Since 1993, almost 800 women have been confirmed murdered in Juarez, Mexico and the estimated numbers of unconfirmed and missing reach into the many thousands. The violence is reported as spreading throughout Mexico and Latin America, where, for example, over 3,800 women have been brutally murdered in Guatemala since 2000.
“Portrait of Silvia Elena” is a portrait of one young woman, and also a document of a horrific situation in one location, which asks questions about gender-based violence around the world.
In 2008, I traveled with documentarian Tennessee Watson to the border town of Juarez to try and better understand the situation of the femicides in Mexico, and to create a work that would contain some piece of their story.
We were hosted by the activist group Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa and introduced to the muti-faceted work they are doing to seek justice, end the violence and provide help to families who have lost their mothers, sisters and daughters. Tennessee and I interviewed a number of mothers whose daughters had been murdered and who have since been involved in the struggle to understand and bring an end to the violence - an epidemic of violence whose causes appear to be many, and whose crimes go almost entirely unsolved.
Out of our research, we created a portrait of Silvia Elena Morales, murdered in 1995, one of the first disappearances, marking the beginning of a true social epidemic. The piece has been shown twice, in New York City and in San Francisco, both times accompanied by the recorded voices of mothers relating their personal accounts of the days their daughters went missing, their struggle to cope with their losses, and the challenges they face as a part of a movement to end violence against women.
For me it began one morning in 2006 when I crossed the footbridge connecting El Paso, Texas with Juarez, Mexico. I left Juarez that same night, myself and a travel partner, hitch hiking to Mexico City from the highways on the outskirts of town. One question had been slowly forming at the back of my mind all day, and was now settling like sediment into a single solid thought, “Why all those pink crosses painted on light posts?”
It’s the kind of question whose answer opens up a thousand more questions. “They’re for all the women who are being murdered,” came the reply.
I resolved to go back to Juarez in a more intentional way to try and understand what this answer meant, and why an epidemic happening just across the border from the U.S. was so little known or cared about on the other side of that bridge.
It was not until two years later that I returned with Tennessee. We visited with families, gave art workshops with orphaned children, and in the evenings we poured through all of the books and articles that we could find on the subject. The epidemic of violence against women in Juarez is situated within a larger context of astronomical rates of violence and criminal impunity owing mostly, it is said, to socioeconomic pressures and the drug trade.
Sifting through the material I found myself getting intensely frustrated with reports and statements that focused a great deal of attention on discrediting claims that the “women were prostitutes, thereby provoking their assaults.” Why did no report refute this claim by arguing that being a woman in such socioeconomic straights that your best option for employment is sex work does not, under any circumstances, open you up as a fair target for murder? Why do we feel that we have to discredit the idea that she was a prostitute without also discrediting the idea that it is somehow justified to kill prostitutes? How does this attitude relate to the brutality and impunity of these crimes? How does this epidemic of violence relate to violence against women all over the world?
Giving a talk about the Silvia Elena piece in 2009, a woman in the audience raised her hand and said “I don’t mean to diminish the deaths of 2,000 women who have gone missing in Juarez, but did you know that 2,000 sex workers are killed in the United States every year?” And looking at recent analysis of violent crime rates in the U.S. and Mexico, I see more similarities in the rates of abuse, rape and murder than would be suggested by focusing solely on the epidemic in Juarez. She was right, the situation in Juarez might shine a startling spotlight, but the problem it illuminates is anything but isolated.
Drawing is always my first route to understanding. There is a particular kind of intense observation that forms something like a keyhole through which I try to coax some bit of the soul of a subject. With “Portrait of Silvia Elena” I hoped to create a memorial that would honor the life of one young woman. And, I hoped that by looking closely and lovingly at one face, I could pull through the keyhole some bit of understanding that would resonate through my lifelong questions about the victimization of women in cultures all over the world. It’s a beginning is all, but a beginning it is.
Tennsessee: Wow. Briefly introduce what’s happening in Mexico? I’ve been wrestling with how to do that since 2007 when we first started talking about making a piece about the femicide happening in Juarez. I know the 30-second elevator spiel is a useful tool. I know I have to be able to succinctly explain this in order to get people to care, but at the same time I think the oversimplification of what’s happening is part of what perpetuates the violence. It’s hard to figure how to unravel and unpack this issue. I don’t want to leave anything out. Juarez is a border town. It’s located in the Mexican state of Chihuahua just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. The US/Mexico Border is a contested space. It’s the line where the Global North meets the Global South.Can you talk a little bit about the Sylvia Elena piece? How it came into being, the process of researching for it, as well as creating and installing it?
In January 2008, we journeyed just over the US/Mexico Border from El Paso, Texas, the safest city in the United States, to the notoriously violent Mexican city of Juarez, to collaborate on a piece about the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of young women there.
My contribution would be to record interviews with the families of women who’d been murdered or disappeared that we’d somehow how combine with your paper cut-outs and woodblock prints for an installation as a part of the Way That We Rhyme show at Yerba Buena. This collaboration was born when I met you in Mexico City at this DIY-hostel set up by a group of rad Mexican activists to help fund independent media productions. It was a 3-bedroom apartment. One room was a video editing space, the other was a pirate radio station and then there was a dorm with bunk beds and some mattresses on the floor.
When I went to sleep the night before you weren’t there, but when I woke up you were crashed out on the floor next to me. You must have showed up in the middle of the night. We were both fresh from long treks south from the US-Mexico Border full of discovery, mishap, adventure, freight trains and tractor trailer trucks. But of all that we had seen over the last 1,200 miles you and I were both stuck on the pink crosses in Juarez. I remember meeting you and then immediately talking about that.
The crosses were a public memory project for the hundreds of women in Juarez, who in the mid-1990s started disappearing at a rate that was impossible to ignore. Some of their bodies would turn up in abandoned lots strangled, raped and mutilated; some of them just vanished, their bodies never to be found.
Young men were also dying at astronomical rates two and three times higher than the number of murdered women. In the media their deaths were explained as reflecting the increased militarization of the border and the shifting power of drug cartels. But there was not as concise conclusion about what was happening to the women. In 1994 NAFTA went into effect and with that came the development of a manufacturing zone drawing workers from all over Mexico. The population exploded, far exceeding Juarez’s existing infrastructure. I didn’t want to overlook the deaths of men, but focusing on why women were disappearing forced a more nuanced examination of the violence in Juarez that also looked at the impact of neo-liberal economic policy.
When we made it to Juarez in 2008 this low-grade war on women had been underway for 15 years. Back in the early 2000’s I’d been to a few benefit shows in solidarity with feminist organizations in Juarez but fighting femicide in Juarez seemed to have faded as an activist cause. I think partly because, as I mentioned before, it was hard to figure out exactly what was going on, and where to target our efforts even though the violence was happening right across the border.
In preparation for the trip I read everything I could get my hands on about femicide in Juarez and I was still baffled by who was culpable. I was hoping that meeting with the families of the disappeared, and witnessing their responses to the rampant gender violence would bring clarity. I wanted the piece to serve as a catalyst for action, which meant using this trip to Juarez to help us conceive of a concise strategy or target for our collective energies.
We met with local organizers and spent hours visiting with the families of the murdered and disappeared, but what I soon realized was that there was no concise strategy, no one single target, no one culprit; and resistance for many of these families was about moving beyond the easy answer. The conversations we had lasted for hours; taking us from the first days after their daughters had disappeared, to the grassroots search and rescue efforts in the desert, to the unwillingness of the police to investigate the murders, to efforts to understand the violence on a systemic level. There was clearly a whole mess of stuff, and as long as we were willing to listen these women wanted us to understand that this issue couldn’t and shouldn’t be reduced down. The pain of the initial act of violence reverberates and echoes indefinitely when there’s no conclusion, no clear explanation as to why. The complexity of the situation contributes to the invisibility of the issue precisely because it’s hard to sum up and explain. If you over-simplify then you render entire aspects of what’s happening non-existent, and if you try to fully represent the complexities of the situation you risk drowning your audience in the sea of minutia. As the person focusing on shaping the interviews I abandoned any effort to piece together a concise hypothesis about what was happening. What seemed most important to communicate was just how complicated the situation was beyond the litany of oversimplified questions we’d initially asked, and were sure to hear in response to our work. Questions like: Why is Juarez so unsafe? Is there a serial killer? Is it copycat crime? Is it human trafficking? I heard many of the women were organizers in the manufacturing plants. Is it worker intimidation? Were they prostitutes? Is it drug traffickers? Is it the police? Is it from drunk frat boys from Texas? Is it machismo?
It was drug cartels, it was neo-liberalism, it was the factory tardy policy that left women locked out in desolate industrial zones, it was police corruption, it was that bad boy down the street that she shouldn’t have been dating, it was impunity, it was unreliable public transportation, it was her mini-skirt. It was all of that, and it was called femicide. Every aspect of life in Juarez was caught up in the cause of the violence, even the women themselves. The families we met offered no easy answer, no campaign slogan and no concise rallying point. Each explanation was a slow peeling back of a complex grid of power that seemed inextricably linked to the emotional, psychological, economic and political precarity that characterized Juarez. This town exemplified the destructive and traumatic nature of capitalism.
I wanted our audience in the United States to let go of the need to grasp for a concise explanation and be willing to look at the violence in a way that made sense of the interconnectivity of all these issues, and be willing to be present in the mess. My instinct as a documentarian was to bring home the pink crosses and the Walmart bags caught whipping in the wind on barbwire fences around abandoned factories; to bring home copies of the three missing persons posters which were freshly tacked to telephone polls during a short four-day visit to Juarez.
I wanted to bring back some of the silty desert dirt that Ramona clears from the simple concrete slab demarcating where Silvia Elena is buried. I wanted you to hear her scrapping the dirt away with a trowel as she explains how it’s a constant struggle to keep her daughter’s grave visible, but if she could afford a proper head stone it wouldn’t be so bad. I wanted to hold onto that messiness and complexity. Reducing the issue down to a particular causality seemed like yet another reverberation of violence, yet another act of dismemberment and disappearance, yet another attempt to bury what was happening. Some might criticize this lack of a concise message as a deficiency, but their concerns are another manifestation of the way we are disciplined to discredit truths that do not take on institutionally sanctioned forms. For those who felt inspired by the installation to try to do something to help the women of Juarez our jumbled mess was an unstable jumping off point for action. The original piece we installed at Yerba Buena was a complex tangle of little tiny speakers looping the sounds and stories from our trip, which draped down the front of a 12-foot by 8-foot woodblock print and paper-cut-out of Silvia Elena in her Quinceñera dress. Those viewing the piece could pick up the tiny speakers one by one, or in clusters, in an attempt to hear everything that was emanating from the installation, but from the jumble of sounds, and interviews in English and in Spanish, there was no story to be gleaned only a sense of confusion. Strewn on the floor we’re scraps of wood, plastic bags, fake silk flowers, desert dirt, candles, flyers, barbed wire and pink crosses.
At that time, justice for the mothers had moved away from demanding an investigation of who carried out the violence to what made those actions possible and permissible, enforcing a need to think about the murders and disappearances, not as episodic, but has something systemic with broader societal implications. There were mothers, like Ramona, who had decided not to cooperate further with state investigations to find a perpetrator because the felt it was a strategic attempt to divert attention away from systemic causes of the violence. In her words:
“We had a really bad governor. He didn’t care and neither did the previous attorney general, who told us that our daughters were living a double life; that they were prostitutes. He never asked us who they hung out with. He told us who they hung out with. I still don’t know what happened. Even after so many young women have disappeared. ‘Good in the house and bad in the street.’ That’s what he said about our daughters. They blame our daughters so that they didn’t have to pursue justice, but recently someone from the attorney general’s office came to see me, and to tell me they were going to reopen the investigation of my daughter’s murder.” (Ramona 2008)
At that moment violence was on the rise as drug cartels competed for control of Juarez. In fact the week we were there the Pentagon banded all unofficial military travel to Juarez, and the US State Department issued a travel advisory discouraging US citizens from going to Juarez. Ramona was concerned that reopening her daughter’s case was a token attempt to demonstrate that Juarez wasn’t completely lawless.
“We’ll see what happens. They’ve beat people into confessing. They beat my sons. They beat another guy to try to get a confession. A journalist asked me if I wanted to talk to the new Attorney General. I said no. I’m not even interested in talking to him.” (Ramona)
This refusal to cooperate with police highlights the exploitation of women’s bodies as sites of
domination and resistance in relation to state-sponsored police and military action.
Taking my lead directly from the families and activists in Juarez, and all that they taught me, I wanted our audience in the United States to pause and to consider what of this story would be compromised if our artistic rendering of femicide didn’t capture its complex nature. Instead of focusing on one digestible aspect of the truth, it was an act of resistance to push away the desire to present a clear cause and effect, and to instead leave things messy.
When you asked me to work on the project I was primarily producing audio projects for radio.
You and the women of Juarez inspired me to think more multi-dimensionally. I decided I wanted
to go to graduate school and to pursue an MFA to get more technical skills when it comes to
building interactive installations. And I decided to go to Hunter for their Integrated Media Arts
program because it has a strong focus on exploring and pushing the bounds of storytelling and
documentary production in subversive directions in approach, form and content.
It’s weird to end this on a shout out for my school but it’s where I’m at. Next year I’ll be working on my thesis, which is the non-fictionalization of Antigone by Sophocles. I’m planning to excavate Antigone’s tomb. According to the play she was entombed alive somewhere in Greece, but I’m thinking that I’d like to excavate her tomb in the desert outside of Juarez.
Since we did this project I’ve been experimenting with different ways of responding to the rampant violation of women’s bodies, and the role this violation plays in not only subjugating women, but the establishment and maintenance of the neo-liberal order overall. Due in part to the complex and sometimes contradictory nature of my own experiences I’ve been struggling to come up with an effective means of discussing gender violence with conviction, but that doesn’t oversimplify what signifies power; and who has it and who doesn’t.
A desire to artistically combat these universalist depictions are rooted in my own history. I remained silent for years about my experiences with sexual violation, because I was unwilling to come out as victim, i.e. powerless. I felt silenced by the agent/victim binary. My struggle to figure out how to speak my truth(s) is where I felt the impact of what happened most acutely. Each time I wanted to say something, but silenced myself was devastating after-shock emanating from the initial violation.
Admitting I’d been broken implied relinquishing my ability to claim being strong, which left me quiet. The invisibility of my experience brought own by my self-silencing was where the damage to my mind, body and spirit was done. I knew that by not speaking out I was perpetuating the erasure of sexual violence as a pervasive problem, but I didn’t want to speak out if it meant coming out as a victim.
I also never felt like I had a firm grasp on the impact of the violation, which I wanted to be able to succinctly explain. I wanted to know for sure that this was a big deal for me personally before I made it a big deal for anyone else. Some days I felt fine and the incident seemed minor, and other days the psychological reverberations made me consider more significant action. The women in Juarez immediately responded to the violence through public art and public ritual creating altars and making the pink crosses. Even before they’d developed a deeper analysis of what was happening they found ways to speak and draw attention to what was happening. I’ve learned a lot from that. My inclination previously was to develop an analysis and know what was happening, and then speak out. I’m so thankful to have spent time with these women in Juarez and to realize that I can lead with my creative and spiritual impulses, and let explanations and analysis follow. That was a liberating realization for me as an activist, artist and woman affected by sexual assault.
Now I’m doing a lot more performance and interactive installation work that draws from ritual practices; the creation of altars and memorials. I’m a lot less worried about being able to explain everything. It’s a lot more driven by emotion. I think before I struggled with whether I wanted to be an artist or an investigative reporter. Now I’m not so concerned with the distinction. I’m a hybrid.Close