Fifty Thousand and Counting
The Aleph as metaphor in contemporary Mexico.
A few days after the birthday of our seventh billion neighbor, in the season in which the Mexican “war” on drugs claimed (at least) its 50,000th victim, after a month of 1,045 deaths and the day previous which claimed 29 bodies across Mexico, the Day of the Dead celebration this years seems, like every year, especially significant for its death celebration. This past November 2, for the Autonomous University of Mexico’s (UNAM) fourth consecutive Day of the Dead’s megaoferta (giant death memorial), the theme was the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, specifically his short story “The Aleph.”
La Muerte es un a vida vivida. La vida es un a muerte que viene.
(Death is a life lived. Life is death on its way.)
— Jorge Luis Borges
“The Aleph” is narrated by the character Jorge Luis Borges who, after two epigraphs and a involuted esoteric backstory about the death of one Beatriz Viterbo, is basically dared into looking into a point of space (the eponymous Aleph), which is only about two or three centimeters in diameter but which contains the entire universe. The point that contains all points, including itself. And when the character Borges look into it, he sees, among other things: “the populous sea, the dawn and the dusk, the crowds of America, a silver cobweb in the center of a black pyramid, a broken labyrinth (which was London), interminable eyes scrutinizing me as if in a mirror, all the mirrors of the world… snow, tobacco, veins of metal, convex equatorial deserts and each of their grains of sand, water vapor, ” et cetera, et cetera…ad infinitum.
Walking through the maze of offerings and papier-mâché sculptures of Borges — his books, skeletons, tombstones, tigers tearing through coins and horses birthing out of giant tomes — one wonders why the theme this year is the Aleph. Why this metaphor instead of some of Borges’ other favorites like the Zahir, blindness, the tiger, the coin, or even the metaphor of Death itself?
Exactly a week before the Day of the Dead, Carlos Sinuhé Cuevas Mejía, a 33-year-old student and activist who is about to finish his degree in Philosophy and Letters, was gunned down outside his apartment building in Mexico City. Like many murders in Mexico these days, there is no known culprit and no stated motive, though most news reports did include the fact that he was shot either 16 or 11 times, mostly in the region of his groin. The investigation thus far has still turned up no leads. Carlos, by all accounts, was a good student and an amiable man without any significant vices. The megaoferta included at least three offerings dedicated to the memory of Carlos. Some of his friends were standing vigil next to them. I listened to one sad, impassioned, sleepless-eyed fellow student hoarsely expounding the recent crimes of the government, which included, he insisted, the murder of his friend.
What is perhaps most apparent in the recent social movements in Mexico, including the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity spearheaded by the poet and father of a murdered victim, Javier Sicilias, is their inefficacy. The exception might be the creation of a new government agency called Províctima, designed to variously attend to victims and their families (still to be seen is whether the agency is merely a conciliatory political bone or whether it will actually be effective). The inefficacy, I believe, comes as much from the pitfalls of Mexican democracy as from the rather timid and pleading rhetoric of the movement. People have protested almost every aspect of the current drug war, and yet President Felipe Calderón and company have consistently charged on and doubled down with increasing military presence throughout all of the hotzones, the bodies falling on the streets as fast as ever. Especially in border or drug transit towns, but also in Mexico City (which has been mostly spared of the violence so far), death fascination has taken its grip. Most magazines and some newspapers have now dedicated sections for what could rightly be called, considering the paucity of analysis, narco-porn. On any day in Mexico take a glance at almost any newsstand and you’ll see what I mean. Protests, strikes, marches, movements, balloons, the United Nations, the international group Los Indignados, Janet Napolitano, and Hillary Clinton all have had their go on the topic. And yet little has changed and it looks like little is going to change any time soon.
At the end of the infinite concatenation of images and ideas the character Borges witnesses in the story, after feeling “infinite veneration, infinite sadness,” he snaps back into the finite world. He hears his friend call his name and he sees his friend’s shoes on the top step of the staircase. Borges, the character, then does a funny thing: He doesn’t admit that he has seen the Aleph, or any of the worlds of images it contains. He says goodbye to his friend and walks out into the street where he seems to recognize all the faces of the crowd. The character then admits, “I was scared that there wouldn’t be anything left to surprise me, that I would never loose the impression that I was returning.” However, the next line: “Happily, after a few nights of insomnia, forgetfulness started working back over me.”
One of the many protests against the war on drugs deals with those easily quotable figures that seem to win (or at least stall) any argument, and it is what I began this essay with: the death count, known across Mexico as el ejecumetro or the “murder meter.” As Kristin Bricker puts the complaint succinctly in an essay written last March on upsidedownworld.org:
Thanks to the public's obsession with the execution-meter, Mexico's murdered citizens are metaphorically heaped together into the drug war's mass grave. With an average of one person killed every hour in the drug war (and eight per day in Ciudad Juarez alone), newspapers don't even bother to report the dead's names, let alone the circumstances of their lives and deaths. They simply report the gruesome manner in which the bodies were found: if the body was found whole or in pieces, clothed or naked, which body parts were missing, how they were tortured before they were killed, which of all of the injuries was the fatal blow…” et cetera, etcetera…
Borges critiques the namelessness of death even more succinctly in the title of a poem: “Remorse for Each Death.” He also writes, in “The Aleph:” “the central problem is irresoluble: the enumeration, even partial, of a infinite set.”
The sheer number of the dead seems to make the more than 50,000 stories impossible for the public to know or to properly mourn. And yet Borges solves this problem for us as well, in the seemingly contrary statement from the same poem: “death is not death: it is Death.” He gives us an avenue in which we can mourn, in which we can answer the questions I saw scribbled on a wall in a sheet-paper labyrinth on the grounds of UNAM: “How many more? At war against what?” We can say, inspired by Borges, in answer to the first question: all of us. And in answer to the second: Death.
This is the paradox of contemporary Mexican narcowar politics, the inability to forget (the overwhelming presence of violence and death) and the impossibility to remember (the stories of the individual dead). In Mexico, the “war” is simply not between two clearly defined entities. On the one hand the fissiparous nature of the cartels, on the other the opaque rhetoric and practices of the government. ” There are no allies or good guys in this “war.” There is only brutal violence, the tugging of market control and fear. This is the broken opposition. That the war is being fought between two not-opposite oppositions, so that even if, shockingly, the government listened to the peace marchers and backed off its violent street presence, we would be left with the brutal cartels still jockeying for power. So instead of just reining in the government’s fight, if this “war” is ever to be won, the government must not just be refashioned, it must be entirely repudiated.
On the eve of the Day of the Dead, Javier Sicilias, standing in the shadow of the Angel of Independence in central Mexico City, announced a new set of demands for President Calderón, which included the building of a memorial which would spell the names of the more than 50,000 dead, “so that… the next generations will know that this atrocity should never happen again in our country.”
(Borges writes, hearing his voice again after seeing the Aleph: “The indifference of my voice surprised me.”)
The problems with memorializing a war while it is still going on seem at first obvious: energy and money should be spent in “combat” and not in statues. The proposed memorial also sounds as much a memorial to the murder meter as to the actual victims. The public certainly lacks no numerological understanding of the “war.” And yet maybe the urge to memorialize this war while it is still being fought is what is necessary to win it. Part of the problem does indeed seem to be knowledge. Not just of who is dying, but of who is doing the killing. So maybe the idea should be amended, and next to the victims’ sculpture, another should be constructed to memorialize (and publicize) the murderers. A series of maps, perhaps, of U.S. drug consumption, Mexican political corruption, stats of the more than a million persons deported from the United States into the streets of Mexico, a political history of the rise of the drug cartels. And yet… and yet this information has already been published as well. Perhaps, then, it is not that the public doesn’t have the knowledge, but that we are not using the knowledge.
The Sicilias-led Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity has been constructing a network of (now about 500 cases) of previously unreported disappearances or murders on behalf of criminal groups or the government. Part of the problem, however, is maintaining the safety of those family members and friends who are coming forward. Already, as reported in the magazine Proceso, the movement has purportedly been infiltrated by both cartel and government hawks (from the Center of Investigation and National Security, something like the Mexican CIA) trying to get their hands on the data. And yet this small but potentially burgeoning network aims to organize, empower, and move to create a group strong enough to affect a change. What we can hope is that this group continues its careful path, and not only amplifies the already present begging for governmental help (as in demanding a sculpture) but takes on an increasingly active civic role.
The more potent symbolic act would be, instead of asking for it from the government, to sculpt the memorial themselves.
Two days after the murder of Carlos Sinuhé Cuevas Mejía the students of Philosophy and Letters at UNAM called and won a small 24- hour strike against the university in protest. A week later they marched to the seat of government in Mexico City. I applaud their effort, and yet asking the Mexican government to back off this fight is like convincing a carjacker not to rob your car by offering to be his chaffeur.
In the words of the mother of Carlos Sinuhé: “They killed me. They took away part of my life. Marcelo Ebrard, Calderón, Mancera, stop being idiots.”
In The Aleph, when Borges’ friend initially introduces him to the idea of the point that contains all points, he warns, “But if you don’t see it, your incapacity doesn’t invalidate my testimony.” And yet in the end what Borges does is worse than invalidate his friend’s testimony. He simply ignores it. He walks out into the street and lets himself succumb to the tides of forgetting. In Mexico we know of the corruption, the political criminality, and the surging numbers of the dead. The problem is not awareness, but what we do with the awareness. We can read and guffaw about the violence in our own homes, and nothing will continue to change. Especially if our minds are, as Borges describes, “porous for forgetting,” knowledge is not an end in itself. Careful record keeping and the murder meter will not enact change; we need to enact it ourselves. • 5 April 2012
John Washington is a Fulbright Fellow living in Mexico City. He has published on upsidedownworld.org, wordriot.org
Photographs by John Washington.