By Alejandro Martínez
The Mexican organization Periodistas de a Pie launched on Dec. 2 at the International Book Fair of Guadalajara its most recent collective project, Entre las Cenizas: Historias de Vida en Tiempos de Muerte. ("From the Ashes: Tales of Life in Times of Death" in Spanish). According to the organization, the book focuses on "stories of resistance, solidarity and hope, starring anonymous women and men who suffered from the unhinged violence of the war in Mexico against drug trafficking."
However, said Proceso magazine reporter and Periodistas de a Pie co-founder Marcela Turati, the book not only aims to inspire people in Mexico who have sunken into hopelessness, but also other journalists searching to tell stories beyond the tragedy.
"Entre las Cenizas seeks to settle one of the debts of journalism in Mexico, which focused on showing the paralyzing horror of the so-called narco-violence and the makers of war as the protagonists," said the organization in a press release.
In addition to collecting 10 long-narrative stories from some of the most prominent journalists covering human rights in Mexico (Thelma Gómez Durán, Daniela Pastrana, Elia Baltazar, John Gibler, Lydiette Carrión, Vanessa Job, Alberto Nájar, Luis Guillermo Hernández, Daniela Rea y Turati), Entre las Cenizas is an example of introspection in journalism and the merits of collective work in guiding and strengthening a project.
Turati spoke recently with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas about the challenges that came with putting together the book and seeking, as a group, for a new lens from which to cover violence in Mexico.
Entre las Cenizas will have limited printing but can be downloaded in Spanish for free from the book's website, where the organization has also posted 10 videos that go along with each story.
Knight Center: Why did Periodistas de a Pie decide to focus on this topic?
Marcela Turati: We know that people want to read these stories. People are tired of reading about drug trafficking through the lens of the horror. Many of us journalists heard people say, I don't read anymore, I turn off the TV, and that's very concerning. We wanted people not feel repulsion and have the desire to read and learn about what has happened. These aren't rosy stories either, they are the stories of people who are organizing.
Many people who was losing hope asked us, what can we do, I want to do something but I don't know where to start. We asked ourselves, how can we tell what's going on but from different sets of eyes? Thinking about this question we began to search for examples of the people who are already doing something.
We don't exactly tell people, do something like them, but we do offer 10 stories in which, despite the threats and the horror, people did something to change history and is putting up a fight.
KC: All the project's participants have worked before in documenting some of the most devastating effects of the war on drug traffickers. Given the book's difference in tone, what did this project represent to you as journalists?
MT: For us as reporters it was a welcome breath of fresh air after six years of having covered the most horrible things, of not understanding, of feeling there is no hope, that there is no future. This was also like oxygen for us. We said: 'Let's do this and tell it from another angle and see what happens.' And it was very difficult. It looks like a simple book but it has several tricks and secrets.
KC: Like which?
MT: Like a little script with things we had to pay attention to, to train our eyes and focus them on the right place.
From the beginning we said we wanted (to find) experiences of people who had organized to demand justice for their dead, their missing relatives, or to defend their territory from drug traffickers, or that help others who have it very tough, like in the case of migrants.
We wanted to avoid the tendency of focusing on the lone hero; we wanted collective efforts. There were reporters who were very in love with one experience and we ran the risk of doing propaganda, that's why we also asked to see the challenges as well, the difficulties of organizing with others. We didn't want to give the impression that it was all simple.
Others among us sometimes got close to these experiences, became disenchanted, and said, 'they only achieved this, this experience is too small, their method is perhaps not the best.' As journalists, we are impatient, we want stories that are super spectacular. But we had to limit ourselves to write about what we saw without exalting or taking credit away. When that happened we asked ourselves, in what moment did you become disenchanted with this story? What caused it? What didn't you find? Do you think it can be written from a different perspective? What would you rescue from what you saw? It was a learning experience for us.
KC: Was it easier to undertake this project among several colleagues?
MT: Yes. When the authors returned from reporting, we got together to workshop our texts and discuss in group. Why did you choose this part? Why didn't you look at this? We began to question ourselves why we wrote what we wrote. And we talked and talked about the text, and we gave ideas on how to improve it until all of us liked it.
The narrative part was also a goal for us, we wanted it to be very well written, with imagery, persons, scenes, not just a speech. And being able to produce 10 texts that we all liked, good in quality and that none of them came short on the narrative side, that was very complicated. But we made it.
KC: It seems the book was a successful collective journalism endeavor.
MT: Yes, it says a lot. FIrst, we were able to obtain financing. The Press Union of Noruega gave us financing that we were able to use for the trips and to pay each one for the texts, and the photographers as well. Publishing houses don't pay a thing, that made us very angry, any publisher will pay peanuts for a book. We wanted to be well paid, the equivalent of what a narrative magazine pays for an article. We looked for a publishing company that would edit, print and distribute it (Sur+), but also gave us the opportunity to upload it to the Internet so that people without money could also have access to the book. This was very important to us, that the victims could make the book their own. For us it was very important to find financing to organize ourselves, have the book on time, put together a book with a publishing house for the first time, and the other thing, to do it as a team and not end up fighting each other. Each one of us had a job and it turned out well.
KC: Do you feel that the stories you captured will serve as good models to follow for other journalists that want to report more stories from this angle?
MT: Yes, it is important to do it, but it's very difficult. Those of us who participated in the book sought to make visible the people who get organized, but sometimes it's difficult to find them.
You have to understand the process of violence and measure the pulse of the citizenry. You have to know well the terrain, and wait. Sometimes it happens that you put people at risk when you make it public that they are getting organized. That can be a reason for them to receive threats. You have to wait for the experience to mature, for it to go through its first challenges and then check if it survived, and how.
It would be desirable for it to become a model, but it can't always be that way. The important thing is not to lose from sight, when we go out reporting, that there are other possible focuses, and to search for these stories and chase them until we get them, because they are important for the health of journalism in general and the mental and emotional health of the readers.
KC: In your previous book Fuego Cruzado ("Crossfire" in Spanish) you took on as an individual author the topic of the human price of the last six years of conflict. For you as a co-editor and contributor of this new book, do you feel that the will to resist was the next step in telling the human side of this period of violence?
MT: For me it was like the debt I felt I had. My book was hard, it touched upon plenty of pain, of horror, and in that time one could only see the destruction. Efforts to resist were insipid. I'm not saying I made a mistake because it had to be done and become the uncomfortable conscience, but also, with the passing of years, so many news on the destruction generate a tremendous apathy, an armoring from the readers' side, and we asked ourselves, how can we continue denouncing the same things without having people feel that it's the same story they have already read? What can you do so they begin to read you again? What angles and narrative resources do you use to continue engaging the reader? Because the violence hasn't stopped and it's getting worse.
For me it was a pending matter to experiment and see if you could do this that we sometimes call journalism of hope, journalism that seeks changes, journalism of possibilities, or what some call journalism of peace and others preventive journalism. I told myself, 'let's try, let's do this and see what comes out.' The book was very experimental, we like it very much, we at the Red want to continue telling these kinds of stories. We're also interested in having the journalists that read us to tell us if they would like to do something like this.
Download Entre las Cenizas for free here.
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.