GETTING TO KNOW: LUIS GÓMEZ ROMERO

Luis Gómez Romero was born and raised in Mexico where, under the canopy of tangerine and lemon sunsets, he learnt to love justice and beautifully crafted stories. In Mexico, he passionately worked for structuring peaceful alternatives to reduce the harm caused by violent drug prohibitionism. He turned to academic life believing it was his personal route to a serene and joyful Mexican Ithaca. Academia, however, eventually became his path to Australia, where he arrived in 2013. Luis is currently a senior lecturer at the School of Law at the University of Wollongong. In Australia, his academic work addresses the intersections between law, justice and culture, particularly in Latin American contexts. Luis is a frequent media commentator on Latin American law and politics. He has written with Desmond Manderson his first play, in collaboration with The Street Theatre, on a story that is both political and deeply personal – because the contemporary history of the violence unleashed by the Mexican drug war is also the story of Luis’ Antipodean exile.

THE STREET TALKS TO LUIS ABOUT DEVELOPING AND WRITING TWENTY MINUTES WITH THE DEVIL.

TELL US ABOUT THE GENESIS OF THE IDEA FOR TWENTY MINUTES WITH THE DEVIL.

I was sitting with Desmond Manderson in Austinmer Beach back in 2016. We were watching our daughters playing by the sea the simple and perennial game of alternatively chasing the waves, and then running away from them. Desmond and I were talking about how different people think about the relationship between law and justice in the crisis of the 21st century: the socialist or liberal idealist, the cynic, the authoritarian, the revolutionary, the activist. I recalled then a story I had recently read in the newspapers. Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, the Mexican leader of the Sinaloa Cartel also known as El Chapo, had been captured on 8th January 2016, after his second (quite spectacular) escape from prison a year before.

Most media focused on the gaudy niceties of his arrest, which involved Kate del Castillo, a Mexican soap opera actress, and American actor Sean Penn. The role both celebrities unwittingly played in helping Mexican and U.S. law enforcement agencies to locate Guzmán through cell phone interceptions indeed made deliciously ironic headlines. I told Desmond that most media had missed the real story though. The day Guzmán was arrested, he managed to escape through a secret tunnel from the Mexican marines who raided his hideout. He would have got away, except for two police officers who intercepted him several kilometers away. The police officers received orders to take their prisoner to a motel close to the road where he had been detained and wait for the army, as their superiors had been tipped that around four dozens of Guzmán’s henchmen were on their way to rescue him. Mexican journalistic accounts of the event reported that, for twenty minutes, Guzmán first tried to bribe the officers, and then threatened them. The deep question behind these events, I said Desmond, is why these two men did not accept the bribe or run away from very real threats on their life and the lives of their loved ones. What did they say to each other? What did they think about justice? Nobody knows the details of the conversation that transpired in that seedy motel room. “That is the real story”, I said Desmond. “No”, he replied, “that is a play.”

HOW HAVE YOU WORKED IN COLLABORATION WITH CO-WRITER DESMOND MANDERSON?

Desmond is a dear friend who I hold very close to my heart. I admired his work long before I actually met him. While I was working on my PhD thesis in Spain – a proposal to read the Harry Potter series of novels as a dystopian narrative, in order to use them as a tool for teaching human rights –, I came across an article he wrote on children’s books as cultural and symbolic sources of constitutional norms. I decided I needed to meet the man who had contributed with such depth and clarity to my own understanding of literature as a source of law. He accepted to supervise my postdoctoral project at McGill University – a study on comics and videogames as cultural sources of law. I met him in Montréal in 2011. This was – to quote Rick Blaine – the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The play is therefore the fruit of the type of love the Ancient Greeks called philia. Desmond and I sincerely seek the good for each other. I like to say that, in writing the play, I worked as ‘the storyteller’ while Desmond played the role of ‘the poet.’ I grew up and lived most of my life in Mexico. Much of the framework for the play, the background histories and many of the particular incidents and stories that are incorporated in it come from my own life experience. As I child and a young man, I witnessed first-hand the prehistory of the drug war and its bewildering development into the unfathomable violence that curses Mexico today. It was the challenging task of both of us to take these experiences and shape them into a coherent narrative involving authentic and compelling characters. Desmond’s exceptional mastery of English and unique sensibility to justice shaped our characters’ voices. Writing the play was thus a shared work of translation in the profoundest sense of this term. We worked together to communicate not only language and idioms, but also complex life experiences across very different cultures and societies. We learnt through the intimacy of writing new ways of listening to each other and valuing our distinctive and unique perspectives and strengths. Working on the play has changed my life for better at many levels. The one I am most grateful for is the love that I profess to my friend, which is greater today than it was when we began this project.

HOW HAVE YOU CONNECTED TO EL TICHO AND MEXICAN DRUG WARS?

El Chapo indeed inspired El Ticho, though our character is perhaps more charming than the real drug lord. One of my key personal motivations to write the play is the impact that El Chapo currently has over the life of every individual born in Mexico. The drug wars took shape in Mexico in the 1980s and intensified during the 2006-2012 Felipe Calderón administration. Calderón was the first Mexican President who instructed the military to engage in combat with the cartels – instead of simply commanding the soldiers to seize and destroy drugs. This brutal public security strategy has resulted in at least 150,000 murders related to organized crime and 73,000 missing or disappeared Mexicans from 2006 to 2020. As a Mexican man, I am haunted by a token drug-trafficking bogeyman who cannot be reduced just to the factual violence that corrodes Mexico, but also encompasses its global representation. I have never broken a law in my life, yet I have been under suspicion – more times than I would like to remember, both before or after crossing multiple borders – of embodying the Third World nightmare trafficker of illegal poisoning drugs that threatens the self-produced image of health, cleanliness and order with which wealthy countries characterise themselves.

Gareth Williams, Professor of Spanish at the University of Michigan, has quite accurately defined the Mexican drug war as “a bandit war couched in the language of morality and iniquity, between a state whose actions are unconstitutional and an army of outlaw capitalists.” Unfortunately, the spectacular violence displayed by the cartels and the symmetrically vicious response of the U.S. and Mexican governments in their attempts to control the drug market gradually became a commodity through mainstream entertainment. The media dynamics involved in the forms of entertainment featuring global drug cartel wars offer deeply problematic representations involving race and Global South diasporas. I felt the necessity to write the play because, in the words of César Albarrán-Torres – a fellow Mexican-Australian academic –, in the context of the global drug war “one person’s pain is another’s entertainment.”

WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THEATRE AND LAW?

The classic Greek philosopher Plato imagines, in a well-known passage of The Laws, that a fickle and noisy audience, unaware of the rules of rhythm and harmony, took over the theatres in the most troubled times of the republic. This rowdy public eventually implemented an evil theatrocracy that replaced aristocracy – both in the arts and politics. Since Plato, the analogy between the public sphere (or agora) and theatre has been unremittingly used as grounding for various invectives against representation in public life – including the making of law. The enemies of democracy have frequently attacked the government of the people by characterising it as a network of representations that amount to nothing more than spectacle and images without reference to reality.

Plato and his contemporary epigones, however, disregard theatre’s role in providing the audience a site of alterity to explore different and radical perspectives on the world and the individual. Theatre develops essential political and legal skills by deepening our understanding of the world and promoting empathy toward those around us. As Marett Leiboff – a friend and colleague in the field of cultural legal studies – notes, theatre is not merely a matter of spectators, but actually builds into what we “notice” – or not – in the law. Theatre embodies instinct and transgression and, to this extent, facilitates “noticing” that which has been written in the body of the citizen and the legal interpreter. Theatre, in sum, is an invaluable resource to overcome the cognitive resistance of those enamoured of their own prejudice or privilege by embodying the experiences oppression and emancipation, justice and injustice.

WHAT ARE THE KEY QUESTIONS EXPLORED IN THE PLAY?

On a narrow level, the play is about the injustice, corruption, and violence that has been the tragedy of the global drug war; a tragedy on which Latin America – particularly, Colombia and Mexico – has been the front line. The term “global drug war” does not describe a single conflict, but rather a series of conflicts that have involved several governments – under the leadership of the U. S. –, multiple criminal organisations and even guerrilla movements. The capture of El Chapo is an event inscribed in the context of the global drug war. Both Desmond and I have frequently asked ourselves, in our academic work, about the meaning of the drug war for everyday life around the world.

Yet we see this event as speaking to much more than drug politics around the world. The global drug war epitomizes the unfathomable violence, the absurd loss of lives and the waste of resources that result from the arrogance of economic and political powers that no longer respect any normative limits. Those who imagine themselves entitled to affirm “I can” in every possible situation, do not accept “you should” as a boundary for their interests and desires. We are faced with terrible crises in our society: corruption is growing, social inequality is out of control, law and justice seem further and further apart every day. The question is whether we care about the relationship between law and justice anymore, and what we can – any of us, whether lawyers, or police officers, or citizens – do anything about it. One of the central themes of the play is time. For our characters, time is running out and every second brings them closer to a dreadful end. They have no choice but to try and act. They are living an intensified reality of the world we all live in, like it or not. The English (and Spanish) term crisis has been borrowed from the Greek κρίσις, which means decision or judgement. The question we wish the audience to face is – what will you do when the crisis comes?

WHAT ARE YOUR GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR WRITING A NEW WORK FOR THEATRE?

I would say that writing a new work for theatre requires, above everything else, the virtue of humility. I am aware that calling humility a virtue is quite controversial. In his Ethics, Baruch Spinoza claims that humility is not a virtue, but a “sadness” that arises from considering our own “lack of power or weakness.” He also suggests, however, that humility can be conducive to self-understanding because we can only conceive our weakness by realising that we are limited and there are things more powerful than we are. In order to achieve virtuous self-esteem (acquiescentia), we need to communicate and engage with others in ways that truly enrich our understanding of ourselves, and our place in the world. Working on writing a play demands from us precisely learning to love beauty and truth more than we love ourselves.

A play is a collective work that truly pushes the authors to procure the attainment of knowledge and community beyond their own advantage. Desmond and I are credited as the authors, yet the play would not have been brought to fruition without the guidance of Caroline Stacey at the Street Theatre, and the generosity of the actors with whom we workshopped successive versions of the script. The reception of something you have created among brilliant theatre professionals, and its ensuing transformation into something more beautiful than you ever dared to imagine is a deeply humbling experience. Humility, of course, is an extremely difficult virtue – the moment we claim to possess it by calling ourselves humble persons, we have already lost it.

WHAT HAVE YOU DISCOVERED IN WRITING A WORK TO BE PERFORMED?

Both Desmond and I have thought about storytelling as a crucial device for understanding justice and the law for a long time. A work for performance, however, demanded from us to rethink radically our relationship to the affects, the experiences, the ideas and the socials problems that really matter to us. In this sense, besides a humbling experience, writing a play could also be quite daunting. The characters we have created have now a life of their own, independent from Desmond and me. We have told their story, and they belong now to the stage.

WHAT DO YOU HOPE THAT AUDIENCES WILL TAKE AWAY FROM THE PLAY?

Desmond and I tried to create characters and a language – an idiom – that captures a world in translation; an estranged world that is, however, somehow familiar. The secondary world we created for the play is inspired in the Mexican drug war, but it is not Mexico. It is a fairy tale land. J. R. R. Tolkien warned us against reducing fairy-stories to “stories about fairies or elves”. The fairy tale is an undertaking in fantasy that pursues recovery – that is, re-gaining a clear view of beauty and enchantment, along with the sharpness sorrow and failure. The place that the story is set in is particular, highly specific, and richly imagined. But it is also everywhere and nowhere.

I hope the elusive setting of the play contributes to a conversation on how the injustice, cruelty and hopelessness suffered by too many today is not taking place in a crazy land elsewhere – far away from “the lucky country” –, but actually embody our common future as long as we accept unbridled violence as a means to gain and preserve economic or political power. We inhabit the same space and time than those who are forced to live under legal and political systems that generate scarcity, corruption and mutual antagonism. In this sense, even if we do not ever meet them personally, their grief and anguish is not somebody else’s responsibility. I would deem the play successful if it fosters some reflection on our responsibility toward those with whom we share the world.

WHAT CONVERSATIONS DO YOU THINK WE NEED TO HAVE TO ABOUT LEGAL AND POLITICAL SYSTEMS?

This is such a big question! I guess that we need to ask ourselves, paraphrasing Jean-Jacques Rousseau, why human beings “are everywhere in chains”, regardless the norms that establish that we are “born free.” Yesterday, for example, Jeff Bezos made a flight aboard his own Blue Origin rocket, with a few other non-astronaut companions. The ten-minute voyage is a devastating blow to the environment, and an obscene waste of the money accumulated by the work of thousands of Amazon employees whose wages and working conditions are insufficient for taking care of their families and living a dignified life.

One of the key questions we need to ask ourselves is what institutional and normative conditions made possible this sort of madness. How did we ended up applauding raw ambition and indulging the desire to succeed at any cost? Paradoxically, El Chapo could claim to have acted under similar motivations. It is therefore necessary to imagine a different world. In his seminal work, Utopia, Thomas More opened over 500 years ago the taken-for-granted nature of the present to alternative sets of values. The world where Bezos and El Chapo thrive is certainly not the best we can muster. We must remember that our collective future – in a legal, political, economic and ecological sense – might always be different because we are building it today.

WHAT LED TO YOUR CAREER AS AN ACADEMIC?

In 2000, I was invited to the team of high-level policy advisors to Mexican President Vicente Fox’s transitional government because of my pro-democracy activism. Fox was the candidate of the National Action Party (PAN) who won that year the presidential elections, thus ending the 71-year uninterrupted rule of the authoritarian Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI). I am a passionate man – and politics indeed demands passion. But politics also requires civic commitment to the common good, willingness to listen to those with whom we disagree, and humility to change our mind whenever our arguments or decisions are proved unsound. I had grown up under an authoritarian regime. I was young, and I had an ardent yearning for freedom and change. As paradoxical as this may seem, my activism for democracy had not prepared me to be the best politician I could be.

I decided then to take a step back. I realized I needed, in John Milton’s words, to behold “the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies” before embarking myself “in the ‘troubl’d sea of noises and hoars disputes” of political work. I undertook my doctoral studies at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, in Spain. In 2011 – the year my daughter was born – I initiated the postdoctoral project I mentioned before at McGill University under Desmond’s supervision. While at McGill, I applied for my current job at the University of Wollongong.

HOW HAS COVID-19 IMPACTED ON YOUR WORK?

Covid-19 has left an indelible trace in my life. In June 2020, I lost my mother, Leticia Romero. She passed away unexpectedly and far away from me. In Mexico, funerals usually consist in a wake held with family and friends immediately after a death. The body is present for the vigil, and the family surrounds it in prayer for a day or two. The shackles of Covid-19 travel restrictions forced me to attend Leticia’s funeral by Zoom. I could not kiss her forehead in a final goodbye. The pain of this loss – among many other Covid-19 little and big disasters, including being under lockdown in Wollongong right now, while Twenty Minutes with the Devil is produced in Canberra – has significantly slowed down my work.

WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?

Two women – my wife Macarena and my daughter Mariana – inspire every aspect of my work. Macarena’s bright pupils gently decant quivering stars even in the darkest of nights. Mariana’s melodious laughter undoes the mystery of a joy for life I have never fully understood. Macarena and Mariana: sowers of light and music, without whom (at least for me) the world would not be the world. I am indeed a very lucky man.

WHAT ARE YOU READING/WATCHING CURRENTLY?

I am revisiting a book by Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco, titled La edad of the tinieblas (The Age of Dark, 2009). Apocalyptic irony permeates Pacheco’s poetry. A brief and yet boundless poem titled “El fin del mundo” (The End of the World), for example, reminds me of the work Desmond and I have done in the play:

The end of the world has already lasted a long time

And everything gets worse

But it doesn’t end.

Perhaps the question our characters ask Desmond and me – and I suppose they will do the same with everyone else they might meet in the future – is what are we doing to stop the slow agony of the world. Justice has waited for too long. Will we keep postponing its realisation?

World premiere season of Twenty Minutes With The Devil at The Street Theatre 21 – 29 August 2021