EIBF 2016: ‘THE SORROWS OF MEXICO’: Diego Enrique Osorno, Sergio González Rodríguez and Emiliano Ruiz Parra

This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 13th–29th August 2016 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh.
The discussions between Diego Enrique Osorno, Sergio González Rodríguez, Emiliano Ruiz Parra and Gaby Wood took place on 27th August 2016.

By Rebecca DeWald

“A esta tierra de historias perdidas en medio de una democracia bárbara” – Diego Enrique Osorno

“Este libro de luz y sombra” – Sergio González Rodríguez

“¡Viva México!” – Emiliano Ruiz Parra

“To tell the truth is a massive risk”, says Mexico’s best known journalist, Elena Poniatowska, translated by Catherine Mansfield, in her introduction to The Sorrows of Mexico: An Indictment of their Country’s Failings by 7 Exceptional Writers. She wonders: “How can it be possible that Marcela Turati, Lydia Cacho and Anabel Hernández are obliged to live in such danger in their own countries?”

These three journalists are amongst the seven contributors to the essay, or narrative journalism, collection published by MacLehose this year. The contributors were represented at the Edinburgh International Book Festival by journalists and authors Emiliano Ruiz Parra, Sergio González Rodríguez and Diego Enrique Osorno.

The book originated in last year’s feature of Mexican art and literature curated by Gabriel Orozco, who noted that little Mexican literature and journalism had been translated into English. The result was the booklet Mexico in words, providing an overview of Mexican cultural output, including pieces by González Rodríguez and Juan Villoro, another contributor of The Sorrows of Mexico. Publisher Christopher MacLehose decided at last year’s EIBF that one small booklet was not enough, and invited Mexican journalists to produce the present collection.

Networks, both hidden and uncovered connections, present an underlying theme of the discussion chaired by Gaby Wood. Her first question is whether there is, amongst the violence and threat posed by the situation in Mexico, a companionship amongst journalists. Ruiz Parra, whose contributions to the collection include a piece on the collapse of an oil rig owned by one of the largest oil companies in the world, Pemex, in the Gulf of Mexico that cost 22 workers their lives, explains in a matter-of-fact way in English: “Nearly 100 of our colleagues have been killed in Mexico since 2000, many are in great risk, many have vanished and are in a very bad position because of low income, so they are subject to being bribed and to censorship. […] So for me, it is a privilege to be here in Edinburgh.” He repeats this sentence a few times over the course of the conversation, making it clear that the violence in Mexico afflicting journalists, as well as the entire population, puts the journalists’ appearance at the book festival into perspective. Ruiz Parra highlights the diversity of the book – which is also embodied in the numerous translators who rendered the tome in English, namely Daniel Hahn, Rosalind Harvey, Samantha Schnee, Megan McDowell, Anne McLean, Catherine Mansfield, Sophie Hughes, Amanda Hopkinson, Ángel Gurría-Quintana, Lucy Greaves, David Frye, Nick Caistor, Peter Bush, Thomas Bunstead and Juana Adcock. The last of this varied and illustrious list of wordsmiths also impressively interpreted the hour-long event. The number of translators involved in the projects speaks for the sheer amount of work and effort put into this wide-ranging and gripping publication.

“This group” – Ruiz Parra continues and refers to the featured journalists, though may as well include the translators and editors involved – “inspires change by telling stories, by challenging official accounts. The current government speaks of ‘historical truths’, and we contributors of this book are here to challenge these official accounts.”

González Rodríguez continues the answer and provides background information on how the book came to be published. González Rodríguez is a Mexican icon, known for his more than 20 years of research on femicides in Ciudad Juárez which, in the past years, have spread to the entire country. Outside Mexico, the name might sound familiar from a cameo appearance in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. “I was here in Edinburgh last year,” he begins in English. “I want to say that the message of this book is a tragic point of view but, above all, it is a message of hope. It is necessary to consider Mexico’s situation for the future.” He asks Juana “to be my voice in English, if you don’t mind,” before he switches into Spanish. González Rodríguez is a gifted painter of images, reflecting the style of narrative journalism – the Latin American crónica I referred to in a previous piece – that provides the uniting backbone of the varied collection. While delivering (often gruesome) facts, each contribution tells a story, often a personal story of the victims and actors involved, as opposed to the neutral, objective writing style the term “journalism” might connote in English.

And so González Rodríguez begins, with Juana Adcock as his voice:

Imagine a dark place, a deep tunnel, the darkest and deepest tunnel you’ve seen in your life, but at the end of it there is a small light, and that small light gives us the possibility of looking towards the future. I hope I’m not wrong but those of us who are here, on this panel, we believe in this light at the end of the tunnel.

In concrete terms, he speaks of his conviction that knowledge is a way to improve the current situation and hopes to offer hope in the way in which he reports the femicides and the violence against women. “To reveal the truth is also to reveal the possibility of a better future. We need to remember the disappeared and the dead, and immediately search for a better future.” His words carry the weight of experience, of disasters and tragedy, which is why it is even more moving to hear González Rodríguez speak of hope and the need to educate, in order to improve what seems like a hopeless situation.

Diego Enrique Osorno embodies this necessary hope as a means to go forward in the face of danger. His contributions to the collection include a text on small-town prostitution, which captures empathy as well as portraying the complex situation involving criminals exploiting vulnerable young women, and the Catholic church offering ways of escape at the cost of accepting a prescribed spirituality; a manifesto; and a father’s account who declares himself responsible for his son’s death, who died in a nursery fire. Confronted with Wood’s list of bullet points, included in the back of the book, that between 2000 and 2016, 94 journalist in Mexico were murdered; that every day in Mexico 51 people are murdered, every four hours a woman is raped, and every day, 13 people are forcibly disappeared; that only 1% of these crimes are punished by law[1]; that he himself has been threatened and forced to escape, he responds in Spanish: “One month ago, I had my latest threat. I don talk about it anymore, and I don’t think it’s an essential part of my work as journalist.” Instead, he goes on to explain the situation of today’s Mexico, as he sees it: a riddle. Mexico only fairly recently transitioned to democracy. Though greater democracy since 2000 – in the shape of more political parties, and more freedom for businesses and journalists than in the first quarter of the century – seemingly paradoxically led to more oppression: more than 150,000 ex-judicial executions, hundreds of thousands of tortured people and forced displacements. “What this book asks,” Enrique Osorno continues, “is why alongside increasing democracy we have an amount of violence and barbarism that we never experienced before in the history of our country, to the extent that barbarianism is our democracy. How can a country give students rights to demonstrate, and kill them at the same time? The more opportunities we get as journalists to travel and express ourselves, the more opportunities there are for them to kill us.”

Since the first association many readers and audience members might have with the terms “sorrows” and “Mexico” are drug cartels and narco-trafficking – not least since Anabel Hernández’s best-selling Narcoland: The Mexican Druglords and Their Godfather (Verso, 2014; translated by Iain Bruce and Lorna Scott Fox) –, Wood’s next question comes as no surprise: “Did the drug cartels begin the crisis?”

Enrique Osorno describes what he sees as the underlying problem, which is – spoiler alert! – more complex than just blaming drugs:

I think Mexico has changed in terms of economics. We used to have a lot of control on the markets, and it’s gone towards complete liberalisation. The drug dealing is also part of that: it used to be completely controlled by the state, but has now become completely liberalised. What the government hasn’t seen is that the cartels have fragmented into groups. The cartel of Sinaloa has turned into many single ones. The government, and the government of the US, don’t understand this and treat it as a police problem. What’s destroyed the cartel of Sinaloa are not the DEA or army or police, but the economy itself.

Another main problem often associated with the troubles are the numerous femicides, beginning with outbreaks in Ciudad Juárez over 20 years ago. González Rodríguez, as mentioned before, is the expert in this area as he uncovered the problem almost single-handedly. But much like the previous speaker, he does not see violence against women as an isolated issue. Violence against women is the problem of a sexist culture, where women are oppressed by the processes of economic production. But the problem also extends to institutions incapable of controlling violence in general. And he echoes Enrique Osorno’s assessment that Mexican society has undergone major change, while the economic development has not reached the entire population, and that the US are part of the problem: “We have constructed asymmetrical societies, and that’s the underlying problem: a country that shares a border in an asymmetrical position with another country of the world. The US absorbs the cheapest labour for their economic production. They are the country with the most drug consumption in the world, and Mexico is the greatest provider of drugs for the US. To culminate this negative scenario, we need to remember that the US is the greatest arms producer, and that Mexico is a country where these weapons are obtained illegally and reach the cartels: more than 20 million high-calibre weapons in the hands of criminals. To summarise,” he concludes,

the problems of Mexico have to do with a scenario that is wider than what we can see. Violence against women is one of the atrocious effects of this situation.

Wood’s final question returns to the translated book itself: How important is it to have these texts available in English? What is the significance of an international gaze? All contributors agree with Ruiz Parra’s statement: “It is great to reach an English audience, not only because it is great for Mexican authors, but also for the Mexicans pictured in this book: workers, killed women, the students of Ayotzinapa. For a country like Mexico, the opportunity to tell a different story from the one told by the international press and Mexican diplomates. And English is a language that can not only reach the UK and the US but many others.”

After such an intense debate, there remains limited time for questions. One audience member asks how the authors can reach small Mexican towns, where their publications might not be widely available. Enrique Osorno explains that the situation, partly for people living in the countryside, has created a different kind of journalism, and analyses that “in Mexico, women are at the vanguard of journalism, Turati, Cacho in this book, but also women in the countryside.” He links this phenomenon with his previous analysis of greater democracy equalling greater barbarism and concludes that women, who have experience both more freedom and more oppression, have been capable of developing “a stronger, more insightful journalism.” But he also realises that there is not as much freedom for journalistic expression in the Mexican newspapers or on TV as there might be in books, that’s why “it is important to have publishing houses, so I’m challenging the Christopher MacLehoses of Mexico to bring that out.”

Despite the lack of time – we have run over our time allowance by this point – Wood allows for one final question, asked by a front row audience member: Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn’s question is short and practical: “What would you like countries like us to do to improve the situation?” Ruiz Parra’s response is equally short and practical: “I think you can put a lot of pressure on the Mexican government. We know that the UK, or London as major financial centre, is where many Mexican cartels do their money laundering. The first world has a lot to do with the problems of the third.” And Enrique Osorno gives another practical idea: to pressure the Mexican government, which recently established an international commission of human rights experts for the investigation of the disappearance of 43 students at Ayotzinapa, to investigate it properly. As this investigation, “will allow for further investigations.”

All three authors kindly signed my copy of The Sorrows of Mexico after the event. They wrote:

“A esta tierra de historias perdidas en medio de una democracia bárbara” – “To this land of stories lost in the midst of a barbarous democracy”

“Este libro de luz y sombra” – “This book of light and shadow”

“¡Viva México!” – “Long live Mexico!”

And I am left admiring the energy and dedication with which these journalists use literature to continue their struggle. To conclude with González Rodríguez’s words:

I invite you to read the book, because it is not just a testimony of violence and facts, but it also points towards an innovative register to be able to understand this reality.


[1] Numbers taken from Sergio González Rodríguez’s contribution ‘Mexico – Return to the Abyss’, translated by Rosalind Harvey, p.285

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