Ocosingo War Diary: Voices from Chiapas

Efraín Bartolomé

Translated by: Kevin Brown

Artwork by Jose Villa


8:22 My sister Mapi leaves with her family: Luis, her husband; Rosario, Domingo, Karen and Ámbar, their children.

They leave for Palenque, taking advantage of the Red Cross corridor.

A long caravan forms at the town gate: the people who came to spend the holidays with their parents are leaving.

Lots of tears at the family farewells.


9:21  There is an explosion toward the southwest.


9:56  An explosion toward the northeast.

No one says so but we’re all worried: the road to Palenque is off in that direction.


10:32  I write half-heartedly.

I won’t  let this sorrow creep in.

I am worried about my children, the family members who just left, the reporters from yesterday.

We’ve been hearing sporadic blasts.

If I want to be useful around the house this pain has to be managed, this fatigue, this boredom.

Dump trucks are beginning to collect the town’s garbage.

There are a lot of people in the streets.

Traffic is starting up.

Some people have already gone to their farms, especially the ones from between here and the Jataté.

There’s a roadblock at Pequeñeces.

The water’s been cut off again.

Dora and Génner went back to their house in Magisterial.

They found that all was well, although people hadn’t gotten up the courage to go out.

I’m going to plant a yellow sapote seed, a delicious tropical fruit, yellow-orange in color, with a taste somewhere between sapodilla and mammy[ii]

Keeping busy to stave off depression.

The busy bee has no time for sorrow.[iii]


12:24  “When they let the prisoners out, they were going to hang the one who had the keys. He handed them over. All the prisoners left with them, including the gringo accused of killing a 12-year-old Lacandon girl.”

That’s what Juan tells us, a man who tends a cornfield on the farm across from my house in El Chorro.

Juan lives very nearby.

My father lets him grow corn on that field, and he also keeps 12 beehives.

He pays nothing for it, but makes gestures like the one today: he brought my mother a big sack full of fresh black beans.

“Here, I brought you this little gift, Doña Celinita . . . for these days of so much sorrow.”

A woman selling pork comes by.

“I slaughtered two and nearly all of it is gone.”


18:00  The day passed slowly.

I spent it harvesting coffee, shucking the fresh beans with the children, planting seeds.

Today we ate another gigantic rooster from the yard.

All day long planes and helicopters of various sizes and shapes arrived.

 They were bringing supplies.

They landed by the high school and on the airstrip, now repaired.

The women formed long lines for the supplies.

Comment at the park: “The women who were looting the stores were the first ones asking for supplies. People have no shame!”

Many people came by my office today.

At about 5 o’clock I took a bath.

I went upstairs to read.

That’s what I do. . . . . . . . . . . . .


19:30 The electricity goes out.

If it doesn’t come back on in five minutes the town will spend another restless night.

That’s what we were talking about this morning at the corner: anxiety increases in the dark, everyone is afraid they’ll invade the town.

“There must be some reason why they’re cutting off the electricity.”

“Besides they said that if they came back this time it would be to kill. . . .”


19:50  Shelling toward the northwest.

Also in the southwest.

The explosions continue, more or less steadily.

It goes on for a long time: more than 20 minutes.

Once again widespread fear.

I go get my uncle Rodrigo in his room on the other side of the upper patio.

We bring chairs into my parents’ room.

We’re all here.


20:12  You can hear the clock ticking in the silence.

Our silence.

In the next room, my sisters, nieces and nephews.

Edgar and Génner must be there.

We hear a shot from a small pistol near the school.


21:23  Relaxed conversation in the dark.

Booms to the northwest.

Another one, as I’m making this entry.

We’ve had coffee and decide to go to our rooms.


21:30  More booms.

We’ve moved our bed to a sort of niche, in the bedroom where Mapi and her family were staying.

A sort of niche, I was saying, with secure walls, no large windows nearby, where we’re planning to build a very large closet.

I write by the light of a small candle.

Blasts nearby.


23:00  Periods of sweet sleep in the midst of fear.

Through the window I can see the sky, marvelously clear.

I go out into total darkness.

The sky gives off a very serene light.

The stars are shining at all four points of the compass.

Magically clear sky.

The vault of heaven deserving of its name.

Isolated shots, but that doesn’t matter beneath this sky.

I ask my wife to join me.

We bring out a mat, blankets, pillows.

And we lie down on the terrace floor to contemplate the sky.


[i]  On Friday, a car bomb explodes at University Plaza in Mexico City.  The Army establishes a perimeter around Ocosingo, Las Margaritas and San Cristóbal.  Next, the Mexican Army goes on the offensive with infantry, armored vehicles, tanks, helicopters and other aircraft to force the EZLN from the area. The EZLN and Army continue to clash.

[ii]  Author note:  “Nochig es palabra tseltal para referirse a la planta Lucuma salicifolia o Pouteria campechiana.” Sometimes also called the Maya fruit.

[iii]  Quote from William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Efraín Bartolomé

Efraín Bartolomé was born in Ocosingo, Chiapas, in 1950. His 15 books of poetry have been reissued several times. His work has been collected in Agua lustral (Holy Water) (Poems 1982-1987, Mexican Readings collection, published by CONACULTA); OFICIO: ARDER (Poet Afire) (Poems1982-1997), published by UNAM; and EL SER QUE SOMOS (Being Who We Are), his first collection to appear in Spain, published by Editorial Renacimiento (Seville, 2006). His most recent books are Cantando El Triunfo de las cosas terrestres (Singing the Triumph of Earthly Things);and El son y el viento (Sound and Wind), both appearing in 2011. Awards: Mexico City Prize, 1982; Aguascalientes National Poetry Prize, 1984; Carlos Pellicer National Poetry Prize for work published in 1992; Jaime Sabines International Poetry Prize, 1996. The Mexican government awarded him the National Forest and Wildlife Merit Prize in 1994, for the contribution of his work to promoting awareness of Nature as sacred territory. He received the 1998 Chiapas Arts Prize, the highest honor the Chiapas State Government grants its artists. He is a member of the National Council of Creative Artists. In 1999 he received the Ledig Rowohlt Fellowship in Switzerland. In 2001, the Mexican Heritage Corporation of the United States awarded him the International Latino Arts Award. In 2002 he received a fellowship from the Landeshauptstadt München Kulturreferat, in Germany. He represented Mexico at the First Ibero-American Poetry Summit (Salamanca, Spain, 2005). His work is featured in the major anthologies of his generation, and his poems have been translated into English, French, Portuguese, German, Italian, Galician, Arabic, Peninsular Mayan, Nahuatl and Esperanto.

Kevin Brown

Kevin Brown was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1960. A biographer and essayist, he is the author of Malcolm X: His Life and Legacy (1995) and Romare Bearden (1994). He was a contributing editor to the New York Public Library African-American Desk Reference (2000). Since 1978, Brown’s essays, articles and reviews on the visual arts, cinema, dance, literature, music and politics have appeared in Afterimage, The Kansas City Star, Kirkus, the London Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, the Threepenny Review and the Washington Post Bookworld, among others.  He studied under translator Gregory Rabassa at Queens College, City University of New York, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree with dual majors in Spanish as well as Translating & Interpreting. Brown’s interview with Rabassa was published in the December 2006 issue (Vol.7, No.2) of the University of Delaware’s Review of Latin American Studies. Excerpts from his ongoing translation into English of Efraín Bartolomé’s Ocosingo War Diary have appeared or will appear in Asymptote, The Brooklyn Rail, eXchanges, Ezra, Guernica, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Metamorphoses and Two Lines. Calypso Editions will publish the complete translation in 2014.