More than 100 people gathered at the Community School of Music and Arts on October 4 to welcome Pedro X. Molina, his wife Urania Espinoza, and their two sons to Ithaca with music, food, dance, and conversation.
“Voices of Freedom 2019” was highlighted by a folkloric dance demonstration by Espinoza and an illustrated talk by Molina on the power of political cartooning and the deeply disturbing situation in his native Nicaragua.
Alderman Seph Murtagh read a proclamation from Mayor Svante Myrick extending a formal welcome to the Molina family and declaring the day “Ithaca City of Asylum Day” in the City of Ithaca.
Molina is Ithaca City of Asylum’s seventh writer-in-residence. He is the first cartoonist and the first from Latin America.
In his talk, he described how cartoonists have rankled – and sometimes helped unseat – the powerful for centuries. He showed examples of the work of the 19th century cartoonist Thomas Nast, who bedeviled New York political operator William “Boss” Tweed, and Washington Post cartoonist Herblock, who landed on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” in the 1970s.
“You can see the trend here: the more ridiculous, abusive and corrupt a politician is, the more they hate humor and criticism,” Molina said.
He reserved his most forceful remarks for Nicaragua’s current president, Daniel Ortega, and his wife, vice president Rosario Murillo. Ortega, who led a popular revolution in the 1970s, has come to resemble the brutal dictator he helped depose, Molina said.
“Fraud, repression, corruption, abuses and killings have been rising steadily for a decade,” he said as he displayed several of his own cartoons. He then described how the situation rapidly deteriorated after nationwide protests against a change in the social security law in April 2018. Since then, he said, roughly 400 people have been killed by police or vigilantes, most from single bullets to the head or chest. About 800 people have been jailed.
“The situation for independent journalism of course also got worse and worse,” he continued. “Journalists were harassed, beaten, and robbed in the streets by the forces of the regime. Radio stations were burned and newspapers started having problems printing their daily editions because the government wouldn’t let them import the paper they needed for the presses.”
He described his own family’s frantic departure on Christmas Day last year, soon after the offices of his main outlet, Confidencial, were raided and subsequently taken over by the police. Cartoonists’ and journalists’ organizations referred him to the International Cities of Asylum Network, which alerted ICOA of his situation. Board member Gail Holst-Warhaft fronted the airfare with her personal credit card, and the group went about finding the family housing, winter clothes, a car, and legal representation.
“Thanks to them, I’m safe, my family is safe, and despite everything that we have gone through, I haven’t missed a single day of posting my daily cartoon denouncing what is happening in my country,” Molina said, holding back tears.
ICOA also connected Molina to Ithaca College, which offered him a position as a Visiting International Scholar in Residence in the Honors Program.
The event was cosponsored by the Latino Civic Association of Tompkins County, Group 73 of Amnesty International, Buffalo Street Books, Cornell’s Latin American Studies Program, and PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection. It was supported by funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, administered by the Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County.
In brief opening remarks, ICOA board chair Jonathan Miller explained that the annual Voices of Freedom event is meant to align with Banned Books Week, which calls attention to the importance of free expression and the dangers of censorship.
“Tonight we celebrate messy, energetic, provocative discussion in the media and the arts,” Miller said. “We celebrate the pushing and stretching and crossing of boundaries. We celebrate a blossoming international movement to provide refuge to people at risk, and we celebrate Ithaca’s place in that movement.”
The event also served as an opportunity for community members to support ICOA’s work. If you would like to help, please visit the “donate” page on this site or go directly to the online giving portal on GiveGab.
In an in-depth interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, ICOA artist-in-residence Pedro X. Molina says “independent journalism has become one of the basic needs of the population” in Nicaragua since the government cracked down on dissent following street protests last year.
Molina fled Nicaragua last December but has continued to contribute cartoons to news outlets on a daily basis.
“[W]ith the closure of spaces to denounce and protest, not only in the media, but at a general level, where people cannot express themselves, nor march, nor organize, nor sometimes even carry the national flag, criticism and humor has become an escape valve for people, a source of encouragement to resist and persevere in the search for change,” he explains.
Molina will accept the Maria Moors Cabot Award from Columbia University School of Journalism in New York City on October 16.
A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review caught our attention. Writer Sam Thielman describes how political cartoons are, in some ways, the perfect media for our times, delivering their messages swiftly and straight to the gut. But they have also gotten their creators into serious trouble.
Our new artist-in-residence, Pedro X. Molina, will share his own take on the power and perils of political cartooning at our “Voices of Freedom” event on Friday, October 4, at 8 p.m. at the Community School of Music and Arts, 330 E Martin Luther King Jr St. in Ithaca.
Pedro X. Molina, an internationally acclaimed political cartoonist who fled his native Nicaragua during a violent crackdown on journalists and government critics, has been named ICOA’s seventh resident artist.
Pedro and his family left in a rush on Christmas Day 2018 after police killed a journalist, jailed two others, and ransacked the offices of his newspaper, Confidencial. ICOA covered their airfare and has provided financial and logistical support since they arrived. We also acted as a bridge to Ithaca College, where Pedro will work as a Visiting International Scholar in Residence in the Honors Program.
In addition to teaching, he will take part in local exhibitions and events, travel for fellowships and speaking engagements, and continue to contribute cartoons to Nicaraguan and international outlets.
Please join us in welcoming the Molina family at our annual “Voices of Freedom” fundraising event on Friday, October 4 at 8 p.m. at the Community School of Music and Arts in Ithaca. Pedro will make a presentation about cartooning and then we will celebrate with a Latin-themed party with food and music. The event is free and open to the public.
Pedro is the first cartoonist we have hosted since our founding in 2001 and our first resident from Latin America.
He has been published in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Courrier International (France), and many other publications, and has been widely recognized for his artistic ability and his political commentary.
This summer, he won a prestigious Maria Moors Cabot Award from Columbia Journalism School for “career excellence and coverage of the Western Hemisphere that furthers inter-American understanding.”
The awards committee called him “one of Nicaragua’s sharpest observers” and wrote that “Molina uses his pen and wit to take aim not only at the repressive government of President Daniel Ortega, but also at human rights abuses throughout the Americas and the world.”
Many of his cartoons target Ortega and his wife, vice president Rosario Murillo. Ortega was a popular revolutionary leader when he and a group of fellow commanders first took power in 1979. He served as president from 1985 to 1990, then returned to office in 2007. Since then, he has consolidated his hold on power and rewritten the constitution to allow him to remain indefinitely.
The human rights situation worsened after street protests in April 2018, as the government cracked down on dissent, killing more than 300 and jailing hundreds more. Human Rights Watch noted “a pattern of systematic abuse against anti-government protesters and opponents,” including assassination, rape, and torture. More than 50 journalists have gone into exile.
The Norway-based International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) alerted ICOA about Pedro’s situation and we quickly agreed to take him in.
In an event co-sponsored by Ithaca City of Asylum, Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer, spoke at Buffalo Street Books on May 18. He shared his own experience as a refugee and the importance of making many refugee voices heard. Jack Wang, chair of the Department of Writing at Ithaca College, interviewed Nguyen about The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, which Nguyen edited.
In The Displaced, Nguyen gathers a collection of essays by nineteen prominent refugee writers from around the world. His conversation with Wang addressed questions of identity, agency, and voice of displaced people.
“Refugees lose their own voice,” Nguyen said to the audience.
According to the United Nations, there are 65.5 million displaced persons in the world today, a population that could, as Nguyen points out in his introduction to The Displaced, be their own country, “smaller than Thailand but bigger than France.”
Nguyen counts himself a citizen of this country of displaced persons. Forced to flee Vietnam with his family in 1975, when he was four, he intentionally holds on to his identity as a refugee, although, he says, it would be easier to call himself an immigrant by this point.
“Refugees lose their own voice.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen
“‘Immigrant’ indicates a strategic, voluntary choice made over time, technically welcomed,” he said during the talk. “‘Refugee’ is different, not voluntary. Moving as a mass of many people.”
The term “refugee” causes fear, particularly in America because “refugees indicate broken countries, failed states,” said Nguyen. “We Americans can never come from a failed state–or so the mythology goes.”
The Displaced illuminates the humanity of the individual refugee and underscoring the important role writers play in upholding human rights for 65.5 million refugees–the world’s displaced nation.
The BBC has produced a powerful account of the 2009 assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, founder and editor of The Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka, as part of its Witness History podcast. The 11-minute piece is built around an interview with Wickrematunge’s widow, Sonali Samarasinghe, who was ICOA’s resident writer from 2012 to 2014.
Wickrematunge was ambushed by eight men on motorcycles at the height of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers rebel group. The Sunday Leader took no position on the war but reported on atrocities committed by both sides. A practicing lawyer, Samarasinghe worked as a consulting editor and investigative journalist for the paper. She and Wickrematunge had received many death threats but remained committed to independent journalism.
“I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom, but as an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts.”
Lasantha Wickrematunge, Sri Lankan journalist murdered in 2009
“Never did we even privately think about changing our jobs, or not doing what we were doing,” Samarasinghe told the BBC. “We were there fighting for democracy, so it never entered our mind to give this up.”
Wickrematunge was murdered exactly two months after the two were married. After he died, The Sunday Leader and other news outlets published a 2,500-word column he had written for publication in the event of his murder. “I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom, but as an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts,” he wrote. The piece went viral. “I think it shook the world,” Samarasinghe said.
Fearing for herself and her family, Samarasinghe left the country two weeks after the murder. In exile, she went on to found and edit the weekly Morning Leader. She now works as a diplomat in Sri Lanka’s mission to the United Nations. You can listen to the podcast on the BBC’s Witness History website.
“As we lurch into the future, in this blitzkrieg of idiocy, Facebook ‘likes,’ fascist marches, fake-news coups, and what looks like a race toward extinction,” she said, “what is literature’s place? What counts as literature? Who decides?”
There is no single answer, she said. Rather, she approached this large question by sharing her own experience of being a writer and activist in recent years.
“The place for literature is built by writers and readers,” she said. “It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When its broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter. I very much like the idea of literature that is needed. Literature that provides shelter. Shelter of all kinds.”
We join Roy in thanking PEN, one of our partner organizations, for, in Roy’s words, “the work it does to protect writers and journalists who are have been imprisoned, prosecuted, censored and worse.”
Join us on Saturday, May 18, 1 p.m., at Buffalo Street Books for a reading by Vietnamese-American novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, in conversation with Jack Wang, Chair of the Ithaca College Department of Writing. Ithaca City of Asylum, together with Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, is co-sponsoring the event.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Sympathizer, recently called on 17 fellow refugee writers from across the globe to shed light on their experiences. The result is The Displaced, a powerful dispatch from the individual lives behind current headlines.
These essays reveal moments of uncertainty, resilience in the face of trauma, and a re-imagining of identity, forming a compelling look at what it means to be forced to leave home and find a place of refuge. The Displaced is also a commitment: ABRAMS will donate 10 percent of the cover price of this book, a minimum of $25,000 annually, to the International Rescue Committee, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing humanitarian aid, relief, and resettlement to refugees and other victims of oppression or violent conflict.
On Saturday, May 4, Ithaca City of Asylum joined with Amnesty International to present a panel discussion, Expression as Freedom: The Power of Literature in Exile and Incarceration, as part of Spring Writes, Ithaca’s annual festival of literature. The panel took place at the new Tompkins Center for History and Culture, housed in the building at 110 N. Tioga Street (Bank Alley) which was the former home of the Tompkins Trust Company. The panel preceded the building’s actual grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony, scheduled for May 10, and was a fitting harbinger of things to come: the Center’s stated vision is to “instill appreciation for our community’s global impact and promote further exploration into the community.”
Featured speakers were Pedro X. Molina, an internationally-known political cartoonist from Nicaragua, and Tony Sidle, a local writer, musician, and actor who is a member of ReEntry Theatre Program, an arts program for people who have been incarcerated that is part of the Civic Ensemble. Tony is also an activist and advocate working for social change with the Ithaca Drug Users Union and works at a homeless shelter.
Tony Sidle – who said he was addicted to, and sold, heroin in Ithaca and spent a total of thirteen years behind bars – has been writing since he was in the third grade and continued to write while in prison. Once out, he joined the Civic Ensemble, writing music and two plays. Recently he worked (in collaboration with Thom Dunn) on a remount of Streets Like This, a play based on true stories of people “dealing with the consequences of probation, incarceration, parole, and court-ordered rehabilitation.” He is also developing a play about mental health issues – which, he pointed out, are very common among people who are homeless. He described Streets Like This as “a play about being stuck in a system almost designed to fail, to keep people enslaved and at the bottom.” Regarding his work with drug users, he said, “Many people end up dying because they won’t go to the hospital because they’re treated so poorly there. We’re trying to bring about more humane treatment through outreach and harm reduction.” Writing is now Tony’s principal vehicle of self-healing: “I can’t not write. I use it to try to be free.”
“I can’t not write. I use it to try to be free.”
Pedro X. Molina came to Ithaca from Nicaragua in December with his family, escaping persecution for his public critiques of the regime of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. “They are a couple of psychopaths who run the country,” said Molina, comparing their brutality, human rights abuses, and suppression of the media to Ceausescu, the former leader of Romania, and Erdogan, Turkey’s president who, like Ortega and Murillo, owns most of his country’s news outlets and calls journalists “terrorists.” Since April 2019, Ortega’s government has used police and paramilitaries to kill, kidnap, and imprison hundreds of civilians protesting its authoritarian rule. Others, like Molina, have fled the country. As Molina wrote in a 2018 post on Cartoonists Rights Network International, “After several years of suffering electoral frauds, curtailment of rights, selective repression, attempts to censor the internet and mismanagement of environmental disasters, the last straw was the enactment of the country’s social security law that curtails the rights of current and future pensioners.”
Molina presented a slide show of some of his recent work. Among the cartoons were one depicting the shooting of a baby in its father’s arms and one called “GuerNICARAGUA,” a satiric adaptation of Picasso’s famous anti-war painting.
He explained that people in Nicaragua, unable now to speak out publicly against the government without severe retribution, have turned to artistic expression instead. Songs have been composed and circulated, murals have appeared, and balloons decorated in blue and white (the colors of the Nicaraguan flag) with anti-government messages inside have been released. The Sandinista revolution of 1979 which deposed the dictator Anastasio Somoza had also highlighted the role of cultural resistance. Molina emphasized that some of the most prominent revolutionary leaders from that time – including former Vice President Sergio Ramirez, a writer and intellectual, and former Nicaraguan Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal, a poet – now forcefully condemn their former colleagues Ortega and Murilla for abandoning the liberatory principles they all fought for – widespread literacy, health care, economic and land reform – and embracing autocratic rule.
We were thrilled to learn that Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were freed on May 7 after more than 500 days in prison in Yangon. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists had been sentenced to seven years in detention for receiving secret documents from security forces in Myanmar while researching a 2017 massacre of Rohingya Muslims. They were among more than 6,000 prisoners released under a sweeping presidential pardon.
In April, Myanmar’s supreme court denied Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s final appeal. The government did not say why the two men were included in the pardon, but they were the subject of an intensive publicity campaign by human rights and press freedom groups around the world.
We join PEN America and the Committee to Protect Journalists in applauding the release, and support Amnesty International’s call for “genuine press freedom” in its wake. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch both point out that the Myanmar government continues to detain commentators and reporters for doing their work.
“[T]he crisis is not over for the literally dozens of other Burmese journalists and bloggers who are still facing baseless criminal charges for their reporting,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.