Monday, March 30, 2015

Loss in Translation: Ayotzinapa and Mexico’s More than 27,000 Disappeared

by Maggie Ervin

At its best, a translation can be sublime and elevating. I dare say Edith Grossman’s English version of One Hundred Years of Solitude is almost as stunningly delicious as Garcia Marquez’s original. And I wonder if Rilke’s original Sonnets to Orpheus could possibly be more transcendent than Stephen Mitchell’s take on it. At its worst, translation can be awkward and disappointing. When trying to convey the layers of Portuguese’s saudade, or those long, precise German nouns stuck together to make one single word.


Translating certain words from Spanish to English can be complicated too. In English, "disappear" is not normally a transitive verb. Something or someone disappears by its own will, or by negligence, but it’s not something you do to someone else. There are plenty of cruel things you can do to people in English, but disappearing folks is simply not part of our linguistic repertoire of barbarism. Here in Mexico, someone can be “bagged.” No, not "fired" or "arrested." In this case it means a dead body is wrapped in a garbage bag and most likely left somewhere other than the local morgue. Ever heard of a “goat’s horn?” (Hint: not the one you find on the animal.) That translates to AK-47. Similarly, “el derecho a la verdad” sounds odd in English too. “The right to the truth?” When was the last time you heard that victims have “the right to the truth?”


43 students, disappeared. Or would the right word be “missing?" Or "taken?" Or "unaccounted for?" No, they are indeed disappeared; no ambiguities or euphemisms in this case. In fact, the more accurate term for what happened in Iguala six months ago was forced disappearance. To English speakers, this term might also need some explaining. In spite of the many injustices in the U.S. - class inequalities, crazy rates of incarceration, demonizing of immigrants, bankruptcy due to sickness, police killing unarmed black men, a merciless minimum wage - forced disappearance is not part of our daily reality or rhetoric. So a little clarification. There are three basic elements to forced disappearance: 1) the denial of someone’s freedom against their will, 2) the involvement of state authorities either by commission or omission, and 3) the denial of the incident by state authorities. On the night of September 26, 2014, all of these elements were gruesomely at play. 


Over these last six months, the 43 students of Ayotzinapa have gotten widespread, worldwide attention, as well they should have. But forced disappearance has been a major problem in Mexico since 2006. In the year 2014 alone, over 5,098 Mexicans were disappeared. That’s more people than fit in a typical high school gym. (So imagine that varsity basketball game during a winning season, and then stuff in about 500 more people.) The story of the 43 students has gotten more attention than others, probably because of a confluence of factors: the grisliness of the massacre, the clear collusion between organized crime and the state, the government’s slow response and premature attempts to close the book on the case, and the shameless levels of corruption and putrefaction of political parties embodied in the event. But family members of the forcibly disappeared in Mexico have been speaking out for years.


Not only speaking out, but also alerting authorities. Surely the numbers are low compared to actual disappearances, since family members are often too scared - of narcos or state authorities, or both - to report them. (There are currently over 27,000 disappeared Mexicans.) But perhaps they’re also skeptical that justice will be served. Unfortunately, the evidence strongly supports this skepticism. Between 2006 and 2011, 390 complaints of forced disappearances were filed before Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission. Out of those, there have been zero convictions. And despite the number of forced disappearances having increased since Peña Nieto took office in December 2012, by April 2014 (the last date available) there was still not one single conviction for forced disappearance in all of Mexico. 
All of this is happening in the context of the Drug War. It’s been 34 years since Nixon declared it, fifteen years since it was unleashed on a massive scale in Colombia, and eight years since Mexico became its main frontier. No matter how you measure it, in terms of its stated goals the Drug War has been a colossal, undeniable failure both in the U.S. and south of the border. The availability and consumption of drugs hasn’t decreased, it’s corresponded with a surge in human rights abuses, it’s led to more incarceration and broken families in the U.S., and the deaths keep mounting in Latin America. Much has been written - in many languages, and quite eloquently - about this evidence. And more than a handful of Latin American current and past presidents have criticized the policy, even a few from the right. Yet somehow U.S. politicians of both major parties continue to stubbornly ignore the data. What will it take to stop this war?
That word, of course, is easy to translate: Guerra. War. And it has several derivative words, like the name of the state where the 43 were disappeared: Guerrero. Warrior. We need warriors these days, the kind who fight for an end to state brutality and militarization, who condemn the lucrative business of war, and who defend the “right to the truth.” That is what it will take. 


  • Take action to stop the U.S.’s funding the Merida Initiative. Through it the U.S. government has spent over 2.4 billion dollars, most of which has been used to militarize Mexico. Tell your Representatives to stop funding the Initiative.

  • Join the U.S. Caravan of the 43 (through April 28,2014). Show your solidarity with family members of the disappeared students.


Más que cifras y términos: la desaparición de los 43 y de muchos más

por Maggie Ervin
En su mejor momento, una traducción puede ser sublime y enriquecedora. Me atrevo a plantear que la versión en inglés de Cien años de Soledad, realizada por Edith Grossman, es casi tan deliciosa como el original de García Márquez. Y me pregunto si el Sonetos a Orpheus, escrito por Rilke, podría ser más lírico que la interpretación de Stephen Mitchell. En su peor momento, la traducción puede ser incómoda y decepcionante. Cuando se trata de transmitir los matices del saudade portugués, o los largos y precisos sustantivos alemanes, yuxtapuestos para significar una sola palabra.

La traducción de ciertas palabras del español al inglés puede ser complicada también. En inglés, “desaparecer” normalmente no es un verbo transitivo. Algo o alguien desaparece por su propia voluntad, o por negligencia, pero no es algo que se le pueda hacer a otra persona. En inglés, hay un montón de cosas crueles que puedes hacerle a alguien, pero desaparecerlo simplemente no es parte de nuestro repertorio lingüístico de la barbarie. Aquí en México, alguien puede ser "embolsado", y esto no quiere decir “despedido” o “detenido” como “bagged” en ingles. Esta palabra significa que un cadáver ha sido envuelto en una bolsa de basura y es abandonado en algún lugar que probablemente no sea la morgue local. Si le preguntamos a un angloparlante qué significa un "cuerno de chivo", la primera imagen que le vendría a la mente serían los cuernos de un animal, no una AK-47. Del mismo modo, "el derecho a la verdad" suena extraño en inglés. "¿El derecho a la verdad? Nunca he escuchado ese termino”, diría un angloparlante.


43 estudiantes desaparecidos. ¿O “perdidos” sería la palabra correcta? O “levantados”? O “extraviados”? No, en realidad los desaparecieron; no hay ni tergiversaciones ni ambiguedades en este caso. De hecho, el término más preciso de lo que pasó en Iguala hace seis meses fue “desaparición forzada”. Para los angloparlantes, este término también podría necesitar más explicaciones. A pesar de las muchas injusticias en EE.UU. - la desigualdad de clases, la discriminación en contra de los inmigrantes, el porcentaje absurdo de personas tras las rejas, la policía que mata a hombres negros desarmados, un salario mínimo de miseria – con todo esto, la desaparición forzada no es parte de nuestra realidad cotidiana y retórica. Así que una pequeña aclaración. Hay tres elementos básicos sobre la desaparición forzada: 1) la negación de la libertad de una persona en contra de su voluntad, 2) la participación de las autoridades estatales, ya sea por acción u omisión, y 3) la negación de los hechos por parte de las autoridades. En la noche del 26 de septiembre de 2014, estos tres elementos estaban en juego de manera espeluznante.


Durante estos últimos seis meses, el caso de los 43 normalistas de Ayotzinapa ha recibido mucha atención a lo largo y ancho del mundo, tal como debería. Pero la desaparición forzada ha sido un problema mucho más serio en México desde el 2006. Tan sólo en el año 2014, desaparecieron a más de 5.098 mexicanos. Esta cantidad rebasa el número de personas que cabe en un gimnasio de una típica escuela secundaria estadounidense. (Así que imagina un juego de baloncesto en ese gimnasio durante una temporada ganadora, y luego súmale 500 personas más). Lo sucedido con los 43 ha recibido más atención que otros casos, probablemente debido a una confluencia de factores: la truculencia absoluta de la masacre, la clara colusión entre el crimen organizado y el estado, la lenta respuesta del gobierno ante estos sucesos, y los niveles desvergonzados de corrupción y putrefacción de los partidos políticos encarnados en estos sucesos. Pero los familiares de todos los desaparecidos en México han estado denunciando durante años.


No sólo denunciando, sino también alertando a las autoridades. Sin duda, las cifras registradas son bajas comparadas con las desapariciones reales, ya que los familiares a menudo no denuncian por miedo a los narcos o a las autoridades, o a ambos. (Actualmente hay más de 27.000 mexicanos desaparecidos.) Pero también en muchos casos los familiares no creen que alguna vez se haga justicia y desafortunadamente, la evidencia apoya firmemente este escepticismo. Entre el 2006 y el 2011, 390 denuncias de desapariciones forzadas fueron presentadas ante la Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos. Sin embargo, no ha habido ni una sola sentencia. Y a pesar de que el número de desapariciones forzadas ha aumentado desde que Peña Nieto tomó posesión en diciembre de 2012, en abril de 2014 todavía nadie había sido condenado por desaparición forzada en toda la república mexicana.
Todo eso está pasando en un contexto llamado la “Guerra contra las Drogas”. Han pasado 34 años desde que Nixon la declaró, quince años desde que se desató en escala masiva en Colombia, y ocho años desde que México se convirtió en su principal campo de batalla. No importa cómo se mida, en términos de sus objetivos declarados, esta guerra ha sido un fracaso colosal e innegable, tanto en EE.UU. como al sur de su frontera. La disponibilidad y el consumo de drogas no han disminuido, y han correspondido con un aumento de violaciones de los derechos humanos y simplemente más muerte. Mucho se ha escrito sobre esta evidencia, y más de un puñado de presidentes actuales y pasados de América Latina han criticado esta política, incluso varios de la derecha. Sin embargo, los políticos estadounidenses de ambos partidos se niegan a prestar la más mínima atención a los datos. ¿Qué se necesita para detener esta guerra?
Esa palabra, por supuesto, es fácil de traducir: guerra, war. Y tiene varias palabras derivadas, como el nombre del estado en el que desaparecieron los 43: guerrero, warrior. Necesitamos guerreros en estos días, los que demandan ponerle fin a la brutalidad del estado, a la militarización y a la rentabilidad de la guerra, y los que defienden el "derecho a la verdad." Eso es lo que se necesita.


  • Únete a la Caravan de los 43. Solidarízate con los familiares de los normalistas desaparecidos.



Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Corruption, Impunity, and a Stunning View of Central Park

by Maggie Ervin

Oaxacan resident Claudia Trujillo was eating lunch behind the cash register as she does every day, her elderly mother sitting next to her. “It makes me angry…Here I am breaking my back, facing higher electricity and phone bills and sales tax, and they’re off buying properties in New York, Miami, and who knows where else, and opening bank accounts in Switzerland.” She was reacting to one of the latest political scandals in Mexico, which sometimes feel as much a part of daily life as warm tortillas and hour-long lines at the bank. 

The latest one hits close to home for Claudia. An exhaustive investigative report in the New York Times last week revealed that ex-governor of Oaxaca José Murat has bought at least six high-end properties in the U.S.: in Utah, in Texas, and in the extravagantly expensive Time Warner Tower in New York City. Murat is from humble beginnings, and rose up through the ranks of the PRI party starting in the 70’s. He is a man known for his stentorian voice and larger than life presence, but when it came time to buy luxury property in the U.S., he became more discreet. By using names of relatives, altering his own surname, and founding a shell company, he was able to buy millions of dollars worth of property, much more than his government salary could have afforded. This may sound like the back-cover summary of a John LeCarré-meets-Horatio Alger novel, but this is the stuff of non-fiction.

Let’s go back to his home state for a moment. Oaxaca is Mexico’s second poorest state out of thirty-one. Over half of its citizens live in poverty, and about a quarter in extreme poverty. Home to diverse cultures and languages, archeological wonders, culinary riches that make mouths water the world over, more biodiversity than many nations can boast, and a blinding variety of crafts - not to mention alluring beaches - it’s no wonder Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s main tourist destinations. And yet this hasn’t translated into wealth for many Oaxacans. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the state has a long tradition of emigration that started during the Bracero Program in the 1940’s and increased over the last twenty years, after NAFTA rendered small-scale farming a profitless endeavor. Remittances are essential to many families throughout the state. But not only in Oaxaca. Currently 10% of Mexicans live in the U.S., and in 2013 they sent a total of 21.6 billion dollars in remittances, the most significant sector of the Mexican economy after petroleum.


“José Murat...was a bad governor whose administration was marked by repression of social movements, co-optation of community leaders, and corruption,” ruminated Miguel Angel Vásquez de la Rosa of a local NGO, EDUCA. “In Mexico and in Oaxaca there are many politicians like José Murat, but unfortunately the Mexican justice system doesn’t take any actions to bring them to justice.” Indeed. The last few months alone have offered a wealth of examples: President Peña Nieto’s wife purchased a palatial $7 million home from a contractor cozy with her husband, Guerrero’s governor Aguirre had to step down due to suspected links with drug cartels, former governor of Veracruz Fidel Herrera was discovered to have multi-million dollar properties in New York, and ex-president Salinas’ brother Raúl, who amassed 84 million dollars and 41 properties during his brother’s administration, was exonerated of all charges. 


Of course, impunity in Mexico is a problem Mexico ultimately has to solve. But it's not the only issue at play here. Lax property laws in the U.S. which allow millionaires to buy property virtually anonymously are also to blame in this dynamic. By permitting sales in cash, or in the name of limited liability companies, shell companies, or trusts, these laws facilitate the movement and concealment of millions upon millions of dollars of dubious origin from all around the world. As Louise Story explains in her NYT piece, “In many ways, the (U.S.) government has allowed the real estate industry to turn a blind eye to the source of money used to buy luxury properties…Foreigners who buy real estate in the U.S. often have an easier time keeping it out of reach of investigators, victims and plaintiffs back home.” Which is to say, these laws contribute to the impunity that criminals like José Murat enjoy in Mexico and in other countries. The fact that it’s so difficult to trace the money makes prosecutions and convictions extremely unlikely. There is another troubling issue in this interplay of geopolitics and geocapitalism: a certain double standard. At the same time that the flow of people to the U.S. has become more restricted, cumbersome, and risky (i.e., a more militarized border, stricter immigration laws, higher deportation rates), the flow of money to the U.S. has become less restricted, easier to conceal, and more difficult to trace. 


Meanwhile, like Claudia and Miguel Angel, other Oaxacans I spoke to about the Murat revelation also expressed anger and fatigue. “Politicians are allowed to make a living, that’s fair. But steal from the people? That’s not right.” said Carlos Figueroa, who works six days a week at a local hardware store for $11.66 a day. “We know this goes on all the time, but every time there’s new proof I get pissed off all over again.”