Latin American Writers

a window on their lives and work

Javier Sicilia: Muteness and Violence

(translated by Paloma Fernández Sánchez and Carol Polsgrove)

1024px-javier_sicilia_01[es]Muteness is a degraded form of silence. It is the word constrained into silence by a force. Its etymology, which comes the Indo-European root *mu- , whose origin is the onomatopoeia of someone who speaks with mouth closed, reveals it with total clarity. In this sense, we can say that muteness, independently of those beings that nature cut off from the word, belongs to the inhuman. We make mute when something breaks down the meanings within which life goes on. For that reason, violence is mute: it negates the word, which is the world of human beings and of their societies, and confines it in the silence of terror, death and anomie.

There is, likewise, something profoundly mute in Mexico. Even though we talk and are in communication, the muteness of silence has settled among us and words do not manage to interrupt it. It is as if language had lost its signifying power and we were speaking with mouths closed. It seems that the arteries of the culture, as Georges Steiner says, have been hardened like those of the flesh and that the complex of Christian and indigenous values that shaped Mexico in the last five centuries had entered into a terrible decadence. Our recent history – killings, clandestine graves, displacements, destruction of the environment and of political and human forms of relating to each other, revolts, repressions and protests, each time more belligerent – suggests that those linguistic reflections by which a civilization preserves its world and transforms its degradation do not now have the force to do that, and we have retreated into a savage era, in which language would not have acquired its meaningful density.

Certainly, we speak, and there are languages, like poetry, that are still living. But poetry’s force has become so intimate and enclosed in cultural ghettos that it is not capable of preserving and correcting the life of a people as it did in other times. What diminishes it is muteness and violence in a world full of empty words. Thus we go from criminals who have a language whose poverty borders on the insensibility of muteness with which they seal up their crimes to politicians whose inhumanity has degraded and brutalized the language to that same extent. In employing words to justify political duplicity, distort history, and cover up crimes and bestialities, they have emptied them of their profound meanings, producing a grave anomie in society, a sensation of being trapped in the despair of muteness.

My experience of the last five years has not stopped attesting to this process. What I am going to tell coincides with that reality but also with the possibility of rescuing meaning and life.

A few weeks ago, I was at the side of forensic experts from various institutions and of the victims of disappearances during the exhumation of 117 bodies and 12 remains from the clandestine graves of Tetelcingo, Cuautla. Those bodies – some horribly violated – had been buried like trash, in the way of organized crime, by the government of Graco Ramírez.  Over the last 10 years the country has been plagued by these graves. One of the victims told me what they had done to his daughter, whose body had been recovered in another state – one more of the hundreds [of stories] that I have collected  – .  I will not put it in writing because it constitutes part, says Steiner, of that type of things that destroy the language. We make ourselves mute. I remembered then what happened to me the day I learned of the murder of my son Juan Francisco: after writing my last poem on a scrap of paper, I stared stupefied into space and, torn open, impelled by the sounds that I had scribbled, I opened my mouth as wide as I could. The expression was that of Edward Munch’s The Scream, so primitive and terrible that it surpasses all description: a scream without sound, the cry of a total silence that shrieked through all Manila and shook the landscape with sorrow. That scream within the silence, that awful muteness, was, to say it with Steiner, “wild and pure lamentation for the inhumanity of man and the devastation of the human” that once more, again, was repeated.

There, [at those graves,] nevertheless, was and is the possibility of meaning again rising. The fact that in the middle of the muteness we would be there; that a group of men and women would disinter bodies in order to identify, dignify them, and return them to their relatives; that each time one of these was rescued, the victims from the encampment  went out with a sign that said “Welcome”; that those same people painted under one of the tents an allegory of what was happening there and would sing, while they were doing it, the Hymn of Happiness –again, for a few minutes, to fill the world with meaning. By doing that, we were not returning life to these bodies, we were not redeeming the terrible suffering through which they passed, nor were we erasing the past that, like mine and that of the victim who told me of the death of his daughter, will go on vibrating with the same scream that Munch painted. But, was it not, perhaps, during a similar funeral rite where thousands of years ago, in the middle of inhumanity and savagery, language found its place and gave birth to civilization, meaning, and the words peace, brother, love?

Sicilia concludes this essay with a paragraph he appends to his columns in Proceso:

Besides I believe that it is necessary to respect the San Andrés Accords. to stop war, to free Manuel Mireles, his self-defense groups, and all political prisoners, to bring justice to the victims of violence, to judge rulers and criminal functionaries, to boycott elections, to return Carmen Arestigui to her program and open the graves of Jojutla.

Javier Sicilia is a poet, essayist, and novelist. Since the murder of his son Juan Francisco in March 2011, Sicilia has led widespread demonstrations against the failed war against drugs. He tells his own story in the form of a new novel, El deshabitado, reviewed here.

 Translation of “Mudez y violencia” (c) 2017 Carol Polsgrove and Paloma Fernández Sánchez, published by permission of Javier Sicilia. It appeared in Spanish in