November 8, 2014: Estoy destrozada. Camino por los andenes del metro y percato como la gente camina muta, tranquila, como un oceano impenetrable de humanidad y silencio, agobiados, de luto perpetuo.
43 Ayotzinapa normal school students murdered, burned, destroyed, and thrown into a river. Disappeared. In such a surreal an disgusting context, where 43 students from southern Mexico were burned and killed, where only their jaws and teeth remain remnants of the violence, I search to understand how this society as a collective, makes sense of this violence, not only in thought but in feeling, in attachment and empathy, in compassion, in anger, in mourning.
What does this society feel? What do they grieve? Walking through the city, in the metro stations, every profile, in every child’s gleaming brown face, in every silence, I discern a deep and old mourning. How can a society be used to such sadness? Or how can we exist when tragedy is everyday’s news? Born in Los Angeles, born in Chicago, born in Ciudad Juarez, born in Iguala, Guerrero. Born brown? Born poor? Born a womyn? Born in such deep and enveloping oppression that your life has lead you to work, feel, think and hope for something different? Born in Iguala, a student, a protester and you are burned and thrown into a river of oblivion that runs blood and is quickly overflowing with bodies, no longer able to hide the thousands of lives destroyed and disappeared within its riverbed.
Walking in Mexico City, a day after the government’s admission of the killing of Ayoztinapa’s students, I truly feel we live in mourning. The mood that has enveloped me informs my perception of my grey, concrete and overwhelming urban context. A sad and melancholic view of the city and country. Only that I believe that this mourning is not fresh. It is an old and ancient mourning. A mourning that is embedded, sown, embroidered, and consumed by this country’s people since long before the student massacres of 1968 and 1972, since before the Dirty War, since before the disappearance, killing, and sexual violence against womyn in Juarez, the State of Mexico, and Atenco. This mourning precedes the unfulfilled utopia of the Mexican Revolution. Since before, long before, the consolidation of the putrid Mexican state that has agonized and lived so proximate to death since its inception. The Mexican pueblo has always lived in mourning. It has lived, loved, rejoiced, resisted and been repressed and murdered within perpetual mourning. Why does Ayozinapa not stir us from this trance, from this state of desensitized and lethargic state of mourning? In the small and vast injustices we must mourn, but not in silence and lethargy, but in catharsis and resistance:
The duality of life and death in Mexico, of injustice and resistance, is a balance struck, many times, in the favor of death, injustice, and oblivion.
In Día de los Muertes, a ritual born out of indigenous sentires and saberes, is celebrated all over Mexico, and is especially a strong tradition in the states of Michoacán and Oaxaca. I traveled to Oaxaca de Juarez a week ago, the capital of the southern Mexican State to participate and witness the rituals and devotion to both life and death. It was during my eight hour bus ride south that, suddenly surprised at my own devotion, I realized it would be my third year in a row traveling to Oaxaca during that time of year.
It is in Oaxaca where I have learned to value the devotion and compassion people exert in their celebration of death that strengthens their connection to life. As I walked the city’s streets and the walkways of illuminated cemeteries I suddenly realized that as we celebrated the culture and ritual of death, we perhaps neglected to see how we rub shoulders with it every day: the alcoholism of our rural compxs, the poverty of vendors, the hunger of those who musicalize our ritual. Even within our devotion of día de los muertos there exists olvidadxs, disappearances and the ignored presence of the starving, suffering and agonizing. As a tradition that is now celebrated globally, thanks to the Mexican and Mexican-American diaspora, people have become attracted and even entranced by the sublime relationship Mexicans have forged with death. Yet as tourists flock to cemeteries, their desire to celebrate their lives, to enjoy and consume a fascination with death, makes it easier to forget and better ignore the indigenous and poor vendors and workers who cater to enhance the lives of others in order for they themselves to survive.
Yet in Mexico, this unfair relationship between life and death is perpetuated and made complex through the disappearances, the absences and the repression of students, of activists, of mujeres, of the rural, the poor and those whose death is almost justifiable collateral for the lives and comforts of those who wield more power. Just three months ago, 43 students from Ayotzinapa, a teacher training college in the state of Guerrero, southwest Mexico, were ambushed and disappeared on the night of 26 September. Ayotinzapa has historically been a bastion of resistance and its students have taken up activist roles that have often challenged the Mexican state, demanding a rural and community based approach to education and social justice. Since the 26 of September, a series of mass graves have been discovered just outside Iguala, though it’s as yet unconfirmed whether they contain the bodies of the students. In light of Ayotinzapa, we celebrate death from Oaxaca to Mexico City and in East Los Angeles. In our communities, death and olvido, inform collective existence in the same measure as life and celebration. But how do we celebrate death when we are denied a collective right to life? How can our rituals become resistance, to demand the right to exist as we are, or as we hope to be?
During my time in Oaxaca I was able to visit a special exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a poem by David Huerta dedicated to Ayotzinapa:
“Who reads this should also know
That despite it all
The dead are not gone
Nor have they made them disappear
That the magic of the dead
Is in the dawn and the ladle
On foot and in the cornfields
In the drawings and in the river..”
It was a beautiful exhibition and ode that inspires anyone who reads it to love and fight ardently for life, to remember why it is important, to realize that in the context of so much death, to recuperate life among the destruction and violence.
Coming back to Mexico City, I attended a vigil at el Zocalo this past Tuesday, where people gathered around candles, one for each of the 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa, in an act of collective remembrance and resistance. Upon taking in the beautiful scene, the candles and the small group of people, I took in the panorama of the daunting and even violent looking government palace that loomed over us. And to our right and immediate surrounding was an even larger group of federal police officers, armed with their plastic shields and uniformed and looking slightly dreary. Suddenly struck by this scene, by the contrast between hope and defiance, and violence and compliance, I become more intimately conscious that this duality exists in subtle violence all over the country. Ultimately underneath the garb of police uniform and shields, of our protest posters and t-shirts that exclaim justice for Ayotzinapa, we all face the violence of indifference and corruption.
Yet the symbolism of this contrast, of those who seek justice and those who are paid to suppress it, isn’t a new scene to Mexico. I’ve witnessed it even within our celebrations of death in Oaxaca, in our celebration of life in Mexico City, and in the silences and absences of the thousands who have disappeared, whose absences have gone unnoticed with the exception of their families and those who once knew them: the 43 students disappeared in Ayotzinapa, femicides in Juarez and el Estado de México, pobreza, olvido, soledad e injusticia. Yet truly transcending death and celebrating life is a matter of tipping the scales in favor of life, of every person’s right to exist. The growing solidarity with the missing students in Ayotzinapa is proof that Mexico in general is capable of shifting the imbalance between life and death. Here in Mexico, as in our greater communities, this is a possibility, only if we demand this right not only from any state, but by working continuously to ensure that we promote life in everything we do, demanding our collective right to exist, our right to life, where death is not an imposition but a natural extension of a dignified life.
Featured in Los Angeles For La Gente:One of the worst things about being poor is always being forced to interact with, and cede to, the interests of rich people. Now add race, and gender, geopolitics, and immigration status to this equation of extraction and displacement: poor people are always forced to move, to migrate, to conform to new and more desolate street-side homes and barrios. Across the bridge from Skid Row – in Boyle Heights, CA – barrios suddenly become attractive and the novelty of poor, but charming, immigrant neighborhoods draws in the privileged capital – ‘cuz in this country not every dollar wielding individual is created equal – to displace and run-out the eternally displaceable. “Gentrification” is the displacements of migrantes de America, de agua por Coca-Cola, de milpas por Monsanto, of barely there sustenance under cardboard homes for luxury condos – todo para volver a vendernos lo que nos han quitado // all in order to sell us back what they have taken from us.
This is a matter of dispossession and displacement. In the (pict)oral histories that map the movement of people, we find patterns marked by displacement. While all of us remain individually terrified of displacement, of ambiguity, of the stripping away of all of our comforts and support, many people’s hxstories remain deeply entrenched and informed by displacement. Displaced from their pueblos. Displaced of their food ways. Displaced of their language. Displaced even from the comfort and security of their urban poverty. It is as if some communities are destined to be perpetually driven to the most remote corners of the earth. On the intention and meticulous planning of economic interests informed by appetites for the consumption of “culture” and “diversity” – a perpetual search to fill the voids constructed by racial violence and capital accumulation – people seek to occupy the cultural spaces built by perpetually displaced communities who had hoped of “finally being able to stay.” Hope after having traversed thousands of miles, having ceded to the social and political rituals of a new place, having hoisted up the social and cultural infrastructure to both cede to the demands of a hostile society and challenge and attempt to transform it, still they have no place.
In the name of advancement, governments have bastioned transnational economic policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In the name of progress, governments have ceded to the demands of transnational corporations and a result have poisoned hundreds of communities with toxic waste and genetically modified food. And in the name of development, city officials and realtors seek to cultivate communities as if weeds inhabited them. Yet in all these instances those who continue to be chased away remain to be the same people. They are the working class brown bodies chased away from their communities because of U.S. political and economic intervention abroad, by racism and discrimination, and by greed.
Gentrification is displacement. It faithfully follows a pattern that has chased and driven away people across borders, willed on not with the interest of their well-being but the profits to be made by their dispossession.
We can survive and flourish in the condition of displacement, and even in our apparently sedentary lives we experience the threat of rupture through the deportation, the arrest, the silencing and reprimanding of everything we know. But we cannot continue our movement willed by the demand of those whose insatiable hunger knows no limit, whose greed remains unperturbed by our historical expulsion.
In Boyle Heights – as in Mexico and as in Guatemala – weeds do not spring from the earth. The evolution of community development and progress has been bastioned by those who found themselves with the opportunity to repose from their ardent journey fleeing displacement. There exists a relationship among diasporas who remain committed to supporting and recognizing the importance of mutually supporting the means for community survival. For a community model that recognizes that the señora de los tamales is more important than a corporation that sells frothy iced coffee drinks, because that womxs is their mother, daughter, abuela, hija, companion in a collective struggle against displacement.
Here, among the backdrop of a cityscape that reflects these journeys in its murals and informal economy of pan Latin American delicacies, among the men and womxn who struggle to feed themselves by feeding us the food that managed to make it across the border, among both the silences and articulation of trans-generational knowledge and experience, there exists an opportunity for a collective resistance against displacement. And to unearth and articulate our deeply embedded desire to confront those who seek to continue to push us and say that, here there exists life. And here we choose to stay.