Review: Los cárteles no existen – Oswaldo Zavala

Los cárteles no existen: narcotráfico y cultura en México [Cartels don’t exist: drug trafficking and culture in Mexico]* (Barcelona: Malpaso, 2018) by Oswaldo Zavala is a deliberately provocative book with a clear central thesis: cartels exist discursively and have been rhetorically constructed thanks to powerful interests, but do not exist as they are popularly understood and repeatedly reproduced in literature, film and television. In Zavala’s words, “lo que con frecuencia denominamos ‘narco’ es la invención discursiva de una política estatal que responde a intereses geopolíticos específicos” [what we refer to as ‘narcos’ is the discursive invention of state policy responding to specific geopolitical interests] (loc 3658). Zavala asserts that these interests are a complex combination of post-Cold War US foreign policy in Mexico and Central America and the consequence of the shifts in power between the PRI and the PAN in Mexico. He summarises these clearly and convincingly. He argues that the aim of the so-called “War on Drugs” and the attendant discourse is to displace inhabitants from areas rich in energy resources (such as Northern Mexico) by the Mexican and US governments for the benefit of private interests.

Zavala makes a strong case in a book that is a fascinating mix of journalism and academic analysis. This is not unusual in academic work about the recent violence (see, for example, Watt and Zepeda 2012). These are complementary skills rather than in tension with one another. His background as a journalist is clearly asserted from the introductory pages and determines his style of argumentation. It is a book making a bold case challenging those writing about texts representing (or purporting to represent) ‘cartels’ and narco-violence’ to re-think the language they employ and is a call to those in the creative industries (literature, film, and TV) to produce work nuanced by a more rigorous ethical and political approach.

For Zavala, there are many significant markers that reveal how the current discursive and creative fields have emerged. One of these I will be addressing in my upcoming monograph is his periodisation of novels before and after Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s La reina del sur (2002). Reading it as focused on “un personaje tan atractivo y fantasioso” [an attractive and fantastical character] (loc 404), he dismisses the novel as apolitical and facile.  This is a discussion I will get into elsewhere. I’m most interested in its adaptation to telenovela (soap opera). He is critical of subsequent novels that copy La reina del sur‘s formula for commercial ends and praises those that he deems are politically astute because, “La literatura puede revelar el verdadero rostro simbólico del poder y la posibilidad igualmente real de confrontarlo”[Literature can reveal the symbolic face of power and show the equally real possibility of how to address it] (loc 2628). His is a large requirement of literature and one that is part of a long and ongoing debate amongst writers and critics. I would have welcomed more engagement with this debate, but this is one of the points where the central thesis and the forward momentum of the argument was given primacy over deeper discussion. In plae of this discussion he argues the case for good examples of novels that write about the violence in ways that situate it within a broader discursive, historical and political field. These do serve to illustrate his assertion that writers (and other creators) need to be responsible and nuanced when setting works against this violence. This is a point he has made, more recently, when critiquing the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico (a piece that chimes with my own on the earlier Narcos).

Zavala ably traces the mythology of the most notorious and infamous of the so-called drug kingpins, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán (currently, subject of a show trial in the US). Challenging many of the salient myths, Zavala asserts that El Chapo is but a placeholder for much of the violence committed by others (mostly the Mexican state, sometimes in collusion with the CIA). At others Zavala suggests that El Chapo, his escapes, and the stories that abound related to him have been useful distractions from more significant events and political decisions.

Some of the assertions I disagree with and will address elsewhere. For example, I am not convinced by his discussion of feminicide/femicide nor with his wholescale dismissal of the telenovela, La reina del sur (2011-19).**  However, this is an important book that should be heeded. The language used around the violence ascribed to cartels often enacted by government forces really matters. There is an urgency to this book. One of the ways he reminds the reader of this is through the repetition of the numbers of dead between 2008 and 2012, a peak period of violence: 120,000 dead and 30,000 disappeared. Facts that cannot be ignored. These serve more than rhetorical effect, they also ground the discussion in actualité (to borrow a term commonly used in documentary studies). He reminds us that the significance of his assertions are not a mere question of language abstracted from reality, this book is centred on lives lost, absented through brutal means.

*All translations mine. I have gone for literal translations to convey meaning. There may be loss of nuance.
**Literally, Queen of the South. There has been a less-successful English language re-make of that name.



Sea Birds, Liverpool, Clipperton and the Mexican Revolution

A recent art piece on the waterfront in Liverpool reminded me of the different possible approaches and modes of reflecting on a place and its inhabitants. This bird is a blue-legged Masked Booby who are primarily found on Clipperton, a small atoll in the Pacific Ocean. I have just finished editing a chapter on two novels Isla de pasión (1989) by the Colombian Laura Restrepo and Isla de bobos (2007) by the Mexican Ana García Bergua set on this atoll once occupied by Mexico where the birds are significant to the inhabitants.

Kings Dock, Liverpool

I am not a bird watcher, so recognizing such a distinctive breed was a novelty. Researching these novels required a multidisciplinary approach and meant drawing from theoretical approaches in literature, film, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and history. That these have more in common than differences is evident when I found myself making the shift to reading material from the sciences for this chapter to learn about Clipperton.

I found a very brief entry in the Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Place-Names that scarcely hints at the awful activities that took place in Clipperton. It is described as ‘[a]n island in the Pacific named after John Clipperton, an English mutineer and pirate, who used it as a base in 1705. It was annexed by France in 1855’ (Everett-Heath 2014, np). Clipperton was used as a landing post by the pirate because of its strategic location where he and his shipmates would stopover to avoid capture. Their smaller and sleeker vessels could traverse the tricky waters whilst the larger cargo vessels could not. In later centuries other nations (Great Britain, France, US, and Mexico) claimed the territory because of Clipperton’s strategic location.  As well as reading (more detailed) historical accounts, I had to turn to scientific research. The diver Michel Labrecque describes Clipperton as follows,

[t]hroughout the globe, many destinations can be described as unique or remote but only one deserves the title of the most isolated atoll in the world. Clipperton Atoll is located 870 miles (1400km) south of the tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Far off in the Pacific Ocean, its latitude is equal to that of the northern portion of Costa Rica (Labrecque 2016, 44).

As described by Labrecque, Clipperton is still difficult to access, is occupied by millions of land crabs, surrounded by a healthy coral reef, nursery to Silvertip sharks, and home to unique fish species (the Clipperton Angelfish, Gregory and Grouper) (Labrecque 2016, 45-6). Although called an island, it is in fact “the only coral atoll in the eastern Pacific” (Charpy et al 2010, 771) and is ring-shaped surrounding a lagoon. An atoll is a circular coral reef and Clipperton is the result of volcanic activity and the residues and sedimentary deposits of organic matter from animal and plant life. The precise position is described as follows,

“This volcanic headland, rising only 29 m above sea level at its highest point, is located 1,280 km off the west coast of México, at 10° 18′ N and 109° 13′ W” (Fourriére et al 2014, 375).

In sum, it is a desirable yet challenging location for human habitation because of its isolation and geophysical make-up.

While its location has been important, for a time its wildlife made it valuable and a significant reason for contested occupations. García Bergua calls her novel La isla de bobos after the Brown Boobies and blue-legged Masked Boobies, seabirds who proliferate on the island and as an evaluation of the human inhabitants of that island (bobo = foolish). The nitrogen-rich guano of these seabirds was an important source of fertilizer until the advent of artificial fertilizers.

Clipperton was occupied by Mexican forces in the opening decades of the Twentieth century, at the outbreak of the 1910 Revolution the army men, their wives and children and workers as well as the people attached to the guano trade were abandoned by their government during the political turmoil. A place with little vegetation and resources, distant from accessible sources of food other than the seabirds and crabs that proliferate, the inhabitants soon suffered extreme and, sometimes, deadly cases of scurvy and died. For a short time, I found myself investigating scurvy. Although it did not make it to the last draft, the fact that men more readily succumb to death or madness with scurvy was a piece of information that was both illuminating and signaled why so many died whilst the women survived and suggested why the surviving men inflicted terrible trauma and harms on the women and children.

Restrepo and García Bergua’s novels recount the individual crimes that took place: murder, theft, assault, rape, army desertion, and kidnap. They explore the motives of the perpetrators and the contexts in which they took place. It is clear that the crimes were serious and had significant and long-term consequences on the survivors. Neither condones the actions of the individuals who committed the acts, instead they foreground the challenges involved in ascribing individual blame. They get to a partial truth behind the salacious details that were reported in the press at the time.  Whilst told using different stylistic and generic conventions, Restrepo and García Bergua hold individuals responsible for their actions and call the state and society to account for rendering women, children, and people of colour as inferior to men of European origin. Neither condone nor naturalise this individual violence, instead they lay it bare and make systemic violence culpable for what took place on this remote atoll.

The seabird on the Liverpool waterfront is more than just an unusual species, it is one that has considerable resonance for those who understand the history of Clipperton.


Selected reading

Charpy, L, M. Rodier, A. Coute, C. Perrette-Gallet, C. Bley-Loëz (2010) “Clipperton, a possible future for atoll lagoons” Coral Reefs 29:771–783

Everett-Heath, John (2014) The Concise Dictionary of World Place-Names (3 ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fourriére, Manon, Héctor Reyes-Bonilla, Fabián A. Rodríguez-Zaragoza, and Nicole Crane (2014) “Fishes of Clipperton Atoll, Eastern Pacific: Checklist, Endemism, and Analysis of Completeness of the Inventory Pacific Science”, vol. 68, no. 3:375–395 doi:10.2984/68.3.7

García Bergua, Ana (2007) Isla de bobos México: Seix Barral.

Restrepo, Laura (2005) La isla de la pasión New York: Rayo.


Central American Children and the Mexico-US border: Learn More

Teens on La Bestia

Sin nombre (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2009)

The uproar surrounding the detention of children at the Mexican-US border has brought attention to the migration of Central Americans to the US.

‌The majority are from what is called the Northern Triangle – Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala – and are seeking asylum because of increased violence in their home nations. Many of these take a long, dangerous, and harrowing journey through Mexico, which is also tasked to police their transit through agreements with the US.

On arrival, they have the right under international law to request asylum in the US. This issue came to the public attention in the US when, in April 2018 for safety reasons 150-200 Central Americans travelled as a group through Mexico to get to the US border to petition for asylum.

Whilst many of these cases are being muddled with anti-immigration rhetoric by the current US government, there are complex historic and geo-political reasons for this current movement of people across borders.

Many of these reasons go back to US interventionist policies during the Cold War and have been aggravated by the increased militarization of the US-Mexico border since the Clinton presidency.

It’s important for us to look back at the events of the past that have lead up to this point, so that we have the full context when looking at today’s headlines.

Find out more

To get some further insight into the causes of the movement of so many, here are some recommendations for reading, listening and viewing:

  • In Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017) the New York based Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli writes of her experiences navigating the bureaucracy of the immigration system as a privileged, bilingual individual and sets it alongside stories of children and young people she encountered whilst volunteering for a translation service helping undocumented Central American children facing deportation. It is a short and moving reflection and analysis of the experience.
  • Part of the National Public Radio (NPR) stable, Latino USA regularly addresses issues related to migration, as well as other features including portraits of well-known Latinos, such as Luis Fonsi and Alaska. A May 31 2018 episode took a look at how the US immigration system lost track of about 1,500 minors, which gives a sense of the possible fate of the children whose parents are not able to accompany them.
  • Three of the many recent films that specifically consider the reasons, experiences, and consequences of movement across borders are: Sin nombre (Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2009), La jaula de oro/The Golden Dream (Diego Quemada-Díez, 2013), and Who is Dayani Crystal? (Mark Silver, 2014). Sin nombre and The Golden Dream are about teens fleeing poverty and gangs in their country of origin and make the perilous journey through Mexico. Part of their journey is on top of the infamous and very dangerous ‘La Bestia’ (the beast) freight trains that traverse Mexico. Who is Dayani Crystal? is a documentary featuring Gael García Bernal that is an investigation into the identity of a dead migrant discovered in the Arizona desert whose tattoo “Dayani Crystal” serves as the only clue to his identity.

These are only a starting point, given the complexity and historical reach of this issue.

*This blog was cross-posted on the University of Liverpool Modern Languages and Cultures site.

Vicente Leñero, the scriptwriter a brief reflection

Since his death on the 3rd of December 2014, the novelist, dramatist, journalist, and scriptwriter, Vicente Leñero, has received considerable attention including this reflection by the novelist Ana García Bergua and this other homage from his daughter, Estela Leñero Franco. Recently, when writing two separate chapters, one about literary adaptation in Mexico and another about the Mexican director Marcela Fernández Violante, I have been carrying out research on Leñero as a scriptwriter.

His case is an interesting one and tells us much about the strong involvement by novelists in writing for the screen in Mexico. Leñero wrote 31 scripts for film and television. These are varied in quality and in his precise role. His first script was for the first horror television series, Momias de Guanajuato (1962), on which he worked alongside other renowned authors including Inés Arredondo. In addition, to such hired jobs, he also wrote a variety of original screenplays, and adapted canonical and prestigious novels by others, including Los de abajo (Servando González, 1976), Cadena perpetua (Arturo Ripstein, 1970), El callejón de los milagros (Jorge Fons, 1995), and El crimen de padre Amaro (Carlos Carrera, 2002), respectively, from novels by Mariano Azuela, Luis Spota, Naguib Mahfouz, and Eça de Queirós. He is not alone in writing, adapting and consulting for television and film amongst his contemporaries (for example, Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes wrote screenplays in Mexico), but, alongside Emilio Carballido, he is one of the most prolific and consistent over the course of his whole career. For me, his adaptation of his experimental novel, Estudio Q (1965) into an experimental yet accessible film, Misterio (1980), functions as insider commentaries by Fernández Violante as director and Leñero as writer, both of whom have considerable knowledge of form, function, and of the frustrations of television and film in Mexico in the mid-1960s and early 1980s.

Los de abajo Commemoration in Los Angeles

On the 15th and 16th of May I’ll be a featured speaker in a second conference commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the publication of Mariano Azuela’s novela de la Revolución, Los de abajo. Click herefor more information. My paper,”A Question of Taste: the Cinematic Adaptations of Los de Abajo“, considers the two films adaptations, the first in 1940 by Chano Urueta and the second by Servando González released in 1976.

An Introduction to Elena Poniatowska in Liverpool April 18 2015

The following was my introduction to Elena Poniatowska at City Hall.

2015 will see a series of events related to Mexico and the United Kingdom. It is an honour to welcome Elena Poniatowska to Liverpool who has just been at the London Book Fair. Of course, she is here in Liverpool, now because of her fascinating fictionalized biography of the artist, Leonora Carrington, whose work is currently being exhibited in Tate Liverpool. I’m here to give an overview of Elena Poniatowska as author, journalist and activist from an academic perspective.

I first came to Elena Poniatowska’s work through research into the Mexican Revolution. Her book, Hasta no verte Jesús mío [translated as Here’s to You Jesusa], was first published in 1969 and is the story of a soldadera [or female soldier] in the Revolution. Based on interviews with a real-life individual, who refused to speak if Elena carried a recording device or notebook, it was filtered through memory, and was a radical departure from other novels of the Revolution, which had focused on the male prowess or failure on the battlefield or in politics. Instead it told the story of a woman born into poverty, forced through circumstances to take up arms and who continued to battle throughout her life and worked in a number of precarious jobs from child minding and cleaning to piecework in factories. It is a tale of survival told melding literary technique with fact in innovative ways that has marked Elena Poniatowska’s work over the course of her writing life.

Drawing from early techniques learnt while working alongside the US anthropologist, Óscar Sánchez, which were honed interviewing the rich and famous for Mexican newspapers, Elena Poniatowska is an adept interviewer. This is reflected in the multiple chronicles and testimonios she has published covering significant events and figures in Mexico. These include:

Tlatelolco Massacre [an account of the student movement and subsequent massacre in the days leading up to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City];

Nothing, nobody: the voices of the earthquake [an account of the earthquake in Mexico City in 1985];

These are polyphonic stories of the subaltern. That is, they are books with many voices, which function as forms of witness to the events with multiple interviews with victims and their families.

Elena Poniatowska is not only interested in the disadvantaged. She has also written essays, interviews, and fictional narratives of artists, writers and activists. These are individuals who have challenged authority in different ways and have found creative means of expressing their dissent.

This diverse group includes essays on the feminist poet and essayist, Rosario Castellanos and the US photographer, Mariana Yampolksy, who became a Mexican citizen and spent her life documenting impoverished rural Mexicans, and a well-known interview with the elusive rebel spokesman for the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos.

She also writes essays about the important men of letters and art and takes on a new perspective, whether that is a new reading of the nobel-prize winning poet, Octavio Paz, or the imagined letters to the muralist Diego Rivera from his Russian artist wife Angelina Beloff, who he abandoned in Paris.

Never conventional, these are attentive to the view from the edges of history, the private lives of public figures as experience rather than spectacle, the mechanics of power, and those at odds with the mainstream. In this way, Elena Poniatowska is part of a strong Latin American tradition of the public intellectual, who the Uruguayan critic described in his book the “Lettered city”. He asserted that it is the responsibility of those who have the cultural and literary capital to recognize their privilege and engage in public debate. For him, through the creation of this critical space there is the potential to debate the discourses of power and this is something that is evident in Elena Poniatowska’s work.

Winner of many awards, writer of novels, short stories, essays and interviews, author of texts that have defied categorization [and have academics at odds over how to label them], she is a creative and intellectual force.

A precursor to the boom in women’s writing in Mexico of the 1980s and 1990s, Elena Poniatowska has mapped out her own particular trajectory as someone who has drawn attention to those at the margins and those the official histories have forgotten or would rather forget.

Never afraid of speaking truth to power and of advocating for the marginalized, Elena Poniatowska remains a vital voice in Mexican literary, social and political life.

The Politics of Being a Writer in Mexico: Ayotzinapa

This poem has been circulating amongst my friends and followers on social media in the last day. It draws attention to the power of writing and the writer’s role as public intellectual in Mexico. Huerta’s intervention is an important tool in the building of transnational solidarity and a means of reaching a wide audience where news media often fail in reach and coverage. The act of solidarity by the translators, who are helping to disseminate this in multiple languages, is also important to note. The English language version was translated by Juana Adcock, herself a poet.

The events in Ayotzinapa are unfolding at such a scale that already there is a very full English language Wikipedia page with, to date, 147 footnotes referencing the many journalistic pieces from newspapers and press agencies in Spanish and English.  I don’t normally reference Wikipedia, but the size of this reflects the incremental scale and online organisation around the disappearance of these students. It has gained momentum and captured the country’s attention on a scale that has galvanised public opinion. There is a demand for change that is usefully synthesised in the title of a new Facebook group called, “ya me cansé, por eso propongo” [I’ve had enough, so I propose]. While being a positive assertion, the first person in this lacks the social solidarity of the “todos somos Ayotzinapa” [we are all Ayotzinapa] hashtag to be found on Twitter.

Javier Sicilia and supporters,14 August 2011, Photo courtesy of Sarah Clancy

The growth of this collective movement is notable, but not without precedent. The marches and action around the death of the son of the poet, Javier Sicilia in 2011 drew considerable attention from Sicilia’s fellow writers, Mexican citizens from near and far, and famous actors, but has largely dissipated despite it being as yet unresolved. A timeline of events can be found here. Soon after the death of his son, Sicilia declared that he could no longer write and would dedicate his time to seeking justice. This is understandable and I could pass no judgement on that action when someone is faced with such a loss. Silence can have its own power. For some, it is a form of action that speaks for itself, and loss can silence creativity. Sicilia has not been completely silent. He has persisted in speaking, protesting, and demanding justice. His actions and the solidarity around it was, in many ways, a precursor to the present movement.

Another intervention by a writer in solidarity with Ayotzinapa is that of Elena Poniatowska. She is a Mexican writer of considerable range, who has long engaged in public acts of solidarity with social movements.  Repeatedly, she has documented major social and political upheavals (such as, the student massacre in 1968 and the events surrounding the earthquake in Mexico City in 1985) in her writing that often sits somewhere on the spectrum between fact and fiction. That is, some of her writing is easily categorisable as fact or fiction, much else is in-between.  She spoke at a march in Mexico City on the 26th of October 2014 demanding the return of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa who were disappeared. Her speech and a sense of the scale of the march can be seen here in Spanish and in English here.  The biography given on the English page emphasises her political writings:

“Elena Poniatowska is a Mexican writer and journalist. Her dozens of books  include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, children’s books, and journalistic essays,  one of the most famous of which is La noche de Tlatelolco (published in  English as Massacre in Mexico), a chronicle of the brutal repression by  the Mexican government of student protesters in 1968. Much of her work focuses  on politics, history, and social justice. In 2013 she was awarded the Premio  Cervantes, which is the greatest Spanish-language literature award for an  author’s lifetime works.”

This is detail that is most relevant to the speech, but does not completely capture the range of her output.

In her speech she names each student, a reminder of their individuality in itself, and provides a brief profile of each of them: one likes football, another is a joker, another likes gaming. She gives accounts of some of the students’ backgrounds, their parents’ aspirations for them, their physical appearances, and nicknames. This makes them more than the stark number 43 can suggest, and reveals her skills as an interviewer gained over years of journalism and testimonial writing.

Note the use of the present tense. It does not concede that they are dead, an important point for the families. They are disappeared.

There is an immediacy to the reactions by Huerta and Poniatowska that has its own dynamic and function. No doubt, over time other creative expressions will emerge when events have evolved further and writers have time to fully digest what has happened. In some ways, these creations are the literary equivalent of journalism: immediate, timely and necessary.


A brief introduction to Jean Franco

At the Latin American Studies Association last year in Washington I met Jean Franco. Born in Manchester, she was a pioneering scholar who has become one of the foremost cultural theorists in Latin American Studies. She has written on multiple literary forms (poetry, short story, testimonio, novels, etc), television, journalistic writing and multiple other forms that fall under the broad title of Latin American culture. She laid the groundwork for English-language studies of women’s literature in Mexico. The fact that most of her books are still in print is testimony to their relevance. I turn to her work, repeatedly. What prompted this post was an interview with her by a Mexican media outlet accompanied by a brief biography. Nearly 90, She is still writing books, travelling, and actively engaging with other scholars. In her most recent book, Cruel Modernity, she considers the conditions that led to cruelty and torture being used in Latin America in the last 80 years. She is currently professor emerita at Columbia University, New York. Lively, friendly, and interested, she is also very good company.

*As an addendum to this post I want to add a profile of Franco by Elena Poniatowska. It is a speech given in 2014 to launch a translation of a book of essays and to celebrate her work: .