Poetic Justice

The auditorium at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen is a prettily decorated room. Black and white photographs adorn black and orange walls, while silver papel picado glitters from the ceiling.

On the auditorium’s stage on April 17, award-winning poet turned award-winning peace activist Javier Sicilia stood at a plain wooden podium against a stark black backdrop. He spoke directly, without poetry or sentimentality. He read no verse, and only once in passing did he mention the son whose death inspired his activism. Instead, Sicilia, founder of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, spent the hour illuminating the War on Drugs and the devastation it continues to cause for the Mexican people.

“It’s a disgrace that this criminal culture has taken root in the Mexican soul,” he said. The watchword was “patrimonialism,” which Sicilia identified as “a legalized form of Mafia” and the fundamental cause of the violence in Mexico. He traced a tradition of power grabbing and corruption back to Spanish conquest in the 16th century–a precedent, he said, for today’s political climate.

As proof of Mexico’s ineffectual government, he cited a 98 percent level of impunity. “If we were in Mexico and we wanted to kill someone, we could do it,” he said. “We wouldn’t get caught.”

He attributed this laxness in conviction to the army’s wide-ranging control. “[The government] is legitimizing criminals as an army,” he said. “And any army is going to violate human rights, because it’s in a war.”  He called on the US to legalize “soft” drugs–marijuana and opium–and predicted that, if they don’t, the violence will spread north.

Chicagoans signed up in droves to hear Sicilia speak, packing the guest list days before the talk. Though the room ended up only half full, those present were impassioned about the cause. In a time for questions at the end, individuals from the crowd lined up to express support–usually in Spanish–and explain their own opinions and experiences.

One audience member, an ex-Zapatista, shouted, “Tierra y Libertad!”–a slogan from the Mexican revolution meaning “Land and Liberty!” Another woman quietly asked Sicilia for a point of hope, something to hinge her optimism on. He told her that, if anything, people cannot lose themselves in despondency. “We have to believe that love is the foundation of our existence.”