As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I have had the pleasure of studying with Mexican journalist and memoirist Alma Guillermoprieto. This post is based on an interview that I conducted with Ms. Guillermoprieto in October of 2010.
At the start of her career Alma Guillermoprieto gained wide recognition as a journalist for her ground-breaking investigation of the 1981 massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador, where nearly eight hundred peasants were killed by the Salvadoran army during the nation’s civil war. Over the last thirty years, she has written for The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books, covering everyone from Fidel Castro, to Carlos Salinas, to leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
She is an old-school story-teller, a journalist who says that she doesn’t have an “Internet life.” But over the last two months, she has led an online project in response to the mass killing of seventy-two migrants that took place in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in August.
72 Migrantes [es] is “a virtual altar” to the slayed migrants.
Like thousands before them, these men and women left their homes in Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Brazil for work in the United States. But their journey ended in a warehouse, some one hundred miles from the US-Mexico border, where seventy-two bodies were found on August 23rd. Most had been shot in the back of the head. Among the four who escaped, only one has given an account of the massacre. Thirty of the victims remain unidentified.
After the news of the mass killing broke, Guillermoprieto contacted Lolita Bosch, editor of Nuestra Aparente Rendición [es], an online forum of artists and intellectuals who work in or are native to Mexico and are appalled by what they see happening to the country. Through the site, and through personal contacts, they convened a group of writers, asking them to write about each of the victims. On Nuestra Mirada [es], a website for Latin American photojournalists, a call went out for photographs of migrants. Over the next few weeks, writers, photographers, and web designers volunteered their time and skills to create 72migrantes.com.
“We wanted to create something that would reach the families of the victims,” Guillermoprieto says, “and to create an altar for Day of the Dead.”
“In a real altar, you give people back their faces by putting up their pictures. You make them live again through memory.”
She points to the different features of 72 Migrantes, explaining that each part of the site corresponds to a different part of the experience of visiting an altar “in 3-D” (in real life.) On the Day of the Dead, you visit the altars of your loved ones; you sing to the departed, leave them flowers, and share food with them.
At 72 Migrantes, you can listen to music for the dead (click ‘descargar canciones’), leave a rose icon (click ‘dejar una rosa’), and share food with living migrants by making a donation (click ‘donaciones’). Donations are sent directly to Father Alejandro Solalinde of Hermanos en el Camino, a church organization that provides food, shelter and support to migrants and those who have been kidnapped or threatened by drug and human traffickers in Mexico.
The centerpiece of 72 Migrantes is a collection of narratives and photographs, one for each of the victims. The authors (among them Elena Poniatowska, Jorge Volpi, and Juan Villoro) have written the stories of the dead by seeking information about their lives, often from their loved ones. But most families of the migrants have been too afraid to identify themselves publicly. Many of the authors, with little more than a name, have written narratives that fall somewhere between obituary and testimonial. And others have chosen to write the stories of the unidentified by imagining the lives of their subjects.
“The people I care most about,” Guillermoprieto says, “are those who have been stripped even of their names by this horrible thing.”
“I still don’t have a clue as to who did this,” she says. The only witness who has come forward has testified that the killers identified themselves as members of the Zetas, the most notoriously violent drug group in Mexico. Guillermoprieto describes the crime scenes that the Zetas have left in the past—they are bloody, violent. She is not completely satisfied with the attribution of this latest atrocity to the Zetas, contending that the plain, clean nature of the Tamaulipas massacre was highly unusual for the organization.
As a Mexican, Guillermoprieto says the massacre left her with a deep feeling of shame “that these seventy-two people were killed by Mexicans in Mexico.” In response, she says that she wanted to create something that would stand as a witness to the crime and to the memory of the victims. And she wanted to create a place where people in Mexico and all over the Americas could come to pay their respects and sit, virtually, with the departed.