LAWRENCE – Compared with the United States, the influence of intellectuals in Mexico’s social and political spheres has been extraordinary, although the danger of using that power has come with threats to position, freedom and life.
Stuart Day, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at the University of Kansas, co-edited a book that examines the important and changing roles that intellectuals have in the country’s public sphere. Through a collection of essays, the book “Mexican Public Intellectuals” highlights the sway public intellectuals have on the country’s elections, human rights, foreign policies and drug war.
“In Mexico, it’s redundant to say public intellectual. By definition, intellectuals are out in the public sharing ideas. Through books, magazine articles, television talk shows and newspaper columns, they are out there in the world,” Day said.
The book profiles artists, activists, professors, performers, politicians and writers who have influenced public spaces beyond the ivory towers of academia or the salons of the literary elite.
Often household names, frequent talk show guests and contributors to discourse occurring in print, online and in streets and plazas, these intellectuals are a central figure in Mexico’s sociopolitical life and taken seriously — so much so that several of the intellectuals profiled in the book have told stories of outright death threats and threats to career advancement or freedom.
As an example, Day points to the book’s essay on poet Javier Sicilia, which was written by Javier Barroso, a doctoral student at KU. After drug traffickers murdered his son, Sicilia went on to become the leader of a national peace movement, in which subsequently several members have been murdered or vanished.
“He left the comfort of the average intellectual to march in the streets to demand justice,” Day said.
The inspiration for the book came after Day wrote an article about playwright Sabina Berman and performance artist and social activist Jesusa Rodriguez. Both women took their work from the dramatic stage to the national one. Berman is a co-host of a television talk show and has interviewed everyone from presidents to the mothers of those kidnapped. Rodriguez worked with the campaign of presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
“They didn’t fit the traditional role of public intellectuals, but they used their talents to have a sustained, positive effect on society,” Day said.
Day, with co-editor Debra Castillo, decided to edit a book that highlighted a combination of traditional and more marginal intellectuals to recognize the tremendous power these people have to change local and national decisions.
“It expands the idea of what a public intellectual is in Mexico. It’s more inclusive,” Day said.