The Lockdown Chronicles 19: Ricardo

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Ricardo is in prison.
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Original idea and historical image and text research by Ira Franco; adaptation, layout, translation and additional research by Ernesto Priego.

Ricardo Flores Magón (Eloxochitlán, Oaxaca, 16 September 1874 – Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, Kansas, 22 November 1922) was the main ideologist of the Mexican anarchist movement, a key component for the development of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). While in exile in the United States, he was charged with sedition and espionage by the W. Wilson administration and sentenced to twenty years in prison. He died 5 years later, blind from glaucoma and diabetes, in a cell at the Leavenworth Kansas Penitentiary. [Wikipedia entry]

His correspondence during his confinement is available via the Archivo Electrónico Ricardo Flores Magón (INAH, México).

Source texts: Letters from Ricardo Flores Magón (Eloxochitlán, Oaxaca, 16 September 1874 – Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, Kansas, 22 November 1922) to Raúl Palma (6 August 1918), Nicolás T. Bernal (26 May 1921) and Ellen White (5 April 1921), via Archivo Electrónico Ricardo Flores Magón, INAH, Mexico; Evelyn, Kenya (10 April 2020) “Prison uprising put down as US inmates demand protection from coronavirus”, the Guardian; Bernard, Katie (30 April 2020) “All Lansing prisoners to be tested for COVID-19 after multiple asymptomatic positives”, The Kansas City Star.

Source images: Panel 1: Kansas. Fort Leavenworth. U.S. Military Prison [no date], photographic print, George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, no known restrictions on publication; panels 2-4: Ricardo Flores Magón (1978), linocut on paper by Carlos A. Cortés, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Public Domain. This comic strip CC-BY-NC-SA.



Ricardo Flores Magón, Correspondencia, Archivo Electrónico Ricardo Flores Magón, INAH, Mexico, available at [Accessed 4 May 2020]

Letter from Ricardo Flores Magón to Raúl Palma, 6 August 1918, Archivo Electrónico Ricardo Flores Magón, INAH, Mexico. Available at [Accessed 4 May 2020]

Letter from Ricardo Flores Magón to Ellen White, 5 April 1921, Archivo Electrónico Ricardo Flores Magón, INAH, Mexico. Available at  [Accessed 4 May 2020]

Letter from Ricardo Flores Magón to Nicolás T. Bernal. 26 May 1921,  Archivo Electrónico Ricardo Flores Magón, INAH, Mexico. Available at [Accessed 4 May 2020]

U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons. (Last Updated: Saturday, 25 April 2020)  Inmate Citizenship, Statistics based on prior month’s data. Available at [Accessed 4 May 2020]

Bernard, Katie (30 April 2020) “All Lansing prisoners to be tested for COVID-19 after multiple asymptomatic positives”, The Kansas City Star, available via [Accessed 4 May 2020]

Evelyn, Kenya (10 April 2020) “Prison uprising put down as US inmates demand protection from coronavirus”, the Guardian. Available at [Accessed 4 May 2020]

Kansas. Fort Leavenworth. U.S. Military Prison [no date], photographic print, George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Available at [Accessed 4 May 2020]

Cortés, Carlos A. (1978) Ricardo Flores Magón. Linocut on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Available at  [Accessed 4 May 2020]

The Lockdown Chronicles is a series of periodical comic strips made at night (in candlelight!) adapting and reusing openly-licensed or public domain items from online digital collections. Publication and tweetage are scheduled in advance. Historical sources are adapted and updated for the current pandemic; please refer to each strip’s references on each post for further context.  Catch up with the series at

The Lockdown Chronicles 17: Frida

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Click on the image below to read the comic strip in full size. Sources and references on this post under the comic strip below.

Frida hadn't thought of it.
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Frida Kahlo (6 July 1907 – 13 July 1954) was a Mexican painter known for her many portraits, self-portraits, and works inspired by the nature and artifacts of Mexico. [Wikipedia entry].

On September 17, 1925, Frida was in a serious traffic accident which resulted in multiple body fractures and internal lesions inflicted by an iron rod that had pierced her stomach and uterus. It took her three months in full-body cast to recover and though she eventually willed her way to walking again, she spent the rest of her life battling frequent relapses of extreme pain and enduring frequent hospital visits, including more than thirty operations. As a way of occupying herself while bedridden, Kahlo made her first strides in painting — then went on to become one of the most influential painters in modern art. [Popova 2013]

“I never thought of painting until 1926, when I was in bed on account of an automobile accident,” she wrote to gallery owner Julien Levy before her 1938 show. “I was bored as hell in bed . . . so I decided to do something. I stoled [sic] from my father some oil paints, and my mother ordered for me a special easel because I couldn’t sit down [the letter was written in English; she meant sit up], and I started to paint.”  [Karbo 2019]

“Viva la Vida” (1954) is known to be the last painting that Frida Kahlo did. Despite her deteriorated health, the title of this work is a tribute to life. [Google Arts & Culture]

Text based on the 1938 letter from Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) to Julien Levy (1906–1981), as cited in Karbo, Karen (2018) In Praise of Difficult Women, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Source image: Frida Kahlo, Mexico, 16 October 1932, photograph by Guillermo Kahlo (1871–1941), gelatin silver print, original via Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary Latin American Art; version used sourced via Wikimedia Commons; image is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer. This comic strip CC-BY-NC-SA.


Karbo, Karen (2018) In Praise of Difficult Women, New York: Simon & Schuster. Excerpt available via National Geographic, 9 April  2019, at [Accessed 1 May 2020]

Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City, “El universo íntimo”, available at [Accessed 1 May 2020]

The diary of Frida Kahlo: an intimate self-portrait, available to borrow online from the Internet Archive, available at [Accessed 1 May 2020]

Kahlo, Guillermo (16 October 1932) Frida Kahlo. Photograph, gelatin silver print, available via Wikimedia Commons:,_by_Guillermo_Kahlo.jpg . Original via Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary Latin American Art, available via [Accessed 1 May 2020]

The Lockdown Chronicles is a series of periodical comic strips made at night (in candlelight!) adapting and reusing openly-licensed or public domain items from online digital collections. Publication and tweetage are scheduled in advance. Historical sources are adapted and updated for the current pandemic; please refer to each strip’s references on each post for further context.  Catch up with the series at

Manrico Montero (1973-2018) In Memoriam

I’ve tried and failed many times to write this post before. I guess I still can’t write it properly. I never will.

I met Manrico in 1994. We were close friends and collaborators for about a decade. Life eventually took us through different countries and different paths, but our friendship was solid and deep. Though he did visit me in the UK (three of us stayed in a tiny room at the University of East Anglia, taking turns to sleep in the single bed and sharing the floor amongst piles of vinyl, equipment and books- he played at the Grad Bar at an event I organised), I never visited him in Bolivia, where he had made his home of late. We tried meeting up in Mexico City several times and last time we only managed to speak on the phone. I remember his voice in that phone call– faraway, yet close.

(If you are curious, see below a review of a performance Manrico and I did in 1997 at the Museo Universitario del Chopo in Mexico City under a name inspired by an essay by Jean Baudrillard and another essay by Jacques Derrida–yup, that was us back in the day. In retrospect this is perhaps the first published review of Manrico’s sound art).


Gaceta UNAM, No. 3143, 3 de noviembre de 1997, Pág. 19


Manrico sadly passed away late last month and though I had not seen Manrico in a while I was devastated when I found out. I still am, and writing these words is very difficult for me. There’s lots I’d like to say, stories to tell to celebrate him, to share that part of  our friendship with him I and many others got to experience, before he became a well-known sound artist and environmentalist, but I’m not strong enough yet.

However before more time passed I wanted to document here that upon hearing of Manrico’s passing I contacted a group of friends I am still in touch via a messaging service with who also knew him from university and the early days of the Alcachofa Sound Arts and Parador Análogo to prepare a testimonial podcast.

My idea was to humbly apply’s Manrico’s methodology of “lo-fi is love” and to make the most of “a scarcity of resources” and produce and share an exercise of mourning and remembrance as a sound file that incorporated our voices and a selection of his music and sound work (including work he did with a series of collaborators).

The podcast be listened to in both Soundclound and Mixcloud:

You can also download the sound file (mp3) from figshare:

Priego, Ernesto; al., et (2018): Manrico Montero In Memoriam (Puro Amor Podcast). figshare. Media.


Lo que importa es el amor.


Higher Education Matters: A Personal Reflection

Eton wall game, 1921. Orwell is on the back row, first on left. University College London George Orwell Archive – Special Collections
Eton wall game, 1921. Orwell is on the back row, first on left. University College London George Orwell Archive – Special Collections


“It is difficult for a child to realize that a school is primarily a commercial venture.”

-George Orwell, 1952


These have been tough days in UK Higher Education. You can read about what’s been going on here. If you would like to know more about how University strikes work in the UK, this FAQ has useful information. The latest information about the dispute should be available here.

Yesterday the British TV broadcaster Channel 4 aired a 30-minute episode of ‘Dispatches’ that exposed the “lavish spending by university chiefs“. I thought the programme failed at contextualising the reasons why what was exposed is scandalous, presenting a world of Higher Education composed of white posh older men claiming thousands in extravagant expenses, dissatisfied undergraduate students struggling to make ends meet and an articulate Union leader in the middle.

Unless I missed it, the programme did not interview any junior, senior, visiting or retired lecturers, PhD students, research assistants nor any administrators, library straff or other university employees. No other stakeholder was featured. Apart from a final scene where a recent UCU demonstration was shown, there was no description (let alone thorough discussion) of the pensions dispute, or what the actual role (apart from travelling and claiming expenses) of VCs is, funding cuts, the organisational challenges that Universities face or the role that Higher Education plays within society, etc.

This worried me because, had I been a member of the public not working at a British university, I suspect I would have struggled to feel empathetic towards Universities. To me it would have looked like University staff (solely represented in the programme by VCs) is having a lush great time, well outside the everyday circumstances of the rest of British society, at the expense of students and the taxpayer.

In my conversations with friends outside academia last weekend, it’s been apparent that the strikes have not had  major nor thorough media coverage. Even more worryingly, even if one explains the situation carefully our current situation is still perceived as an extravagance, as a ‘first-world problem’ within the ‘first world’, a privilege of the already-privileged. Folks I’ve talked to are educated people, many of them with postgraduate degrees, but, having graduated and moved on into the private, non-academic sector, did not immediately empathise with the urgency of the demands.

On Monday, the Guardian print edition did not mention the university strikes at all, apart from a photo on page 35 illustrating an article about something else in the financial section. BBC Breaking News, on TV and radio, have not featured the strike prominently after the first mentions last Wednesday.

I was an undergraduate student at UNAM in Mexico at the time of the 1999 student strike (protesting the university fee hike that was eventually detracted). That strike was a very complex affair which lasted for a whole year (here’s the Wikipedia entry shared as-is; it needs significant editing; for a selection of media coverage and a photographic archive, see this). This means that the university was closed. To all. Unlike here, where picket lines do not impede (should not impede) anyone access to buildings, the strike in Mexico did close all/most of the doors of the university campus to all.  In Mexico, even before the strike started, in the early days and throughout the conflict, the university’s strike was a situation known and discussed by everyone: bus drivers, shop-keepers, politicians and academics alike. (I had a student research grant at the time, and in retrospect it seems the stuff of fantasy that we were still punctually paid– our cheques were issued from alternative administrative locations).

Having this perspective, what stands out to me is that the British universities’ strike does not seem to be part of mainstream society’s concerns, at least not as represented by its media coverage and the conversations one may have in public out and about. It looks like, at least in terms of the public discourse triggered by mainstream media coverage, the UK only has capacity for one or two important issues at a time. If one reads the newspaper headlines, listens to the radio or turns on the TV news, the university strikes are clearly not of great importance (i.e., public interest).

The huge popularity of British Higher Education amongst international students from so-called developing nations is not only a consequence of colonialism, legacy reputation, British cultural soft power, a privileged geographical location in relation to continental Europe, Africa and Asia, and the fact that English remains the lingua franca of commerce and research. In general, developing nations perceive higher education as a crucial step towards the achievement of individual professional development, individual and collective social mobility and national sustainable development.

This is not merely an expression of the idealised romanticism of the have-nots: the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals include Quality Education as it’s 4th goal. This goal has 10 targets encompassing many different aspects of education, target 4.3 reads:

4.3 Equal access to technical/vocational and higher education
By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary  education, including university

It seems clear that this target can only be achieved by a concerted effort involving everyone in society. It is therefore disappointing to realise that while many of us with backgrounds in developing nations learned that Higher Education was absolutely essential for development, developed nations do not really seem to give it the same societal importance. It is all of course highly paradoxical when the UK government, via the UK Research Councils, have made “Impact” a key, if not the key performance indicator of the Higher Education sector.

In May 1947, George Orwell wrote an autobiographical account of his school days, which he published as ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ in the Partisan Review, September-October 1952, and popularised in the Books V. Cigarettes ‘Great Ideas’ Penguin edition. Any international student and/or academic could do worse than revising it to understand the history of attitudes to education in the UK. Orwell’s account of his school days experience before 1914 describes the foundations of an educational system and therefore a society whose values clearly “cancelled each other out”:

[on the one hand]…insistence on hard work, respect for academic distinction, disapproval of self-indulgence: on the other, contempt for ‘braininess’, and worship of games, contempt for foreginers and the working class, an almost neurotic dread of poverty, and above all, the assumption no only that money and privilege are the things that matter, but that it is better to inherit than to have to work for them. […] For people like me, the ambitious middle class, the examination-passers, only a bleak, laborious kind of success was possible.”

We need to ask ourselves how much things have changed since Orwell’s school days. The University sector’s KPIs and the wider culture within and without universities tend to cancel each other out just like St Cyprian’s disapproval for self-indulgence cancelled its de-facto encouragement and rewarding of inherited privilege. All of us working in Higher Education labour within a complex network of contradictions, balancing the need for robust and thorough specialised focus and public engagement, the demands of ‘delivering’ a ‘service’ of quality often without the required resourcing to do so.

It seems to me that beyond the ‘Impact’ of research and the survey data British Higher Education needs to reconsider its role within society and interrogate the reasons why for so many years the sector has been (apparently) largely unable to gain the solidarity and empathy of the wider public. The role of Higher Education in entrenching social hierarchies and in protecting an untouchable elite may have a something to do with that.

For Orwell, “the pattern of school life” was

a continous triumph of the strong over the weak. Virtue consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous than other people- in dominating them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way.  Life was hierachical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.”

If this was the pattern of life learned at school, no wonder so many would not feel an inch of empathy for those working within that system– and indeed, at the same time this lack of empathy is the result of such ‘education’. The aggressive marketisation of Higher Education, one could argue, has brought things full circle in the 21st century.

For all the talk of ‘value for money’, it is perhaps crucial we continue arguing for a kind of social value that cannot be fully monetised nor transformed into a numerical value. How do you measure social relevance? (If funding has been allocated to researching this question and it has been explored in academic papers, are they paywalled?) How do you quantify solidarity between workers from different sectors? How to reintegrate Higher Education into the British social tissue and gain the solidarity of students and the public when most feel excluded from it?

This is an urgent discussion to be had.

New: Scholarly Publishing, Freedom of Information and Academic Self-Determination

On February 1, 2015, the global information and analytics corporation Elsevier and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) established the agreement UNAM-Elsevier contract DGAJ-DPI-39-081114- 241, which saw the transfer from UNAM to Elsevier for the “production and hosting, advertising and support” of 44 Mexican open access academic journals published by UNAM.

On Saturday 25 November 2017 we published a pre-print that documents said contract and describes a Freedom of Information Request enquiring the total cost of the contract and its corresponding response. It also shares a series of considerations that, based on this case, can be helpful to other institutions that may face similar circumstances in the future. We conclude scholarly publishing and academic self-determination are interdependent and a crucial point of future debate for the future of University presses and Open Access worldwide.

You can download the document from figshare at

Cite as:

Priego, Ernesto; McKiernan, Erin; Posada, Alejandro; Hartley, Ricardo; Rodríguez-ortega, Nuria; Fiormonte, Domenico; Gil, Alex; Logan, Corina; Alperin, Juan Pablo; Mounce, Ross; Eglen, Stephen; Trigueros, Ernesto Miranda; Lawson, Stuart; Gatto, Laurent; Ramos, Adela; Pérez, Natalia (2017): Scholarly Publishing, Freedom of Information and Academic Self-Determination: The UNAM-Elsevier Case. figshare.

I made a remote presentation on this article at OpenCon Santiago 2017, held at the Universidad Autónoma de Chile, on Saturday 25 2017. With many thanks to co-author Ricardo Hartley for making it possible.
Open Con Santiago 2017 logo

Última parada

Imagino ésta como la segunda página de este libro imaginario. Me llega una fotografía digital de un féretro que unos hombres cargan a través de los torniquetes de una estación de la línea azul de la Ciudad de México. “Taxqueña”, se lee arriba del ataúd.  “No les alcanzó para la carroza”, me dice otro mensaje. No incluyo la foto por respeto. Me imagino la imagen de ese ataúd (¿iba lleno o vacío?) viajando por las venas subterráneas de la Gran Tenochtitlán. Un último viaje por el ultramundo. En fin, me imagino la fotografía del ser querido (ser querido) de alguien dándole la vuelta a los güatsaps de mexas alrededor del mundo. Y sin saber muerto de quién era. Hoy también tengo el mensaje de voz de un amigo cuya voz no escuchaba en unos 13 años. Su padre murió ayer y lo entierran hoy. En México no te esperan si tus seres queridos (¿quién habrá acuñado esa frase en el vocabulario mexicano? ¿Ser querido?) parten antes que tú. Si estás del otro lado del mundo, o en la playa en el mismo país, te los entierran o creman antes que puedas siguiera comprar un boleto para viajar. Es una cuestión de refrigeración, coincidimos. En México no hay cómo conservar tanto muerto. Al menos eso es algo que sí hacemos expeditamente en México. Mañana significa de verdad mañana si se trata de cremarte o enterrarte. No podemos con tanto difunto. Los muertos heredarán la tierra.

Qué lejos estoy: #FuerzaMéxico from afar

In the morning of Thursday 19th September 1985 I was 10 and I was sitting with my younger brother in the back of our family VW Beetle parked outside our primary school in Mexico City.

We were waiting for the shool gates to open (we started at 8am; we always got there earlier). On the same street there was a building with a gigantic Marlboro man cut-out billboard on top. When the earth started shaking around 07:17:47 am, we saw the giant cowboy sway. It looked like it was walking towards us.

Everything happened very quickly. The cowboy did not fall and the street was untouched. Classes were cancelled and when we went to meet one of my sisters at Colonia Roma, we witnessed the devastation. It was like the city had been bombed. The image is still pristine clear in my mind, and so is the smell and the dust, the sound of ambulances and police. We were lucky that day.

In the evening of Tuesday 19th September 2017 at  I am sitting at my desk in my office at the University in London, UK.

For some reason (I had Harry Dean Stanton’s passing on my mind), I tweeted as I got ready to go home:

It was 6:51pm London, UK time. 12:51pm Mexico City time.

It translates as ‘How far I am from the soil that’. I left the sentence incomplete on purpose, as if I had been interrupted by something outside my control. I was referencing this song (the tune is a traditional song– do not take all its lyrics literally please!)

Oh, boy. Little did I know.

I took the tube to get home. I had no data on my mobile.

It was until I got home around 8pm UK time that I looked at my Whatsapp notifications. I had 67 messages from family and friends.

Another earthwake had struck central Mexico just past 1:00pm local time; 7:00pm in the UK.

It was very stressful while I was able to locate all my friends and family. Luckily they are all physically well. The moral support of friends, colleagues, family here in the UK and total strangers online and offline has been wonderful and I am sincerely thankful for it.

It’s almost impossible to describe properly what it feels like to be far from home when something like this happens.

I have tried to ‘be’ as much as I can with friends and relatives via Whatsapp, email and old-school telephone calls. I have donated to the Cruz Roja Mexicana, which have always done exemplary work in Mexico.*

However, there is a profound feeling of being useless, of merely witnessing from afar a tragedy and that we can do very little from here to help. I have spent sleepless hours following updates from family and friends and news reports from national and international outlets, sharing petitions like this one, emailing listservs I am a member of, sharing information, encouraging donations to relief organisations.

But all that is very limited, and one cannot really feel nor know what is really like to be there. The fact Mexico City is where I was born and where I lived for more than two decades of my life, and the fact I go there at least once a year and that I have lots of family and friends there means I know the affected places like the palm of my hand. It is heartbreaking to see what has happened, what is happening and be far away.

The volunteer response has been praised internationally, and it proves that it’s been the amazing organised solidarity of Mexican civil society what has made a huge difference in the rescue and relief efforts. I know that if I were in Mexico I would be out there helping out.

Last night I dreamt there had been another earthquake.

I know I am not alone in feeling this.

One cannot live in two places at the same time, nor be everywhere simultaneously. One still feels a sense of responsibility and a whole lot of love for the country where one was born and lived in. Our roots are there. There is the feeling that though a disaster like this brings out amazing solidarity between people, it can feel like it will separate us Mexicans living abroad further from the everyday life or our loved ones. Those who are afar will not have lived through what they are living through. We were not there to offer comfort or direct, physical, real time, real place support. We are not there. They are.

In a different context, for different reasons, in a different time, Julia Kristeva once wrote about her home country as ‘her suffering‘. It’s not just a question of language, but here I am writing this in English, and not Spanish. My international network of friends and colleagues includes Mexicans, and we all share that feeling of double responsibility for the place that we left and the place we now live in. We are torn, we feel torn. It’s the condition of exile or migration.

Once again I would like to say how grateful I am to my UK family and international group of friends, colleagues and Twitter folk who have accompanied us these days. What we experience here is nothing like the pain, anxiety, hurt, stress, frustration, fear and yes, hope, infinite hope that Mexicans in Mexico are experiencing. All we who are afar right now do is offer our material and moral support through the humble and limited means we have at our reach.

At least ten thousand people died in the 1985 earthquake. Lessons were learnt, both locally in Mexico City and nationally in the whole country. This disaster could have been much worse. It does not make the shock and the pain any lesser.

Mexico is a great country of great people. Love and hope have always kept us going, against many odds.

As before, as people there are proving right now as I write this, Mexico will recover, learn, get stronger. This recovery, as before, will take place against many odds, against great sadness and injustice, but propelled by the magnificent solidarity and robust strength and resiliance of its inhabitants.

¡Fuerza, México!

*Friends in the US should note the Cruz Roja Mexicana is a national society which has autonomy from the American Red Cross. I am a supporter of the Cruz Roja Mexicana- their role in Mexican society has been crucial. There are 190 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world, all different.





On the Journals UNAM Gave Away to Elsevier, @Red_HD


My post at the Red de Humanidades Digitales blog:

An update from 10 August 2017, including the resolution of UNAM’s Transparency Committee, further discussion and a list of references, here:

Version 2 of the source data:

Priego, Ernesto (2017): List of UNAM Journals Under Contract with Elsevier. figshare.


Don’t Walk Away: The Aporetics of Information in the Age of Twitter Overload

“The Oxford English Dictionary includes two forms of the word: the adjective “aporetic”, which it defines as “to be at a loss”, “impassable”, and “inclined to doubt, or to raise objections”; and the noun form “aporia”, which it defines as the “state of the aporetic” and “a perplexity or difficulty”.”

– from the Wikipedia entry for ‘Aporia’

Like you, I’ve read the news today.

One immediately wants to write something. One also feels lost for words. We used to be, as humanity, ‘lost for words’ when facing something unspeakable, because it had not been said before. There were no words for it because it exceeded the limits of our understanding, of current and previous systems of belief. That for which we had no words for was unknown and unknowable. And now, words flow. Please bear with me.

Tragically, incidents like the Manchester Arena attack are no longer ‘new’. Steadily, mostly thanks to the almost immediate global mass dissemination of information, we already have a discourse and therefore a vocabulary of reaction. Online and on print, everyone feeds from incidents ‘like this’ (language is a minefield). Organizations, communities and individuals struggle to make sense of our own being in the world by becoming present through utterances. We say/write/post, therefore we exist. There should be no doubt that many of the reactions are in good faith, as an expression of humanity. Extending one’s hand for a handshake or an embrace.

There is also, however, a negative side. It is the ongoing feeding of fear, the promotion of the terror that through loopy repetition gets ingrained in our minds. The effects are double: the terror is widely known, in detail, and impossible to ignore, changing society at its core, but the terror also gets normalised, and therefore muted. Multiplicity of sources, angles, opinions create confusion. So better to look away, focus on what keeps our lives ‘normal’. Just another day on Planet Earth. Carry on, nothing to see here. This is the effect we should try more actively to avoid, but how? As usual when I write, I am aware that this very post is contributing to the problematic phenomenon I am trying to make sense of by writing. This is why I think we have in front of us an aporia, a perplexing problem which is or seems impossible for us to crack.

The world today avoids problematic situations. The term ‘problematic’ is indeed now every sociologist’s and academic’s cliché. In the English-speaking tradition, practical solutions through practicable methods and measurable solutions are preferred to the Romance languages’ preference for the essay that by definition attempts or rehearses an approach around a problem. Essaying is ‘problematising’, but this is incredibly frustrating when there is a pressing need to just get on with things and face what cannot be avoided and requires a ‘solution‘. As soon as we use that word, however, echoes of the unspeakable come back to haunt us, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.

In times of alarm and pain, there is a responsibility in saying as much as there is a responsibility in not saying. Knowing when and how to participate online is a skill to be developed, individually, as communities, societies and cultures. I am motivated to write by the following questions/writing this has made me think of these questions:

  • When everyone with a social media account contributes to the infosphere in which we are immersed in, how do we balance the need to say, to participate in society, while being aware of how each of us may be contributing to the steady deterioration and erosion of public discourse?
  • What are the effects that our postings have on others, and can we ever fully have control over these possible effects?
  • How do we build ‘healthy’ networks of support, online and offline, without alienating others who are also at the producing-and-receiving end of the information flow?

Obviously I have no answers to these questions.

Many respectable folk have written about the ethics of storytelling and the need to actively resist the horror through art and documentation.*  This documentation will one day be the testament of our era, an immense archive of humanity’s consciousness, spoken out loud. Social media today replicates many of the bad practices of the mainstream media (in the UK, the tabloid press has a lot to answer for), and we must look into the role that the pervasive broadcasting of information has on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Victims and affected communities are vulnerable and in pain, and constant semi-immersive and excessive broadcasting can contribute and exacerbate the pain, as well as the social divisions that make extremism thrive.

At present, however, the way we live rarely allows us to stop and reflect, and more importantly, to listen to each other. Issues on international mainstream news that affect us all are constantly considered outside the limits of professional practice, regardless of what we may do for a living, and the pragmatism of everyday survival trumps more considered attempts to prioritise the building of relationships, a commons of solidarity and understanding (and also respectful disagreement) seeking to build and maintain the public good. We mute accounts tweeting and retweeting the hashtag or event du jour. We lament not more young people even register to vote, but we have embraced politics (and the social consequences of politics) as a form of entertainment. At most, we have allowed most political ‘engagement’ to become a version of Gogglebox. In our everyday lives, we walk away from all the chatter to remain sane and to focus. We cannot deal with so much and get back to our work, and the clamour ‘outside’ overshadows the individual tragedies and issues, becoming pure noise and fury. In the age in which methods of production of information have been made widely available to the masses, actual resistance, we know well, has been almost completely deactivated.

And so we ‘carry on’, we tell ourselves, but the problems remain, and the need to share, to make sense of it all still somehow remains as well. Whether it is murdered journalists in Mexico or teenagers in a pop concert in Manchester, the terror is real. People are suffering right now. Attacks, victims are not mere metrics, nor ‘content’, nor objects of study. Incidents like the Manchester Arena attack are no longer ‘new’, we said, but each death and the pain of each parent, relative, friend, fellow citizen, human being is absolutely unique. The tragedy is never repeatable, it is absolute uniqueness, and this is what makes it so utterly painful, shocking, and perplexing.

As the crowds pour their thoughts and pain online, this is paradoxically a crucial moment to reconsider our understanding of the meaning of ‘engagement’. As algorithmic relevance defines concrete realities and the attention economy becomes so fierce that most people are seen but not heard, the temptation is to back off and walk away in silence. This seems to me to be exactly what those seeking to terrorise want. For us to hide, to close up, to not go out, to not be together. For us to forget who we are and what makes us human.

As I worked on this interview, and once it was published as I shared it, I was visited by fears that it did not matter, that it made no difference. Friends ironically, jokingly, said they would share it with friends who couldn’t care less. Friends and family directly affected by the situation documented in the article reacted to it with distance. I could literally touch the fear. I was aware that in my ability to translate it into English I was already exercising a privilege not altogether disconnected from the inequality that is one of the causes of the horrors I was trying to document. I was also aware of my distance from the events, even if I feel very close to them. The alternative, not to do anything, not to at least try to contribute to avoiding the complicitous silence denounced by the interviewee did not seem to me like an option. I had to face the contradictions.

There is the feeling that there is already enough information out there, and that therefore we don’t need anyone else’s contribution. So much information is perceived as an ‘excess’, and its effect is to alienate us and disempower us. The point is precisely to make us feel like nothing we can do really matters – and if it matters it does for different reasons to the message conveyed- because it brings some kind of capital to the author, or because it provides authors with a sense of identity, of singularity or importance in a world where it is harder and harder to stand out. Black Mirror stuff.

This is an important part of this aporetic nature of being online and being a citizen: how to balance the rights of individual expression with the need to consider the effects it has on others given the current infrastructures for communication and the discourse they enable, encourage and actively produce. Terrorism and mass social media have something in common: one of their side effects is to make individuals and communities feel like there’s nothing they can do to make a difference, that no resistance is likely to make a difference, that no awareness or documentation of the terror will stop the pain.

I said I felt lost for words, and now I’ve written more than 1500 words. The irony is painful and awareness has its limitations.

To be honest I don’t know how to end this post. I just want to resist repressing the grief and the concern. I want to think there are still ways we can share our feelings, report on what we believe deserves to be known, and be active part of our communities.

The logic of Terrorism and the commodification of all human communication, of human pain, packaged as ‘content’,  cannot triumph, even if our humble means to resist it are always-already the same tools used to advance it. It’s perhaps a question of remembering the precious singularity, the absolute uniqueness of each human being in this world.


*Not just people like Paul Ricoeur and Dominick LaCapra, just look at this 2015 conference programme for more recent work.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold: At Nieman Storyboard, My Translation of an Interview with Slain Journalist Javier Valdez

Javier Valdez. Photo via Río Doce
Javier Valdez. Photo via Río Doce

“Tell them not to kill me, Justino! Go on and tell them that. For God’s sake! Tell them. Tell them please for God’s sake.”

“I can’t. There’s a sergeant there who doesn’t want to hear anything about you.”

“Make him listen to you. Use your wits and tell him that scaring me has been enough. Tell him please for God’s sake.”

Juan Rulfo (1917-1986), Tell Them Not To Kill Me, 1951

I‘ve just published a translation of an interview with the slain Mexican journalist Javier Valdez at Nieman Storyboard (Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University).

The tragic situation that Mexican journalism iexemplifies a level of impunity that no degree of mass media coverage or social media engagement seems to be able to deter. However, as Valdez put it, “the truth must be told”, and remaining silent is being complicit.

I translated the interview into English because I think it offers insights into what motivated Valdez and that it’s important that English-speaking readers learn more about his life, work and commitment to journalism.

It won’t take you long to read it if you click on the link. If you do, thank you.


Descanza en paz, Javier, y muchas gracias.

Ay, ¡qué soledad! Juanga siempre en mi mente

"Sagrado Corazón de Puñal" Ilustración por: Medusczka Técnica: Pintura acrílica Serie: El Mujercito Charro 2013 ©Medusczka
Ilustración por Medusczka, 2013 ©Medusczka

Hay un dicho que gusta mucho en México: no se sabe lo que se tiene hasta que se pierde. Ayer perdimos a Juanga.  Su corazón, tras 66 años de pasión, finalmente descansó.

Ha sido un año de pérdidas. El duelo que siento desde ayer es muy extraño; lo sentí muy diferente cuando, al principio de este año esa otra gran superestrella de mi panteón personal, David Bowie, nos dejó en su propio viaje interestelar.

Lamentablemente suele pasar que cuando alguien muere quienes le eran más cercanos (o no) puedan sentir un tipo de posesividad; una especie de egoísmo que es quizá expresión de su propio duelo, un deseo por no soltar todavía a quién se ha ido. Decir: era mío; era mía, y a ti, ¿quién te da derecho a sufrir?

Pero los difuntos son de todos, porque cada uno, célebre o no, es una estrella más en nuestro firmamento común. El mundo ya no será el mismo para nadie.

La noche en que me enteré que Juan Gabriel murió me dí cuenta nuevamente de su gran influencia en mí y descubrí un tipo de dolor que todavía no puedo comparar con otro que haya sentido, includo en estos años recientes en que he perdido a tantas figuras públicas que me guiaron, directa o indirectamente, para poder llegar a ser la persona que yo día a día construyo como Yo.

Y es que a través de más de cuarenta años de carrera Juanga se encargó de poblar el imaginario colectivo latinoamericano, hispanoblante, de un vocabulario sentimental. Juanga, siempre en mi mente, desde niño, en que “No tengo dinero” tatuó en mi conciencia una poética de la carestía y del desamor. Resultaría insoportable intentar un análisis del valor lírico-musical y trascendencia cultural de la extensa discografía de Juan Gabriel, sobre todo en este momento en que sentimos con tristeza su muerte.

Anclado con firmeza en la cultura popular de mayor alcance social a nivel internacional, Juan Gabriel, como persona y como proyecto artístico, invita pero resiste el análisis: transcendió hacia el éxito total porque fue. Juan Gabriel logró estar en todos lados, sintetizar opuestos, desafiar expectativas e intolerancias, fue amado y odiado, logró profundidad y vacuidad, unió tristeza y fiesta en una obra de arte larguísima, viva, valerosa, sincera. Un grito sostenido de vida.

Creo es justo decir que ni yo ni mi familia fuimos fieles escuchas de Juan Gabriel, pero su presencia era innegable y no había manera de escapar su influencia. Los títulos de sus canciones y varios versos de su lírica (incluso letras completas) se sabían de memoria. En más de una ocasión grupos de amigos de juventud, todos con camisetas negras de grupos de rock, cantamos en cantinas, entequilados hasta la nostalgia infinita compartida, sus himnos a la imposibilidad y la derrota. (“Ese amor nunca llegó/Hoy mi soledad cada vez más triste/Y más oscura pueden ver/Hoy en esta edad aún me preguntan mis amigos/Y es triste responder/Yo no nací para amar…”) Eso fue para mí ese fenómeno conocido como Juan Gabriel, una educación sentimental, la lírica popular mexicana como poesía compartida, la expresión franca de la herida abierta, de la melancolía del ser.

Para mí, Juanga estuvo y estará siempre en mi mente como un ejemplo de triunfo a toda costa. En retrospectiva en su carrera veo la valiente, sensible,  inteligente,  síntesis popular, accesible y colectiva del sentir de un pueblo. Juan Gabriel desclosetó a México y a Latinoamerica y le enseñó a sentir y los hizo bailar llorando. Para mí escribir estas líneas es una forma de desclosetar un gusto que por años o resistí o di por sentado.  Juan Gabriel expresó -expresa- lo que millones reprimieron y reprimen.

Cada quien tendrá sus canciones favoritas de Juanga, cada quien por razones seguro diferentes. Será por la edad en que yo tenía en 1987 pero ‘Debo hacerlo‘ me sigue pareciendo un tema imprescindible*:

Porque es que más no puedo
Si en el mundo hay tanta gente diferente
Debo, puedo y quiero
Tengo el derecho de vivir
Quiero, puedo y debo
Con alguien compartir.

Debo hacerlo todo con amor
Hoy esta noche yo saldré a algún bar
Si no me escapo de ella va acabar con esta fuerza de voluntad
Parando el corazón.


Para sus escuchas, Juanga lo hizo todo con amor, hasta que el corazón no dio más.

Descanse en paz, Juan Gabriel.


*Compárese la letra de ‘Debo Hacerlo’ (1987) con la letra de ‘How Soon is Now?’ (1985) de Morrissey y Marr:”I am human and I need to be loved/ just like everybody else does/There’s a club if you’d like to go/ you could meet somebody who really loves you/so you go, and you stand on your own/and you leave on your own/ and you go home, and you cry/and you want to die”.