the violence with tenderness and fraternity.”
Zindu picked up on that thread. When she and Kevin go busking in the mercados populares, the working class markets, “we try to sow the opposite of the onda you see in the media. Where there is violence, we sow peace.”
On my iPhone recording, Raúl asks one final question: is it possible for this new movement to change the outcome of the story?
No one was willing to predict if or how, but Lety put it this way: “Este pueblo está cansado de añorar, pero tiene los ojos bien puestos ahorita.”
This country, this people, is very tired of yearning, she said, but its eyes are wide open right now.
Gun-metal clouds gathered and a cool wind rustled in the vivid green outside the metal framed, screen-less windows of Lety’s apartment. We were high, the onda was lucid, the traffic roared on Calzada de Tlalpan. It was 1968 and 1988, it was 1994 and it was 2000 and it was now.