Aeschylus (525 BC - 456 BC), that old Greek bastard who wrote plays, said something like that 2500 years ago. Nothing has changed much since then. Especially in Ciudad Juárez a few minutes across the river from where I live . The Juarez Cartel is battling the Sinaloa Cartel for the right to use that city as its place of business. Since January 2008 more that 2200 people have been assassinated mob-style in La Ciudad Juárez. Felipe Calderon, the president of Mexico, has sent 10,000 federal troops to the city. His rationale was that the city police are dirty. They’re at the trough slopping up the mordida. For a while, the murders abated, but now they have returned with heart-numbing regularity. All the rich people, the powerful people, have fled the city. They live in El Paso or elsewhere. Even the mayor lives on this side of the river. The poor, the working class and the lower middle-class are bearing the brunt of the carnage. On the streets the people don’t trust the troops. They don’t trust the police. They worry that the authorities, whatever badge they are wearing, are working for either Juárez Cartel (the city police) or the Sinaloa Cartel (the army). These are the rumors. And rumors are as good as place as any for news. The newspapers aren’t trusted either. Juárez is not a safe place to write real news, hard news. Nosey journalists are killed with impunity. And now it seems the cartels and their collaborators are stepping into the academic and intellectual communities.
It’s May 29th, just a few weeks ago. A 44-year-old man is driving back to work on a hot afternoon. He lives in a desert city on the U.S./Mexico border, so he has the AC humming away at full blast and his window is open. Why? Because he likes the AC and he likes the smell of the air in his city, even if it is dirty. This man loves his car. It’s a 1992 Chrysler New Yorker, a huge boat of a car, una ranfla grande, with deep leather seats and lots of bells and whistles. A big roomy space good for all sorts of things—talk and laughter and kids and love-making. It’s the kind of car he dreamed about when he was kid. His parents were migrants from the state of Durango. They worked in the maquilas. They never crossed over to the United States, aka Gringolandia, so he grew up south of that little bit of a river that separates us from them. Back then his mother was an advocate of the Catholic Church’s Theology of Liberation, so at an early age he sat in living rooms listening to workers talking about organizing and creating better lives for their families and their people. He had listened to the anger, he had listened to the sorrow, he had seen how the poverty can grind into a family’s heart and he had hoped that something could be done. He too had gone to work in a maquiladora. $30 to $35 a week was probably the high end of his wage scale. But somehow—through a combination of happy karma and good luck, his and his city’s—he had entered the university and studied and worked himself up the ladder from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s and finally a PhD. He became a professor of social studies and education. So this man, this driver of the Chrysler New Yorker, is an academic, a well-respected leader in the local intellectual community. He is not afraid to butt heads with the jefes at the university, and he is working on a book about social movements in his city and the problems they confronted. He didn’t make much money, but that was not what his life was about. His life reflected who he was.
What I want to say is this: if I lived in this man’s city, then I would know him. He would be an acquaintance, a guy I'd talk to at parties or at a coffee shop, maybe at a poetry reading or an art gallery. He’s the kind of guy who I cross paths with all the time. He has the same intellectual, civic and emotional interests that I have. His world is like my world, his life is not unlike my life.
So he is driving his car and daydreaming. Like any of us on a sunny afternoon he’s distracted by this or that. Who knows what he is thinking about? He has both hands on the steering wheel, he has his seat belt on, he’s approaching an intersection, the light is turning yellow and a white panel van pulls up next to him on the driver’s side. The van comes too close, so much so the man looks over to see who it is. He’s pissed. Why doesn’t that vato look out where he’s going? The window of the van rolls down and a man he does not know points a gun at him. This unknown man shoots six times and the Chrysler New Yorker swerves into a telephone pole.
The driver is dead.
The dead man was Dr. Manuel Arroyo Galvan, a professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez just 10 or 15 minutes across the river from where I live. He was 44 years old, an intellectual who cared about the community from which he came. He was a sociology and education professor and researcher for the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez (UACJ). He was a social activist, a divorced father of a son whom he loved and cared for. His murder will not be solved, and even if it is “solved,” no one will believe what the authorities say. There are lots of theories-—he was the victim of a revenge attack for a legal complaint he reportedly filed over a stolen truck, the victim’s stumbling across sensitive information in the course of his research, maybe it was a simple case of mistaken identity, or maybe Manny was dirty. That’s the first idea that pops up into people’s minds when someone is killed--what was he doing wrong? A good friend of mine, a juarense, told me that in Juárez, everybody is an expert. It’s like being at a soccer game. One opinion is as valid as the next. We are, he said, scared for our own lives but at the same time we must explain what is happening. We don’t trust the news, we don’t trust the cops so we must explain it ourselves.
The day after I heard about Manuel Arroyo’s death I got the email below from my friend. Excuse the awkward translation. It is mine. Also, I want to say I will no longer give the names of any of my friends in Juarez. The shadow crosses the river. I have inserted the video inside his email which documents the march—
The death of Manuel Arroyo is lamentable, not only for the insidious way he was assassinated, but also because he was a generous man and a active participant in our community, besides being a controversial and brave academic who on various occasions had to assume the political costs of his beliefs.
This past Friday, soon after we learned of his death, that congregated at la Megabandera [a park near the university over which is hoisted a giant flag of Mexico] and spontaneously marched to the Prosecutor General’s Office where we vigorously protested. It wasn't for nothing. Every one of us that joined this procession had shared with Manuel, in some moment or another, practices, spaces, discussions, arguments, desires and words, many words. Above all, we shared with him the determinations to transform the city.
With his death we have died a little, but this is the moment when we must walk into the street. We cannot stay in our homes waiting to see who will be the next victim nor can we permit that our first suspicion about the assassination rest with the victim.
It seems that the university has finally taken a position that is clear, definitive and articulate about the assassinations of Manuel, of professor Gerardo González and student Alejandro Irigoyen Flores y the disappearances of students Lidia Ramos Mancha and Mónica Janeth Alanís. This is an encouraging signal that things can change. We will gather today at six in the after at the Megabandera and march together.
In this way we can send a clear message that prevails in our city and in our country is untenable and that we demand a secure city, with respect to the human rights and individual guaranties for all. This is something very basic and elemental--that condition these rights prevail.
This is a critical moment and an extraordinary opportunity. We must make the effort and we must take to the streets.
A few days after that first spontaneous march, friends and comrades from the university held a larger, with speeches and reminiscences, sharing the life of Manuel Arroyo Galvan and his intellectual legacy in the city. It was a larger and more organized event, and it was covered in media in Juárez and El Paso. The two photos above, and also the photograph of the soldier in the Humvee at the top, were taken by border photographer Bruce Berman. Bruce, who has a daily blog documenting the border cities of El Paso and Juárez, attended the second march, his camera in his hand. At the event they organizers played the classic Mexican rock song by El Tri, “Rolling Stones,”—“Las Piedras rodantes.” Below is a video from youtube of Alex Lora of El Tri singing that song. Listen to it and learn the lyrics, which you can google and translate. It's a simple little way to mourn for Manuel Arroyo Galvan, to weep for him and to stand in solidarity with him and the citizens of La Ciudad Juarez.
Even if you are like me: You never knew him.