A case of mistaken identity

& Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice.

On the day before the conference began I was walking through the market in Victoria, Tamaulipas, Mexico with friends Katia Cecilia Ornelas-Núñez and Nuri Nusrat. When we emerged from the church on the square, two men were staring at me. We ignored them and began to walk away but they approached us, identifying themselves as journalists.

Someone had called their office to say that prominent poet and human rights activist Javier Sicilia was in town. Apparently I look like him; both of us have gray beards, wear glasses, and wear similar hats.

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Javier Sicilia

We convinced the journalists that I was not Sicilia, but then they approached us again in the market and one of them, Marco Esquivel, asked if he could take a picture with me, explaining the resemblance to Sicilia. He next proceeded to interview me and became intrigued with restorative justice.

Sicilia is a poet, novelist and journalist who became an outspoken human rights activist after his son, along with six other people, was murdered by gang members. In 2011, he was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year as a representative of protestors. A friend of philosopher Ivan Illich, according to Wikipedia he has been a major promoter of Illich’s thought in Mexico. He is also well-grounded in the Catholic social justice tradition and widely-known not only for his protests but for kissing his enemies as well as his friends.

Journalist Esquivel wrote a nice piece in the local paper entitled “Dr. Howard Zehr, ‘the other’ Javier Sicilia in Ciudad Victoria,” with the opening line, “What the heck is Javier Sicilia doing in Ciudad Victoria?” The lead, after the title, went like this: “Howard Zehr and Javier Sicilia not only share a similar physical appearance. They also – in their own ways – are victims’ advocates.”

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Howard & journalist Marco Esquivel

The article narrated our encounter and briefly described restorative justice and the upcoming First National Conference of Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanism, starting the next day. What a serendipitous way to get publicity for the conference!

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Katia (a CJP graduate, I’m proud to say) is friends with Javier Hernández Valencia, Mexican representative of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, who knows Sicilia. With his help, a few days later we headed to a village outside Mexico City to meet with Sicilia.   After a snack with Sicilia at an outdoor stand, we walked across the street to the home of Ivan Illich and had an energizing videotaped conversation about justice.

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Javier & Howard with Katia translating

By the time we said goodbye on the porch overlooking Illich’s garden, even though we don’t speak each other’s language, I felt I had found a kindred spirit and friend. I’ve sent him a Spanish version of Changing Lenses and I wonder what he will think of it, especially the chapter on biblical justice.

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One Response to “A case of mistaken identity”

  1. Jessalyn Nash

    Nice story, Howard. Great social justice pioneers look alike!
    Jessalyn