Suffering Through the Violence

Pictured from left to right, Olivier Salès, Nicholas Sheets, Carlo Zepeda, Javier Sicilia, Dainerys Machado Vento, Lidiana de Moraes. Photo: Evan Garcia/UM News
By Michael R. Malone

Pictured from left to right, Olivier Salès, Nicholas Sheets, Carlo Zepeda, Javier Sicilia, Dainerys Machado Vento, Lidiana de Moraes. Photo: Evan Garcia/UM News

Suffering Through the Violence

By Michael R. Malone
Mexican activist, poet and novelist Javier Sicilia deplored the violence stemming from the “drug war” in Mexico that claimed his son’s life.

Devastated when his son was kidnapped and murdered in 2011, Javier Sicilia renounced his life vocation as a poet to become an anti-violence activist who challenges Mexican leaders to end the systemic violence in his country.

Sicilia shared the riveting story of his agonizing ordeal during a February 9 event at the University of Miami’s Shalala Student Center where he was the keynote speaker at the Department of Modern Language’s “Lands of Freedom?” conference.

Addressing a full assembly of students, faculty and guests, Sicilia spoke for over an hour without notes, weaving a narrative that ranged from artistic impulse to Christian mysticism to esoteric philosophical thought, yet was always grounded in the powerful emotion of his personal grief—and that of “tens of thousands of other parents in Mexico like me.”

His 24-year-old son, Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega, along with six friends—five young men and a woman—were attempting to reclaim a stolen laptop computer and camera when their inquiry to police led them into a web of narcotraffickers. All seven were kidnapped and found murdered shortly afterward. 

In his talk, Sicilia referred to his last poem, “The World Is Not Worthy of Words,” written as a homage to his son, and tried to explain why a person who had lived and breathed poetry all his life—his father was a poet as well—would forsake their greatest passion to pursue a different course.

In the wake of his son’s murder, Sicilia has worked tirelessly to mobilize a movement for peaceful change, social equity, and an end to institutions tainted by impunity.

He talked about his meetings with former Mexican President Felipe Calderon and with other government officials, urging them to enact transformative legislation to end the “normalization of violence” in the country.

As deep as his own suffering has been, Sicilia deplored even worse the “tens of thousands” of Mexican families whose loved ones have been kidnapped and “disappeared”—never heard from again.

More an appeal to end “senseless and absurd violence” than a lecture, Sicilia compared the disappearances, unrelenting violence, and silencing of resistance to the disappearance of meaningful language in our technological age, where in the world of social media, the human experience exists for only an instant in time.  

UM President Julio Frenk introduced Sicilia as “a celebrated speaker; renowned poet, essayist and intellectual; fighter for justice—someone admired by all of Mexico and an example of our University values”—and praised the graduates’ Organizing Student Committee for the successful conference, “a reflection of what we want to be as a University.” 

In response to a question by Dr. Felicia Knaul, director of the Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, who asked: “What message do you have for our students and young people, what can they do?” an emotional Sicilia said he was “ashamed” that his generation was bequeathing such a violent-plagued world, but that only a national movement for justice and peace “could resolve this hell.”

Additionally at the full-day conference, titled “Lands of Freedom? Oppressions, Subversions, and Pursuits of Justice in a Changing World,” graduate students served as moderators for a range of panels with presentations of international papers on themes ranging from “female genitalia mutilation” to “resistance and political violence.”