Death on the border: Ciudad Juarez, femicide, and a Chicano art response

This guest blog by Lance Richardson discusses his research on art made in response to the murder of women on the US-Mexico border. Lance is a freelance writer and photographer based in Sydney and New York

Ciudad Juárez first came into my field of vision through the windows of an airconditioned bus. I was returning from Mexico to the U.S. by way of El Paso, Texas, and that meant a drive through its sister city south of the border. The place meant nothing to me at the time, but I remember its sprawl and aura of grim deterioration

The second time I noticed Juárez it was thinly-fictionalised as ‘Santa Teresa’ in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. In the novel it acts as an empty centre, a place of numbing despair where everything is threatening to explode in violence. The fourth section of the novel, ‘The Part About the Crimes,’ is 300 pages of emotionless reportage of female murders. An alarming amount of it is drawn from fact.

Since 1993 hundreds of women have been murdered, raped, and mutilated in Ciudad Juárez on the U.S.-Mexico border. While the perpetrators remain outstanding, different political groups focus on the murders as the symptom of a wide range of socio-cultural issues, generating interpretative conflicts and contributing to a lack of clarity around the crimes.

It was my interest in these murders and Bolaño’s artistic response that led me to another response I could examine anthropologically - a Chicano movement, gaining momentum between 3 November 2002 and 21 February 2003, when curators Victoria Delgadillo and Rigo Maldonado organised an exhibition in Los Angeles entitled Hijas de Juárez.

In conversation with Caroline Chavez, Victoria described Hijas de Juárez and its use of art in the following way:

Victoria: In our culture we are very distrusting and everything is an ‘urban legend.’ Things on TV don’t make complete sense. Television seems magical, with digital imagery and fantastical plots, nothing seems as if it could be real. […]

Carolina: So the show was a way of making it real?

Victoria: As artists we curated this art show because that’s what we do – we create awareness. We present images to people, that way they can see what’s taking place in our world and in ourselves.

Through my research, I was concerned with elucidating how art may have functioned to render murder on the border experientially ‘real’ for the Hijas de Juárez audience. As something qualitatively different from direct political speech, art trades in symbolic ambiguity and subjective interpretations. I came to argue that it was this open-endedness that may have made art comparatively effective in this circumstance.

It is important to recognise that, first of all, the indigenous interpretative context of Hijas de Juárez is Chicanismo, including an approach to art which is substantially different from - though influenced by - the hegemonic understandings of art operating in contemporary America today.

For Chicano/a artists, art is an active force, integral in identity construction and an ideological tool (at the risk of oversimplification). Within this, the artist is a figure of considerable social agency.

Artworks in Hijas de Juárez can be broken into two approximate groups, corresponding with the curator’s dual intentions of both memorialising the dead women and protesting the insensibility of their murders. Many artworks prioritising memorialisation “re-interpreted” the women using a lexicon of Day of the Dead, Chicano, and Aztec iconography; the intention of the pieces can be read as denying the finality of the women’s deaths and powerlessness. Artworks orientated toward protest tended to draw attention to the finality and brutality of the murders.

This is a tension between the aims of ‘awareness-raising’ and ‘memorialisation,’ a tension which brought me to the problematic of the limits of symbolisation. I sought to articulate how this governing dialectic was concerned, at root, with approaching death on the border in different and predominantly incompatible ways. Art which memorialises, for example, honouring the dead women through Day of the Dead ceremonial forms, cannot simultaneously symbolise the brutality of their murders.

Similarly, works which focus on bodily trauma and murder cannot effectively memorialise. By examining the curatorial measures that were taken to organise the works by Delgadillo and Maldonado, I argued that Hijas de Juárez creates a space (or a “clearing,” using Heidegger’s term) in which the limitations of representation are exceeded through collective juxtaposition.

As a sum, the open dialogue of works evokes the Juárez situation (makes it ‘real’), and yet also assuages or ‘heals’ it, in a way that single interpretations – including political ones – never could. This is a unique function of art as I see it.