When people greet each other in the Indigenous language of Tsotsil, they ask “How is your heart?” To respond “My heart is blooming,” means that all is well. To be healthy, to be well, is to be rooted and blossoming.
As we open the public day of meetings in southern Mexico about disappeared migrants, Flori, from Voces Mesoamericanas, shares about a word from yesterday’s private meetings, decided during discussions between family members: senti-pensar. To feel and to think. Neither can be separated from the other. Both inform how we see and understand disappearances and the search to find the disappeared. It’s the heart and the brain, but focused on the heart.
At the centre of the room stands a giant wooden heart. It is covered in coloured ribbons. Each time I visit San Cristobal de las Casas, the weaving is thicker. Every time the families of disappeared migrants meet, they tie another ribbon on the wooden poles adorning the heart. With each ribbon, they represent their heart’s desire: to keep looking until the missing is found.
To be forcibly disappeared is to be neither alive nor dead. In this limbo, there is little space for rest because there is no closure. To be disappeared is not to simply vanish, but to actively be made to vanish. For each missing person, there are other actors and circumstances involved who disappear people, a slight of hand in a macabre magic trick. As borders become more and more militarized, migrants are forced to take unknown routes, ending up facing corrupt police, cartels, and a possible mass grave, or dying of overexposure in the desert sun. For their families, there are no answers, only absence.
Back in Mexico City, I attend the launch of a report jointly written by different civil society groups, including MCC partner Serapaz, about the psycho-social impacts on the families of the disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa. The front row of seats is empty, in representation of the missing and a reminder that migrants are not the only ones who are gone.
“This pain feels like it happened yesterday. Each moment, each day that passes, there is not a moment in which we are not thinking about our children” shared Hilda Hernandez, the mother of Cesar Manuel Gonzales Hernandez, “As you hear about the pain that I carry, it is the same for the other fathers and the other mothers of the 43…We no longer have a life, because we are dying, little by little, to not know about our children.”
To remember is to resist. It is through the power of this memory that the families themselves, not just of Ayotzinapa, but of the tens of thousands of disappeared, are changing the legal landscape of Mexico. Thanks to their search, not only for bodies, but also for justice and truth, the Mexican Congress passed a law around forced disappearances in October of 2017. The law involves the creation of a nation registry of the disappeared and more resources and legal commissions to continue searching, not just for bodies, but truth and for justice. Migrant organizations are hopeful that they can also use the new law as a tool for their own search. While the law looks good on paper, all the family collectives and civil society organizations acknowledge that for any implementation to take place, advocacy and pressure must continue.
This grassroots search, organized by family collectives that spend days spent combing and mapping mass graves, does not only take place in Mexico. In Central America, the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano conducts endless hours of fieldwork. Marta Sánchez Soler, the general coordinator, describes hours of travelling from small town to town, setting up tables in plazas and asking families about their missing. She estimates there are between 60-120 thousand disappeared migrants from Central America. Due to family advocacy, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology (EAAF) team has recently established DNA banks throughout the region, trying to match families with bodies found in the desert and mass graves through Mexico, both in cemeteries and the hidden results of violent crime. While there is still no central hub, EAAF can at least start to access and draw connections between different storage sites and spaces of information. All of this information is vital, and has resulted in a very small number of recent matches.
While finding a family member is important, the families want more: they demand truth about what happened, justice, reparations, and collective memory that refuses to treat their loved ones as criminals just because they tried to cross a border. Who is responsible? And how can further disappearances be stopped? How does a heart blossom again?
A year ago, I was the northern border of Arizona with Sonora, hearing stories of desert crossing and prevention through deterrence. On our last day, we visited the Pima County morgue with Kat Rodriguez from the Colibri Center. There are people lying in cold storage: the shape of feet and of legs, the only features possible to discern on the shelves lined with body bags. For these migrants, the journey may be over, but the search has only just begun.
At the end of our visit, Kat spreads out the transparent envelopes that the morgue uses to store the personal effects of the bodies found in the desert. Rosaries. Dollar bills. A belt buckle. A bible. Passport sized photos. How is it possible to sum up a life through an assortment of tokens left behind? The envelopes are too small to contain the hope and the grief that swirl everywhere along the migrant path.“The word accompaniment means to eat bread together,” a panellist states in Mexico City. He talks about the importance of sharing in the joys and sorrows of the families, and allowing these same joys and sorrows to reveal the truth of our nations’ policies.
Bread. Flower blossoms. To walk. To search. So many of the words of the past weeks are deeply physical. Is it any wonder that my own reaction is also deeply physical? I find myself up all night, retching, yet ashamed. This is not my suffering, these are not my stories, but here I am, doubled over. Senti-pensar.
In the midst of so much searching and so much limbo, of even being a witness, as small as that feels, how is the heart cared for? How do we eat bread together? What does one Canadian, with the freedom to travel south, north, and back again, to visit the disappeared, and to trace footsteps with none of the fear, offer? Nausea is not enough.
On the long plane ride from Bogota to Mexico, I read Sarah Sentille’s Draw Your Weapons. At the beginning on her brilliant meditation on photography and war, she starts by asking “How to live in the face of so much suffering? What difference can one person make in this beautiful, imperfect, and imperilled world?”
“The world is made. And can be unmade. Remade.” Sentilles final words are hardly a response at all, but a reminder. “We teach each other how to see each other or not to see each other. We teach each other how to treat one another.” We are all artists, creating a world that is thought, feeling, heart, action, bread, flower.Let these words be buds, be blossoms.
As we file out of the auditorium at the end of the event in Mexico City, a cry goes up from the corner of the room where the families are sitting beside the empty benches. “¡Vivos los llevaron y vivos los queremos!” (Alive they were taken and alive we want them back.)
The same cry can be heard in the breaking voices of the uncles, father, mothers and brothers in Chiapas as they once again, share their stories with state public servants on our last day together. “This is the last place my son was seen. Tell me again, how long will it take?”
Families light candles and tie ribbons on the heart, this time placed in the centre of a Mayan altar in the plaza. “We did not choose to walk this path. But we are walking it.” Together, they tell us, they are weaving a new history that cannot be undone.