Learning to Walk Again with Javier Sicilia
By Al Giordano
“I'm learning to walk again/Can't you see I've waited long enough/Where do I begin?”
- from Walk, by the Foo Fighters (from the 2011 motion picture, Thor)
MEXICO CITY, MAY 7, 2011: What began on Thursday as a few hundred silent walkers heading out from the city of Cuernavaca today entered the metropolis of Mexico City thousands strong. At the entrance to Insurgentes Avenue they stopped and an organizer with a bullhorn provided instructions to the marchers, more in the voice of a Broadway theater director than of a political speechmaker:
“Parents of our dead, to the front of the march, behind the black banner that says, ‘We Have Had It Up to Here. Stop the War!’”
And in perfect choreography, Mexico’s most renowned father of one of the 40,000 drug war martyrs in the past four years, took a step back and other parents, with the black banner, stepped forward. A woman with an olive tree, a young girl, and a man with the Mexican flag then took their places five steps in front of the banner. Youths from Cuernavaca placed the security rope five steps in front of them, and the photo was painted by thousands of feet and hands working in unison.
Behind the family members of the dead from Felipe Calderón’s war on the Mexican people, more than 150 indigenous, religious, environmental, student, neighborhood and civic organizations and union locals took their places with their respective banners. Rank and file people unaffiliated with any group found their places in between. The retro-guard of more youths firmed up the security rope at the rear of the march – about a half-kilometer behind the snake of a width of two traffic lanes – and everything was ready. The youth with the bullhorn then instructed the vehicles leading the caravan twenty steps ahead of it to begin moving again, as what seemed like hundreds of photographers, TV cameras and reporters preserved the scene for history.
Your reporter, for 14 years, has covered protest marches from top to bottom of the Mexican Republic. They voiced many grievances on many issues but after a while they all began to sound and look alike: the same chants, the same slogans, the same iconic images of Zapata and Villa and Che Guevara often with artillery in hand… Groups and factions trying to outshout each other with their chants specific to their causes, and a kind of nervous combination of both fear and hostility toward the police, and vice versa. For those citizens not involved in those struggles, some found such marches frightening. Many youths called them boring and uncool. The lack of public response and support tended to make many of those movements feel more alienated, and alienation leads to paranoia, and paranoia leads to frustration, and frustration leads to poor strategic and tactical choices. And thus, while they have long been large in size, protests in Mexico have tended to not achieve their goals. Movements have come and gone, made stabs at garnering greater support, then disappeared out of view again, their ranks diminished by the four horsemen of failure: alienation, paranoia, frustration and poor strategy.
Today felt different. Today was measurably, objectively, not the same. The loudest thing about this march was its contemplative silence and the applause and response it provoked from men, women, children, elderly folks, who came out of their homes and stores to stop and watch it pass by.
Through the relatively wealthy southern section of the city known as Tlalpan, local women had set up neat tables abundant with sandwiches, water, fruit, soda and more. “Are journalists welcome to a water?” I asked. Yes, they smiled in unison. Have an orange, too. Have a sandwich. Have two! They seemed almost crestfallen that all I wanted was a bottle of water.
Your correspondent had walked some kilometers already and sat down at the base of a statue of an animal, a couple meters above street level, to sip the water, watch the entire march walk by, and scribble into my notepad. Javier’s section of the march streamed by and Jean Robert, the tall white-maned senior citizen and intellectual who had walked three score kilometers from Cuernavaca, shouted to me, “do you know what that monument is, Giordano? It’s the monument of the street dog!” Ah, my patron saint!
Every human exchange we witnessed (this from the half dozen Narco News correspondents filming and reporting the events at this corner today, others are downtown and in Chiapas reporting related stories) seemed to have contained a degree of mirth, of humor, of hope. They had walked in from the provinces and were taking the capital. (And just as the 1994 communiquéby the Zapatistas of Chiapas pledged that on their way to take the capital they would stop to eat quesadillas in the town of Tres Marias, this silent march had complied with that promise, too.)
A friend who was with the March in the rural town of Topilejo last night reported, “It was like watching what we all hoped the Other Campaign of 2006 would become.” And in a sense it is the logical continuation of that worthy effort to unite all the social forces of the country, “from below and to the left,” to unravel the violent dictatorship that calls itself a democracy with endorsement from Washington and its obedient English-language media cadres.
Narco News will have more reports today and this weekend from different corners of the Republic, including from San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, where thousands of indigenous Zapatistas responded to Javier’s call with their own silent march to stop the war.
This section of Insurgentes Avenue includes white overhead walkway bridges for pedestrians to cross and avoid the highway-velocity traffic that normally pummels through it. Today, each of those bridges was adorned with banners in solidarity with the march and its cause, many signed by Tlalpan neighborhood groups, and people who climbed them for an aerial view of the march applauding and flashing V signs at the walkers down below.
Transit police in neon-yellow uniforms flanked the left side of the march as a human barrier between it and the city’s big red electric Metro Buses that came speeding through every ten minutes or so. In between those moments, women from the neighborhood ran out handing sandwiches and water bottles to the police, too, who gladly accepted them. One uniformed officer interviewed by an Australian National TV News camera today, said, “I support this march. This is about what all Mexicans want.”
During each of the walk’s rest stops, Javier retreats to the passenger seat of a vehicle parked in a shady spot, takes a sip of soda or a bite of a cookie, and is besieged by reporters seeking interviews. (A scene from yesterday, with a high-heeled big media star using too much make-up: TV AZTECA REPORTER: “Javier, what has happened on the march?” JAVIER, shrugging his shoulders, smiling: “Nothing.”) Today, as the cameras mobbed around him as if in the Pinball Wizard scene from the rock opera, Tommy, trying to get interviews, something exclusive, trying to see him, feel him, touch him, Javier reached into the back of the truck and held out an offering between two halves of a bread roll. “Would any of you,” he said, “like a sandwich?” And next thing they are too busy eating sandwiches to bother him with questions.
Javier Sicilia and his merry band (they kind of do conjure up images of Robin Hood and company) walking into the big city from Morelos may very well stop the drug war. They are harnessing a public opinion that has existed for a long time but no one had given voice or form to it. I’m a believer. We’ve been documenting and reporting everything they’ve done and will keep on doing so and see it all the way through. But I observe they are doing something else, maybe something even bigger than that once-thought impossible policy change, as well. They are teaching us how to walk again: Another way to fight. Not with polarization and sloganeering, but with creativity and fun, with a warm heart and a cool head. Heaven knows that if anyone has a right to rant and rail and shout and pound his fist into the air, it is he who lost his son so cruelly so few weeks ago. But here he is, today, in the nation’s capital, handing out sandwiches to reporters and to cops, giving them, too, a shot at redemption, to learn to walk again.
(Photo DR 2011 Alejandro Meléndez.)