Speech by Marcela Turati accepting the Maria Moors Cabot 2019 Award
Thank you. I feel very honored to become part of this award’s history. I care deeply about the Cabot Prize because journalists I admire have received it and they have inspired me. I’d like to thank the members of the board — people who travel along the same path — and thank you to Columbia’s Journalism School and to the Cabot family.
This award isn’t just for me. It recognizes a generation of journalists who, since 2006, were thrust unexpectedly into the crossfire because of the decision to pursue a failed security policy called the war on drugs. This war has left its mark on millions of people. It was a disastrous decision that changed our lives, our identity, and our understanding of what journalism is.
I used to be a journalist who stayed behind the scenes, helping to do trainings and organizing trainings for others, covering the poorest regions of the country, and who was too shy to ask questions openly in press conferences. Soon, though, people started to invite me to speak and often I have had to force myself to do so. For years, I have repeated the same words: there’s an unacknowledged war in Mexico, and millions are its victims. Many journalists have been forced to become war correspondents without leaving the country.
On many occasions, I spoke with a sense of urgency. Other times, I felt impotent. Sometimes I didn’t even know what to say. And on still other occasions I promised not to speak any more, wanting instead only to report what was going on in Mexico.
I really don’t know at what moment my identity changed. Maybe it was when I saw a pile of corpses exhumed from a clandestine grave and I decided to investigate their deaths. Maybe it was when I found out that a journalist I knew had been murdered. Maybe it was when I decided with other women journalists to organize ourselves to care for each other so we could also help others to protect themselves and when we decided to demand an end to the impunity.
More than a decade later, I took a break for a moment to reflect and realized the enormous weight of the more than 140 journalist colleagues who have been killed or disappeared. Their murderers have not been prosecuted nor punished. But also I see around me that even in spite of so much death, Mexico’s press hasn’t been killed and it’s still standing, it’s still very much alive.
This isn’t rhetoric. It isn’t difficult to see evidence of it. Where the violence stirs rage, where they silenced a respected colleague, that’s where you find journalists overcoming their fear to organize and demand justice, to train others, and to work collectively for protection, to defend the right to inform and be informed, to investigate forbidden stories.
That’s what I saw after Armando Rodríguez, El Choco, was murdered in Ciudad Juárez, and it’s been repeated over and over again: colleagues create collectives, they protest to stop the silence where people are forcibly and violently deprived of the news.
I think about Veracruz, the state where Regina Martínez was murdered. She was the brave correspondent of Proceso magazine, a publication I have written for. Journalists organized a mission so the first anniversary of her death would not go unnoticed. We went to her grave. We noticed that nobody had tended to it, that her final resting place still had the same flowers on it, withered and dried out, that she had been buried with.
Regina’s murderers sowed terror with her killing. But her friends joined forces to tidy her grave, to take their protest to the plaza not just once but many times, to rededicate that plaza in Xalapa in her name, and to continue doing brave journalism, just like she did.
This same story has repeated time and again, sort of like how ants work, but with immense symbolic power. That’s how it’s been when we take to the streets with photos of murdered journalists. Or when we put on auctions to help raise funds for journalists forced to flee, create support networks to help rescue journalists under death threats, and name perpetrators. To organize investigative journalism workshops in the town where they killed its best investigative journalists to show them that by silencing one person others will take their place.
The power of symbolic protests by nobodies. By those in the trenches. By women, to shine a light into the areas where things are hidden, silenced, buried.
As I was writing these words, a Latin American song came to mind: You killed me so many times, I died so many times, but I am still here, breathing, to continue singing. That is exactly what has been going on with a group of Mexican journalists.
A veteran journalist told me a few days ago she was surprised by this revolution in journalism. She told me she was reminded of the knowledge found in nature. Of the skills the hunted develop as they escape from predators. That’s how we have learned to work in teams in Mexico. It’s a form of evolution as we confront violence and threats.
Often comes the question: are we journalists or activists? I think: where there’s no journalism, life is at risk. People are being murdered, disappeared, and entire towns are forced to flee from their homes. The struggle against silence is a fight for life.
My history is filled with the murders of journalists I knew. El Choco, Regina Martínez, Rubén Espinosa, Miroslava Breach or Javier Valdez, my friend the storyteller who taught so many of us how to cover what he referred to as “life under the narco.” And all of the others I did not know but about whom I’ve written. I respect and honor each of them. I can tell you that they weren’t dead when we buried them because we did not bury them, we planted them, like seeds.
I am not a protagonist in this story written by many hands and in different times. Sometimes I take the lead, sometimes I give ideas, sometimes I bring coffee or mezcal or host a party. At other times I have had to take a break or have needed to be carried by others as I look for some relief. This story isn’t finished. There have been ruptures, errors, doubts remain and we haven’t articulated ourselves how we wanted to. But I feel proud to be a part of this generation that has responded to the circumstances confronting us. We continue to support journalism that shows the way forward. Silence is not an option. We are aware that our daily news stories make up a real-time truth commission that helps build the future, a future where there is justice, a justice we will have made possible.
I would like to thank our international supporters because without you this work would not have been possible. To many different collectives and I thank them, too. I thank my family, my parents, and my friends who have always been supporting me. The Cabot Prize is another way of reminding ourselves that our profession, recording what happens, is a way to preserve memory, that journalism is a way to defy death and to sow for the future.