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Bodies

Cuerpos
by Sara Uribe
Translated from Spanish by
Christina MacSweeney
Issue 30 Online Exclusive

I

Vértigo. Mi cuerpo es un dummy de pruebas de colisión de automóviles. Como si el coche en el que viajara hubie­ra frenado y yo no llevara el cinturón de seguridad, la silla giratoria me arroja hacia el escritorio, que hace las veces de parabrisas. Ni mi cuerpo ni yo sabemos qué es lo que está pasando. Él se entera antes: mi cerebro me dice esto es un sismo, está temblando, pero yo ya estoy de pie, frente a la puerta, dando vuelta a la llave. Escucho que algo cruje, algo truena, algo se ha roto dentro de mi departamento. No me detengo. Mis rodillas se ablandan y las plantas de mis pies bajan cada peldaño a una veloci­dad desconocida. Me sujeto de las paredes porque siento como si alguien estuviera jugando a agitar la escalera. Ya en la calle me doy cuenta de que dejé a Vladimir, mi gato, arriba, que no traigo mi teléfono, que huí dejando todo atrás. No sé bien dónde colocarme. Mi cuerpo se sabe a salvo, pero fuera de lugar.

* * *

Esta ciudad impulsa tu cuerpo hacia otros cuerpos. Lo sé porque siempre me incomodó que los cuerpos de des­conocidos toquen el mío, pero hace un año que llegué de Tamaulipas a Ciudad de México y es imposible que mi cuerpo no esté en continuo contacto con los demás: esta ciudad está poblada de millones de gentes, pero sobre todo está hecha de cuerpos. En el camión, en el Metro, en las calles, en los bares: mi cuerpo existe en tanto que parte de una colectividad de cuerpos que se aprietan y se balancean y se recargan y se contienen entre sí. ¿Dónde empieza el mío y dónde termina cuando otros cuerpos lo rodean a modo de un abrazo tan involuntario como tangible? Ahora mi mano toca tu mano, ahora mi pierna está junto a la tuya, pero tú y yo no nos conocemos. A ti y a mí esta ciudad nos instaló contiguos. Lo sé porque mientras escribo estas palabras en mi celular, a bordo de un camión rumbo a Santa Fe, los pequeñísimos de-dos de una bebé se apoderan de mi hombro y de mi pelo. Lo sé porque en la esquina de Ámsterdam y Lare­do, segundos después de comenzado el sismo y antes de desplomarse el edificio, las cámaras de seguridad mues­tran a los cuerpos aferrándose unos a otros en un abrazo súbito, impensado. Esta ciudad es una enorme maquina­ria de inercias corporales en las que uno se inserta. Es un cuerpo hecho de cuerpos.

En la Ciudad de México nunca te desplazas solo, siem­pre eres parte de una masa que se mueve al trabajo, a echarse unos tacos, a un concierto o por los parques. Yo lo sé porque tardé un buen tiempo en asumir la velocidad exacta a la que la gente camina en las calles y en el Metro, en dejar de ser un elemento discordante en su ritmo. Lo sé porque ese rozar de los otros cuerpos contra el mío tiene ahora otros significados. Y lo sé porque las larguísimas hileras de cuerpos moviéndose al unísono para acarrear escombros o víveres el 19 de septiembre eran las venas de esta ciudad, de este cuerpo herido, que se aferraba, en el bombeo sanguíneo de todas nuestras respiraciones y manos, a la vida.

I

Vertigo. My body is a crash test dummy. As if the car I’m travelling in has braked and as I’m not wearing my seat belt, the swivel chair launches me towards the windscreen that is my desk. Neither my body nor I know what is going on. My body works it out first: my mind says: this is an earthquake, the ground is moving, but I’m already on my feet, standing by the door, turning the key. I hear a loud creak, a groan, something has broken inside my apartment. I don’t stop. My knees go weak and the soles of my feet descend each step at an incredible velocity. I support myself on the walls because I feel as if someone is playing a trick, shaking the staircase. Outside in the street, I realize that I’ve forgotten Vladimir, my cat. I don’t know where to put myself. My body knows it’s safe, but out of place.

***

This city thrusts your body towards other bodies. I know this because I once felt uncomfortable when the bodies’ of strangers touched mine, but it’s a year since I moved to Mexico City from Tamaulipas and there’s no way my body can avoid continual contact with others: millions of people inhabit this city, but mostly it’s made up of bodies. On the bus, in the metro, in the street, in bars: my body exists as part of a collective of bodies that press against each other, sway, lean in on each other or shrink back. Where does my body begin, and where does it end when it is surrounded by others in some form of involuntary, intangible embrace? Now my hand is touching your hand, now my leg is next to yours, but you and I don’t know each other. This city installed you and I in adjoining spaces. I know this because while I’m writing these words on my phone, on a bus bound for the Santa Fe neighborhood, the tiny fingers of a baby clutch my shoulder and my hair. I know it because, on the corner of Amsterdam and Laredo, seconds after the earthquake began and before the building collapsed, the security cameras show bodies clinging to each other in a sudden, spontaneous embrace. This city is a gigantic machine of corporeal inertias that one inserts oneself into. It’s a body made up of bodies.

In Mexico City, you never travel alone, you’re always part of a crowd on its way to work, to eat tacos, to attend a concert, to walk in the parks. I know this because it took me quite a while to adapt to the speed at which people walk in the street, in the metro, to stop being a discordant element in their rhythm. I know this because that brush of other bodies against mine now has other meanings. I know this because the long, long lines of bodies moving in harmony to transport rubble or provisions on September 19 were the arteries of this city, of this wounded body that, in the pulse coursing through our every breath and our hands, was clinging to life.

II

We aren’t wearing facemasks, gloves or helmets. It’s the evening of September 19, 2017, we’re in Calle Escocia in Del Valle, and the collapsed building is a few houses away. A man is shouting at everyone while he controls access to the site. I want to believe there are military personnel in the most seriously affected area, but the only ones I see are standing around or sitting inside their vehicles: they are statues with the arms glued to their bodies. There are too many people moving around, and I don’t know whom or what to ask. A terrible thought comes into my mind: I know how to act when the bullets are flying, but I don’t know the procedure after an earthquake. All of a sudden a human chain begins to form near us and we join it. Within a matter of seconds rubble is flowing through our hands: lumps of concrete, baskets filled with debris, pieces of wood, wire. Someone shouts for us to move aside and we make a space to let through a large metal grille carried by young people. I can see them straining under the load, their hands tensed. I think that I will never forget their faces. Their bodies in action.

***

Franco Bifo Berardi, an Italian philosopher, said that ethics consists of considering the other’s body as a continuation of ones own. So, in the aftermath of the quake, just as there was a temporary, partial suspension of private property in some Mexico City neighborhoods and homes—for example, sharing Wi-Fi, welcoming strangers who needed a shower or a place to stay for the night, electrical extension cords left outside windows so phones could be charged—there was also a temporary, partial suspension of the division between one’s own body and the other’s.

The body of the other was one’s own in each and every one of the human chains replicated throughout the city. In every act of kindness aimed at feeding or looking out for the other: preparing a meal for the volunteers and members of the brigades; offering a regular supply of cakes, water, coffee, or fruit; ordering everyone to stop working for at least ten minutes, to sit down, eat, and rest to avoid extreme exhaustion; writing encouraging messages on the supplies, or something funny that will produce a smile in moments of greatest uncertainty. In every offer of hospitality or protection, every hug that said: your body is also mine, it too is important to me.

The other’s body was one’s own when the rescuers and members of the brigades pushed their corporeality to the limit, working long shifts without sleep, with the sole aim of recovering other bodies, the absent ones. The other’s body was one’s own in the imperious need to do everything humanly possible to rescue those still alive, trapped below the remains of buildings. But, in this country with its thirty-seven thousand disappeared persons—bodies in limbo—and mass graves—bodies in shared darkness—the body of the other was also one’s own. And it was one’s own in that burning need to recover the bodies of people who might or might not still be alive, who were unaccounted for or lay without signs of life beneath fallen buildings. In all these actions there was a continuity between bodies, an erasure of the distinction between mine and yours. We were a social body, but also, in Bifo’s terms, an ethical body.

III

We head for a collection station in Condesa. It’s the morning of September 20, 2017. The closer we get, the stronger the smell of gas in the air. There are expensive restaurants with signs offering free food to volunteers and rescue brigades. There are cordoned-off buildings, but until Polet, my girlfriend, points them out, I don’t notice the fissures, the cracks, the gashes in the concrete of many of the houses not surrounded by the yellow or red plastic tape signaling danger. She asks me to move away from the facades, so we walk along the edge of the sidewalk or, to be more honest, the edge of the street. Many walls show scars and wounds, some more serious than others. We’re walking through a fractured city and I feel that at any moment something is going to break off. Another portion of its body will die.

On the third day we went out into the street to help, Polet vomited. On the fourth, while I was taking a shower, I realized that I had bruises on my arms and a small scab on the palm of my left hand. By the fifth, the adrenalin flow had cured my colitis and gastritis. We haven’t switched off the light to sleep since the earthquake. A month afterwards, I would still quite regularly feel—in my body, in a disturbingly real way—that the ground was moving under my feet.

I, who had come here escaping the shoot-outs and kidnappings of Tamaulipas state, and had never been afraid in Mexico City, was feeling a sense of oppression—a weight stitched onto my body, my heart, my stomach—had returned to take up residence on my skin. Not on September 19, but on Saturday 23, when the earthquake siren sounded again. My first thought on shaking off sleep and getting to my feet was for the buildings that were already damaged: the image that came to my mind was a ruined city with hundreds of bodies trapped under their own houses and offices. No more buildings collapsed that Saturday, but now, in this city, there are thousands of people who were dragged by the roots from their homes. Their lives crumbled along with those walls, those spaces that no longer exist or will gradually disappear. All the existences constructed on those sites will be only the memory of loss: of the dead, or lives lived in a now uninhabitable place, of a city that will never be the same. When a catastrophe, be it an earthquake or a war, hangs over a broken nation—as is ours, as are so many others—you can see what’s coming: hundreds, thousands of displaced persons in the streets, or moving from one city to another, sleeping in tents for months or years. Those evicted forcibly from their homes become ambulant bodies: drifters without homes or certainties.

IV

We’re driving along Tamaulipas to the collection station in Cibeles. It’s seven in the evening, Friday, September 21, 2017. Watching from inside the car, it’s as if the quake never happened in some of the bars in Condesa; at only a few blocks distance, there are no destroyed homes or people still waiting to be rescued. At one lively table, they are clinking beer glasses and laughing. I find it impossible to process the life that goes on living without stopping to connect with the endangered lives of others, the lives now in suspense or irrevocably fractured, that have been cut short.

We arrive at the collection station and join a human chain to spend a couple of hours passing supplies from hand to hand in mixed sex lines. There’s always someone who thinks you’re not capable of bearing the weight of something or other and who, rather than pass whatever it is to you, breaks the chain to place it in the storage area himself. We’ve just been told that a large truck is about to arrive, but that it will be unloaded by what the highest ranking man in the organization we’ve seen so far describes as “the gentlemen,” because “the girls”—that is, the women—aren’t physically capable—according to him— of such heavy work. And due to that incident and certain others, I there and then understand why someone had suggested forming a brigade composed only of women, a feminist brigade. I understand that, for those infantilizing men, women’s bodies are not brute strength, and they are right, because the type of strength we possess will never be brutish.

Placing a body in or removing it from an extreme situation is an ethical, political decision. The way in which we contribute this corporeality to or extract it from the environment of the tragedy is, without doubt, a decision of the same order. The fact that, even in catastrophe, the body continues to be a sexually defined body, with all the usual prejudice, atavism, and discrimination, reveals the extent to which gender is imposed on us, even in moments of pure solidarity. The city has collapsed, and the macho continues to be macho.

So the way in which I distance myself from or commit myself to the body of the other says a lot about my understanding of my own vulnerability and that of the other, but also about my indifference or sensitivity to the suffering of that other. In a country of forced disappearances and the violence of the war on drugs, Cristina Rivera Garza has called that manner of remaining indifferent or insensible to others’ pain—that choice not to feel pain, not to make others’ pain your own—militant indolence or indifference. To choose to be a non-active subject in the collective pain following an earthquake—or feminicide or the deaths and disappearances of the narco war—is a decision that weighs heavily on our country. A decision that leaves the body of the other alone, denuded.

V

We are in the Centro de Cultura Digital. Yesterday we saw on Twitter that they were looking for volunteers to form a human chain at eleven in the morning the following day, Sunday, September 22. When we turn up twenty minutes early, there is already a group forming on the steps of the Estela de Luz monument. A civilian volunteer is in charge, deciding when we stop or restart work. I can see what looks like a very heavy box being passed along at the head of the line. A man hauls it onto his shoulders, breaks the human chain, and carries it directly to the vehicle we are loading. The civilian in charge shouts: Trust the people you have beside you, trust them to be able to carry out their task, and if they can’t, help. But first trust. Don’t break the chain.

How to understand the enormous distance between the civilian bodies and the bodies of the State during and after the earthquake? What happened to my own body and to yours? From which bodies do we write and read ourselves now? In what part of the memory and of pain do we place the bodies of the dead? How will we collectively reconstruct the city as a wounded body? What memory of the catastrophe will we inscribe on our bodies?

Body to body, side to side or face to face, aligned or opposed, most often just mixed, tangential, and having little to do with each other.[1]But we were the ones who partially and temporarily suspended private property and the division between bodies. It was us who inserted our own bodies and demanded that the very last body of the absent other in this land of forced disappearances be rescued. We were an ethical body confronting the corruption of the State. So, what are we going to do with our bodies in the aftermath? Will we return them to the place they were before they were switched around—yes, from fear, pain, and uncertainty— but also from solidarity, alliance with, and care for the other? Do I want my body to go on being what it was before, or am I willing to inhabit it together with the other in new ways that were unthinkable then? Do I want to reconstruct and cohabit this city, my city, as a body that is also an extension of my own? Will we be mass and flesh, pushed against each other, or will we cohabit? Here in my mind and in my body the words still ring out: Don’t break the chain, trust the people you have beside you, trust them to be able to carry out their task, and if they can’t, help. But first trust.

[1] The quotation is from the sensitive “Fifty-eight Indices on the Body” by Lean-Luc Nancy, published in Corpus (Fordham University Press, 2008). Translation Richard A. Rand.

 

___

 

Uribe, Sara. “Cuerpos” from Tiembla. Oaxaca: Almadía, 2018.

Author
Sara Uribe (1978, Mexico) feels herself to be Norteña by adoption. She has published eight books of poetry and her work has appeared in the print media and anthologies in Mexico, Peru, Spain, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. In Mexico, she has been granted scholarships by the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (FNCA), and also the Programa de Estímulo a la Creación y Desarrollo Artístico (Young Creators Program). She has also  been  awarded the Premio Regional de Poesía Carmen Alardín, the Premio Nacional de Poesía Tijuana and the Premio Nacional de Poesía Clemente López Trujillo. She is currently studying a Masters in Modern Literature at the Universidad Iberoamericana.
Christina MacSweeney was awarded the 2016 Valle Inclán Translation Prize for her translation of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth. She has translated novels, essays, and chronicles by Latin American and Spanish authors and her work has appeared in anthologies and on wide a variety of media platforms. She is currently working on a collection of short stories by Julián Herbert entitled Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino.