by Mandy Cano Villalobos
The first time we all gathered, I felt so out of place. Seven months pregnant with my first child and utterly unsure what sort of mother I would be—or how I would fare through the birthing process—I was young and inexperienced relative to the veterans of motherhood sitting around the room with me. And yet the differences between us seemed not to matter to these women. During our two-hour “niñofree” sewing sessions, hands deftly wove needles through cloth, and the chatter began.
The collaborative sewing circle was part of my project Voces (“Voices”), a performative art installation focused on the femicides of Juárez, Mexico. Funded by a grant from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship, our circle included Mexican women from Pailalen, a local family-empowerment program, and brought together the domestic ritual of embroidery with the Day-of-the-Dead tradition of commemorating murder victims.
In the past two decades, over two thousand women in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, mostly low-income and between the ages of fourteen and thirty, have been raped, tortured, and murdered—their bodies discarded in the desert or left by the highway. As an act of protest and mourning, I sit silently in a corner of the art gallery and embroider names of individual victims into white blouses. The pink thread with which I sew references the pink crosses that have been erected throughout Juárez by those who mourn the dead. Once a blouse is finished, I hang it from above. Thus each shirt confronts the viewer at eye-level. As the murders continue, and the exhibition progresses, blouses crowd the gallery until viewers can hardly maneuver the space. Traditional Mexican shrines line the gallery walls, honoring particular women whose relatives have gone on to found anti-femicide organizations.
I hadn’t known what to expect before I began. Prior to the sewing sessions, I had met with a few of the participants to give them some background on the project, knowing that this isn’t exactly the sort of subject matter people enjoy reflecting on—much less these women who already had too much laundry to do, too many baths to give, too many mouths to feed. Not surprisingly, I found them to be much more eager to offer detailed information about childbirth than to discuss the deaths of thousands of women.
It has now been three years since I began sewing. Looking through the lists of victims, my work seems surreal. I spent part of my early childhood in the border town of El Paso, Texas, so to me, Juárez is a whir of lights and scenes—women selling paper roses, rollercoaster taxi rides, mustached men with large belt buckles, and an endless supply of chicle. The horrors I hear on the radio or read in the news clash with my memory’s version of the town.
Multiple economic and social forces contribute to the femicides. One such force has to do with tensions between border factories, which are chiefly owned by United States companies, and their Mexican employees. Though Juárez relies on these factories for economic stability, their presence has had a decidedly negative effect on the city’s social stability. For example, low wages and immigration tendencies have led to a predominantly female workforce. And, with the rise of job seekers, the value of each worker degrades from person to expendable capital. What is more, in the midst of economic decline, increasing numbers of women are leaving the home in order to support their families, which, in true snowball-effect fashion, has led to a massive shift in Mexico’s traditional social structure and is linked with an escalation of domestic and gender-specific violence. In conjunction with Juárez’s role as a human and narco-trafficking hub, as well as the city’s history of corrupt local officials, these factors set the backdrop for the femicides.
As a steward of God’s justice and of creative practice, I offer Voces in response to the murders. The work stems from my understanding of a faithful artistic creation that accounts for the ugliness of human depravity and Christ’s crucifixion, as well as the integration of the spiritual and physical in the process of artmaking. What this means in terms of methodology is that I have intentionally sought a relational approach to studio work. Building on a Reformed understanding of creation, I believe the process of creation is instilled with spiritual implications; therefore, the act of art-making may be understood as a Christ-centered “redemption-in-action.” Inviting others to sew with me opens the possibility for participants to enter into a spiritual community in which sewing becomes an act of service and a ritual of commemoration. Each stitch, then, marks Christ’s call to love one’s neighbor.
Miroslav Volf’s description of a social covenant continually comes to my mind. In this covenant we are all bound together through the redemption of Christ. Volf writes, “The new covenant is God’s embrace of the humanity that keeps breaking the covenant; the social side of that new covenant is our way of embracing one another under the conditions of enmity.”1
Through Voces I strive both to make known the “conditions of enmity” and, at the same time, to maintain hope in Christ’s redemption. The project reminds viewers that every woman is a fellow human being who has suffered within a system that we all live in and have created. And while viewers are invited to empathize with victims and their families, it is always within the framework of our all-encompassing fallen nature. Only in recognizing the inseparability of enmity and embrace can we enter into a transformative social covenant in our sin-drenched world.
My collaboration with the Pailalen women further upholds the covenant. Of course, my co-laborers’ ethnic background in no way renders them representatives of the Juárez victims. They are, however, national kinswomen with cultural insights and personal concerns for their native country. Their participation in Voces carries special weight here in the United States, as intermediary mourners and protesters who bridge the cultural and geographical distance of Mexico.
What is more, if we understand identity in the context of relationships, then we must recognize our responsibility to listen to the perspectives of others and understand our roles in relationship with others. In turn, awareness of our differences opens a cultural dialogue that is very important. Barbara Carvill and David Smith write of an “ethos of questioning” that provides a foundation for listening to and knowing others in a way that accounts for their worth as those made in the image of God.2 As such, we honor the culture and perspective of the others as both different from and equally valuable to our own.
Looking back on my time with the women from Pailalen, I wonder how well I practiced that ethos of questioning. As I said, I did not know what to expect—how these women would respond to the project, how they would respond to me. But, as I must continually relearn through all of my collaborations, if others are responding to me, I must be talking too much. So I kept quiet. I listened to each woman speak of her family, the grandparents that remained in Mexico, the weight of her first child at birth; of food, how she missed realcarne (not that stuff you get in the Mexican restaurants around here); of the struggle to find fulfillment in caring for her children while yearning for the challenge of a career; and, of course, of Mexico—the dancing, the close-knit community, the way women dress.
Amidst the jokes and memories, I was again struck by the incongruence of the femicides within such a celebratory culture. But what seemed to me like a mystery was quite obvious to these women. “Death,” as Blanca put it, “is a part of life for us.” We do not hide it from our children, they went on to tell me. It is not something to fear, or something that is evil. It is part of us, part of our culture.
And, in a way, death is something to celebrate.
Perhaps I already knew this, the fine line that passes between mourning and celebration. Not at all diminishing the atrocious nature of the femicides, Voces commemorates the victims in a way that honors the beauty of their lives. The project is not merely a political statement, nor can it be labeled “activist art.” Rather, Voces recognizes the sinful depravity that has led to the femicides and, in the midst of this, celebrates, mourns, and upholds each victim as a cherished bearer of God’s image. Through a social covenant that includes all people, the project also seeks renewal through relationship. Voces—”voices”—are the dirges of the silenced women of Juárez. They are the outcry for God’s justice against these murders, for remembrance of God’s daughters, and for love of others. They are also the voices of the viewers and participants who enter into a dialogue that crosses gaps in culture, gender, and location in order to better understand their roles in the face of the ongoing deaths. This dialogue and any personal transformations it prompts in its participants are founded on a loving willingness to listen to, and embrace, one another.
1. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 156.
2. Barbara Carvill and David I. Smith, The Gift of the Stranger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 71.