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Southland writers translate gripping poem against Mexican drug cartel violence

Screenshot of video of poem being performed.
Screenshot of video of poem being performed.
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For the first time in Mexico’s decade-long drug cartel wars, Mexicans have begun to speak openly about the violence. People credit two poets for fostering that change. The first, Javier Sicilia, led a march after his son died as an innocent bystander. The second wrote a poem that prompted two Los Angeles writers to try and convey the pain Mexico’s new poetry expresses to English speakers.

In April, poet Maria Rivera stood in front of a microphone that faced a large crowd in Mexico City’s centuries-old main square.

The National March for Peace had just ended. With Mexico’s presidential palace as a backdrop, she opened a book that contained her recently published poem, "Los Muertos" – "The Dead."

In the poem the drug cartel victims return to the center of Mexican political power in the condition in which their attackers had left them. Her words conjured a grisly real version of "Night of the Living Dead."

Through YouTube, the public reading reached a book-filled West Hollywood apartment, where UCLA literature grad student Roman Lujan set out to translate it.

Lujan reads from the translation. "There they come, the beheaded, the handless, the dismembered, the women whose coccyx were smashed, the men whose heads were crushed, the little children crying between dark walls of minerals and sand."

Lujan showed the first draft to mentor Jen Hofer, a poet and translator. Lujan grew up in Mexico and Hofer lived there for about a decade. Both have closely followed the drug violence.

Hofer says that until this poem, nobody had spoken about the killings in such stark terms in a public place, "but one of the things that I think Maria is doing, or Maria’s poem is doing, any of us can say this, in the face of what seems to have no possible human response. We must speak, and you too can speak."

Speak about how many of the dead are innocent victims, about hundreds of Central American migrants murdered for cash, about others killed after kidnappings. Hofer and Lujan say that for the violence to end, people in the United States – the main consumer of the drugs that cause the problem in the first place – must also hear and talk about the violence.

University of San Diego scholar David Shirk agrees. "We academics have been writing about this stuff for a very long time and we have all kinds of graphs and charts and things, but it’s an entirely different thing when you can frame a message in a way that appeals to a mass audience," Shirk says, "and artists, poets, songwriters, these are the people who really know how to do that."

So with the help of the Track Changes and Insert Comment functions in their word processing programs, Lujan and Hofer combed through Maria Rivera’s poem word by word. The Spanish word "descabezados" presented the first challenge.

"In translation we’re thinking about language in this extremely nuanced, detailed, very dorky way where we’re thinking, 'headless,' 'people without heads.' That does connote, probably not so comfy, does connote a certain violence, but beheaded, you then are forced to imagine that somebody made that head come off that body. And that is what we are forced to imagine when we think about Mexico today, so that’s why we went for that word."

The drug cartel wars, Hofer and Lujan say, have created a new lexicon to describe the brutality. "If you say in Spanish 'levanted,' everyone knows what a levantado is. A levantado is someone who’s taken from the street or a house and is tortured, and is probably is going to be killed," Lujan says. "You can just say 'levantado,' 'raised.'"

"'Lifted up,' or 'picked up,'" Hofer says. "'Picked up,' like picked up by the cops on the street, but in this sense that’s how we’d say it here, right?"

Lujan reads from the poem. "Those who were bade goodbye at a karaoke party, and were found shot in Tecate, there comes the one who was forced to dig a grave for his brother, the one they murdered after collecting four thousand dollars

Rivera says she likes the translation – even though poems cannot end the violence. "The power of the poetry is that the poetry can speak about reality that doesn’t look in the papers, newspapers or in the TV, the dead are numbers and statistics, but not persons," Rivera says. "The poetry can speak more about the human tragedy, about the meaning of the pain."

Hofer says people on both sides of the border desperately need artists’ ability to push the boundaries of expression amid Mexico’s unspeakable violence.

You can read the full text of the poem "Los Muertos" here.