On death and its representation in Mexico

There is a frequent trope in reporting about Mexico that suggests that Mexicans have a special relationship with death. The Mexican poet and essayist, Octavio Paz wrote an influential essay in his Laberinto de la soledad/Labyrinth of Solitude (1950) exploring the particularities of the Mexican attitude to death through the lens of the annual day of the dead celebrations. His romantic view of Mexican attitudes to death, that formed part of a collection, in turn, became a key text in Mexican self-representation and was as sweeping as it was exclusionary. It feeds into and draws on particular cultural practices that engage with death in ways that can seem celebratory and look like they trivialise death because of the colourful and ironic ways that gruesome symbols such as skulls and skeletons are converted into cartoons, children’s biscuits and other party treats.

Last February, I went to the Wellcome Trust’s exhibit Death: A Self-Portrait. A selection of images from the exhibit can be found here. Alongside art from Asian, African and European artists, Mexico was well represented by José Guadalupe PosadaDana Salvo, Marcos Raya, Graciela Iturbide, and Miguel Linares. This was a collection assembled by Richard Harris, a dealer based in Chicago and, as with any exhibition, it is not exhausting. The space could have been filled many times over with art from all over the world.

Another Mexican artist whose work has focused on death is Teresa Margolles. She uses autopsies and its by-products, extreme images of dramatic deaths, and the traces of violent deaths in her work that is often symbolic and metaphorical in its final artistic representation. Unsurprisingly, her work has attracted academic interest. Julia Banwell is currently completing a monograph on her work and at this year’s LASA in Washington, Anna Kingsley spoke about her research into Margolles’ work. Does this attention and list of artists mean that there is something specifically Mexican about these artists obsession with death? Or, are they part of a larger pattern as exhibits like the Wellcome Trust suggest? Art often taps into the universal, and death is certainly that, however, it also comes from specific historical and cultural contexts.

The Wellcome Trust exhibition displayed (literally and figuratively) that there is nothing specifically Mexican about an obsession with death. In the popular imaginary about Mexico, the idea that Mexicans are uniquely obsessed with death is held to be true. Unfortunately, when there has been an extremely violent and brutal escalation of deaths in Northern Mexico in recent years, it is hard to counter this view. 70,000 have been murdered in the last six years in battles between Narcos and the army as well as in tit for tat violence amongst Narcos. It is appalling in scale, brutality and consequences on those who witness and survive it.

This morning I came across the story of a blogger ‘Lucy’, who has been reporting on the violence in her Blog del Narco and has had to flee Northern Mexico. Her blogging partner went missing some weeks ago and she has had to go underground since. In a recent blog she wrote: “yo no soy un personaje, yo soy real de carne y hueso. Yo siento, yo sufro, yo lloro, yo estoy sola, yo estoy abandonada. No soy ´La Reyna del Sur´ [sic], soy ´Lucy´ la de Blog del Narco*. Soy mujer, soy mexicana” [I’m not a character, I’m real, made of flesh and bone. I feel, I suffer, I cry, I’m alone, I’m abandoned. I’m not ‘The Queen of the South’, I’m ‘Lucy’ from the Blog del Narco. I’m a woman. I’m Mexican].  It would take many words to unpick the weight and resonance of all that this statement says. It is worth noting that these words deal with the specifics of who she is ‘Lucy’, albeit an online nickname, a mask she is hiding behind, but mostly it deals in generalities where being Mexican comes last. It is horribly poignant and tragic. With online matters it is always hard to pick the truths out from the multiple fictions and fronts. My personal response to this is sadness. Not just at what ‘Lucy’ is (may or may not be) suffering, but because she is also representative of the multiple awful deaths that have happened and have become anonymised behind the sheer weight (70,000) of numbers.

There is something very specifically Mexican about ‘Lucy’ and her need to flee at this moment, at her inability to operate freely and safely as a journalist. At the same time, this “war on drugs” is not something that belongs only to Mexico, it is merely the locus where the transnational trade currently operates and has a hub and is the place that is currently experiencing the extremes of its violence. As someone who studies violence and its representation, ‘Lucy’s’ statement moves me intensely because it is about the geographical territory that I am fascinate by as a researcher, it gives a name (even if it is just a blogger’s tag) to the multiple deaths that have occurred, and reminds me that behind that blindingly huge number of deaths (70,000) there are individuals who have suffered and that their story must be allowed to be told whether in text or in a variety of visual media that are available.

 

*This is a reference to the extremely popular La reina del sur Mexican soap opera which tells the story of a woman who becomes the head of an international drug cartel.

 

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