Feminize

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Portraits of the beauty queens, the narco-dolls, the beautiful women seduced by drug lords, and those who willingly threw themselves onto the pyre of Latin American cartel drug culture are taking shape in a second floor artist loft near Alameda and Fourth Street in downtown L.A.

That's where painter Carolyn Castaño is finishing three large paintings on this theme for a City of Los Angeles-sponsored show in May. "I just became interested in how these successful women would get wrapped up with them and also there's this kind of cottage industry in Sinaloa, and Colombia with beautiful young women being cultivated," she said as she walked me through some of the unfinished works.

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The killing of Ciudad Juarez poet and activist Susana Chavez had been on my mind in recent weeks. She'd coined the phrase, "Not one more woman," in anger directed at the mounting number of unsolved killings of young women in that Mexican border city. Does Susana's death resonate here? Is drug cartel violence a foreign policy issue or a domestic issue taking place in Southern California's backyard?

Castaño has been wondering the same thing. It's an issue that's very close to her. A few years ago she created a series of large, fluorescent-bright portraits of "narco-couples," the Mexican and Colombian drug lords and the women who became their lovers or wives. Now she's riffing off European portraits of a nude Venus amid a watery landscape, and other nudes like Goya's La Maja Desnuda. Instead of cherubs, or lace fringed pillows and a velvet couch, Castaño has placed her narco-beauty queens among bucolic fields of opium poppies, pixilated marihuana leaves, and bursting pink coca-flower blossoms.

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Carolyn Castaño was born and raised in L.A. Her parents are Colombian and have been living in the U.S. since the early 1960s. Colombia's drug violence has ensnared some of her family: a relative was kidnapped, while others joined drug dealers.
She feels close to Mexican culture. She traveled to Mexico as a child. Images from the country's Aztec ruins and anthropology museums left an imprint and show up in these works.

There's a large table next to the paintings where she has spread out many of the images that have inspired her in the last few months. Most could be headshots for telenovela auditions. Castaño's eyes well up. "These are someone's daughters," she says.

There's also an Aztec obsidian knife with a stylized eye and teeth on the cover of a 1980 issue of National Geographic. The knife was likely a tool in the human sacrifice machinery the Aztecs believed made their world possible. In one of the paintings flowers on the woman's naked thighs are reminiscent of the Aztec Xochipilli sculptures. He's the god of spring and renewal, wearing a flayed skin, flowers decorating his limbs. Are these women sacrificed to keep the drug lords world going?

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On the table there's a felt marker drawing of a woman wearing a blue thong, high heels, crouching, her face hidden by a Subcomandante Marcos-type full face ski-mask. She's crouching in a stripper pose. Under her heels, in a pool of blood, five severed heads ooze from marihuana bushes.

People in the U.S. are helping to fuel drug wars that are consuming an entire generation in Mexico and Colombia, she said. "In essence we're also implicated. The consumers are the United States and Europe. At the same time while we're partying and having fun there's also this other side where there's a war and people are dying. And something as innocuous as beauty, jewelry and fashion also has this dark side to it," she said.

Poet and Journalist Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every Tuesday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.

About the Author

Adolfo’s been a reporter at NPR affiliate KPCC since 2000. He’s reported on three L.A. mayors, four L.A. Unified superintendents, and covered the LAPD batons and rubber bullets flying at the May, 2007 MacArthur Park immigrant marc...
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Crucial work. Thank you Maestro Guzman Lopez for the article.