Editor’s Note: As one of our last stories, Frontera NorteSur is proud to publish this photo essay on a quiet cultural revolution that is visually transforming Ciudad Juarez while ensuring that memories and demands of justice for murdered and disappeared women are not swept under the rug.
Near the intersection of Vicente Guerrero and Lopez Mateos in Ciudad Juarez, local artist Maclovio describes a hypnotizing mural that honors three female victims of disappearance and homicide-Esmeralda Castillo Rincon, Rosa Virginia Hernandez Cano and Adriana Sarmiento. Conjuring up a sweeping and turbulent landscape, Maclovio and his helpers place the short lives of three girls and women in a world of militarism and nuclear bombs, migration and femicide, or feminicide- the systemic killing of women.
According to the 34-year-old muralist, the mural’s themes connect wars at home and abroad. Shown are important local landmarks including the Rio Bravo, or Rio Grande, the muddy and often water-starved river which both divides and unites Ciudad Juarez from its neighbor of El Paso, Texas; the U.S. army base of Fort Bliss; and “the country of femicides”, symbolized by a red cross in the center of the Mexican flag instead of the eagle, cactus and snake.
Splashed in purple and showered with raining crosses, the Navajo Arroyo in the Juarez Valley is shown at the bottom. Scores of murdered women have been recovered from the rural zone outside the city once famous for growing cotton since the 1990s. As Frontera NorteSur was going to press, officials had completed yet another search of the Navajo Arroyo, reportedly finding more bones, clothing fragments and women’s shoes.
“War demands bodies, the sacrifice of people,” Maclovio says.
The face of Esmeralda Castillo Rincon shines from the Vicente Guerrero mural, which is located a couple of blocks from the Rio Grande Mall near Juarez’s Pronaf zone. “She has brilliant eyes, but also a sad, worrisome look,” Maclovio says. Esmeralda was only 14 years old when she disappeared in downtown Ciudad Juarez.
A closer look at the Vicente Guerrero mural reveals a stairway leading from the scenery to a billboard situated above the apartment building where the big work of art stands. The billboard pitches a local subdivision where a beaming couple says they like living, and happy residents can enclose their lives from the outside world. “I liked this contrast,” Maclovio quips about the semiotic clash between the billboard and the mural. Like other murals, the Vicente Guerrero project, completed in the summer of 2015, was a collective effort.
Maclovio says victims’ relatives contributed to the design and painting, as did Perla Reyes, mother of Jocelyn Calderon (disappeared 2012) and Paula Flores, mother of Sagrario Gonzalez (disappeared and murdered 1998). Later in the day, Maclovio pulls out his phone and shows a photo of a rainbow that appeared after the mural group was painting one day and a storm burst from the heavens. “It was very symbolic, he says with a smile flashing across his face.
Located In a residential neighborhood off Paseo del Triunfo de la Republica, this wall mural on Calle Antonio Canalett honors Cinthia Jocabeth Castaneda. Only four days after celebrating her 13th birthday, Cinthia disappeared one October morning in 2008 when she went shopping for shoes and school supplies in downtown Juarez. In a 2014 interview with Frontera NorteSur, Karla Castaneda, Cinthia’s mother, described her daughter as a first-year middle school student who loved cooking, was close to a brother and dreamed of becoming a nurse when she grew up.
Cinthia Jocabeth Castaneda, who remains missing to this day, was among the first of many young girls and women from working-class backgrounds who vanished in the same manner in downtown Juarez from 2008 to 2012. Karla Castaneda, who clashed with authorities over her daughter’s disappearance, fled to the United States. Like other Juarez mothers, she says she was threatened because of her activism and relentless search for a daughter.
Another mural is painted on a house on Calle Antonio Canaleltt just blocks away from the work dedicated to Cinthia. This image shows Esmeralda Castillo, Juarez Valley murder victim Brenda Berenice Castillo, her son Kevin and her mother Bertha. Like many other feminicide victims in Juarez, Brenda left behind a young child. Since the early 1990s, the border feminicide has created generations of orphans. How does one explain to a child how his or her mother died?
The mural contains words by Armine Arjona, a longtime women’s activist, acupuncturist and noted writer in the Paso del Norte borderland. Translated into English it reads:
“I can’t find myself. I am disappeared.”
Arjona was a close friend of fellow poet Susana Chavez, who was murdered at age 36 by three young men with purported gang ties in January 2011. In a 2014 interview with Frontera NortesSur, Arjona reminisced about her dear friend, calling Chavez “a unique and clear voice, a great poet.”
Arjona recalled meeting Chavez at a library reading and then introducing her new friend to wider literary circles. “We got along very well right off the bat. I liked her very much, with her fresh words, her poetry, her vitality, her eyes,” Arjona said. “She was a woman who was avid about knowing things. Susana was a person who loved to meet people, and get the most out of knowing them…
The borderland poet expressed frustration at the relatively quick release of one of Chavez’s accused killers. “It is a product of all this omission and lack of justice in this city,” Arjona contended. “If the strong arm of the had been truly exercised against the killers of women in the 1990s, we wouldn’t regard women as if they were nobodies, considering them cannon fodder and meat for raping that can be thrown away in the desert like nothing…”
Although Susana Chavez has been dead for more than four years, her poems live on in cyberspace- potentially for eternity. See the link at the end of this article
Back at the Vicente Guerrero mural, Maclovio stands at the image he and others produced. Part self-described vandal and part revolutionary architect, Maclovio might be described as a 21st century Paso del Norte Border Renaissance Man. An artist, muralist, poet, rapper, drummer and all around cultural hell raiser, the borderlander says he got a start as a young graffiti man secretly leaving his marks in the dark of the night. Maclovio once lived in East Los Angeles, where he thrived in the Graffiti Capital of the World.
“Oh, we wanted so much to go to L.A.,” he says, recalling the mood of many young people from Juarez yearning to taste and devour Graffiti Mecca. A trip to Guatemala later helped in Maclovio’s growing politicization, he says.
Lluvia is Maclovio’s partner. Rejecting the label of an artist, Lluvia describes her role in the murals as an essential one of logistics, gathering up supplies and doing other tasks. The paint and other materials are obtained through personal donations from both sides of the border and occasional fundraising sales of food. Property owners are asked permission to host a mural.
Lluvia regards the February 2001 murder of 17-year-old mother and maquiladora (border factory) worker Lilia Alejandra Garcia Andrade as a turning point in her life. It so happened that on her walk to middle school every day Lluvia crossed the very same empty lot where Lilia Alejandra’s body was found dumped. Lluvia did not see Lilia Alejandra’s body but news of the murder and discovery of a homicide victim in a very familiar place, like a stab in the heart of the city, jolted a young Juarense’s sensibilities.
“I was very nervous. I was 15 years old. I began to think a lot about the death of these women, their last months, how they died,” Lluvia says. About three years later Lluvia met Norma Andrade, Lilia Alejandra’s mom, and other members of Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (Return Our Daughters Home).
Not looking back, she became active in the fight against femicide and for the lives of women. “For me, it’s turned into my life. It’s my passion,” LLuvia says.
Lluvia and Maclovio say the reactions vary among people who run across their all-volunteer group painting the murals in honor of women.
“When I began, we started noting the reactions of the people,” Lluvia says. “Some people didn’t say anything. Some paused and really turned around. Some ask, ‘How much do they pay you? Does the government pay you?’ One asked, ‘Why do you do this is you don’t get paid?’” She says about others, “I think they don’t want to open their eyes and know that this is happening in our city.” Maclovio adds that surprised passerby nod in agreement when the purpose of the murals is patiently explained to them.
The mural movement dedicated to the women has taken on a life of its own. Maclovio and Lluvia say a second group has branched off from the original one and is erecting art work throughout the city. LLuvia estimates that 30 murals and stencil projects now grace her city. Jose Luis Castillo, father of Esmeralda Castillo, says the goal is to paint nearly 200 murals all over Juarez.
Relatives are also erecting, two-sided encased memorials to their loved ones . At the busy corner of Velarde and Vicente Guerrero, near the downtown cathedral, the face of Esmeralda Castillo again stares out into the big border city. The memorial asks, “Do you want to know what happened here? Esmeralda Castillo disappeared from this spot at 1 pm on May 19, 2009.”
The memorial says Esmeralda was a 14-year-old student at Technical Middle School 37, “an excellent student rewarded for her good grades from primary school until the moment of her disappearance.” Esmeralda, the memorial adds, dreamed of celebrating her quinceanera, or 15th birthday, and going on in life to become a veterinarian.
On a recent day, many people were observed closely reading the memorial and, in some cases, walking away visibly shaken. The daughter of Martha Alicia Rincon and Jose Luis Castillo, Esmeralda was identified earlier this year by Chihuahua state authorities as one of the victims recovered from the Juarez Valley between 2011 and early 2013. Five men were recently convicted of killing 11 of the girls and women whose remains were recovered, but Esmeralda wasn’t among the victims for whom the men were tried. Barring additional forensic evidence, Esmeralda’s parents aren’t convinced the remains claimed to be of their daughter are really hers.
According to the memorial, Esmeralda liked soccer, chess and chocolate ice cream.
Only yards from Esmeralda Castillo’s memorial, at the intersection of Noche Triste (Sad Night) and Vicente Guerrero, stands another one for Silvia Elena Rivera Morales. Silvia is said to have disappeared from here, very close to where she was employed at a Tres Hermanos shoe store, in July 1995. The 16-year-old high school student’s raped and mutilated body was discovered on the outskirts of Juarez in September of the same year.
El Paso journalist Diana Washington Valdez spoke with Silvia’s mother, Ramona Morales, who described her daughter as a girl who was close to family. Silvia liked to dance at a hall inside the Zaragoza dairy, and loved the popular singer Selena. The Tejano sensation was murdered only months before the same fate befell one of her most devoted Juarez fans.
“Silvia cried inconsolably when she heard the shocking news,” Washington Valdez wrote in her 2006 book Harvest of Women.
20 years after Silvia Elena’s murder, no one has been punished for the crime. In a recent story, El Diario de Juarez noted that Ramona Morales has dutifully visited the state prosecutor’s office all these years looking for answers.
Justice cries out from a downtown ultilty post near the memorials for Maria Sagrario Gonzalez Flores. Abducted and murdered in 1998, Sagrario would have turned 34 on July 31, 2015. Paula Flores, Sagrario’s mom, told Frontera NorteSur that she celebrated her daughter’s birthday this year by going to the state prosecutor’s office, where she left flowers, repainted crosses and left posters like this one.
Flores said she was surprised to see that no pesquisas, or missing persons fliers, were displayed outside the office in usual fashion. “The government does a cleaning and takes everything away,” Flores said, adding that she was informed the official in charge of Sagrario’s case was on summer vacation.
One man was convicted of Sagrario’s killing, but other suspects remain on the loose, according to Flores. The long-time activist Juarez mother said she has pressured authorities since 2007 to return the convicted man to prison in Juarez from the lock-up Puente Grande, Jalisco (the prison where Chapo Guzman staged his first escape in 2001), but without positive response or even a confirmation that the man is in Puente Grande or in another penitentiary. The lack of information makes the family feel vulnerable, she said.
Flores repeated the same message for the public that she’s delivered for more than 17 years: “We demand justice.”
A pesquisa clutches a utility post near the memorials for Esmeralda Castillo Rincon and Silvia Elena Rivera Morales. In the summer of 2015, missing persons posters for both women and men are still common sights in downtown Juarez. This poster alerts the public to the disappearance of Brenda Idalia Rodriguez Torres in June 2015.
Issued by the Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office, the disappearance is categorized as a high-risk one under the Alba Protocol. According to the poster, Rodriguez vanished after leaving her job at the Casino Azteca, a bar on Vicente Guerrero not too far from the Vicente Guerrero/Lopez Mateo mural. A sign displayed on the exterior of the Casino Azteca advertises for young women workers.
Students, retail workers, domestic helpers, housewives, sex workers, and maquiladora (border factory) workers have all been among the girls and women murdered or disappeared in Ciudad Juarez since 1993.
Cited in the journal Aztlan, Juarez academic Dr. Julia Monarrez Fragoso, who’s done exhaustive research on the crimes and victims, documented the murders of 1,436 women in Juarez from 1993 to early December 2012. The toll does not include scores-perhaps hundreds-of women and girls disappeared to this day.
Has feminicide, especially class feminicide, been institutionalized?
The Juarez victims were daughters, sisters, granddaughters, nieces, and mothers. Among them were hands that produced countless products consumed in the United States, unsung poets, saints and sinners, aspiring musicians, Sunday School teachers, and the future professionals of a generation that might have made a difference in the world.
Behind the downtown memorial for Esmeralda Castillo the Lear Corporation advertises for workers needed for the company’s Juarez operations. At a time of labor shortages in the local maquiladoras, the street ad promises a daily wage of barely seven bucks plus bonuses. Back in October 2001, Lear employee Claudia Ivette Gonzalez disappeared after she was refused entry to the plant on account of showing up a couple of minutes late.
The 20-year-old’s body was found the following month with seven other murdered girls and women at a vestigial cotton patch in the industrial center of Juarez that became known as the Campo Algodonero. The site was situated across from the headquarters of the maquiladora trade industry association and near the home of former Juarez Mayor Jaime Bermudez. Some analysts consider the so-called cotton field murders a macabre message.
Together with the mothers of two other Campo Algodonero victims, Claudia Ivette’s mom pursued justice all the way to the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights, prompting a historic 2009 judgment holding the Mexican state responsible for permitting a climate of violence to prevail against women in Ciudad Juarez and the state of Chihuahua. While the government later complied with sections of the court’s sentence, the key provisions of punishing the Cotton Field killers and holding officials responsible for corrupted “investigations” have yet to be met.
In compliance with the Inter-American Court sentence, the Mexican government built an official monument to the victims at El Campo Algodonero, not far from the new U.S. Consulate.
The new murals and memorials for women in Juarez represent a significant evolution in the justice movement for the women, as well as the use of public space and art to express messages and bear public witness. Since the 1990s, families and their supporters have staged marches, conducted hunger strikes and demonstrated outside government offices. They’ve taken their movement to Mexico City, the United States, Europe, Central America, the world over…
Earlier this year, Perla Reyes even organized a public quinceanera complete with a dress and cake for her missing daughter Jocelyn in Juarez’s old downtown plaza.
The murals and memorials are the latest markers in struggles to preserve family and collective memory. The works of community art and protest follow in the footsteps of the black/pink crosses painted by family members and their allies in the streets of Juarez, messages and poems spray painted on walls, the Cross of Nails sculpture erected at the foot of the Santa Fe Bridge leading into El Paso, and the makeshift crosses that were once set up at the Campo Algodonero, Lomas de Poleo and just off the Pan American Highway at the southern entrance to Juarez, where an official sign welcomes travelers to “The Best Border” anywhere.
New Mexico State’s Dr. Cynthia Bejarano, co-founder of Amigos de las Mujeres, wrote in the spring 2013 issue of Aztlan:
“There is a continuing need to remember in order to never forget, since feminicides are now archived from public memory even as new carnage unfolds…witness-survivors, and by extension witness-observers, have a responsibility to always remember in order to maintain their struggle for resolution, justice and secure communities.”
The protests come and go, and if covered by media at all last for a flash pan of time, but the murals and memorials persist as enduring images, messages and calls for justice etching into the public consciousness that honor Esmeralda, Adriana, Virginia, Cinthia, Brenda, Silvia and countless others whose lives meant the world to their families and friends, and whose loss wrought incalculable harm to Juarez, the greater borderlands and, indeed, the entire planet.
For the poetry of Susana Chavez:
Photos by Marisela Ortega
Text by Kent Paterson
Web assistance by Eva Gabriella Flynn