by Lydia Cacho
I awake and glance about me without wanting to open my eyes properly. The clock says three in the morning. I reach up to my neck and rub it while taking deep breaths. Darkness invades my bedroom, my breath grows shorter. I have to put on the light in order to figure out my whereabouts, there’s an unfamiliar smell to this place.
Finally my hand encounters the light switch. I sit up in bed and slowly rearrange my pillows as I look about me. I am so exhausted there is nothing I want more right now than a peaceful sleep, to slumber the night away with nothing to startle me awake. My room is in a small and pretty, traditional hotel in London’s West End. I manage to start breathing deeply, the way I learnt twenty years ago when I discovered the benefits of Yoga; it’s the one technique that can lend me balance. Even when I’m in bed, I assume a basic Yoga pose: lotus position, and by connecting my vertebral column with my head the air enters, flows and leaves my body, and my anxiety disperses across the sheets little by little. Only then do I reach out my hand to pick up my red Moleskine notebook, the pen that slid into the clasp to keep it closed now held between my fingers.
The pen, my lance, my tool, my travel companion. The notebook is my port in a storm, no matter how late the hour or far the place, it always welcomes my words without caring where they may end up – if indeed they have a destination – and the sentences constructed between pen and paper are mine, ours too; I am not alone as long as I can reveal those dreams or pressures, nightmares or ideas, and the words of others. There too I can exist, like those women and men I interview for newspapers. I exist in the same way as the boys and girls who tell me of the horrors of the world, then talk about their favourite toys and their yearning for justice. I write for others, I write for myself, I write to record that life counts. I don’t want to lose my head, and I write as much in one line as I touch my neck again, and a shiver runs over my skin.
I rise from the bed and pick up the purple scarf I left spread across a chair; gingerly, I drape it around my neck. I return to bed and make myself aware of what’s going on, for fear has invaded my dreams, feeding off an image with which we have become increasingly familiar thanks to the newspapers in my home country: a reiteration of decapitated humans, heads without bodies in the pages of a political review, dismembered bodies on the front page of a daily that had never previously published such a horrific picture. Some sixty thousand murder victims of a pointless and mendacious war on drug trafficking, my country is pouring blood and in the midst of so much blood millions of us still somehow survive to tell the truth.
In my nightmare the head was my own, with nothing surrounding it but a desolate landscape. My face was devoid of expression and my eyes lifelessly closed. I take further deep breaths without letting go of my pen, I need to write for myself alone, in order to exorcise the image. The words of the most recent death threat that I received by email return to me: first my hands would be given to my partner, then my head to my father. As soon as the threat came through, I phoned my lawyers and forwarded the threat to the authorities, knowing them to be wholly incompetent and devoid of the least intention to investigate threats against journalists. I gave all the information to a good friend who advises me on security matters. Two days later we knew that the threat had originated in Veracruz; that the owner of that email address had sent twenty or more mails in which he offered to assassinate given targets for one thousand five hundred dollars. A commonplace hit-man, and I was on the hit-list, the worst part of it being that appearing on such a list does not constitute a crime.
I carried on working, knowing full well that the authorities would do nothing for me, as they did nothing for the vast majority of Mexicans. So I denounced, told all I knew, my enemy should know that I had unveiled him, peeling away what all the mafias most want to retain, their concealment, their place of safety. And I carried on with my life. That’s what I do each time a new death threat arrives. I denounce and then I continue my life, ratcheting up my defences, and I continue writing, which is the same as to continue living. I go and see my therapist, crying a little when I recall how I was kidnapped and tortured; I work on my fear, I take it out and parade it in front of witnesses who know how to confront and disable it. I shed light on what’s going on in my head, I don’t want to swallow my fear or I’ll get indigestion. I shed light and I don’t want the things I describe with loathing and disgust- like my own death – to remain caught beneath my eyelids. I shed light because that is the only way I can look myself in the mirror and celebrate the fact that I’m still here and smile because yes, I smile simply because I can.
I look again at the phrase written in capital letters: I DON’T WANT TO LOSE MY HEAD. I think of the times in my adolescence when I wrote a similar sentence talking of love. When I was young I didn’t want to lose my head through falling in love, and I took refuge in poetical and flowery language since I never imagined that becoming a writer, or a journalist, could cause any of my friends to lose their heads, neither my dead colleagues’ nor my own, as I still continue to enjoy the good luck to be alive.
It doesn’t matter that I’d taken refuge in therapy; it doesn’t matter that I had decided not to surrender, with all the determination of someone running uphill in the pursuit of hope and tranquillity; it doesn’t matter that I had promised myself not to repeat the words of those who wanted me dead. Their words, like mine and those of other journalists, live between us and can be carefully weighed, for both their shape and their certainty. They scamper around at midnight, even though we are so sure we drove them away, even though we have conducted an imaginary ritual to burn the threats in a pyre. Notwithstanding all this they return and reappear, turning into powerful images; now they are no longer threats but facts, their descriptive power is ferocious because they form part of reality and the reality of others that infuses every other aspect of our lives. When I become aware of it, I sit up again in my bed, and pick up a copy of my book, Slavery Inc. I look at the white cover. This is why I am here, in the United Kingdom, to talk on my investigations into the mafias who buy and sell human beings. I take the book to bed with me, I touch the scarf that has warmed my neck, now relaxed, and become aware of everything in my surroundings: a room not my own, a suitcase full of cheap clothes and my professional standard camera; a bottle of mineral water, a thin shawl to keep out the cold, my pen, my notebook, my book written after five long years of research and so many, many threats. In the midst of it all I am, whole and alive, still breathing and still safe and sound. I drink a sip of the water. I write another page: I won’t lose my head through fear. I close the notebook, breathe deeply and think that tomorrow will bring an interesting day at the Frontline Club.
Life goes on and so do I.
(Translated by Amanda Hopkinson. Lydia Cacho’s article was originally written for English PEN’s Magazine, issue 2, January 2013. English PEN Magazine is published three times a year and is free to members of English PEN. This article was also published in PEN International's Write Against Impunity Anthology 2012.)