‘[In Mexico] it’s very common to receive threats of various kinds and I am no exception’: Juan Villoro, 2022 Gabo Award for Excellence

As part of the 2022 Gabo Festival, which returned to its in-person version this year and made its debut at its new venue in Bogota, Colombia, several awards were presented to outstanding journalistic works from around the region. On that rainy and cold morning, the 2022 Gabo Award for Excellence was presented to Mexican writer, journalist, chronicler, and critic Juan Villoro for his renowned and extensive career. In his acceptance speech on Oct. 21, his wide-ranging culture was evident, his ability to navigate from everyday topics to soccer, to quoting poets and thinkers, all in a skein without beginning or end. Villoro is interested in everything that  makes us human and pays attention to all the details of life. And not only that, he is capable of narrating it and making it interesting to anyone who listens to or reads him.

Villoro has received numerous awards for his short stories and novels, as well as for his journalistic work. In journalism alone, he received the King of Spain International Journalism Award, the City of Barcelona Award, the Manuel Vásquez Montalbán International Journalism Award and the Fernando Benítez Tribute at the International Book Fair. His work has been translated into several languages. 

He is a columnist for Reforma (Mexico) and was the director of the supplement La Jornada Semanal (Mexico). He has also written for international media such as The New York Times (United States), El País (Spain), and El Mercurio (Chile), among others. He has been a professor at UNAM (Mexico) and visiting professor at Yale, Princeton and Stanford (United States), as well as Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona, Spain). 

Villoro made time in his busy schedule to answer a few questions from LatAm Journalism Review (LJR)

LJR: What does it mean to you to receive the Gabo 2022 Festival Excellence Award for your career as a journalist and writer?

Juan Villoro: First of all, it came as a surprise. I was in Monterrey, Mexico, watching a strange cloud of small yellow butterflies that, I was told, migrate to the city at this time when I received the call announcing the award. The news was foreshadowed by that image of magical realism. As I said at the award ceremony, a journalist who thinks he or she deserves an award doesn’t really deserve it. Reality is always more important than us and we owe ourselves to it. I can’t accept it as a quality stamp, but rather as an incentive to continue doing my job.

LRJ: In a country like Mexico, where local media journalists are attacked and murdered with alarming frequency, have you ever received threats because of what you write? Do you think that practicing your profession in the capital and being a recognized writer gives you a certain security?

JV: It’s very common to receive threats of various kinds and I am no exception. However, the journalists who suffer the most are those who work in small provincial newspapers. Being a more or less recognized author can give you some protection, but it also entails other risks. Yesterday and the day before yesterday [Oct. 31 or Nov. 1], President López Obrador spent part of his morning press conference disqualifying me for having dared to criticize the militarization of the country he is promoting. He refutes journalists from his position of power, something that is very serious within a threatened environment, in which 15 colleagues have been murdered so far this year. Exercising criticism entails risks, but my situation is less serious than that of other colleagues. That is why I donated the prize money to the Quinto Elemento lab, which supports colleagues who work in risky and highly dangerous situations. 

LJR: What was a standout panel or talk for you at the Gabo Festival that just took place in Bogota, Colombia? 

JV: I really enjoyed the panel on Latin American elites led by Spaniard Pere Ortin, with journalists from Mexico, Colombia and Chile. It was remarkable to see that four countries with governments that claim to be progressive are still subject to the whims of big capital. Today, the CEO of a corporation is more important than a president.

LJR: What is the biggest challenge facing journalism in Mexico today? 

JV: The essential challenge is physical survival. We have war figures in terms of journalists killed. The second is economic survival, since print journalism has become almost unviable as an independent business model. The third is survival in the face of machines, since we are increasingly dependent on technological designs and our tasks are gradually being replaced by artificial intelligence.

LJR: What are you currently working on?

JV: I’m writing a memoir about my father, who’d turn 100 years old this year. He was a philosopher who was very close to social causes, mainly Zapatismo. It is not a biography, since I am not the right person to do it, but rather a collection of scenes that intend to show him full-body, with the chiaroscuros, the ironies and complexities from someone who is neither glorifying nor settling scores.

LJR: What advice would you give young journalists in Latin America who are starting out? 

JV: To be interested in everything they can. He who only knows about one subject doesn't even know about that subject. Source journalism usually leads to sterile specialization. If you cover politics, you think that the intrigues of the political class explain everything and you lose sight of the big picture, which includes symbolic, religious, erotic, economic, etc. elements. Each theme is linked to all themes. You have to read a lot and, above all, you must have a hyperactive curiosity.

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