After poet and activist Javier Sicilia’s son Juan Francisco was found dead at the age of 24 in 2011 by the guns of drug-traffickers, Sicilia wrote his final poem. The opening line, “El mundo no es digno de las palabras,” or “The world is not worthy of words,” encapsulates the feelings of frustration felt by artists and musicians faced with cartel violence in Mexico.
“There exists this idea of the community, of the pueblo, being an oppressed society and having to fight with every weapon that has been denied them,” said Jana Gutiérrez, professor at Auburn University. Her main area of study is Spanish-American poetry. “And one of those weapons is poetry, is art, is music.”
Themes of drug trafficking and violence are portrayed throughout Mexican art and literature today. But Mexico is no stranger to political and activist-focused artistic expression.
During the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s, corridos, or ballads that address social injustice, were used to share news, inspire revolutionary fighters and relax.
“What I find very interesting about it is that this is so in our conversation right now and is topical, but it’s been there for a long time,” Gutiérrez said.
Today, Mexican artists like Guillermo Trejo try to balance speaking out against violence without taking advantage of current circumstances.
Trejo, born in Mexico City in 1983, now teaches printmaking at the University of Ottowa in Canada. His perspective of Mexico changed after moving to Canada in 2008.
Trejo’s work shifted from creating pieces he believed were technically sound and aesthetic to focusing on how communications cast a gang-ridden and violent representation of his home country.
In 2010 and 2011, Trejo created a series of black and white pictures from United States and Canadian news images about Mexico. Black-masked faces and bodies raising semi-automatic weapons stare from pictures alongside black-masked men with a “Police” label on their shirts.
However, Trejo’s activist work was produced when he was 2,237 miles away from the violence in Mexico City.
“As you can imagine having all of my family down in Mexico it was really heartbreaking to be here,” Trejo said. “I became more interested in political issues and how to address them through art. But then I realized it was safe to be doing this from Canada. Here in Canada I can say whatever I want to and nobody will say anything or be against me.”
Elite artists in Mexico tend to avoid politically charged messages in their pieces. When Mexican artists became internationally relevant, said Trejo, the art being displayed in museums became politically safe.
That left artists in Mexico to turn to street art to communicate their ideas.
In Educational Psychologist Adriana Fiori Perez’s small hometown of Etzatlán, street art and graffiti are limited. The town of 17,500 residents is less affected by gang violence than larger cities, and the influence of art is not as strong.
Perez has, however, seen the power of street art less than 60 miles away in Guadalajara where she was raised.
“It’s more potent on the street,” Perez wrote in an email. “You get to all of the people who have never been to a gallery or a theater. This is better, because for many years art was considered elitist and only educated or wealthy people could appreciate it.”
Art that is used to communicate ideas rather than make money can better respond to social issues in Mexico, Trejo believes.
“The most efficient way to communicate ideas is through the street,” Trejo said. “Because other media is owned by the government.”
On the opposite side of Mexico as Perez, Alex Azcarate works as content manager for The Yucatan Times in the city of Merida. Merida is the capital of the Yucatan state, a peninsula jutting into the Caribbean Sea.
The city of over 800,000 people is a hub for American and Canadian retirees and tourists. Mayan cultural sites and pyramids are near the city, and a Mayan influence can be seen in the art, traditions and food of the region. Another, less traditional, influence comes from the United States and northern Mexico.
“The cholo culture,” Azcarate said. “A thing that these Mexicans learn in the United States. They listen to rap music. We didn’t have that in Mexico, it’s here now because they brought it from the United States.”
Violence and drug use was brought to the Yucatan peninsula, an otherwise separated region of Mexico, largely by deported Mexican immigrants previously in the United States, according to Azcarate.
The Mayan language is nearly lost in other parts of the country, but is still prevalent in Yucatan. Rap groups, influenced by their time in the United States, came back to the Yucatan and started rapping in their native Mayan language.
Following more traditional musical styles, a wave of musicians have transformed the corridos of the Revolution era into songs glorifying drug traffickers.
Upbeat music with a polka beat plays in the song “Los Tucanes De Tijuana,” by the narcocorrido group El Diablo. The song has a similar sound as one that might be heard in a chain Mexican restaurant.
El Diablo sings about a man who was poor, and then honored and feared after joining the mafia and becoming rich. The YouTube music video graphically displays heads of state, religious leaders and police being shot by semi-automatic weapons. The lyrics glorify the drug dealer, who gains respect from the community because he has money, despite being in danger from both the government and the cartel bosses.
“They speak about narcos, the drug traffickers, in an epic way,” Azcarate said. “They picture them as heroes.”
Revered narcos in narcocorridos are also seen in real life. In Azcarate’s experience, rich drug traffickers will provide money for public projects that the government won’t fund.
“It’s a phenomenon here in Mexico in some little towns all these drug traffickers make so much money that they actually spill that money over the community,” Azcarate said.
Trejo has begun focusing his art on social issues in his new home, Canada. He says it’s not healthy to always be talking about the constant violence.
Sicilia joined protest marches after declaring “El mundo no es digno de las palabras,” or, “The world is not worthy of words.”
“The situation there, I hate to say it, but it’s very dramatic,” Gutiérrez said. “It’s perfect fodder for artistic response. At the surface you have this really intense human drama going on, but below the surface, there’s some of the bigger topics that we’re addressing like violence, poverty and social inequities.”