Artists React To Mexico's Drug War With Music And Poetry

Jan 20, 2012
Originally published on January 23, 2012 9:18 am

Javier Sicilia is a novelist and a poet. In 2009, he was awarded Mexico's prestigious Aguascalientes National Poetry Prize. This September, he read a poem dedicated to his son, Juan Francisco, at a rally:

There is nothing else to say
The world is not worthy of the word
They drowned it, deep inside of us
As they asphyxiated you
As they ripped your lungs apart
And the pain does not leave me
All we have is a world
For the silence of the just
Only for your silence and my silence, Juanelo.

This was the last poem Sicilia wrote. His son was murdered in the central state of Morelos in March, along with six other people, by members of a drug cartel.

Javier Sicilia renounced poetry and became the leader of a national protest against the drug war. Yet he says poetry has been an integral part of the "Peace with Justice and Dignity" movement.

"Poetry has been present, the poets have been part of it," Sicilia says. "The problem is that the mass media don't like to cover it and don't understand that this movement was born out of poetry, and the reason why it's important is because it's filled with a poetic content that has transformed the language. And behind all of this is a profound ethics, as with all poetry."

Sicilia says the poet has a moral responsibility to tell these stories.

Other artists are also reacting to the violent realities in Mexico today. Singer Lila Downs addresses the violence in a song that deals directly with the consequences, called "La Reina del Inframundo" — Queen of the Underworld. The lyrics read:

"Six feet underground, it's for a certain kind of weed, for which the bosses up north are making us kill each other off, and now I'm the queen of the underworld, and my crown is a tombstone ..."

"Well, this is a song that's more explicitly about what we're going through," Downs says. "It's something that I'm very afraid of. I've seen a lot of papers, a lot of women involved in the business, and a lot of women die."

Downs' whole album was inspired by her feelings about what's happening in Mexico today.

"We're going through a very violent period where it's inevitable, you're always seeing these things on the news that are very sad and depressing," she says, "and you wish that you could do something about it. And I think, as an artist and as a human being, you're sensitive to what is happening."

Writer and performer Ruben Martinez is a professor of literature and writing at Loyola Marymount University, as well as the producer of a performance in Los Angeles about the drug war. He says that, in terms of artistic resistance to the drug war, the importance of Javier Sicilia cannot be understated.

"As a writer, the only tools I have are language and representation to render a portrait of what is happening today. And Javier Sicilia was the first voice, artistically I think, to approach this," Martinez says. "[His final poem] moved a whole nation, and now it's moved us on this side of the border too, because ultimately, the war is on both sides."

Martinez says that we may not see mutilated bodies hanging from bridges in this country, but that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 22,000 people die every year in the U.S. as a result of drug overdoses.

"That number of deaths should be added to the number of deaths every year in Mexico," Martinez says. "It's all part of the same conflict."

Singer and performance artist Astrid Hadad has addressed the current situation in Mexico from a different perspective. Hadad sees the roots of the current violence in a number of problems facing Mexico. She names a few of them in the song "Tierra Misteriosa" (Mysterious Land):

Poor motherland, over you fly vultures
Army men, transnational corporations, presidents, hit men, businessmen
Yesterday they were called viceroys, today they're dignitaries
Five hundred years have passed, only the names have changed
Now the pillagers are called politicians

"And if that's not saying something against what's happening today, I don't know what is," Hadad says. "All of us who are fighting say that only a good education and the redistribution of wealth, called justice, will solve this. Otherwise, the current violence will never end."

But Downs offers some hope. In her song "Paloma del Comalito," she cites a popular Mexican expression: No hay mal que dure cien años — "No evil can last a hundred years." Her hope is that it won't take that long.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Mexico's federal attorney general announced a chilly number this month. In the past five years, drug-related violence in that country has claimed the lives of almost 48,000 people.

Brutality has touched the lives of people across society, and Betto Arcos tells us how artists on both sides of the border are responding.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: Javier Sicilia is a novelist and a poet. In 2009, he was awarded Mexico's prestigious Aguascalientes National Poetry Prize. This September, he read a poem dedicated to his 23-year-old son Juan Francisco at a rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOICES)

JAVIER SICILIA: (Through Translator) (Reading) There is nothing else to say. The world is not worthy of the word. They drowned it, deep inside of us, as they asphyxiated you, as they ripped your lungs apart. And the pain does not leave me. All we have is a world for the silence of the just, only for your silence and my silence, Juanelo.

ARCOS: This was the last poem Sicilia wrote. Juan Francisco was murdered in the central state of Morelos in March, along with six other people by members of a drug cartel. Javier Sicilia renounced poetry and became the leader of a national protest against the drug war. Yet, he says poetry has been an integral part of the Peace with Justice and Dignity movement.

SICILIA: (Through Translator) Poetry has been present, the poets have been part of it. The problem is that the mass media does not like to cover it and do not understand that this movement was born out of poetry. And the reason why it's important is because it's filled with a poetic content that has transformed the language. And behind all of this is a profound ethics, as with all poetry.

ARCOS: Sicilia says the poet has a moral responsibility to tell these stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA REINA DEL INFRAMUNDO")

LILA DOWNS: (Foreign language spoken)

ARCOS: Singer Lila Downs addresses the violence in a song that deals directly with the consequences. The song is called "La Reina del Inframundo" - Queen of the Underworld.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA REINA DEL INFRAMUNDO")

DOWNS: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

ARCOS: The lyrics read: Six feet underground, it's for a certain kind of weed, for which the bosses up north are making us kill each other off, and now I'm the queen of the underworld and my crown is a tombstone.

DOWNS: This is a song that is more explicitly about what we're going through. It's something that I am very afraid of. You're always seeing these things on the news, the papers, a lot of women involved in the business and a lot of women die.

ARCOS: The whole album was inspired by her feelings about what's happening in Mexico today.

DOWNS: We're going through a very violent period. And you wish that you could do something about it.

RUBEN MARTINEZ: My instinct is to run in the other direction, of course, from something so horrific.

ARCOS: Writer and performer Ruben Martinez didn't. He's a professor of literature and writing at Loyola Marymount University and producer of a performance in Los Angeles about the drug war.

MARTINEZ: As a writer, the only tools I have are language and representation to render a portrait of what is happening today. And Javier Sicilia was the first voice, artistically I think, to approach this, and in such a horrible way to have the artistic voice brought to light. His son's death brought the artist's voice to bear upon this. And it was his final poem, he says, but that poem moved a whole nation. And now it's moved us on this side of the border too, because ultimately the war is on both sides.

ARCOS: Martinez says, we may not see mutilated bodies hanging from bridges in this country, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, there are more than 22,000 people dying every year in the U.S. as a result of drug overdoses.

MARTINEZ: That number of deaths should be added to the number of deaths every year in Mexico. It's all part of the same conflict.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIERRA MISTERIOSA")

ASTRID HADAD: (Singing in foreign language)

ARCOS: Singer and performance artist Astrid Hadad has addressed the current situation in Mexico from a different perspective. Hadad sees the roots of the current violence in a number of problems facing Mexico. She names a few of them in the song "Tierra Misteriosa" - Mysterious Land.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIERRA MISTERIOSA")

HADAD: (Singing in foreign language)

ARCOS: Poor motherland. Over you fly vultures, army men, transnational corporations, presidents, hit men, businessmen. Yesterday they were called viceroys, today they're dignitaries. Five hundred years have passed, only the names have changed. Now the pillagers are called politicians.

HADAD: (Through Translator) And if that's not saying something against what's happening today, I don't know what is. All of us who are fighting say that only a good education and the redistribution of wealth, called justice, will solve this. Otherwise the current violence will never end.

ARCOS: But singer Lila Downs offers some hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PALOMO DEL COMALITO")

DOWNS: (Singing in foreign language)

ARCOS: In this song, she cites a popular Mexican expression. No hay mal que dure cien anos - No evil can last a hundred years. Her hope is that it won't take that long.

For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PALOMO DEL COMALITO")

DOWNS: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.