Mexican journalist in exile Luis Horacio Nájera combines his efforts to practice his profession in Canada with a cleaning job

On his Twitter account, Luis Horacio Nájera introduces himself as janitor, author, journalist in exile. In that order.

Those titles describe his life in Canada, where he has been in exile for 14 years and where, although he’s been allowed to live a life free from threats, he’s been forced to give up journalism.

This past Oct. 1, Nájera caused a stir on social media after posting a couple of photographs of his work tools as a janitor at a supermarket in Toronto.

“Because two master’s degrees from local universities were not enough for a refugee to get a seat at the table with the good Canadian society, here I am, back to being a janitor again, after 11 years of studying, applying and publishing,” Nájera wrote in the tweet at the start of his first shift in his new job.

Mexican Journalist Luis Horacio Nájera

Luis Horacio Nájera grew up in Durango, Mexico, although he practiced most of his journalistic career in Ciudad Juárez. (Photo: Twitter)

Nájera is a Mexican journalist who worked as a correspondent for Grupo Reforma in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, covering organized crime issues on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2010, he received the International Press Freedom Award from the organization Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE).

He’s also co-author of the book “The Wolfpack: The Millennial Mobsters Who Brought Chaos and the Cartels to the Canadian Underworld” and holds a master’s degree in Global Affairs from the University of Toronto and another one in Disaster and Emergency Management from York University.

Nájera's tweet provoked dozens of reactions and aroused the indignation of colleagues from various parts of the world.

"I never expected everything that happened afterwards, the amount of people [who reacted], some in support, in solidarity, others telling me to leave the country, that there was nothing for me to do here, that I was ungrateful. That's the nature of social media. But I never expected what ended up happening," Nájera said in an interview with LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

The journalist says he posted the tweet to vent a lot of emotions provoked by recent events. Sept. 27 marked 14 years since he arrived with his family in Canada seeking asylum, fleeing Mexico after suffering multiple attacks, threats, and after learning that his name appeared on a list of journalists sentenced to death by organized crime.

That same Sept. 27, 14 years later, Nájera - now a naturalized Canadian citizen - was signing a contract to return to work as a janitor. Just as he and his wife had done when they first arrived in Vancouver and their status as refugee claimants made it very difficult for them to tap into professional jobs.

The following day, on Sept. 28, he traveled to Ottawa to participate in a screening of the film "The Cost of Freedom," by Canadian documentary filmmaker James Cullingham. The film narrates the case of Nájera and two other journalists who had to leave their countries and were admitted to Canada as refugees.

"That day I went to this meeting that was a conference of activists in exile. Obviously, it was a very different environment, in a university. It was like a carousel of emotions for me," Nájera said. "Then I came back on the weekend and started working [as a janitor]. So under that emotional distress, I tweeted about it."

Although his life is no longer in danger, Nájera believes his forced resignation from journalism is the result of several factors. Among them, there’s one that affects thousands of colleagues around the world and does not distinguish between first and third worlds: the precariousness of the job market in journalism.

In 2015, he was hired at the Toronto Star, the largest circulation newspaper in the country, as Content Editor for Star Touch, a special version for tablets. However, the project was not economically viable and the newspaper had to abandon it and lay off 29 employees, Nájera among them .

"Journalism in Canada, as everywhere else in the world, is in a deep crisis that has been going on for many years now," he said. "I've suddenly been asked to write guest editorials in newspapers, but nothing else. No one has offered me permanent positions. It is because of the crisis of journalism in general."

Added to that crisis is the fact that Latin American issues, of which Nájera is an expert, are of no interest to a Canadian audience. This is unlike what happens in the United States, where a significant percentage of the population is of Hispanic origin and consumes information about Latin America.

But, in addition, Nájera has noted that Canadian employers in other industries are wary of hiring journalists.

"A lot of companies have no trust in employing a journalist. Even if you apply for something else, the fact that you've been a journalist doesn't inspire much confidence. I think you never stop being a journalist, and what if something happens? [...] Not necessarily that [companies] have something to hide, but that a journalist is seen as more of a liability instead of as someone who has a lot to offer," he said.

Living in exile as a journalist in a country where a different language is spoken makes it even more difficult to practice the profession. Although Nájera is now fluent in English, not being fluent in Canada's two official languages (English and French) has kept him from tapping into good employment opportunities.

For Nájera, the only way a Latin American journalist could aspire to continue practicing his profession in exile in a country so culturally different from his own would be to have a support network in place prior to his arrival.

"If you want to join a newspaper, it is very difficult. First, language is a challenge. Not only speaking it, but writing it and pronouncing it correctly," he said. "Second, obviously you are a foreigner and, even if you have proper documentation, you are still a foreigner. They are not going to see you as one of their own."

Memories that revive ghosts

Since Oct. 1, Nájera has been waking up very early on weekends to start his part-time shift as a janitor at a supermarket chain at 6:30 a.m. He works eight hours on Saturdays and another eight on Sundays, while on Mondays his shift is four hours.

His co-workers don't know that they work alongside a journalist and writer who just last year released a book that can still be seen on the shelves of Canadian bookstores. Fortunately for him, he says, there are no Latino employees who might recognize him.

Cover of the book "The Wolfpack", by Mexican journalist Luis Horacio Nájera

The book by Nájera and Peter Edwards talks about the new generations of Mexican and Canadian criminals who have inherited control of drug trafficking in Canada. (Photo: Twitter)

Nájera deliberately omitted his educational background and other credentials from the resume he sent in to apply for the job. He only mentioned his personal information, his journalism degree from the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, Mexico, and his previous experience as a janitor in Vancouver. That was enough for him to be called in for an interview the morning after he submitted it.

His team is largely made up of immigrants from the Middle East and Asia. A small number of them are white Canadians who "come from having complex lives" and "are trying to get back on their feet," as the journalist reads from the faces and body language of his colleagues.

"A lot of people think being a janitor is easy, and oh, man. It's very tiring. It's eight hours, you can't sit down. Part of my job is in the store, on the floor, the bathrooms, but another part is downstairs, tossing garbage, cleaning offices. There's nowhere to sit," he said.

Student debt from his master degrees, as well as unpaid credit card bills and expenses resulting from his wife's cancer, led Nájera to seek the position as a janitor.

"The job of janitor is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a very noble, honest job. But I have already invested money, time, blood, sweat and tears [in my career as a journalist], to be told 'no, you don't fit here, but you do fit there'. That's part of my frustration," he added.

However, the 20-hour schedule on weekends allows him to spend his remaining days on the project that today keeps the journalist in him alive: writing a memoir.

Following the publication of "The Wolfpack," which he co-wrote with Canadian journalist Peter Edwards, and which talks about how the new generations of Mexican drug traffickers and Canadian mobsters have taken over control of drug trafficking in Canada, the publisher Penguin Random House showed interest in publishing an autobiographical book by Nájera.

The memoir, which is tentatively scheduled for publication in Canada at the end of 2023, has been a real challenge for the journalist. Not only because he is writing it in English, but also because he’s had to relive traumatic moments of his career that he had chosen to forget.

"Writing a memoir is difficult and more so in a language that is not your own," he said. "It’s emotionally exhausting because as you are remembering many things, there are days when you sit down and write very quickly. But suddenly there’s something there and it triggers a series of things [...] The next day you don't even want to get up, you just want to lie down, you're not hungry... It’s been quite a challenge. This issue of trauma and all it implies".

Nájera also collaborated in the book "Caged Voices", an anthology of essays by 15 journalists from various parts of the world who narrate their experiences living in exile in Canada. In his essay, entitled "¿Éxito?" (Success?), Nájera addresses the role played by social media in the depression that exiled journalists come to face.

The book, which will be published independently with the support of PEN Canada, has a tentative release date of late 2023.

'Part of me would like to be in Mexico'

When he looks at the situation facing journalists in Mexico today, Nájera said he can't help but feel indignation. But he also said he feels a kind of "imposter syndrome" for knowing he is safe while his countrymen are losing their lives for practicing journalism.

"I say 'ok, I'm here, I shouldn't complain, I'm alive.' But at the same time you see what's going on over there and part of you would like to be there," he said. "What's going on in Mexico makes me indignant, it bothers me, because things are worse off. They were supposed to be better, but they are worse."

Nájera laments that, in addition to suffering violence, stigmatization and threats, journalists in Mexico are being forced to take a stand in the face of the polarization generated by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's discourse that whoever is not in favor of his transformation is against it.

"One side-effect of this is that it’s forcing journalists to take sides, when that’s not their job. If you want to be okay, you have to say, 'ah I'm for the 4T [Fourth Transformation].' Or else, say 'I am going to be part of the opposition, fifí (bourgeois), a social climber, and I am going to face the consequences of that'," he said.

The journalist also regretted that Mexicans are not clear about the importance of the work of journalists. Therefore, there is no solidarity towards the situation of violence and precariousness experienced by the press in Mexico.

He also criticized the fact that people buy the government's discourse that the murders of some journalists were due to the fact that they "were on the wrong track."

"Since I arrived from Mexico, I was always very critical of Mexican society's lack of empathy for journalists," he said. "I used to say, 'how is it possible that they are killing journalists who are your link to the government, they are the watchdogs who make sure the government uses its money better and the powerful have accountability?' And people don't care."

So far in 2022, 15 journalists have been killed in Mexico. Most of them were reporters from local news outlets in the interior of the Republic. For Nájera, it is regrettable that communities are turning their backs on these local journalists, who are the most in danger.

"Those who are most unprotected in this struggle are local journalists, those of small newspapers that subsist there more or less. They are the most affected because they are in the community, and the community is turning its back on them," he said.