Writer and human rights activist Javier Sicilia (left) meets Howard Zehr (center) in the home of Ivan Illich, as Katia Cecilia Ornelas-Núñez, MA '13, translates. (Photo courtesy of Howard Zehr)

Our man in Mexico – Howard Zehr – gets mistaken for a famous Mexican poet, so they decide to meet …

Settling in before a major public appearance in Mexico, restorative justice expert Howard Zehr was strolling through the market in Victoria, Tamaulipas. It was July 2, a day before he was to be the keynote speaker at the First National Conference of Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanisms organized by Mexico’s national organization of state courts.

Zehr was with two friends – Katia Cecilia Ornelas-Núñez, a 2013 MA graduate of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, and Nuri Nusrat. Suddenly the threesome noticed two men staring intently at Zehr. “We ignored them and began to walk away but they approached us, identifying themselves as journalists,” Zehr recalled in a July 15 posting on his blog.

One of the journalists, Marco Esquivel, explained that someone had phoned their newspaper office to say that the famous writer and human rights activist Javier Sicilia had been spotted in their city. As any good journalist would, Esquivel acted on the news tip. “I brought my camera and my cell phone with me, ready in recording mode, and I start walking the three blocks from where I am to the capitol of Tamaulipas,” he wrote in an article published on July 2 in his newspaper, Hoy Tamaulipas. He continued (translated from Spanish):

From behind I see the Javier Sicilia that I was told… beard, hat, glasses, and I wondered once more, what is he doing in Ciudad Victoria?

I get closer and I suddenly stop.

I think that is not him – I say to my self – and I walk a little more… he looks a lot similar, they could even be siblings… but I think that is not him.

Once next to him, his accent and the language he speaks confirm it to me ‘it is not him.’

The other Sicilia is Dr. Howard Zehr, distinguished professor in restorative justice from Eastern Mennonite University located in Harrisonburg, Virginia, USA.

As Zehr explained in his July 15 blog:

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.

Esquivel’s article  in the local paper had this opening line, “What the heck is Javier Sicilia doing in Ciudad Victoria?” The lead went like this: “Howard Zehr and Javier Sicilia not only share a similar physical appearance. They also – in their own ways – are victims’ advocates.”

Ornelas-Núñez got in touch with a friend of hers, Javier Hernández Valencia, Mexico’s representative to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who knows Sicilia. Valencia helped her arrange a meeting between Zehr and Sicilia on July 7 at the home of Ivan Illich in a village where Sicilia lives outside Mexico City. Ornelas-Núñez served as translator and the meeting was video-recorded.

“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,” wrote Zehr in his blog. “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.”