The Education of the Ages – by Carlos Monsiváis

Introduction to the first edition of Malayerba by Javier Valdez Cárdenas (Editorial Jus, 2010).

Carlos Monsiváis (b. 1938 – c. 2010) was one of Mexico’s leading progressive authors. As a writer of books, essays, journalism and opinion pieces, Monsiváis articulated a deep appreciation and understanding of Mexican popular culture and its importance in shaping the values that reinforce behavior. His introduction to the first edition of Valdez’s Malayerba was one of the last essays he published prior to his death. In it, Monsiváis recognizes the significance of Valdez’s achievement as a storyteller who worked as a journalist, but in particular as a way to measure the violent changes in Mexico, and what they mean for children and adolescents. “Violence teaches everything it touches,” Monsiváis writes in the introduction suggesting that it is what we do with that awareness that really counts. What Valdez did with violence in Mexico was to turn it into inspiration for the Malayerba, helping readers see that peace is possible if we recognize our common humanity. – PT

How does one re-educate or re-orient a society, asks Javier Valdez? The response is predictable but never has the question been so pointedly framed. A society can shift its course when its members in their childhood and adolescence acquire new ways of imagining. This reorientation neither brings with it the corruption of childhood nor the perversion of idyllic dreams. Rather it’s about the brutal ways imposed upon how people live—never mind how monstrous—and that appear as natural to children. This is not new anywhere in the world. In critical times children and adolescents also mobilize: look at photos of children with weapons in the Mexican Revolution, or the Cristero War, or in conflicts in Asia.

Brutality works by naturalizing violent death, bringing it down upon close relatives. If many die in this way, death by armed violence corresponds to a natural social rhythm. I’m not talking about decimated towns but of data and statistics that sustain an argument about violent death being natural. I am also referring to the elevation of guns as an irrefutable language: to speak through weapons is to reach a level of widespread comprehension at the moment of their use. In places where the law protects the strongest, an undeniable demonstration of coming of age is to own a revolver or a rifle. For those just beginning to glimpse their surrounds, they see in guns an essential element that brusquely distances them from their pent up poverty, their defenselessness. Even though gun owners are a small minority (one never really knows this: the rumor is that all Mexico bears arms), a majority knows the feelings of pride and strength guns bring with them simply by contemplating them.

Shots are noisy evidence of what cannot be changed, of an environment that demands a loud racket when it invades other layers of reality. “Death does not kill anybody, luck is the killer” so the song goes, and that’s what the people who use AK-47s or high velocity rifles clutch to themselves. If the Cristero fighters of the 1930s marched to a banner bearing the words, “Stop, bullet, Jesus’s heart is with me,” the narcos – who are all believers – carry another that says, “Stop bullet, we’ve already paid off the authorities.”

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In some regions it is crucial to know that drug trafficking – the state within the state, according to officials and commentators at panel discussions in front of or away from television cameras – has penetrated distinct parts of society. Trafficking in drugs has corrupted police forces, the judiciary, lawmakers, governors, businesspeople and soldiers, priests and journalists. To secure this achievement, drug traffickers don’t just offer a massive, drastic alternative, “Silver or lead, dangerous unemployment or risky employment.” They offer a way of life empowered by guns, facilitating access to the means of domestic tyranny. Each and every day, society in the most affected regions is transformed. These changes have not been adequately documented.

Writers, like Elmer Mendoza and Javier Valdez have been the first to show how drug trafficking has gone from being an external phenomenon to something that lives among us, that those who had nothing to do with it now suffer its presence. With Malayerba, his collection of crónicas, his great set of fragmented stories, Valdez duly shows us the place where lower class children and adolescents—the delinquents and those who aren’t—share primary and secondary schools, neighborhoods and subdivisions, their parents’ friendships, and the inevitable certainty of violence. Valdez points out what all sorts of officials deny or do not understand: living in a bloody situation from infancy makes violence lose its power to intimidate. I don’t speak of the total suppression of ethical behavior but of the consequences of social impotence. Why make the effort at moral indignation when one crime boss is arrested since ten will appear in his stead? How to teach children to be honest when each day they see family or neighbors suddenly become rich? This process takes decades but nobody has wanted to show that violence teaches everything it touches although, fortunately, it doesn’t touch everybody.

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Children observe and parody behavior knowing what surrounds them and what comes from them. One after the other Valdez’s sketch-stories approach readers with what they experience but don’t perceive. Or, with what they do not know but that makes them profoundly uncomfortable. Or, as the stories unfold, appear like the beginning of a new childhood and another adolescence, not of criminals, that would be unthinkable, but of people who have grown up with the habit of accepting things as they are. That’s what Valdez brings to our attention but does not preach at us: making violence natural corners ethical behavior.

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At the margins of his crónicas, Valdez presents a landscape made of doubts and problems. In the face of drug trafficking’s remorseless changes, who are those who will take the step to transform themselves from witnesses to people who file charges? How many deaths will it take before the battle between the cartels becomes a problem of national security? How long will the official slogan persist: “There’s nothing’s going on. They are just criminals killing each other.” What were they before they broke the law: farmers, laborers, the unemployed, office workers, business people, and minor politicians? How do tens of thousands of young people, accept their fragile fate, those young people who exchange the brutal reduction of their lifespan for a taste of power backed by money and weapons? Which regions, according to one Interior Minister, have been rescued by the narco, and which do they hold hostage? Why so little acknowledgement of drug trafficking as a large neoliberal industry? For each police chief or deputy slain by unknown killers, how many commanders go to heaven? With so many dead people what is the value of human life?

How to tread around the infamous hypocrisy of the United States? Are we living in an extremely violent film with the country’s population trapped as extras? And what social morals of the curious and passersby, children among them, confront the images of those murdered? What is fear in the cities: the belief in personal luck, or, the swiftness with which neighbors become the biggest part of vigilance? The way innocence becomes guilt as geographic location is turned into a crime?

Why is there such indifference to the police officers killed for defending a bank or a truck? Is it because they were already there when some narcos arrived in a state of forced euphoria or because they are police officers only in name? Why do the news media never personalize cases of police killed in the line of duty? (The scenario is different when it comes to police chiefs— until just recently they have been subjects of suspicion.) Why does society keep itself distant from the professionals who protect it?

With Malayerba Javier Valdez uses narrative skill and panoramic vision to understand the negative changes underway in Mexico. Negligence, a bungling bureaucracy and private television have supplanted the Ministry of Public Education. Trust is placed in the informative virtues of the Internet. Educating the next generation has been given over to technology. And there is disdain for, or no acknowledgement of the other types of essential education linked to morality, of respect for human rights, and opposed to violence. Valdez makes us see the size of the error. The Malayerba is intelligent. The Malayerba is very readable.

The Mexican writer, the late Carlos Monsiváis, authored numerous books and countless essays, and wrote a regular column for newspaper La Jornada. He died in 201X. This introduction first appeared in Spanish in the first edition of Malayerba (Editorial Jus, 2010) and is translated here with permission from the Monsiváis Estate.

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator, a journalist, a historian, and a sometime community college and university professor. He lives in Ciudad Juárez/El Paso. He has translated a fragment of the Malayerba since 2014 for his blog, the Mexican Journalism Translation Project.

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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