In my hometown, Cuernavaca, Mexico, a golden spiral fountain spans across a median strip. The fountain hosts five statues of naked women posing joyfully and somewhat seductively: one reaches toward the sky, another stretches her arms sideways. La eterna primavera y sus cinco musas (Eternal Spring and its Five Muses) was unpacked and inaugurated in March 2012. Five stock-still female forms were taken out from plastic bags and revealed to the public. Feminicides were already alarmingly high in Mexico before the statues were put up. The quintet is cornered by two 7-Eleven-like stores and, although this kind of commerce is popping up all over town, their placement here makes the sculptures, representing bodies of women, feel as accessible, consumable, and disposable as any product in the stores.
Since the early 1990s, women in Mexico have endured a process of invisibility and negation. Feminicides, a calamity once perceived as native to Ciudad Juárez, have spread throughout the country, with new hotspots appearing at a staggering speed and ease – for instance, last year, Cuernavaca had the 14th most recorded rate of feminicides in Mexico. In Juárez, feminicides have been associated with organized crime but, as the National Citizen’s Observatory for Feminicide notes, across Mexico, these murders result from historic inequality and violence that translate to power relations and misogyny. Feminicide is the extreme of these conditions, yet the range of gender violence is a wide one, whose effects diminish, deface, and erase women. Even in death, the victims undergo further invisibilization: the women’s bodies are tortured, mutilated—to the point where they are no longer recognizable—and often disappeared.
In 2009, following recommendations from the Interamerican Court for Human Rights, gender equality advocates and women rights organizations pushed for the legal definition of feminicide. Today, both federal and state governments have added the category to their criminal codes: “homicides motivated by gender reasons,” where “gender reasons” address a context of structural female subordination. Seven conditions set out in Mexico’s legal codes discern whether a crime classifies as a feminicide, including whether the victim’s body shows any signs of sexual violence or was abandoned or exhibited in a public space.
Despite legal recognition, the distinction between feminicide and homicide remains statistically murky, indicating ill application of the law by the judiciary: like their bodies, reports and evidence are left at the fringes; few cases are registered as feminicides. Responding to growing numbers, Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero recently suggested replacing the legal category of feminicide with aggravated murder to simplify legal proceedings. Although he later backtracked, his initial response exemplifies a superficial understanding of the crisis that further obscures it: insufficient categories, no investigations nor accountability. Erasure.
Following the covid-19 pandemic and the stay-at-home recommendations, President of the Republic Andrés Manuel López Obrador has questioned whether gender violence is on the rise in the domestic setting. In May, he claimed that 90% of the calls registered by the emergency domestic violence hotline were false, even though the official numbers he referred to had already been deemed legitimate. From January to April, of the total legitimated calls, 7.38% reported gender violence, and in April an average of 11 women were killed daily. The president’s dismissal not only suggests a disconnect between the country’s leader and the competent federal institutions, but also his inability to recognize a preexisting crisis exacerbated by the current pandemic.
An effort to visibilize the victim’s existence and absence is direly needed. Often, family members of the victim acquire the tools and legal expertise to follow through with their case. As they mourn, they confront and highlight the negligent system. Hoping to fill in information gaps, geophysicist María Salguero Bañuelos has been crowdsourcing and scouring the news to map feminicides since 2015. When available and applicable, her maps include details such as weapon(s) used, number of children orphaned, and relationship to the perpetrator.
In August, 2019, after three cases of rape by police officers were reported in under a month, thousands of women took to the streets of Mexico City to denounce gender violence and impunity. During the protests, demonstrators spray-painted several monuments—including La victoria alada, a revered celebration of the Mexican Independence. The marks on the monuments, in turn, produced a baffling public outcry. Professional heritage conservators expressed surprise at the attention the monuments received. The media’s unrelenting condemnation of the protest confirmed a predilection for marble and granite over women’s lives. The event is an example of the tensions between the making of cultural counter-memory and hegemonic cultural memory—much like the ubiquitous pink crosses and gone-missing posters that also refute the official narrative of “isolated cases of women who deserved it.”
What would it take to change the narrative completely? Considering society’s generalized obliviousness to and relegation of the crisis, how could we center around the reality women live in? And if the perpetrators are constantly exculpated, what would a representation of feminicides even look like? Perhaps one cannot monumentalize an ongoing problem, for that would suggest rigidity and resolution while the present is still in the making.
The demonstrators’ inscriptions on the monuments effectively made the problem visible. These weren’t scribbles but rather accusations: “México feminicida”, “Nunca más tendrán la comodidad de nuestro silencio.” The inscriptions also found a weak spot in the collective consciousness. The degree of public outrage triggered by the markings was revealing: it’s hardly the first time monuments have been graffitied. Was the message too loud and clear? After all, public space in Mexico is largely male-dominated where the impenitent female presence is only, and barely, welcomed as victims’ abandoned bodies.
While protestors sought to gain traction and encourage action, their initial goal was to foreground the crisis. Other effective objects, spaces, and marks signifying feminicides have had a performative, live moment. Krzysztof Wodiczko, for instance, offered victims of gender violence a moment to publicly share their stories. Their voices and faces were projected onto the façade of Tijuana’s Cultural Center, a city landmark. The static object is activated by the subjects who bridge individual memory and collective history as well as distinct atypical moments of and everyday consistent violence. Collective disruptions actualize existing monuments.
Considering that most female figures in urban infrastructure are anonymous icons or statues standing-in for concepts (think “independence”), giving them a victims’ name, rendering them with an identity, could be a modest contribution. For more potent reactions, target gathering points, esteemed monuments, and government sites.
Prefacing the fountain of muses in my hometown, there’s a commemorative plaque. Changing to the beat of each administration, it credits the city’s director of parks and gardens. Currently, it is blank. According to the United Nations, 3,825 women were killed last year in Mexico, an average of 10 women per day. To honor the victims of 2019 alone, the five muses should be renamed on the plaque every twelve hours. Or better yet, go beyond 2019 and permanently rename all the monumental female figures in Mexico.
On September 1st, 2020, a group of family members of gender violence victims peacefully took over the building of the National Commission for Human Rights, demanding that the institution pursues their cases. A few days later, the group—which had morphed and grown to include victims of gender violence and feminist organizations—produced images that featured the appropriation of the building and patriotic symbols. One such photo shows an activist writing “Justice” on a wall with the Mexican flag as her paint brush. The appropriation of the space culminated with its renaming as a victims’ shelter Casa de Refugio Ni una menos.
Text and photos by Valentina Sarmiento Cruz
Valentina Sarmiento Cruz is an independent writer and researcher. Currently she is co-editing a book for Concordia University Press on designer Clara Porset’s writing. Recently she worked as the research associate for the exhibition In a Cloud, In a Wall, In a Chair: Six Modernists in Mexico at Midcentury at the Art Institute of Chicago. Previously she worked at the University of Chicago, The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, Artforum, and Creative Time. She holds an M.A. in Liberal Studies from The New School for Social Research and a B.A. in Sociology from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Valentina wrote that she responded to the “Think Nonument! Together” Open Call because she wanted to offer an account on some forms of gender violence in Mexico, while thinking of “nonument” as the full potential and activation of a monument’s “life.”