top of page

Loss in Translation: Ayotzinapa and Mexico’s More than 27,000 Disappeared

By Maggie Ervin

At its best, a translation can be sublime and elevating. I dare say Edith Grossman’s English version of One Hundred Years of Solitude is almost as stunningly delicious as Garcia Marquez’s original. And I wonder if Rilke’s original Sonnets to Orpheus could possibly be more transcendent than Stephen Mitchell’s take on it. At its worst, translation can be awkward and disappointing. When trying to convey the layers of Portuguese’s saudade, or those long, precise German nouns stuck together to make one single word.

Translating certain words from Spanish to English can be complicated too. In English, “disappear” is not normally a transitive verb. Something or someone disappears by its own will, or by negligence, but it’s not something you do to someone else. There are plenty of cruel things you can do to people in English, but disappearing folks is simply not part of our linguistic repertoire of barbarism. Here in Mexico, someone can be “bagged.” No, not “fired” or “arrested.” In this case it means a dead body is wrapped in a garbage bag and most likely left somewhere other than the local morgue. Ever heard of a “goat’s horn?” (Hint: not the one you find on the animal.) That translates to AK-47. Similarly, “el derecho a la verdad” sounds odd in English too. “The right to the truth?” When was the last time you heard that victims have “the right to the truth?”

43 students, disappeared. Or would the right word be “missing?” Or “taken?” Or “unaccounted for?” No, they are indeed disappeared; no ambiguities or euphemisms in this case. In fact, the more accurate term for what happened in Iguala six months ago was forced disappearance. To English speakers, this term might also need some explaining. In spite of the many injustices in the U.S. – class inequalities, crazy rates of incarceration, demonizing of immigrants, bankruptcy due to sickness, police killing unarmed black men, a merciless minimum wage – forced disappearance is not part of our daily reality or rhetoric. So a little clarification. There are three basic elements to forced disappearance: 1) the denial of someone’s freedom against their will, 2) the involvement of state authorities either by commission or omission, and 3) the denial of the incident by state authorities. On the night of September 26, 2014, all of these elements were gruesomely at play. 

Over these last six months, the 43 students of Ayotzinapa have gotten widespread, worldwide attention, as well they should have. But forced disappearance has been a major problem in Mexico since 2006. In the year 2014 alone, over 5,098 Mexicans were disappeared. That’s more people than fit in a typical high school gym. (So imagine that varsity basketball game during a winning season, and then stuff in about 500 more people.) The story of the 43 students has gotten more attention than others, probably because of a confluence of factors: the grisliness of the massacre, the clear collusion between organized crime and the state, the government’s slow response and premature attempts to close the book on the case, and the shameless levels of corruption and putrefaction of political parties embodied in the event. But family members of the forcibly disappeared in Mexico have been speaking out for years.

Not only speaking out, but also alerting authorities. Surely the numbers are low compared to actual disappearances, since family members are often too scared – of narcos or state authorities, or both – to report them. (There are currently over 27,000 disappeared Mexicans.) But perhaps they’re also skeptical that justice will be served. Unfortunately, the evidence strongly supports this skepticism. Between 2006 and 2011, 390 complaints of forced disappearances were filed before Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission. Out of those, there have been zero convictions. And despite the number of forced disappearances having increased since Peña Nieto took office in December 2012, by April 2014 (the last date available) there was still not one single conviction for forced disappearance in all of Mexico. 

All of this is happening in the context of the Drug War. It’s been 34 years since Nixon declared it, fifteen years since it was unleashed on a massive scale in Colombia, and eight years since Mexico became its main frontier. No matter how you measure it, in terms of its stated goals the Drug War has been a colossal, undeniable failure both in the U.S. and south of the border. The availability and consumption of drugs hasn’t decreased, it’s corresponded with a surge in human rights abuses, it’s led to more incarceration and broken families in the U.S., and the deaths keep mounting in Latin America. Much has been written – in many languages, and quite eloquently – about this evidence. And more than a handful of Latin American current and past presidents have criticized the policy, even a few from the right. Yet somehow U.S. politicians of both major parties continue to stubbornly ignore the data. What will it take to stop this war?

That word, of course, is easy to translate: Guerra. War. And it has several derivative words, like the name of the state where the 43 were disappeared: Guerrero. Warrior. We need warriors these days, the kind who fight for an end to state brutality and militarization, who condemn the lucrative business of war, and who defend the “right to the truth.” That is what it will take. 

  • Take action to stop the U.S.’s funding the Merida Initiative. Through it the U.S. government has spent over 2.4 billion dollars, most of which has been used to militarize Mexico. Tell your Representatives to stop funding the Initiative.

  • Join the U.S. Caravan of the 43 (through April 28,2014). Show your solidarity with family members of the disappeared students.


bottom of page