The mystery of God in a broken world

What my son did was give a name and a face to the 40,000 dead. My pain gave a face to the pain of other families," said Javier Sicilia.

By Randall C Archibold

As a poet, novelist and essayist, Javier Sicilia tapped a deep strain of Catholicism to obsess over “the mystery of God in a broken world,” as he put it two years ago when he was awarded Mexico’s top poetry prize.

Now that his own world had been shattered by the killing of his son in March — an innocent, the police said, caught up in a drug-trafficking attack that captivated the nation — Mr. Sicilia, 56, said he had kept his faith but had felt it sink to a “dark, deep place.” So he turned to that other mystery, poetry

After burying his son, Juan Francisco, 24, a university student who was found bound and shot along with six friends in the city of Cuernavaca, Mr. Sicilia stood before well-wishers and read his latest work, an ode to his son:

The world is not worthy of words

they have been suffocated from the inside

as they suffocated you, as they tore apart your lungs …

the pain does not leave me

all that remains is a world

through the silence of the righteous,

only through your silence and my silence, Juanelo.

Then, Mr. Sicilia, one of the country’s most acclaimed poets, told those who had gathered that they had just heard the last poem he would ever write.

“Poetry doesn’t exist in me anymore,” he explained later in an interview.

But that does not mean Mr. Sicilia has any intention of remaining quiet.

Since his unlikely tragedy, he has led two marches with the slogan “¡Hasta la madre!” — which roughly translates as “We have had it!” — and has issued a series of public denunciations, providing an exclamation point to this country’s campaign against drug cartel violence, which has left nearly 40,000 people dead in the four years since President Felipe Calderón began a crackdown on organized crime.

“What my son did was give a name and a face to the 40,000 dead,” Mr. Sicilia said. “My pain gave a face to the pain of other families. I think a country is like a house, and the destruction of someone is the destruction of our families.”

Previous mass demonstrations here claiming to be the vanguard of a new movement against violence eventually petered out, with mixed results. Mr. Sicilia’s own call for the resignation of Mr. Calderón’s public safety director went nowhere.

But Mr. Sicilia, not a household name here but well known in political and media circles through his literature and regular columns in Proceso magazine, has achieved what others have failed to do: he has provoked serial public responses from the Calderón administration.

Mr. Calderón appeared on national television a couple of days before the most recent march, on Sunday, both to defend his policies and express sympathy for the victims, including the more than 300 whose bodies have been dug up from mass graves in two states in recent weeks.

As he left Monday on a trip to New York and Washington, Mr. Calderón issued five messages on Twitter expressing solidarity with the marchers.

“I celebrate the March for Peace, and its legitimate and just intentions to put an end to the problem of insecurity,” said one. Others called for a national dialogue to find solutions to the crisis.

Mr. Calderón also met privately with Mr. Sicilia more than a week ago, and Mr. Sicilia said he had extracted a confession of sorts from the president.

“He said, ‘I agree I made a mistake but I can’t go back now,’ ” Mr. Sicilia said in an interview.

He said Mr. Calderón agreed that he should have focused more on rebuilding the nation’s social and judicial institutions than on battering the cartels with the military and federal police. A spokesman for Mr. Calderón gave a different account, though, saying he might have critiqued a policy point or two but had never expressed regret over his strategy and remained committed to it.

WHATEVER the case, Mr. Sicilia has kept up his campaign, which seeks a “pact” between citizens and political leaders to thoroughly investigate the drug war deaths, de-emphasize combat with cartels in favor of fighting corruption and impunity, and put more attention on youth and social services.

He has called for the legalization of drugs (though, contrary to reports on social networking Web sites, he said he did not smoke marijuana or use other illicit narcotics), scolded the United States as not doing enough to curb consumption and halt the flow of guns to Mexico and suggested that the government negotiate with cartels to leave civilians out of the conflict.

Mr. Sicilia is a somewhat unvarnished, reluctant figurehead leading the charge.

At a news conference on Thursday, balding and bespectacled and wearing a rumpled checkered shirt, he took several puffs from a cigarette as he spoke before more than a dozen cameras (and later smoked several more during an hourlong interview).

He said he did not belong to any of the major political parties — “I am an anarchist, in the good sense of the word” — but had participated in demonstrations before, mostly for causes dear to the left. Until a few weeks ago, he did not even have a cellphone, but one now trilled incessantly as he made plans for the next step, including a caravan to Ciudad Juárez, the border city that is Mexico’s most violent, next month.

He admitted to being anguished that he had never received this kind of notice for his works.

Mr. Sicilia said that growing up in Mexico City, the son of a poet who was very pious, he considered the priesthood but that literature pulled him harder.

He has thought of his writings, particularly his poetry, as a form of preaching, and figures with conflicted souls permeate his works. They include the poetry collections “Gold” in 1990, “Trinity” in 1992, “Resurrection” in 1995 and “Desert Triptych” in 2009, which won the Premio de Poesía Aguascalientes, one of the country’s most prestigious literature prizes.

He has also been a political analyst for Proceso and other magazines, hurling darts at leaders of almost all political stripes.

HE declined to single out any work as his masterpiece — “They are like children, you cannot say you prefer one over another” — but he said his current circumstances reminded him most of one of his novels, “Reflection of the Dark,” published in 1997.

It tells a story of redemption and faith through a lawyer bent on saving both the neck and soul of his client, a materialistic young man facing death for killing a police officer.

“It reflects the theme of pain in a crime’s wake,” he said.

Mr. Sicilia was at a literary conference in the Philippines when he received word of his son’s death. He reached for and nearly smoked a pack of cigarettes on the spot and looked skyward with the inevitable question: Why?

“There is no response to ‘why?’ ” he said. “It is part of the mystery to me. It is only revealed when you die.”

A version of this article appeared in print on May 14, 2011, on page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: Violence Suffocated a Father’s Poetry, but Not His Voice.

About Michaela

I am a wanderer and a wonderer, like you are. I love our journey and to walk in the company of friends – to learn, experience, share, laugh, cry and above all I simply love this marvelous, magical, mysterious life. I have no plan (cannot believe I am saying this) and my only intention is to be truthful to myself and others.
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