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The War on Both Sides: Ostrich Skin

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Rafa Esparza | Photo: Ricardo Torres

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.

I'm Rafa Esparza. I'm an artist; I live and work in Los Angeles. I'm currently investigating ideas about memory, identity, kinship, and place; mostly through performance, but also sculpture and installation. When I received the invitation to join Raquel Gutierrez and Ruben Martinez for a series of tertulias about violence caused by the drug wars in Mexico, I was already scheduled to perform at a few different spaces in the weeks leading up to my departure to The War on Both Sides/La guerra de los dos lados. Those pieces would be affected by my research, but also by events that took place in Los Angeles before I left.

Being asked to respond to how I and my work relate to violence had an arresting affect on me. "La guerra" has touched my family directly (I've written about it here). My relationship to violence runs deep: violencias both physical and psychological, some attributed to homophobia, poverty, and racism. But I had never considered how my artistic practice relates to it. The more I researched violence in Mexico the more aware I became of the violent undertones in some of my work, to the degree that I began to for the first time, address it. This is a reflection. An attempt to recover the experience that we all shared in Mexico; one that quickly began to blur after my return to Los Angeles in the midst of violence, loss and travel.

Los Angeles.

We landed in L.A. at midday, my jacket still heavily scented with chilango smog. I grabbed my baggage and headed towards the exit and suddenly heard, "Excuse me sir, right this way."

Random Search.

I looked at the line in front of me: three men, all wearing tejanas and boots, in their 40's, maybe 50, dark complexioned Latinos, Mexicans perhaps. I looked behind me: two men my age, also Latinos, Mexicans perhaps, and a blonde, blue-eyed older man in his early 60's. The blonde was called out of the line by an officer and was told he could leave without even having to show his passport. I wondered how he'd gotten picked out in the first place, maybe he accidentally wandered into the line?

I shook off the thought and put my stuff on the conveyor belt. I handed the officer my passport; he hadn't looked up at me yet. He was training "the new guy." Glancing back and forth to the rookie, he unzipped my luggage and zipped it shut just as soon as he opened it. Squeezed the edges of my roller, asked me if I had brought anything edible from Mexico. And then he looked up at me. His eyes cruised my body from head to toe, and while he examined my earlobes and unwashed oily, acne-scarred face, I respond, "no".

"Have a good day sir."

I'd never been "randomly" searched (in an airport at least). I began thinking about the constant surveying of bodies, brown bodies -- on both sides. Cárteles in Mexico watching, annihilating anything considered a threat to their business. And in the U.S., the state "protecting" us from terrorism, crime, gangs... all the "bad guys."

When I arrived at my apartment I lay down next to my boyfriend and rested briefly. Our friend Allison Wyper had scheduled an encounter in the L.A. River with a group of fellow artists, part of an international project where artists in different countries performed in highly contested sites. Allison invited us all to take part in this through a "site responsive encounter."

The idea was to go to the river, address the space, and respond by performing. The loose format involved some improvisation, spontaneity, and above all sustaining a strong sense of awareness. Allison suggested that we bring objects to experiment with. I waited until the final five minutes before leaving home to grab a couple of items: a five gallon bucket and a large piece of plastic painter's drop cloth.

Rafa Esparza's L.A. River performance
Rafa Esparza's L.A. River performance

The L.A. River is a familiar place to me. One of my first performances years ago was on the 6th street bridge connecting Boyle Heights to Downtown L.A. As I unfolded the plastic sheet, a gust of wind came and opened it up like a sail. I played with it for a while before tying each end of it to the handle of the bucket. I walked into the middle of the river and set the bucket down on its side. I sandwiched myself in the crevice of the folding plastic that slowly began to hug my body as the water carried the bucket away. The bucket tugged at me, at times with surprisingly strength and violence; at other times it barely pulled at all.

I shifted my body within the plastic from time to time. Sometimes I faced outwards and rested the full weight of the pull on my face; I could barely make out a milky image of what was on the other side of the less-than-1-millimeter thick sheet of plastic. While tucked in-between the plastic I thought of what the river meant to me, how it acted, what it was and is. In this meditation of meaning, questioning, hypothesizing, imagining, a movement emerged in my body. I started by loosening limbs, letting the current pull them, drag them, and just as I would begin to feel unbalanced I'd straighten back up.

My head,
a foot,
an arm,
a thigh,
a hand,
a shoulder.

How many things has this river pulled down to the ocean?

Edith López was in the second tertulia of the bountiful group of artists that we met with in DF. Edith's work deals a lot with recuperating from loss, and focuses on cases of disappeared people (many of them gone unreported and uninvestigated). She is the daughter of an activist who was kidnapped, exiled and later rescued and brought back to Mexico long before Edith was born. This familiy history is ever so present in Edith's artwork and also in her activism. Her work is simultaneously art object and political slogan, occupying many spaces. One of the organizations she works closely with is H.I.J.O.S. (Hijos e Hijas por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio/Sons and Daughters for the Identity and Justice against the Forgotten and Silenced). She talked of her personal history and how she got involved with representing the countless disappearances in Mexico, gradually building up an impressive and extensive photographic archive. Her work resonates deeply with me, specifically her interest in creating an aesthetic around disappearance. In the midst of gory hyper-representation of bodies broken, mutilated and destroyed by the narco-machine, Edith has taken on the task of representing bodies that lack representation and attention. Missing bodies. Bodies out of sight. Her approach is fairly stripped down, for example a black and white headshot of the missing person. The work accrues its power in the sheer amount of collected images of the disappeared displayed on banners, posters, and fliers. These images are seen by hundreds, thousands as they activate and are activated in protests, rallies, vigils, and public demonstrations seeking justice and demanding the state to investigate the overwhelming loss of human life. Her work is also a reminder of a state so corrupted that it enables acts of horror with endless impunity. Hers is an act of remembering and representation that counters the traumatizing project of tabloids and popular media that endlessly reproduce the bloody images. In one project, one that she reluctantly calls "una performance" she replaced street signs with names of people gone missing. The process is a collaborative one with the residents living on the street. They engage in a dialogue about a new name proposed by Edith. She presents the missing people's lives to the residents, their significance, the contributions they made to their communities. With the permission of the neighbors, Edith physically covers the street signs with the new name. Edith is activating a collective memory, acknowledging the loss via a quiet memorial, and also rejecting the memory the state forces upon its citizens on a daily basis. Edith is engaged in difficult work where she's asking of communities to feel loss and mourn it. It's work that has to deal with a plethora of depressing realities: violence, the mainstream pornographizing of violated bodies, collective trauma, state corruption, holding public space hostage... It's work that evokes and can only be driven by a strong sense of hope.

Edith López replaced street signs with names of people gone missing

I had a day to rest before I flew out to Chicago, to meet friend and a queer padrino Ricardo Abreu Bracho. He is a visiting profe at DePaul and asked me to come and present my work to his class. I took the day to sleep, mostly. My parents had themselves just arrived back from a trip they took to Durango a week earlier; my grandpa had been ill and my father wanted to see him. I asked them how their travels went. (They almost always travel by bus, which freaks me out, since Durango has had an alarmingly heightened amount of violence recently.) They said that they were fine.

On the flight to Chicago I found myself worrying a lot about my family. Just before having left to Mexico they'd been victims of a drive-by-shooting in L.A. And although my brothers sounded fine when I spoke to them, I know firsthand how paralyzing that experience can be. My mind switched back to Mexico. I thought of how common the sound of gunsfire is in many parts of it. How familiar the sound is to me. I jerk my head forward and shrug my shoulders up burying my head between them when I hear the crack.

Is there anyone who has never heard a gunshot before?


I call Ricardo and tell him I am at Home Depot purchasing 100 pounds of play sand. I ask if he can meet me at the front of the school. I'll need help carrying it.

I haven't told Bracho what I'll be doing. He's very supportive and trusting. With Mexico and all of the artists that we met there; their words, their faces, their thoughts, still very present in my mind:

Jen Hofer
Cristina Rivera Garza,
Daniel Hernández,
Tania Barberán,
Javier Sicilia,
Jean Robert,
Sylvia Marcos,
Francisco Taboada Tabone,
Gregory Berger,
Carlos Sandoval,
María Rivera,
Mónica Mayer,
Victor Lerma,
Edith López,
Magali Tercero,
John Gibler,
César Martínez,
Daniela Pastrana,
Julio Torres,
Sergio Troncoso,
Raul Silva,
Ruben Martinez,
and Raquel Gutierrez

...presenting a chronology of "my work" wasn't necessarily my biggest concern. The classroom was more of a conference room, with fiberboard ceiling tiles and a wall with long vertical windows covered with blinds. We turned the lights off, shut all of the blinds with the exception of one that we left open, creating a circle using chairs and desks around the light that shone on the ground. I asked that everyone leave the room and re-enter once I was ready for them. I tore open a trash bag and used it as a mat long enough for my body to lay on. I emptied out all of my pockets, and placed all of my belongings on the floor. A few dollars, some change, some receipts (Ralphs, Century Spa, Mae's Mexican Food, MUAC -- Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo), my California ID, my college ID, a MUAC sticker (museum proof of payment), my used Teotihuacan pass, old TAP pass receipts, two pens, and some business cards. I set two 50-pound play sandbags on the ground and lay down, face up, bare chested, with my head between the two bags. I covered my face with a red bandana and I heard the students gradually file back into the room.

I heard some shuffling, some giggling and whispers. Two guys sitting near my head joked about my stillness. "Is he breathing, sleeping?" "I bet if I drop one of those bags on his head he'll wake up, HUR HUR HUR!" I waited for a pause of silence before starting.

I heard some shuffling, some giggling and whispers. Two guys sitting near my head joked about my stillness. "Is he breathing, sleeping?" "I bet if I drop one of those bags on his head he'll wake up, HUR HUR HUR!" I waited for a pause of silence before starting.

Rafa Esparza | Photo: Raquel Gutiérrez
Rafa Esparza | Photo: Raquel Gutierrez


I felt around for a bag, grabbed the one to my left and lifted it on top of my chest. I searched around for a pen, grabbed it and stabbed the bag with it. I lifted the bag using both hands and held it over my face while the sand trickled down gently on my nose and over my mouth. In some moments I'd lose balance of the bag and the sand would pour onto my eyes. The handkerchief allowed me some breathing room but as the sand piled thicker around my face, closing in on my mouth and nose, it became challenging to access air. I used my tongue to push the red cloth away from my lips, buy all that did was invite dust in and an instant dryness consumed my mouth. I started to cough, and switched over to breathing through my nose, afraid of swallowing more dust. I tried to focus and control my breathing, until finally the last pebble of sand landed on the dune weighing down on my face.

Gabriela Jauregui opened our first tertulia at el Museo Universitario del Chopo with a reading of her poem "Oasis." The poem takes you through an embodied description of both a "narco" and his female victim, concluding with her eventual death, throat slashed. I was disturbed by Gabriela's poem. Not so much by the content but the imagination it took to create the work. Heavily representational, by an author who's task was to imagine "what it must have been like" to be this person or the other. I hadn't prepared any cohesive thoughts to address the work, and I had some reservations about critiquing works that were being brought into these dialogues. Mostly because I wanted to listen and live with the work before reacting to it. What came next was Gabriela's description of her process. She had written the piece in response to a residency she had taken up in Juarez back in 2006, a year of heightened violence. A year that Mexico was hasta la madre. She talked about lacking a sense of safety, about feeling threatened . She also talked about what "la guerra" has done to humanity in Mexico, or rather the dehumanization the violence has wrought, and the need for injecting "real people" back into the narratives constructed by the "official discourse" that constant offender working alongside the violent war machine. Narcos no nacen, se hacen. And victims have names, had lives that deserve more than the common labels that overwhelm and consume their identities, inspired by the mode of fatality: ahorcados/as, destrozados/as, decapitados/as, etc. I placed her work within the newly revealed context of her process as a project that sought to undo part of the harm that la guerra is subjecting Mexico to.

Rafa Esparza
Rafa Esparza

Bag #2

I feel to the right side of my head, reaching for the second bag of sand, and proceed to puncture it as I did the first. I hold it above my face and commence pouring. I had asked Bracho to play María Rivera's "Los muertos" during the emptying of the second bag, and so María's voice enters the room with a heaviness, fusing with the brown cloud that erupts from my face as the grains pile over it: grams, ounces, pounds. Breathing becomes even more difficult. More coughing, more gasping for air, until finally the bag is hollow. But "Los muertos" continues. María's voice, now heavier than the sand that weighs over my face, fills the room. I think of the names echoing off the walls into ears, echoing through hallways. A litany of naming: how many people have died, who they were, who they are, what they wore, their ages, their mothers, their daughters, their faces, their smiles; naming the violence, naming the sometimes un-nameable, but still reaching and finding the words,

"se llaman ganas de bailar en las fiestas"
("they're called wanting to dance in las fiestas")

I lay motionless. Stuck. Frozen.

Mónica Mayer joined us on the 2nd day of tertulias at el Chopo, along with her life partner Victor Lerma, Edith López, María Rivera, John Gibler, and Magali Tercero. It was an intense day. It was a strong group of brave, creative, committed and intelligent journalists, poets, artists, and writers. Mónica Mayer is a multidisciplinary artist in every sense of the word. She came to the talk armed with a dense PowerPoint, one where she bulleted answers to every question we asked ourselves and our participants to consider. She gave us a rich photographic archive of not only her practice but also included works from other artists that have been addressing violence since 2006, the year President Felipe Calderón declared war on the cárteles. I was amazed at her candor, her calmness, her intelligence and the way information just spilled out of her with no stutter, and much clarity. She told us a story about experiencing a work that she was profoundly moved by, an installation involving clothes hanging on trees in a park. She could not escape the image. It was very persistent, to the point where she "re-installed" her own version in a tree in her backyard. She talked about being an artist and the importance of witnessing as a maker and the generative power that seeing and listening can produce.

I've sat with that idea and my interpretation of it for long moment. I still ponder it to this day.

After María's voice faded away, I got up onto my knees. Shook the powdery sand off my face and hair, put my shirt on, left the room for a moment to clean up, and when I was ready I came back into the room. Xavi Moreno, L.A. paisano performed a few pieces narrating growing up including his run-ins with violence, cops, drugs. A young East Los "narco" turned actor y mas. His work reminded me of how ambivalent I initially felt about going down to DF to engage in a series of conversations about violence when violence was already with me, had been with me for a lot of my life. Violence is a familiar language; the trauma, the subtle ways in which it shapes awareness. You can look at someone and recognize that they too speak the same language. I thought about my family again.

The students were a bit apprehensive at first, but Bracho is superb in the art of chisme (gossip), and slowly a conversation surfaced. The majority of the students had limited information about the drug wars in Mexico, so I gave as much background as I could to create context. One student expressed his appreciation for the performance and said that it reminded him of the femicidios in Juarez, Guatemala, and other parts of the Americas. We talked about varying degrees of implication, the importance of contact, and sharing knowledge. I talked about my use of María Rivera's recorded performance of "Los muertos," as an "echo," to use Mónica Mayer's term, making room for her voice alongside my work, collapsing distance, bringing not only her voice but all of that she named into the room, into our ears, our imaginations, our bodies. I felt some weight lifted off my shoulders after the performance. Leaving behind some images, some ideas, thoughts, and recent memories so that if only for a brief moment the lost bodies were made present again.

Rafa Esparza
Rafa Esparza

Los Angeles.

I came home to find myself with a lot to catch up on. First thing on the agenda was to deliver a piece of art I collaborated on with my boyfriend Dino to Mexicali. Dino Dinco is a Los Angeles based artist, performance art curator, and writer. We had both been following the news about narco-violence since we learned about it in 2006. "Paletas de Sangre" was our first collaboration, and made for the MexiCali Biennial 2013 Cannibalism in the New World, which was presented at the Vincent Price Museum at East Los Angeles College. The show was traveling down south to Mexicali Rose, a grassroots art and media center for border-area youth.

Just before leaving L.A. I received a call informing me that my grandfather was very ill and on his deathbed. Dino and I raced to my parent's house where all of my siblings and other family members were to send my father off. My dad seemed nervous, hadn't slept all night, and wanted desperately to get to my grandpa in the village of Ricardo Flores Magón, the tiny village in Durango that both my parents are from. He had arranged to drive to Durango with his cousin. I embraced him and asked him to hug and kiss my grandpa on my behalf. I didn't want to let go. I think I must've thought that if I held him longer somehow my thoughts would be transmittable to my grandpa, or maybe in my head I was actually hugging my grandpa. I stayed with my mom and the rest of family for a while and then I too headed towards the border. The drive felt longer than I expected.

We dropped off our piece at Mexicali Rose, got to our hotel and I fell asleep almost immediately. In the morning I woke up eager to learn about my dad's where-abouts and how grandpa was doing. I called my mom and she said she had just spoken to my father and that he was crossing into Juárez. I thought to myself that he'd be in Durango by late afternoon. I got dressed to go out for breakfast, and my phone rang. It was my mom again. My grandpa had passed. I imagined my dad driving en route to Durango, in the desert heat. Did he know yet? Maybe he shouldn't know? I looked out the window of my hotel room and tried to figure out which way was south, where is Magón from here?

Almost a week had passed since my dad had left for Mexico and he was to return on Sunday. I made plans to be at my parents' house and welcome him when he arrived. When I got there one of my younger brothers was barbecuing and my mom and sister were making rice, beans and salad. My mom told me that my dad had decided to stay a day longer. Of course, I thought. My mom and I spoke at length about everything. She's incredible, she was holding her own, and being strongly supportive of my dad. We had a late lunch, I played with my nephews, and just as the sun was beginning to set I looked at the time and announced I'd better head home. I said my good-byes, hugged my nephews and niece, and headed out the front door. I was two steps down the porch when my mom asked if I wanted to take any cake home for Dino. At first I thought, naah... then, okay, sure. I turned back, walked up the steps and closed the door behind me and --


I knew exactly what it was. I turned back towards the door and was able to catch a glimpse of the car drive off. I quickly scanned the driveway for a body, anybody. I knew my older brother was outside. And my neighbors, the children... I had just heard them laugh and scream while playing tag outside. I met my mom outside, equally frantic, RAFA! she screamed, and was relieved when she saw me standing.

Panic ensued.
Retaliation considered.
Damage "controlled."

"Ahora me dedico en hacer arreglos florales."
("Now I am dedicated to making flower arrangements")

I remember María Rivera sharing with us that she dedicated herself to creating flower arrangements, a healing hobby after writing "Los muertos" and encountering violence through her poetry. Yes it makes perfect sense...flowers. So often when we talk about violence the bulk of the conversation turns to trauma, and justifiably so. But the conversations need to continue past that point, just as life goes on. María has not stopped writing. In fact, her next book is about to be published. And she continues to do her part in the conversation on violence in Mexico. I myself will still need more time to really learn what La guerra de los dos lados is doing, has done to my own artistic practice. How it's enriched it, and how I can meaningfully activate this experience.

In the days ahead I busy myself with anything and everything. I call and visit home more often than usual. Count my blessings on a daily basis and vow to live life to the fullest. I think long and hard about Mexico. What I witnessed there, how I interpreted everything, and the question of how to somehow make sense of it all in the midst of the violence I've known in my own life.

Choosing to make work about violence in this case hardly feels like a choice at all.

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.

Read more of "The War on Both Sides"

The War on Both Sides: Art, Violence, and Healing in the Drug War
What is the role of the creative community in the context of the drug war that is taking such a horrific toll on both sides of the Mexican-American border?

The War on Both Sides: 10 Mexican Days
Is it possible to translate the culture of violence into an aesthetic site of healing?

The War on Both Sides: The War Against Pain
When and how did these painful times of violence begin? Not just yesterday with drug trafficking. The story is ages old.

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