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The War on Both Sides: 10 Mexican Days

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Rafa Esparza, Raquel Gutíerrez, and Rubén Martínez
Rafa Esparza, Raquel Gutiérrez, and Ruben Martinez

Artists from Los Angeles travel to Mexico City and meet with their counterparts to ask a simple yet devastating question: What is the role of the creative community in the context of that drug war that is taking such a horrific toll -- on both sides of the border?

Lea este artículo en Español, haga clic aquí.

One of my colleagues at work asked me if I had fun while in Mexico City recently. I felt my brows furrow as I thought about it and answered a plaintive no. It's not that I didn't enjoy visiting the world-class city. I went to Mexico City for the first time as an adult and in the context of an artistic exchange where the bulk of the conversations with artists, writers, cultural producers and journalists centered on the myriad of ways we understand violence and the blood economies from where it originates. Preparing for these conversations compelled me to be versed in diverse narratives of violence, such as books by Charles Bowden, films by María Novaro and Luis Estrada. And, of course, music by Los Tigres Del Norte -- which was the source of many teenage tantrums after losing control of the tape deck on my family's trips to Tijuana to see the dentist. It is a range of narratives that explore violence with both a heavy hand and a tongue in cheek. I hadn't spent this much time with intense brutality since my days reading about the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala while minoring in Central American Studies at Cal State Northridge.

These particular ethnic studies were a way to study myself, to contemplate where I came from as a child born in Los Angeles to a Salvadoran mother. My mom, one of nine kids (originally 12, but three died before the age of three) grew up in a small hamlet on the border between El Salvador and Honduras, became a registered nurse in San Salvador and ended fleeing not a civil war but an abusive husband who kept my older brother away from her for over six years. My mother escaped one type of violence and arrived to encounter another kind in the U.S. -- poverty. She was one of fourteen living in a house on Coronado Street in Echo Park -- una arrimada, she called herself, or someone "leaning" on others for a few weeks without paying rent until an opportunity arose.

Being eye-deep in the grisly accounts of the kinds of border violence that happens to Central American migrants passing through Mexico gave me pause. I'm thankful my mother didn't encounter deadly train robbers or Zetas terror, the kind that coerces migrants into dark economies or mass graves. Instead, my mom won a visa lottery that enabled her to get to Las Vegas to take care of children and clean homes and hotel rooms before arriving in Los Angeles in 1969.

All of our lives are a series of choices -- left or right, east or west, stay or go. I think about my parents' choices to leave their countries and wonder if I would do the same. Here is a hypothetical situation -- what if I was born in Mexico? The idea comes up while I am getting into a fair amount of gender trouble while traveling around the Mexican capital. I wonder if the psychic toll would have propelled me to try my hand at being in a country that was more "tolerant" of my gender non-conformity. It's not like being told I was in the wrong bathroom was hardly a point of contention with the country from where my father emigrated from; it's not the first time and certainly won't be the last time I get "caballero'ed" during dinner or "jóven'ed" on an Aeromexico flight back to Los Angeles. These are only just a sample of the kinds of passive, or soft, violence that gender non-conforming people survive every day on both sides of the border. If and when luck is on our side we hear the nagging voice -- maybe it's intuition telling you to move out of harm's way.

Lots of queers living in large metropolitan areas get harassed, bullied, assaulted and murdered. I have been spared heretofore the rod of homophobes glowering at me and my thug-dandy ways. However, it isn't always the case for my queer brothers and sisters, many of whom self-medicate when the burden of challenging society's narrow gender norms becomes too much to bear. The scythe sweeps down or comes close; another gender renegade's life gets cut short whether it's a bullet or a hypodermic needle. The rest of us are left mourning or wanting immediate escapist gratification.

So I wasn't surprised when I came home from Mexico City with a bout of low-grade humming depression. The analog kind; knowing that violence is always playing in the background, like a radio with a fuzzy signal at the lowest volume possible that allows you to know it is still there. Even when you see violence negotiated through the lens of artistic production, you are saddled with a particular type of compassion and empathy in your critical viewing that has to be balanced out with both grief and fatigue in order to keep it from totally consuming you. Because that is what the violence portends -- that you will be consumed.

Consumption. Like a Victorian novel way of meeting your maker, or at least experiencing the symbolic death that artists in privileged spaces get to while the extreme poor suffer horrible conditions, like the 165 U.S.-bound migrants, mostly Central Americans, that were held against their will in Tamaulipas near the border town of Laredo, Texas by drug traffickers and liberated on June 5, 2013.

But I don't escape to shirk the duty to listen anymore, to bear witness for other witnesses.
Not with drugs, at least.

The War On Both Sides/La guerra de los dos lados explores the representations of violence through conversations with artists in Mexico City and Cuernavaca. Every morning over black bean breakfast tamales and mud-thick coffee Rubén, Rafa and I anticipated conversations that might focus on the political, or the aesthetic or the social implications of violence, or the violence we render in our work. It was exciting and of course, anxiety-producing, wondering what grab bag of artists and thinkers we'd be paired with each day and if there would be any chemistry around our mission or if we would be burdened with identity politics about being Chicanos and Pochos and the concomitant nopal on our foreheads with surfer cadences to our English that operate like broken traffic signals and slow down our attempts to connect.

But that was never the case on this journey, where other classed anxieties were present; I'm a child of economic migrants who came to Los Angeles from Mexico and El Salvador in the late 1960s who found each other in an East Los Angeles dancehall one fateful Valentine's eve. Now my mother and father are U.S. citizens and the story of their journey is so different from that of the impoverished men and women and children that leave my parents' countries of origin and make it across the border. Or those that don't, like the 72 people massacred by los Zetas in the village of El Huizachal in the municipality of San Fernando, Tamaulipas in 2010; their names, ages, genders and nationalities and humanity restored with great care in the poem "Los muertos," written by María Rivera of Mexico City and read out in pure oratory power on April 6, 2011 during the National March for Peace that Javier Sicilia galvanized less than two weeks after his son Juan Francisco was murdered by cartel-affiliated assassins.

Violence happens every day that we talk about violence. The time we spend meditating about how we negotiate impotence while we stand in front of your or my generation's Guernica and The Third of May 1808, is a privileged yet fraught space. Every day we talked about violence in our Mexico City ateliers, real violence occurred in parts of Chihuahua City, Reynosa, and Ciudad Juarez. As cultural workers, we consider violence in the works of pulp novelist Elmer Mendoza or visual artist Teresa Margolles (both from Culiacan, Sinaloa, where the Sinaloa Cartel is centered) in order to complete the task of holding critical spaces, which is a lot like holding your breath. It becomes necessary to deeply consider the scope and foreclosing limitations brought about by representations of violence but it is difficult. It feels like self-harm. These works become a reference we necessarily make about violence in order to talk about healing, which is kind of like needing to step over the bodies to make room for the living.

In our first conversation, we spent time with Gabriela Jauregui's and her poem "Oasis of power/Oasis of horror." The authoritative voice in this piece creates an already negotiated position in an account of violence that is not necessarily culled from an archive of personal agency or trauma but of a kind of constructed witnessing. Nevertheless, these invented perspectives make it into Gabriela's work as a way to imagine hearing the elusive voice of assasins in a complex web of mercenary marketability. She provides our need to understand the darkness enfleshed in the men who make predators and the possiblity that we could dare to empathize with them.

The following are excerpted stanzas from Gabriela's poem.

Juaristán is my playground,
Juareztine is my home,
King of my mono-metal reign of bullets
Here we celebrate more deaths than births every day
I make bullets rain over the border on the other side of the river
So El Paso sees me shine seems me fly through its skies in a flash
I am the fastest golden sun
I blow up cars I blow up homes I blow I blow I blow
Silvertip, Semispitzer, Hollow Point, Teflon-covered, Very Low Drag, Total
Metal Jacket, Lead Bullet, Full Metal Case, Speer Gold Dot, Remington
Core-Lokt, Armor-Piercing, Gold Sabre

I'll take you to Salón Río Bravo but first to El Herradero where it's all about
meat meat meat so you can meet my team of killer flesh fresh-shaved-headcholos (long
shorts long socks long barrel) and my python-tipped cowboys:
we are all gold-chained
and after and always we go to taquería Iris then sex at the oxxo in excess
chica cachonda busca chico en Chihuahua

As is. So: pare down this rape
pare down and peel and cut open and trim and carve and skin and scalp and
flay and decorticate
AK47 I own you now woman

We hear from the woman in the second part Oasis of horror:

On my way to work I see the children outside my house play sicarios, narcos
and policemen with sticks and stones
they know the caliber of every gun, of every bullet they carve
in stone and gavel and play-doh
they know bones and they're dead wrong
now they're dead
and still wrong

while I am forced to listen to Juan Gabriel's greatest hits
smothered and
is my throat
my slit
filled with silt
a river dries
my hair
Irene Silvia Mercedes saints in the desert
flow nowhere
no place for slits
and lipstick lips
mujer muerta
and what you hear now is the sand that buries me telling my story to
the wind

Gabriela creates a counter-narrative to the feminine position in Juarez. The feminine has become ossified with fatigue after too many escorted trips to the local OXXOs in Ciudad Juarez, a perspective produced during a writer's residency in Juárez that lodged her deep in the deadly reality. The threat of rape is real, actual rape is always a looming specter if you are female-bodied in any part of the world, so just because it didn't happen to you--that you are still alive as far as you can tell--does not preclude the obligation to make work about it about in fast-moving cinematic language.

Or maybe it does? Gabriela's poetic inventions are contingent on la memoria ajena (the other's memory), where implications are embedded in different feminine voices urging the reader to keep seeing the city named after Benito Juarez drenched in blood. Gabriela portrays the gendered violence, imploring us to see the slits filled with silt, even as she doesn't want us to be comfortable with the narco-sensationalist discourse she intends to criticize.

Raquel Gutiérrez and Rafa Esparza | Photo: Courtesy of Raquel Gutiérrez
Raquel Gutiérrez and Rafa Esparza | Photo: Courtesy of Raquel Gutiérrez

Artistic interrogations made in comfortable art spaces produce ambivalence about the cushy and inaccessible place art inhabits amongst the general populace, at least back home in California where each year, art education becomes the first to go in dwindling school budgets which makes art appreciation a relic. So who is art for and why the need for these conversations when we don't have the tools to forge the next generation of art lovers that emerge from communities of color?

At the same time, these artistic interrogations for the many of us that come from beautiful barrios in and around Los Angeles produce a hope illustrated in the way our new friends and colegas in Mexico stage an intertexual conversation with one another through each other's work about violence.

However difficult it is to revisit work made as President Felipe Calderón entered office in 2006, it was worth it to arrive at a resensitizing about why writing about violence is violent. So our conversation landed on the critical question of how to make work that does not revictimize the victims -- a question that surfaces with each new conversation, such as with journalist John Gibler, who has been in Mexico since the late 1990s, doing solidarity work with the Zapatistas and the late human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa. He now writes and contributes to news sources such as Pacifica radio station KPFA in Berkeley and Z Magazine, Left Turn and Colorlines. John has seen firsthand contemporary Mexico shift from being a country complicated by neoliberal policies like NAFTA to a deadly environment fueled by impunity for the indigenous population, women and human rights activists. As a person, John is open, warm and humble as all get out. Reading his books you will know that he has seen his share of humanity's worst attributes as well as shootouts. I wonder how does someone who has reported on so much violence -- including the sexual violence committed against the 26 women in the wake of riots in San Salvador Atenco in 2006, many of whom are John's friends -- continue to be impelled by a deep well of optimism?

I reach for my copy of John's book of poems 20 poemas para ser leídos en una balacera (20 Poems To Be Read During A Shoot-Out). It begins with a series of alerts for the new guy to duck down. The reality surrounding him is one where a bullet is followed by a hundred and impunity reigns supreme. The poem's hardened guide might be an adrenaline junkie as he gleefully tells the new guy that even as you run away from the lead-heavy shower of brutality in a zig-zag formation be sure to guard your disgust against jadedness. You can never forget that this is home for you and thousands of Mexicans who deal with this daily occurrence and every day is worth the risk.
As cultural producers we use words, objects, and intention to create a different world that offsets the traumas of the world we inhabit that's been riddled by bullets and indifference. Creating these worlds often becomes a convergence of blessings, curses, risks, burdens and privileges that haunt the daily task of imagining justice.

During one of our first conversations, Jen Hofer referenced Audre Lorde's famous adage: the master's tools can't dismantle the master's house. She called for all of us to adopt the need for new, different tools that expose the relationship between power and language and to be ready to see how they embed in one another to produce an oppressive regime. Jen compels us to be something I imagine John already is--different. We have to be different in order to imagine a just world; to become listeners and inquisitive about human life in other parts of the world. Even John's assertion that he "receives" art rather than consumes it, reveals a lot in the little ways we can reinscribe our relationship to the world we want to inhabit.

Later in the week I stepped away from these conversations and into Mexico City. I saw art that Mexican-American journalist and author Daniel Hernández wants Americans to witness and be troubled by. Daniel told me about Martha Pacheco's new exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno, Excluidos y Acallados (Excluded and Silenced), curated by Alicia Lozano. This is a series of oil paintings of cadavers that have not been named or claimed by family members that Pacheco photographs and then paints. I was struck by the light in her paintings -- the vividness of the fluorescent lighting in her oils eerily accent the red blood of her victims gaping wounds and sloppy post-autopsy sutures.

There's also a series of people that live in sanatoriums who Pacheco photographs and then paints from the photo she has taken. The pieces, part of a body of work spanning two decades, pose the question, according to Lozano's curatorial statement, of who we become when we are forced to confront matters of death and madness. It is strange seeing such grisly depictions of violent death in an art institution, supported generously by the Mexican government, where the curatorial or artist statements do not make any mention of or gesture to the current social context of drug-related violence. The only commentary about the broader context of this show takes place within the four walls of our daily meetings for La guerra de los dos lados, inside the safety of another Mexico City museum, El Museo Universitario del Chopo.

Is it possible to translate the culture of violence into an aesthetic site of healing? If, as Jen Hofer states, all literature is translation, then perhaps the visual language that Martha Pacheco's work employs could be considered primal screaming. Martha Pacheco's images make the language of state silence strange, even when silence underscores the ability for the museum to exhibit her work. And that alone is possibly an extraordinary expression of that strangeness.

After ten days in Mexico, it is only the strange that feels familiar.

The War on Both Sides/La guerra de los dos lados is made possible by the generous support of a City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department Cultural Exchange International grant and the hospitality and logistical assistance of the Museo Universitario del Chopo. In particular we would like to thank Chopo director José Luis Paredes Pacho and his team: Claudia Manzanilla, Dalila Silva Ortíz, Blanca Espinosa, Javier Marín, and Amaranta Marentes. In Los Angeles, Carol Jacques and Dalila Sotelo of Amigos de Siqueiros and activist-publicist Martha Ugarte helped make possible our first public presentation of this material in Los Angeles, at the América Tropical Interpretive Center on Olvera Street. Our dialogues in Cuernavaca were generously hosted by the  Secretaria de Cultura de Morelos and its director, Cristina Faesler and her team. Special thanks to Hernán Osorio of the Secretaría de Cultura and Alicia Reardon, who were responsible for the coordinating our events.

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