I became good at it, nonchalant like the sweat running down your arm can mix with mine and your buttocks can push against mine, but I will not blink or show any sign of awareness of you. That’s how good I was, what a pro I was at navigating Mexico City on public transport.
The Pumabus–the bus system that supported the 324,000+ students at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México where I worked–helped me refine my skills. In the mornings, unruly lines of students waited to board buses, and those who didn’t quite manage to jam themselves in before the bus driver closed the doors would shout, “But I’m going to be late for my Architecture class” or “I have an exam at 9 am!” At first, their pleas moved me, and I followed them with my eyes as the bus drove off. However, after six months, I just put in my headphones and turned on my music. It was too tiring to try to care about so many people.
One evening in January, I found the last seat on the Pumabus, one bathed in the heat of the late afternoon sun. Students poured on, bodies close enough to be making love, but they weren’t because, to a degree that eclipsed my nonchalance entirely, they didn’t give a fuck. How could they, how could we, when we were confronted daily with blind beggars with gnarled toes; five-year-old gum sellers; frail women with bloody, puss-filled wounds, holding out their hands for coins; men at intersections with missing legs, missing arms, with tubes coming out of their stomach and a pouch of their own blood held in their hands: a steady rain of need that never ceased? I had only been living in a city a year, but they had been overwhelmed by the needs and wants of the anonymous for their entire lives. How much empathy could we have before we were worn down to a pulp?
I was listening to a podcast of Radio Ambulante, the Latin American version of This American Life. It was a story about Puerto Berrío, Colombia, and the way in which some villagers in the late 1980s began to adopt and care for unidentified dead bodies. In fact, the villagers began to covet those unnamed bodies and fight over the right to decorate their graves because it was believed that the bodies had the power to grant special wishes. The story, the warmth of the sun, and the fact that I had a seat made me feel relaxed, drowsy. I felt something moving against my arm, but the story was good, and I was in my mode of no matter how much you search for space by trying to push me out of my seat and into the person sitting next to me, I will not even turn my head or grant you a quick, dirty look. The reporter in the story asked an old man who had adopted an unidentified body, “Does it make any sense to pray for someone you don’t know?” The bumping against my arm continued until it was more of a vibration. I found out that some residents of Puerto Berrío took the date that their unidentified adopted body was discovered, and used those numbers to play the lottery. Other residents asked for help with love or debt.
Suddenly, I felt wetness. On my arm. For the first time, I turned to my left, and out of the corner of my eye, among all the bodies, I had a crotch-level view of a man running to jump off the bus. He was gone, and I had only a vision of his tan jeans. No face. I looked at my blue and white-striped shirtsleeve. It was an oversized t-shirt, so I had to pull at the excess material to find out what was wet. I was confronted by a gelatinous, translucent mass seeping through my shirt and onto my skin. All I knew was that I had to get it as far away from me as possible. I ripped off my shirt and crumpled it into a ball. For a split second, I sat on the bus in my bra, wondering how people had seen nothing: not the guy, not the act, not even me in my bra.
The next day, I pulled my clean blue and white-striped shirt off the clothesline on the roof of my apartment and slipped it on before heading to the airport to catch a flight to Ciudad Juárez. It was my favorite shirt, and I wanted to fight for that, to reclaim what was mine. I was going to the city to begin filming my first documentary project, If Images Could Fill Our Empty Spaces, based on interviews with photographers Julián Cardona and Jaime Bailleres.
In 2009, I’d read Julián’s introduction to the photography exhibit “World Class City,” which featured photos that told the story of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the destructive changes it wrought in Ciudad Juárez. Julián’s photos showed informal housing settlements made of cardboard, prone to go up in flames; men rummaging through dumps to earn a living; used hosiery that women washed, mended, and dried on a clothesline to later be resold: stories of economic violence. I had carried his words with me, a constant chant running through my mind. He wrote, “Juárez blows like cold wind through the windows of our souls and demands our attention. We embrace its images as if they could fill our own empty spaces, but we cannot hold on.” For me, the quote captured an essential paradox of human nature: our hunger for voyeuristic graphic imagery, for something to fill that void that threatens to engulf us all, accompanied by the knowledge that such images will never be able to satisfy us. So many people like me have been drawn to Ciudad Juárez over the past two decades in an effort to try to understand the poverty, the explosion of violence, and the root of government dysfunction. Somehow we believe that in seeing, in finding the right images, the most truthful images, we will understand the city and its plight.
Ciudad Juárez was ranked as the most violent city in the world outside of a war zone for three consecutive years, from 2009 to 2011, and during that time images poured out of the desert, flooding the international imaginary with visions of beheadings, carjackings, child assassins, abandoned houses, extortion, informal settlements made of scavenged materials, the bodies of raped and murdered women dumped in public spaces, and narco culture: narcotecture, narcofosas, narcocorridos, narcomantas, narcocastillos, narcodeco, narcocerveza (Cerveza Malverde). The narcos’ white tigers, lions, giraffes; their Saint, Malverde, whose statue always held a fist of cash in one hand and a cigarette in the other; their women, beauty queens like María Susana Flores, who started dating a member of the Sinaloa Cartel and was killed holding an AK-47 during a Sinaloa Cartel shootout with the military. In my trips to Ciudad Juárez, first in 2010 and later in 2013, I wanted to pull the flesh from the bone, to strip away the images or move beyond them and strike at something hard and real. I wanted to find the stories behind the images, to meet the photographers who, for decades, had lived and worked in the city whose images they captured.
When I first contacted Jaime about making a documentary film based on interviews with him and Julián, we had a discussion about the overwhelming number of projects that had been made about Ciudad Juárez. Jaime wrote to me:
Perhaps we should discuss the series of lamentations, how many people have gone to Juárez and written reports, conducted research, made works of art, photo exhibits, sculpture, narrative, theater, literature, and documentaries about the deaths of women, the narcos, the violence, and the maquilas. Then others arrive in Juárez and they think they are doing this stuff for the first time, they think they are making the hit of the moment…
And other artists will arrive and they will work with the youth of Salvarcar [a neighborhood where 15 youth were murdered at a birthday party whose guests included members of the gang Artistas Asesinos], and other Baptist gringos will arrive and they will continue making houses for the fucked, and the social development programs run by the government will continue to take into account the miserable conditions of the victims in the city.
However, nobody, absolutely nobody and nothing, will do anything for the anonymous worker at the maquiladora, who in a condition of invisibility will wake up at 5am each day to leave her two children with her grandmother. She will do this and then go to work a double shift, only to return home at 5 or 7pm, 12 hours later, in silence, watching time pass by.
Jaime’s words spoke to all my doubts, both personal and professional, and to the mounting frustration about the way Ciudad Juárez had been represented. Residents were fed up with outsiders who came to the city to write articles with titles like “Growing Up in the World’s Most Dangerous City.” At the same time, the violence in Juárez was unavoidable and undeniable. At what point did not representing this violence, not acknowledging it, become dangerous?
I was living in Kentucky in 2008 when I saw the documentary film Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman) about missing and murdered women in Juárez. I had never been to the border city, but the film drove me there, made me want to understand the conditions that could produce such unresolved violence. For me, the film spoke to the power of art, the power of images to inhabit our conscience and make us act.
During my first visit to the city in 2010, I interviewed Julián. We met at a Starbucks near the International Bridge in El Paso before crossing into Juárez, and I was nervous, drinking coffee and shaking ever so slightly as I asked him questions. Like me, he had a scar on his forehead. Whereas mine was a pale scrawl resulting from a car accident in which I broke the windshield with my forehead, his was a deep dime-sized scar near his hairline. When I asked him about it, he said that his mother had told him that he was born with it, and that it was caused by an accident she had while he was in the womb. She had never explained it further.
Julián’s was the first story of a scar I had ever heard that went back to the womb. I loved scars and imperfections and the stories they told, scars as a reminder of the lived life. I asked people for their scar stories, but I also searched for them in territories, looked for the geography of trauma, the way in which physical and economic violence etched itself into the cityscape.
I had never been to Juárez, and only knew the city through film, photography, literature and numbers. 2010 was a year in which there were an average of twelve murders a day in the summer and six in the winter, statistics that made me ponder the relationship between heat and violence. Numbers floated through my head, average bodies per day: 4.4 in 2008, 7.5 in 2009, and 9.9 in 2010. What did that mean in terms of daily life?
Julián walked in wearing jeans and a white polo t-shirt with no logo, and we immediately started discussing “the reality” of Juárez. I wanted to know what distance had to be traversed, in words or experience or research, to understand how the photos spoke of life in the city. I asked Julián “Are there certain things that you see and you decide not to take a photo? Or do you always take the photo?”
Julián responded: “Look, I have begun to write more, because in these circumstances in Juárez, photography demonstrates its limits. Right now it is practically impossible to show what is happening in Juárez with only photography. For example, people who have been victimized and tortured by the army, who have been kidnapped by La Línea and other types of organizations, these are people you cannot get access to. These people are so traumatized that they are unable to share their experiences or even to be photographed. The reality that you can photograph in Juárez is very reduced.”
The reduced reality forced Julián to be more inventive, to embark on photography projects in which he also collected testimony, to compliment his images with the voices and registers of marginalized citizens. For “Stardust: Memories of the Calle Mariscal” a 2013 exhibit about La Mariscal, the recently demolished red light district in Juárez, Julián complimented photos with interviews. He talked to dancers, shopkeepers, photographers, and street vendors who had lived and worked in the area during different time periods. For example, the exhibit included the testimony of Kenia, a 22-year-old dancer who worked in La Mariscal: “I have dark brown eyes; they change or switch to light brown and then to honey; when I cry they turn green.”
Pablo, a 69-year-old street photographer, explained, “Of beautiful women, Mrs. Amparo Clueber, she had a brothel. She was a beautiful woman, she looked like a princess, well-dressed, and she ended up picking up trash bags. That was how she ended up. Time led her to decay, something that we all suffer, but for them it had a crueler aspect. Perhaps time takes its revenge on them.”
The photos accompanying the testimony feature an ornate white staircase reminiscent of the eighteenth century; a demolished wall through which one can see graffiti of Holy Death standing with his scythe surrounded by flames, with houses and a road in the background; a red-framed doorway flanked by two carved naked ladies; and half-demolished buildings surrounded by piles of debris. The images and words attempted to capture the remains of a zone that had once been a site of glorious decadence; the area, like the dancers who once reigned there, had seen time take its revenge.
In 2010, federal police controlled the city: I had to pass through armed checkpoints to move from one area to another. When I published an article about Juárez after that first visit, I made the mistake of saying that the federales carried AK47s. A local resident quickly corrected me, commenting that they carry G3s and AR15s. I knew nothing about weapons, but I should have realized that people who lived in an occupied city would know them intimately, would be able to map the various checkpoints controlled by federal police, the zones controlled by local police, and those controlled by gangs in terms of weapons. Even if a man was out of uniform, residents could identify who he worked for by the weapons he carried.
When I arrived in 2013 wearing the blue-and-white shirt-to-be-reclaimed, the death toll was down to two people per day. I never wanted to consider the city in those terms, but the numbers were always with me. Because I studied the violence, I received those numbers on a daily basis via email: the count. It was hard to move beyond them, to forget my physical self and feel safe walking the streets of Juárez.
Julián met me at the airport. My flight arrived late, and I was sad to have missed the slow-burning pink and purple sunsets etched in my memory from my last visit: a devastating beauty many people would not associate with Juárez. As we drove into the city center, I noticed several funeral homes advertising “budget funerals” as well as giant black and white photos of smiling children from around the world pasted to buildings. When I first saw them, even though the kids were grinning and obviously not from Mexico, they reminded me of all the posters of missing girls and women I had seen in the city in 2010. As it turned out, the photos were part of the “smile campaign” to help improve the image of Juárez. The project began in 2011 when a group of professional and amateur photographers from Juárez, inspired by the New York artist JR, took 1,000 black and white photos of local citizens, blew them up, and pasted them on the cement banks on both sides of the Rio Bravo. The project was later extended, and international photographers were invited to submit photos of smiling children from around the world that would later be displayed on walls around the city. Julián had no part in the project.
I spent the next several days wandering around the city center, visiting the Anarpa neighborhood, and walking the demolished red light district, La Mariscal. All the graffiti I saw in La Mariscal in 2010 was still around: the caricature of President Calderón with the question, “Does democracy work?” scrawled below, the painted pink crosses with the word “JUSTICE” written across them, the black and white posters with the faces of missing girls. I found that the local government had started a campaign against disappearance involving large posters that featured the clothes of girls or women with a missing body. These posters were arranged crookedly in groups of two or three on newspaper stands, street corners, and telephone poles around the city. In an effort to reach the masses, the campaign had tortilla makers use disappearance posters to wrap tortillas.
A poster near the historic restaurant La Nueva Central read, “Disappearances in Juárez have to disappear, CALL 066.” Just beneath it was a flyer of a 22-year-old, Laura Janeth Dávila Ortiz, who was seen for the last time on October 5, 2012.
On a sunny morning on my third day in the city, Itzel Aguilera, a photographer and mother of two young daughters, picked me up at my hotel and took me to breakfast. She had short-cropped reddish hair and a no-nonsense way of discussing how she dealt with the insecurity in the city. Over plates of perfectly fried eggs with warm yellow yolks, she talked about how the years of violence had influenced her photography and her family. Itzel moved from Mexico City to Juárez with her husband and daughters in 2008 when her husband accepted a teaching job at the Universidad Autónoma de Juárez. At the time her oldest daughter was six and her youngest was seven months, and the violence in the city began to rise with the arrival of federal troops. A few months after the move, when her youngest daughter turned one, she rarely left the house. She and her husband talked and texted constantly to keep tabs on each other, something they had never done in Mexico City.
In the past Itzel had worked on photography projects like “Time in the Sun: Mennonites in Chihuahua,” in which she spent months in Chihuahua’s Mennonite communities. But in Juárez Itzel’s photography turned inward as she focused on the everyday activities of her daughters.
She explained, “My photography was limited almost exclusively to exploring everyday images: spaces, the bedroom, games, the shower, water, laughter. After a few months, we extended our range – we went out to the patio, to the front porch of the house…” This home photography project with her daughters was her way of coping with life in Juárez.
“I needed to document those moments we lived in confinement,” she said.
After breakfast, Itzel took me to the official memorial park dedicated to the eight female victims whose bodies were dumped in the cotton fields in 2011 just in front of the city’s Association of Maquiladoras building. The memorial, which cost 1.2 million dollars, was built to comply with recommendations made by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in 2009. The court found Mexico guilty of not effectively investigating the abduction and murder of the women and ordered Juárez to create a national memorial for the victims, to pay reparations to the families and to investigate the murders.
But on November 7th, 2011, when the memorial was unveiled in a public ceremony, several of the victims’ family members attended the event to protest and criticize city officials. They pointed out that the deaths and disappearances continued and that crimes were not being properly investigated or punished. Disappearances were disappearing, as the unfortunate wording of the anti-disappearance campaign suggested. They were being officially ignored, unresolved, and forgotten to all those except the family members who lived that disappearance as a constant present, one that did not allow even the small peace that comes with being able to bury a body.
On the way to the memorial, Itzel pointed out that it was surrounded by a high wall and was almost impossible to enter given that there was no parking lot.
“It is as if the government didn’t want people to go there,” she said. On the bars of the fence at the front of the park, I found posters asking for help finding missing girls who had disappeared in 2012: Perla, Esmerelda, María de la Luz, Jessica, Idall and Nancy Iveth. How did a park dedicated to the memory of murdered women also become the place where residents taped posters of disappeared girls?
After the park, we drove to Itzel’s house so that she could show me some of her photography projects. When we pulled up to the guard station in front of her neighborhood of identical terracotta-tiled houses, Itzel took out a card and pushed it into a machine that would verify her membership and open the gates. She explained, “I used to live in another neighborhood, but when things got bad we moved into a gated community.” Once in the house, Itzel led me to the kitchen, past the remains of her daughters’ breakfast, and into her small library with a gigantic Mac computer screen. She pulled up the photos of her daughters, ones taken as they laughed or played, their bodies lithe beneath the late afternoon sunlight.
Then she moved on to her photos of sunsets: the purple, bruised ones; the days the clouds arranged themselves in the sky in perfect fluffy lines; the days they were nothing more than wisps. She talked about how she linked certain clouds with the news on a particular day, clouds shaped like a bird on the day X was murdered, shadowy smudges of faint purple, a beauty absorbed in the face of more news of violence.
Over the next few days, I walked the city with Julián, wearing the same dark jeans and the striped shirt. We went to the callejon Grijalva, known as “15-peso alley,” which during Julián’s childhood was the home of 15-peso prostitutes. I ate a fat stack of ribs and brown beans sitting under the giant stuffed head of a bull at the famous El Tragadero, and struck up a conversation with a diner about his tiger-print cowboy boots. He posed for me, one boot resting against the wall and his pale cream-colored cowboy hat tipped down so that his eyes were obscured.
On my second-to-last day Beatriz Lozoya, a local activist and social psychologist, invited me to a human rights meeting. Beatriz and I had met on several occasions in Mexico City at events and documentary film presentations related to feminicide and violence against women. She had chin-length dark hair and bangs that she swept to the right when they fell into her eyes. She had been involved in working with youth in the city for years, and had supported graffiti, art, and literature projects to help kids deal with the psychological effects of the violence in the city. She had recently accompanied the mothers of missing and murdered girls and women of Juárez as they walked to the state capital to protest continued government inaction in resolving two decades of similar cases.
On our way to the meeting, Beatriz explained that there were 316 unresolved cases in 2012 and a total of 16 more as of February 16, 2013. The group of mothers was offered police protection on their march. However, since many of the mothers had experienced harassment by police, they rejected the offer. The state government then asked the women to sign a document saying, “We are responsible if anything happens to us, and we will not hold the state responsible for our welfare.”
The twenty or so members of the human rights group ranged in age from 18-60. Inside a big, cold one-story concrete building, folding chairs were set up in a circle, and a table was piled with boxes of cookies, a coffeemaker and milk. To get to know the participants, I started with what seemed like a simple question, “Where do you work?” directed at a young man, perhaps twenty years old. But the response was anything but simple. He replied, “I’m a nini.” Ni trabaja ni estudia–the generation of young Mexicans facing unemployment and scarce access to education. In Juárez, I realized that things that I take for granted, like asking people about their work and their families, had to be reevaluated. A friend of mine, a teacher, told me that even simple classroom questions like “What did you do with your parents last weekend?” had to be rethought. All the violence had produced a population of orphans, of fractured families, and had altered the structure of society. The violence was like a wound that continued to fester–often, after a child was murdered, the parents would experience extreme stress, become ill, even commit suicide. Paula Flores’ daughter María Sagrario was murdered in 1998: her husband later killed his lover and then committed suicide, one of her daughters and three grandchildren moved to Mexico City to escape the violence, and Paula herself faced continued threats of violence that forced her to leave the city at various points, though she always returned.
The mothers met with the governor. As Beatriz explained, “Most of the disappearances occur in the city center. If there was the political will to make changes, it seems like it wouldn’t be that complicated to make the city center safer.” I asked Beatriz what she thought about the government campaign against disappearance, the posters stuck unevenly in groups of two or three on new stands and street corners all around the city. “What do you think that has done?” Beatriz asked. “What has it done?”
Perhaps 25 local NGO workers and youth attended the meeting. An older woman with pure white hair brought us together and asked us to define human rights. There was tension between the younger generation, who defined human rights in terms of something an individual controls, and the older generation that argued that the state should protect human rights, that the individual alone could not–even with all the knowledge in the world–do that alone. Part of the problem, according to some of the older NGO workers, was that the government has spent years using the media to tell citizens that it was their job to protect and demand their human rights: for instance, the government campaigns to help protect women from violence by informing them not to walk at night alone.
The younger participants demonstrated a strange combination of optimism about individual power to define human rights mixed with a dark, almost fatalistic outlook about their own lives. It was clear that they deeply wished it to be true, wished that they could individually define their own human rights. A twenty-something, peering out of a dark hoodie, eyes emotionless, told a story of being pulled over by the police, of being accused of being drunk, of being threatened with a night in jail unless he turned over a certain amount of money. As he spoke, I heard a rustling, and saw several other young men pull pieces of wrinkled paper out of their pants pockets. One of them began to read from his piece of paper, another story involving the police. I was already half an hour late to meet Julián, so I slipped out of the meeting to the low hum of sad voices and the sound of hands smoothing over crumpled paper. I understood why the younger members of the group wanted to define human rights in personal terms–it seemingly gave them some small measure of control in a city that had taken so much from them.
All over the city I heard, “What do you think? The city is peaceful now. It’s not like they say in the news.” I heard this from the concierge at my hotel, from the waiters at the Kentucky Club, from a family waiting in line to eat at El Tragadero. “Look, you’re here. You can see that things have changed for the better.” I didn’t know how to respond because I was overwhelmed by the scars, by all that had not healed, by all that haunted the city. It was true that there were more people out on the streets at night, that the city felt more relaxed than it did in 2010, and yet the stories I heard were hard to ignore.
Earlier in the week, I had gone out for ice cream with Susana Báez, a literature professor at the local university. Her daughter and two friends were with us. Afterwards, we drove to Susana’s house to drop off the girls. Susana pointed at the abandoned houses all down her block; she talked about the gates that were installed at the entrance of the neighborhood; she pointed out a house where a narcofosa containing 14 bodies was discovered; she told a story about a young boy, her neighbor, who was murdered by a gang. We left the girls at her house, but as Susana walked out the door, she yelled inside, and repeated several times, “You are not allowed to go outside under any circumstances. Are you listening to me? Do not go outside.”
When I was with Itzel, she told me that she would only take her daughters to the park if her husband could go with her. He daughters asked daily, “Can we go to the park?” and they were told, “No, your father is at work.” Itzel had hoped her daughters didn’t understand why they couldn’t go, but one day after being told no, the oldest daughter replied, “because of the violence, because of the violence.” The unspoken part of daily life was spoken.
On my last day in the city, I walked down Avenida Juárez past La Cucaracha and the Kentucky Club as people yelled at me. A homeless man in a plaid shirt moved towards me and shouted, “Hey, girl!” A guard at a store advertising “VIAGRA 100mg c/1tab. 2X $288.50” stared me in the eye as I walked by. I looked out at the city and its scars and tried to read their stories, the stories of a place I might never know. I thought of my conversations with Julián and Jaime, of my efforts to understand their city, of the way their photos had worked themselves into my life and pulled me to Juárez.
“As a photographer, what is your responsibility to society?” I wrote to Jaime.
Jaime wrote back: “Neither to be a revolutionary nor to change the world as some of the monks at Magnum or Reuters or AFT pretend. Rather my responsibility is to put my social subject, a subject lounging in a lethargic condition or in one of pleasure, in front of a mirror. My function (if there is one) is to dirty the image, to work the photo so that you can see what is beyond it, beyond the beautiful garden where smoked sausages are cooked, beyond the HD TV screen that gets 600 channels. If I can make a person think of one of my images, I think that is enough. It doesn’t matter if they stop thinking of the image half an hour later. I know that the image will return to them later.”
On the plane back to Mexico City, I sat in my reclaimed shirt, the one I had worn every day as if to make a statement about who it belonged to. Jaime and Julián’s images didn’t just return to me–they haunted me. The more I dug to find out what was beneath, behind, beyond them, the more questions I encountered. I wondered: Does it make any sense to pray for someone you don’t know? Was it true, as the street photographer Julián said of dancers from La Mariscal, that time takes its revenge?
I imagined that the citizens of Juárez had experienced something like what I felt on the bus that day; that they knew what it was like to be surrounded by people, to witness some act of violence, and to wonder how nobody had seen anything. Through images and words, they struggled to make the unsaid and the unseen come to life.