The Language of Pain


Arts & Culture

Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders, Hoofd van Medusa, ca. 1617, oil on oak, 24 x 44″. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

On September 14, 2011, we awoke once again to the image of two bodies hanging from a bridge. One man, one woman. He, tied by the hands. She, by the wrists and ankles. Just like so many other similar occurrences, and as noted in news­paper articles with a certain amount of trepidation, the bodies showed signs of having been tortured. Entrails erupted from the woman’s abdomen, opened in three different places.

It is difficult, of course, to write about these things. In fact, the very reason acts like these are carried out is so that they render us speechless. Their ultimate objective is to use horror to paralyze completely—an offense committed not only against human life but also, above all, against the human condition.

In Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence—an indispensable book for thinking through this reality, as understanding it is almost impossible—Adriana Cavarero reminds us that terror manifests when the body trembles and flees in order to survive. The terrorized body experiences fear and, upon finding itself within fear’s grasp, attempts to escape it. Meanwhile, horror, taken from the Latin verb horrere, goes far beyond the fear that so frequently alerts us to danger or threatens to transcend it. Confronted with Medusa’s decapi­tated head, a body destroyed beyond human recognition, the horrified part their lips and, incapable of uttering a single word, incapable of articulating the disarticulation that fills their gaze, mouth wordlessly. Horror is intrinsically linked to repugnance, Cavarero argues. Bewildered and immobile, the horrified are stripped of their agency, frozen in a scene of everlasting marble statues. They stare, and even though they stare fixedly, or perhaps precisely because they stare fixedly, they cannot do anything. More than vulnerable—a condition we all experience—they are defenseless. More than fragile, they are helpless. As such, horror is, above all, a spectacle—the most extreme spectacle of power.

What we Mexicans have been forced to witness at the beginning of the twenty-first century—on the streets, on pedestrian bridges, on television, or in the papers—is, without a doubt, one of the most chilling spectacles of contemporary horror. Bodies sliced open from end to end, chopped into unrecognizable pieces, left on the streets. Bodies exhumed in a state of decay from hundreds upon hundreds of mass graves. Bodies tossed from pickup trucks onto crowded streets. Bodies burned on enormous pyres. Bodies without hands or without ears or without noses. Disappeared bodies, unable to claim their suitcases from the bus stations where their belongings have arrived. Persecuted bodies, bodies without air, bodies without fingernails or eyelashes. This is the very essence of horror. This is a more current version of a kind of modern horror that has shown its atrocious face in Armenia, in Auschwitz, in Kosovo.

In the case of Mexico at the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first, horror is intimately tied to a misnamed war—the military conflict escalated by President Felipe Calderón in 2006 as he tried to legitimize a contested election victory. It has been called, and still is, the drug war, the war on drugs; but we know other, more truthful names: the war against the Mexican people, the war against women. The war against the rest of us. While this state of siege may have become more visible after the 2006 elections, the war as such actually began decades earlier. The historian Adela Cedillo persuasively argues that there is a link between the Mexican dirty war unleashed in the seventies against those designated enemies of the state and the emergence of drug lords who became accomplices, when not directly participating, in counter­insurgent strategies designed to reinforce the hegemony of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), in power since 1929. Indeed, the first drug war was waged in Mexico, and it all began in the Golden Quadrilateral region comprised of the states Chihuahua, Sonora, Sinaloa, and Durango. Right there, in neglected areas of Mexico with little state presence, violence was used against the poor, especially against the rural poor who had responded favorably to, or had organized themselves into, guerilla movements, such as the 23rd of September Communist League. Secret Service documents attest that the PRI machine reacted quickly and massively against any kind of social mobilization, generously employing counterinsurgent forces, who were in turn allowed to take part in drug trafficking networks as a form of payoff. Contrary to official interpretations of twentieth-century Mexico as a place of stability and peace, which Mexican history often favorably compares with the emergence of military dictatorships in South America, Cedillo maintains that pervasive violence and state repression constitute the very heart of Cold War–era Mexico. It was in those years, in the second half of the twentieth century, that the “deep state” emerged and grew, and a new system of power, one in which drug trafficking played a fundamental role, was consolidated. To be clear, this is not the story of a state that was somehow infected or tainted by an evil external force, but the story of a state that became so by suppressing any trace of the bloody secret wars that married counterinsurgency and drug trafficking. When Felipe Calderón declared his war on drugs in 2006, he lifted the veil of the gruesome, inescapable violence that had been integral to the lives of many in the poorer parts of the country. Now it was the urban middle class’s turn to experience it. Now we would all be on the front lines. We would face a horror created by a state that had fully submitted to the economic interests of globalization and colonialism; a state that had done nothing more than repeat the famous gesture of Pontius Pilate, the betrayer: that metaphorical hand-washing of those unable, or unwilling, to bear responsibility for their actions. The neoliberal Mexican state thus turned its back on its obligations and responsibilities, surrendering before the unrelenting, lethal logic of maximum profit. This came to a head during Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s presidency (1988–1994), when fundamental land and labor rights granted by the Mexican Constitution of 1917 were restructured under what is known as the Salinas Reforms. I call this state, which has rescinded its responsibility for the care of its constituents’ bodies, the Visceraless State.

State is a verb, not a noun; state, like capital, is a relationship. In a unilateral move in the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Mexican state, administered by an enthusiastic generation of Ivy League–educated technocrats convinced of the supremacy of profit above life, withdrew protection and care for the bodies of its peoples, thus creating, in Giorgio Agamben’s terms, “the open.” Right there, on that atrocious stage, the bodies of all Mexicans were transformed from vulnerable—a regular mode of the human condition—to helpless—an artificial state caused by torture. In its indifference and neglect, in its intricate understanding of the political and even the public, in its indolence, the Visceraless State thus produces the eviscerated body: those chunks of torsos, those legs and feet, that interior that becomes exterior, hanging.

In a lucid essay about what is wrong with the world today, the humanist Tony Judt compares the level of aggression and neglect that people suffer at the hands of the totalitarian state to societies where state insufficiencies allow impunity and violence. The latter, without a doubt, is the case in Mexico. A telling clue was revealed in one of the former Mexican president Vicente Fox’s on-air interviews. “Why should I care?” he said, directly referring to a dispute involving TV stations, but indirectly betraying his ideas about social well-being and the role of the state in social and cultural matters. “Why should I care?” said the then-president of Mexico in a cynical tone, chilling even today. With such a careless phrase, he solidi­fied the tone of Mexico’s particular form of contemporary horrorism.

In close complicity with the members of the executive and judicial branches of the Mexican government, the fierce businessmen of our postmodern, globalized society—the narco—have conspired, with organic if not filial speed, to form a Pontius Pilate state. A product in some cases of the inequalities and hierarchies of an economic system based on dispossession and extraction, the narco has strategically and successfully worked for decades to validate itself as an essential entity in our everyday lives. The corridos and narco novels of this early period often presented a sympathetic portrait of men who grew up in poverty only to become Robin Hood types that provided for their communities when society was not able to or not interested in doing so. Newspaper articles and the media also contributed to a larger cultural imagery of the narco as the B side of the state. In Los cárteles no existen (The cartels do not exist), Oswaldo Zavala argues that cartels were and are so intrinsically enmeshed in the state machinery as to become a part of it. Government corruption along with the narco’s signature executions demonstrate what was once easy to deny: drug lords are businessmen prepared to go as far as necessary—which frequently means that space where the human condition ends—in order to ensure and, above all, increase their profits.

Over the last several decades of the twentieth century, we Mexicans have been forced to witness the reduction of the body to its most basic form: as a producer of capital through both the maquilas and other transnational companies. The bare body has emerged, too, when the narco and the state—the narco state—have used the unilateral and spectacular violence of torture against the population. Mouths gaping, hairs standing on end, cold as statues, truly paralyzed, we have done the only thing we could do in the face of such horror: part our lips and mouth wordlessly. As Cavarero recalls, even Primo Levi argued that the most important witnesses, those who have returned alive from an encounter with horror, are usually incapable of articulating their experiences. I insist: This is horror and nothing but horror. This is why it exists. This is its very root. On the other end of the spectrum, however, lies suffering. And where there is suffering, there is voice. Those who suffer have faced horror and come back. The language of pain allows those who suffer, those who acknowledge their suffering and share it with others, to articulate an inexpressible experience as an intrinsic criticism against the sources that made it possible in the first place. When everything falls silent, when the gravity of the facts far surpasses our understanding and even our imagination, then there it is—ready, open, stammering, injured, babbling—the language of pain, the pain we share with others.

And this is the importance of suffering, for where suffering lies, so, too, does grieving: the deep sorrow that binds us within emotional communities willing and able to face life anew, even if it means, or especially when it means, radically revising and altering the world we share. There, where suffering lies, so, too, does the political imperative to say, You pain me, I suffer with you, I grieve myself with you. We mourn us. Yours is my story, and my story is ours, because from the start, from the singular—yet generalized—perspective of we who suffer, you are my country, my countries. Hence the aesthetic urgency of expressing, in the most basic and also the most disjointed language possible, This hurts me. Edmond Jabès was right when he critiqued Theodor Adorno’s dictum: It isn’t that after horror we should not or cannot write poetry. It’s that, while we are integral witnesses to horror, we must write poetry differently. Can writing demand the restitution of a Visceral State? Like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who confronted the atrocities of the military dictatorship in Argentina, and like the Arpillera movement in Chile, which tried to challenge Pinochet’s horror, and like the relatives of the disappeared in Mexico, who tread on this land of open graves searching for their loved ones, claiming both justice and restitution? Can writing keep us company—we, the broken ones still alive with rage and hope? I believe writing can, indeed. At the very least, writing should. As demonstrated by the brave journalists who have lent ears to the voices of hundreds of thousands of victims, writing gives us the tools to articulate the mute disarticulation we face on a daily basis. As we write, as we work with language—the humblest and most powerful force available to us—we activate the potency of words, phrases, sentences. Writing as we grieve, grieving as we write: a practice able to create refuge from the open. Writing with others. Grieving like someone who takes refuge from the open. Grieving, which is always a radically different mode of writing.

It is impossible to grieve in the first-person singular. We always grieve for someone and with someone. Grieving connects us in ways that are subtly and candidly material. I am not yet sure which group I should join, where to envision myself, on whose shoulder to cry. I know that pain frequently finds its own allies. A long religious tradition, far from the most rancid institutions of conservative Catholicism, testifies to some of the most politically effective uses of social suffering in our history. Remember, for example, the Mexican independence movement, which was led in the early stages, between 1810 and 1815, by the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe—an era when the insurgency was able to gather widespread support. Remember, among so many examples, the Tomochic Rebellion, inspired by Teresa Urrea, la Santa Niña de Cabora, a saintly figure from northern Mexico who voiced the pain and frustration, as well as the hopes, of so many right before the eruption of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Remember, in short, so much.

On July 16, 1990, Liliana Rivera Garza, my younger sister, was the victim of a femicide. Soon after she was pronounced dead, the Mexico City police had gathered enough evidence to issue a warrant of arrest against an ex-boyfriend who never stopped stalking and threatening her, and who, to this day, has not paid for his crime. My sister, a brilliant architecture student at the UAM Azcapotzalco campus, thus ceased to exist. She was twenty years old. Even now, thirty years later, the immensity of this fact obliterates me. The war, this variously named war that still tears us apart, began, for me, on that date. Grieving, too, began its long, mercurial, transformative work. From utter denial to unleashed rage, from emotional numbness to bouts of self-destruction and depression, grieving reshaped me from the inside out, bringing me together with others. So much has happened since, but it was right after the paralysis of my first contact with horror that I chose language. I wrote before my sister was mercilessly murdered, but I truly began writing, and writing for her, when my missing her became physically unbearable. I did not write to avoid pain, just the opposite. I wrote, and write, to grieve with others, which is the only secular way I know to keep her alive. I do not want to avoid suffering. I want to think through and with pain, and to painfully embrace it, to give it back its beating heart with which this country—these countries—still palpitates. When confronted with Medusa’s head, precisely at that moment, because that’s when we are most at risk of becoming stones, right there, say it: Here, you and me, you and them, we together, we are in pain. We grieve. Grieving breaks us apart, indeed, and keeps us together.

—Translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker


Cristina Rivera Garza is an award-winning writer, poet, translator, and critic. She is the recipient of the Roger Caillois and Anna Seghers prizes, and she is the only two-time winner of the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize. A 2020 MacArthur fellow, she is currently a distinguished professor of Hispanic studies at the University of Houston.

Sarah Booker is a translator and doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she focuses on contemporary Latin American literature and translation studies. Her translations have appeared in The Paris Review, Asymptote, and the Brooklyn Rail, among others.

From Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country, by Cristina Rivera Garza. Used with permission of the Feminist Press. English translation copyright © 2020 by Sarah Booker.