Sean Penn Dismisses Mexican Victims of Organized Crime . . . Again

Celebrity’s Book Event in NYC Results in an Evening Full of Paradoxes

On April 17th, we were insulted by Sean Penn and kicked out of his new novel event, which ironically took place at a church supporting sanctuary spaces, as part of a festival organized by PEN America, founded to “defend free expression, support persecuted writers, and promote literary culture.”

Before you ask what I and other Mexicans did to deserve being insulted and thrown out of a church at two-time Academy-award winner Sean Penn’s new book presentation, let’s recap what Sean Penn did to compel Mexican community members living in NYC, including victims of organized crime, like Mr. Antonio Tizapa — father of one of the 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students — to take the time to purchase tickets and protest against a Hollywood celebrity.

Why would Mexican and Chicano people crash at such a prestigious event celebrating a book that has been championed by the very famous Salman Rushdie, founder of this PEN America’s “Resist and Reimagine” World Voices Festival?

It’s difficult to imagine. However, like many readers will recall, when notorious Mexican drug lord “El Chapo” escaped for the second time from prison, Sean Penn went visiting him at a secret safe house, along with soap-opera Mexican star Kate del Castillo. Penn interviewed him with the intention to produce a movie about his life. Del Castillo and Penn’s production project went bust on January 8th, 2016, when “El Chapo” was re-captured, and re-sent to jail. Then Sean Penn published his interview with the gangster in Rolling StoneMagazine, and Kate del Castillo made a Netflix documentary about her disgraceful connection and interview with “El Chapo,” blaming the government for her own production decisions and career choices. They both profited from their clandestine encounter with the now extradited and jailed Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán Loera.

Convinced that Mexican people don’t need more Hollywood movies or Netflix TV series glorifying drug lords, and the sexist, machista, tyrannical drug dealer’s culture, we members of the Mexican community who are sympathetic with real victims of organized crime made signs, with the help of Chicano artists like Daisy Bugarin from Semillas Collective, as well as the Zapatista Solidarity Network, former members of Occupy Wall Street, and Mexican journalist Marco Vinicio González of legendary Radio Bilingüe. Behind those who could actually attend that event (people can watch it online) is the effort and voices of many others, both in the US and Mexico. Our signs reflected what many Mexicans have been saying in their communities and in social media, but couldn’t tell to the alleged “journalist” Penn because he never gave the microphone to the most affected population in this crisis (how “journalistic” is that?).

“Our pain is not a Hollywood movie,” and “Glorifying the cartel is not solidarity,” were some of the things we stated in writing, in order to discourage celebrities and directors from keep producing these kinds of stories.

As soon as we peacefully raised our signs, security officers tried to make us put them down. They confined us in the rear part of an aisle of the church. From that moment on, Mr. Tizapa was constantly harassed and cornered by both the church security staff and the PEN America Festival staff members, until he left.

Antonio Tizapa was there because his son disappeared 43 months ago at the hands of drug lords like “El Chapo” protected by the Mexican Government. His son, Jorge Antonio Tizapa Legideño, along with other 42 Ayotzinapa students, was riding a bus loaded with tons of heroin headed to Chicago, as it has been recently confirmed by phone calls intercepted by the DEA. These students, who paradoxically were headed to a rally commemorating the 1968 assassinated students in Mexico City, had no idea the bus they were riding was hiding heroin.

These are the kinds of operations that people like “El Chapo” conduct. Needless to say, they are not admirable people, no matter how “smart” and “human” Hollywood movies or  TV series insist on making them look like, but they are powerful, and that’s the “virtue” powerless young Latino people admire when watching them.

An immigrant worker living in Brooklyn NYC, Antonio Tizapa doesn’t want other parents to go through the same torment he has suffered. Ever since his son disappeared, he peacefully protests every month  in front of the Mexican Consulate in NYC every 26th, which is the day his son was kidnapped, and makes a hunger strike every Christmas, because there is no happy Christmas for the parents of victims of the organized crime. Antonio Tizapa is the founder of Running for Ayotzinapa 43, a group of compassionate marathon runners who are making visible the invisible crisis by wearing the Ayotzinapa T-shirts when they compete.

Sean Penn’s answer could hardly be more dismissive to his tragedy, but the actor does not see it that way. He first said that “Chapo” is “a man like anyone else.” “He is not like us,” we shouted. Then he replied, “What I knew and I say is, he is still human. I don’t apologize for anything. He is today’s man that Pablo Escobar once was. And over all of trillions of dollars and all the lives lost in Mexico and in the United States, by civilian, by bad guys, by law enforcement — all those lives lost on the war on drugs, it is the focus on the supply side that is killing us, and [it] is the focus on the demand side that will save us,” he said. “And, if you had the literary-skill set and read what I wrote, you would know that was about, and you would find in the article much more solidarity than your sign’s saying,” he added, arrogantly.

So, because we don’t have “the literary-skill set” to understand Sean Penn’s writing, we replied in plain English that we are not mass murderers. Then we were expelled from the temple of merchants . . . Or was it the other way around? Should I say “the merchants were expelled from the temple”? I’m not sure. I don’t have the appropriate “literary-sill set.”

Speaking of Festivals and literary skills to send the right message, renowned author Salman Rushdie — founder of this PEN America Festival for persecuted writers — was once the infamous star at one of these misrepresented events in Mexico, when he was invited to Veracruz State, one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, according to Journalists Without Borders. Rushdie accepted an invitation to the cultural Hay Festival in Veracruz precisely when more than a dozen journalists had been assassinated under Governor Javier Duarte. He even took an official picture of himself and all the Hay Festival guests with the widely-feared and suspected gangster Governor Duarte. Rushdie was paid for giving a lecture about freedom of speech, in which he simply ignored the case of the 15 assassinated journalists right in the very place he was giving his paid speech. When questioned through a complaintabout his endorsement to such impunity, he answered that he went to Mexico to visit some friends and “a picture is not endorsement.” However dismissive he tried to be, Mexican people protested so hard about the Hay Festival contradictory location, that the Festival authorities were forced to cancel it in 2015 and turn it into a digital version.

This was, perhaps, the result of another lack of “literary-skills set”.

As much as it had already been an evening full of paradoxes and “lack of skills,” the most satirical part was yet to come, when we rallied outside the church and a member of the audience came over our group to tell us that “we should be protesting Trump.”

Indeed, a Caucasian man was saying to Mexican people that we should be protesting Trump.

Let me explain how satirical this is — we protested Trump when almost no Liberal in the US thought Trump was going to win. Then I wrote and performed a political cabaret monologue, “Quixota in the Time of Trump,” to educate people about the recent history of Mexico and why Zapatistas, not Trump, were the first ones to oppose NAFTA. We attended a rally against Trump right outside the NBC building in NYC, when Trump was invited to host Saturday Night Live, and all the comedians who are now so outraged about Trump thought his candidacy was a joke, while we were outside bearing the cold weather, saying “Racism isn’t funny.” SNL never turned their powerful cameras and microphones to the demonstration that was taking place right at their gates. We were just Mexicans, after all . . .

So now we not only are insulted by Trump as Mexican immigrants, but lectured about what we should be protesting.

Fortunately for us, that’s not all that happened. Many other people approached us to express their solidarity, and even thank that we were there to bring perspective to the event and make a point about the speaker. They were able to change their pre-conceived ideas about an experience, and listen to our point, however unpleasant. These people are the ones who will make America great, not because they agree with us, but because they pay attention and are open to listen to their neighbors, geographically speaking.


Malú Huacuja del Toro is a feminist Mexican novelist, playwright and screenwriter with eight fiction published books in Spanish. She wrote the first “anti-soap opera” in Mexico. Recent credits include the screenplay of the movie Tattoo of Revenge, directed by Julián Hernández, about raped women in Mexico City, to be released this year. She lives in New York. She can be reached at: