On Friday, March 23 he’ll be reading at the fully sold out Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, DC. The following afternoon, he’ll be participating in a panel discussion on environmental justice and poetry. This interview focuses on his involvement in environmental issues and his public life as a poet.
Melissa Tuckey: You have done so much public work as an activist, as an ambassador, as a journalist, as a teacher, and poet. In what ways have your experiences in activism or public life fed your spirit as a poet?
Homero Aridjis: In my early days, I never saw myself as a particularly political writer, although injustice and concern for nature did creep into my work. After seven years in the Mexican foreign service, four as cultural councilor and three as ambassador, the seeds of contradiction between my personal convictions and my official duties were sown when in 1979 I sent President José Lopez Portillo a letter of protest against the slaughter of sea turtles in Oaxaca which had been delivered to our embassy in The Netherlands. I received a slap on the wrist in reply. The president angrily asked me why I was bothering him about sea turtles when there was important business at hand: selling Mexico’s oil, natural gas, and uranium.
I returned to Mexico in 1980. One smoggy day in February 1985 a philosopher friend sent a letter to Mexico’s most independent daily newspaper. When I read the letter I knew that no one would pay any attention to one small voice, but I thought that if the writers and artists of Mexico joined together to make a strong statement about the calamitous state of affairs in the Valley of Mexico, we stood a chance of being heard. I called the philosopher, he said ‘you write it and I’ll help get the signatures,’ and a few weeks later, on March 1, 1985, a fierce critique, signed by 100 writers and artists, of the environmental havoc in which we lived, came out in the national and international media. The Grupo de los Cien — the Group of 100 — was born and I embarked on a battle that is still being waged on many fronts.
Constant immersion in the grim reality that is now Mexico City led me to write The Legend of the Suns (La leyenda de los soles), a mosaic of daily life in Mexico City in the year 2027 which I describe as a mythological-environmental thriller. Repeatedly jolted by earthquakes, its streets clogged by nonstop human and vehicular traffic jams, the most populous city on the planet is on the verge of a major environmental catastrophe. There are no trees or water left, electricity is scarce and pollution is the only fairly distributed commodity. A Teotihuacan Indian named Cristóbal Cuauhtli emerges from the past to proclaim the end of the era of the Fifth Sun. According to Aztec legend, the era of the Fifth Sun, which is the present era, will end with an enormous earthquake, and the tzitzimime, or monsters of twilight, will arrive to devour the remnants of humankind and take over the world. The companion piece to The Legend of the Suns is Who Do You Think About When You Make Love? (¿En quién piensas cuando haces el amor?), a love story set in Ciudad Moctezuma, a metaphor for Mexico City, also in the year 2027.
I have often used the idea of the apocalypse and the end of the world as a central theme, and my first millenarian fantasy took the form of a play entitled Spectacle of the Year Two Thousand (Espectáculo del año dos mil). In this play the Divine Light appears in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park during the final moments of the year 1999. Soon afterwards I wrote The Last Adam (El último Adán), a reversal of Genesis in which all Creation is destroyed in six days and the last man and woman join in a final coupling on earth. In the final year of his life the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel told me he regretted that ill health would not allow him to make a movie of my book, about which he wrote: “That the apocalypse will be the work of man and not of God is, for me, an absolute certainty. Therein lies the difference between the apocalyptic delirium of The Last Adam and Saint John’s mediocre apocalyptic descriptions. Obviously, man’s imagination has been enriched over the centuries.”
The third part of my apocalyptic trilogy is The Great Theater at the End of the World (Gran teatro del fin del mundo), six freestanding episodes of the world when the world no longer exists. I traveled back to the end of the first millennium in The Lord of the Last Days, when the arrival of a blood-red comet was interpreted as a sign of the coming of the Antichrist and an omen of the end of time itself. I finally gave full rein to my growing obsession with the apocalypse by immersing myself in the second millennium. The result was a long essay that, in homage to Durer, I called Apocalypse with Figures (Apocalípsis con figuras).
In my 1971 book The Child-Poet I had already written about the monarch butterflies that magically arrive in my village, Contepec, every winter. Nearly 30 years later, and after 15 years of actively defending the monarchs, I published a semiautobiographical novel called Butterfly Mountain. Many of my poems are born of my concern for the environment, my defense of specific species or my lifelong connection to nature.
Melissa Tuckey: In December 2011 you submitted a petition to the President Felipe Calderón, signed by writers and artists throughout the world, asking him to halt plans to allow mining concessions granted to Canadian companies on sacred land in Wirikuta. Can you please update us on that struggle and what is at stake?
Homero Aridjis: On December 1, 2011 more than 150 intellectuals and artists from 32 countries signed the Group of 100’s appeal asking President Felipe Calderón to cancel mining concessions granted by the Mexican government to Canadian companies to mine silver and gold in the sacred territory of the Wixárika (Huichol) people. The concessions are in the San Luis Potosi desert, where Wirikuta, the 140,000-hectare sacred reserve of the Wixárika, lies.
The Wixárika people have survived over the centuries throughout Mexico’s history. Their religion, mythology, traditions, and ritual objects are present in their daily life and in their extraordinarily beautiful and mysterious ceremonies centering around peyote. Permitting silver and gold mines in Wirikuta, the territory of their sacred sites, is akin to driving a stake into the heart of the Wixárika culture. Future generations of Mexicans will never forgive the current administration for having been responsible for the physical and spiritual destruction of this emblematic ethnic group that is living proof of the survival of a magical Mexican world.
At the end of February 2012, a temporary hold was granted on any official authorization of actions that might lead to mining activities in Wirikuta, pending final resolution of the issue. Meanwhile, Wirikuta’s defenders continue to seek cancelation of the mining concessions in question.
Melissa Tuckey: You’ve fought for many environmental causes in Mexico and you’ve won protection of habitat for monarch butterflies, protection of sea turtles and gray whales. Can you please describe the role of poets and artists in that struggle? What is the state of these protected areas or species now?
Homero Aridjis: Contepec, the village where I was born, nestles against a mountain where monarch butterflies arrive each winter. Even before the Group of 100 existed, I wrote about the monarchs, which were part of my childhood landscape, and in 1986 I convinced President Miguel de la Madrid to sign a decree protecting the forests where the monarch butterfly overwinters, including Altamirano Hill in Contepec. Since then the Group of 100 has defended the integrity of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve against loggers and corrupt officials, and several artists have portrayed monarchs in their work.
In 1990, I wrote a series of articles about the cruel slaughter of turtles for their skins, the poaching of eggs from their nests because they are mistakenly thought to be aphrodisiacs, and the trade in tortoise shell. At this time, I remembered the Dutch letter and the president’s anger when he received it. The Group of 100 saved Mexico’s sea turtles by marshalling international support and pressuring the government to ban the capture and commercialization of all seven species of sea turtles that swim in Mexican waters or nest on Mexican beaches. The presidential decree in answer to our demands was issued in May 1990.
Beginning in January 1995, the Group of 100 spearheaded an international campaign to prevent Mitsubishi and the Mexican government from building the world’s largest solar saltworks at the gray whale breeding ground and nursery in Laguna San Ignacio, in Baja California Sur, until Mexico’s president canceled the project in March 2000, alleging it posed “a threat to the landscape.”
At present several of the sea turtle species have recovered, but the leatherback population has plummeted and its survival is in jeopardy. This year the monarch butterfly population in Mexico’s oyamel fir forests was the third lowest in 18 years of recordkeeping. Relentless degradation of the forest habitat, coupled with increased pesticide use in the United States and this past season’s drought in the southern United States and northern Mexico were factors in the population decline. The gray whale is thriving in Laguna San Ignacio, as conservation groups have entered into agreements with local residents to protect the entire ecosystem.
Melissa Tuckey: In what ways does the protection of biodiversity and natural resources also become an issue of justice?
Homero Aridjis: Protection of the environment and human rights are inextricably bound together, as I stated at a conference at Yale Law School 20 years ago. Those who are responsible for global warming, for the destruction of the ozone layer, for the pollution of land and water, for the razing of temperate and tropical forests, for the vertiginous disappearance of species from the face of the earth, and for the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction are directly threatening the survival of the human species. They are in fact violating the rights of present and future generations and most particularly the very right to existence.
For the most part, the victims of human rights violations related to the environment are members of indigenous peoples, peasant communities, or of the rural or urban poor in countries of the South – although these violations obviously occur in the North as well. The victims seldom have adequate financial and legal resources for their own defense. Although many human rights violations in the South result from the lack of democracy in these countries, they are also due to the absence or lax enforcement of specific environmental laws to which citizens can have recourse.
Melissa Tuckey: What is the state of the environmental movement in Mexico today?
Homero Aridjis: The environmental movement in Mexico has been largely hijacked by the government and multinational environmental NGOs. Fortunately small groups spring up in response to local problems, but they often lack sufficient clout to achieve results.
Melissa Tuckey: Do you ever despair? And if so, what gives you hope?
Homero Aridjis: Of course I despair, because I see species disappearing, governments and big business dragging their feet on stemming climate change, and the oceans being emptied. However, although I am a pessimist I behave like an optimist, because I believe that each individual must defend the spheres of life.