Day of the Dead

Jean Rafferty & Bernardo Otaola: Day of the Dead

Mexican Journalism student Bernardo Otaola Valdes delivered a testimony about writing in his home country at our Day of the Dead event.

November 9, 2015

We thought our Mexican event at the Mitchell Theatre was going to be about death, but it turned out to be about life too. Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Four have been killed in 2015, and around eighty since 1992, so the Day of the Dead seemed a fitting time to remember them, those brave journalists who spoke out against crime, corruption and abuse of power in their country – and who paid with their lives.

We made our Day of the Dead altar as Mexicans do, with skulls and flowers and pictures of the dead.

We gave readings by Mexican writers, performed by Ruby McCann, Nik Williams, and Robin Lloyd-Jones.

And we were privileged to have a number of artists and poets to celebrate with us: Carla Novi, director of documentary film,
Desparacidos, spoke movingly of the 43 students who disappeared in Iguala in 2014 on their way to protest against government education policy. The poet Roberto Bravo read a beautiful poem in Spanish, translated into English by Christina McBride, and Scots artist Jan Nimmo gave a powerful presentation about her art project on the 43 students, a series of portraits framed in brilliantly coloured borders. Many Scottish poets shared the night with us too.

Perhaps most thought-provoking of all was the testimony of Bernardo Otaola Valdes, a young Mexican student who is here in Scotland on his gap year but who is returning home to study journalism. It’s not surprising that many people think he’s insane to choose the job in a country as wild and lawless as his, but it was both inspiring and touching to hear his faith in the future of his country and his willingness to fight for it. Here is his article:

The neighbourhood in La Narvarte is a peaceful one. The streets are green because of the amount of trees in the sidewalks. There are still more houses than buildings, which contribute to the relative calm in one of the biggest cities in the world. There is violence all over the country, but apparently, Mexico City still is safe. For all the people concerned about human rights and the security of journalists in Mexico, it was unthinkable that an execution could happen in the heart of the city.

However, the very same day that I arrived in Scotland, July 31, five people were killed in a house in Luz Saviñón street. Another five names were added to the already long list of people who deserve justice, because that’s the only thing we can do for them now.

Why? Who? Questions that probably more than once the photojournalist for the Proceso Magazine, Rubén Espinoza (one of the victims) asked are now in the mind of our whole society. The fact that he was running away from Javier Duarte, the governor of Veracruz and well known for the violence and threats that the journalists in that state have suffered, doesn’t make things easy. Or maybe it does, because another of the victims, Nadia Vera, a young activist, also was escaping from the threats of Duarte’s government.

It seems pretty obvious to everyone, except for the police and the government itself. There were protests and people marched on the streets. Hundreds of intellectuals and journalists signed a letter to President Enrique Peña Nieto with the hashtag #NoNosCallaran (you will not silence us) in the newspaper El Universal. Two months have passed since these events, but the case is still unsolved, unclear, and the course of the investigation is taking another path.

That’s the favourite way of the Mexican government to give a solution to cases that put its reputation at risk: do nothing, and wait for the people to forget it. It’s been more than a year since the 43 students from Ayotzinapa disappeared and the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights said that the official version in which 43 bodies were burnt so badly that only ashes incapable of giving DNA were left, was impossible. One year later, and there are no answers. So, what’s the truth? What’s the truth in the massacre of Tlatelolco in 1968 where uncountable students lost their lives? What’s the truth behind Tlataya, Atenco, and many other cases where the authorities and people disappearing are involved. Mexican government has a debt to society. Politicians have earned the mistrust the Mexicans have of what they say, what they do.

Eight journalist have died this year. 88 in the past 10 years. Not to mention the Aristegui case, in which one of the most famous and reliable journalists from recent years was fired under questionable arguments after she and her team discovered the house of the president’s wife, valued at 7 million dollars. This case is similar to another one which occurred in 1976 against the newspaper Excelsior and its editor, Julio Scherer García, which was one of the most questionable towards the government in those years; a government of the same political party of the actual president. Now, the case of Carmen Aristegui is lost in the maze of Mexican bureaucracy, and with that, we have lost one of the few voices that spoke in behalf of the truth.

What the facts prove is that Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist or a fighter for freedom of speech and human rights. Impunity and corruption have made it almost impossible to get safety and justice. So, why would someone like to dedicate his life (probably in an awful literally meaning) to this profession in Mexico?

Every single time I say I want to be a journalist, people look at me as if I am insane, and probably they are right. Being a journalist is not an easy thing. Weeks can pass where nothing happens and the next week you have such a lot of work that you can barely sleep. Not to mention the poor salary that is definitely not worth the time nor the risk of this profession. But we don’t work for the money: we work for ideals, and the belief that our words can change our country. Everyone has their reasons, and I can’t speak for everyone, only for myself. I remember the day I decided to become a journalist: it was after visiting the Newseum, a museum dedicated to journalism in Washington D.C. But the truly important day was a couple of years after that, in Mexico City. I went to an exposition of the violence against press communicators in Mexico in the Memory and Tolerance Museum. It was the fact that people were giving their lives to a cause that motivated me. Journalism is important so we can know the truth, and by knowing the truth we can be free, and justice can be given to those who deserve it. No wonder why those who harm humanity don’t want the truth to be known and find journalists are an enemy.

The day of the dead is for remembering, and honouring the people who have already gone. The fight for freedom of speech and human rights is far from over. Sometimes it seems that we are losing, but if we surrender, then it’s definitely going to be lost. We can not do less than the ones who have given their lives, and the best way to honour them is living in the same way they did. We, the ones who want a better world, have larger numbers, and it is in our hands, our pens and our actions that those numbers mean something.

Maybe one day there will be no more journalists killed, nor reason to make a protest, or perhaps this fight will never end; the only way to know it for sure is walking this road until the very end.

Scottish PEN’s Mexican Day of the Dead event at the Mitchell Library was in partnership with the Scottish Writers’ Centre and was an Aye Write event.

Scott Crawford Morrison has written about the event in an article entitled, The Day of the Dead, Courage and Freedom in the Name of Freedom of Expression.


Journalist and writer Bernardo Otaola is a columnist for Apuntes de Rabona. Originally from Mexico City, he is now based in Edinburgh and will regularly contribute to this blog. You can find him on Twitter at @bernaov

Introduction written by Jean Rafferty. You can visit her website here and follower her on Twitter at @fireopal19. Jean is the author of “The Four Marys”, published by Saraband Books, which was longlisted for the 2015 Jerwood Prize.


TAGS: 43 Ayotzinapa bernardo otaola Carla Novi day of the dead Desparacidos director documentary Enrique Peña Nieto film freedom of expression Glasgow Iguala Jan Nimmo Jean Rafferty journalism journalist La Narvarte Mexican mexico mexico city nik williams No Nos Callarán NoNosCallarán November portraits Roberto Bravo Robin Lloyd-Jones Ruby McCann Scottish Writers' Centre