Artists in the Americas Confront the Fracturing Effects of Violence

audience on stage with actors

Audience on stage set with actors. Pequeños Territorios en Recconstrucción by Teatro Línea de Sombra. Jan 2016. Photo by T Delgadillo. CC BY-NC-NC 2.0

by Theresa Delgadillo

Strong Women?

Narratives of supposedly “strong” women who almost unwillingly enter into drug trafficking proliferate in the world of telenovelas, such as Reina del Sur, Señora Acero, and La Viuda Negra. Indeed, Telemundo advertises its television programs with the tagline: “nuestras protagonistas no se la pasan llorando” (translation: “our protagonists aren’t crybabies”). While not writing directly about these particular telenovelas, or the roles of women in them, Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez observes that a shift in telenovela narratives has occurred: the celebrated subject of these narratives is no longer the poor servant who marries the wealthy son of the household or discovers that she has been secretly wealthy all along, but instead the poor person who rises to wealth by any means necessary, drug trafficking included.[1] In contrast to these mass media representations, in two recent performances and one exhibit in Mexico City, artists engage the issues of drug violence, state violence, and gendered violence in ways that might inspire further dialogue, action, and community, and they do this by devising varied strategies for inviting the audience in to participate in a consideration of these issues.

Displaced Women Organize

Pequeños Territorios en Reconstrucción is an interactive performance that employs drama, documentary, collage, art-making to consider the effort by the Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas to create not only new homes, but new societies. The play asks: under what circumstances would building a house, or, together with your peers, building a neighborhood, attract the ire, hostility, and violence of others? When and why is the act of creating a “home” for oneself an affront to others? When we say we want to do good, for whom is that good? “Pequeños Territorios en Reconstrucción” is a “fábula documental” or fictional documentary drama created by the company LAB/Teatro Línea de Sombra in Mexico City, and recently performed at Teatro Benito Juárez in that city, tells the story of the Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas (The League of Women Displaced) in Colombia, and the neighborhood they constructed with their own hands to give life to themselves and their families. The title of the play might be translated to English as “Small Regions in Reconstruction,” and what the work addresses is the act of reconstructing the world one small neighborhood at a time by telling the story of a group of women – the Liga — displaced from their original homes by the combined violence of the Colombian conflict and drug trafficking, yet not resigned to marginality or the acceptance of violence.

Instead, the women joined together in the space where they found themselves, and organized to support each other, naming themselves the Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas, and eventually erecting an entire neighborhood of 98 homes with cement blocks they learned to construct themselves. Their neighborhood abuts a new housing development in the area that is a kind of suburban enclave, and yet the women’s neighborhood offers a version of “improvement” and defines “good” in ways that contrast with those advertised and offered by the model of suburban living. As we learn in this performance, this difference creates tension but also inspires other women and working people to initiate their own construction efforts.

Interactive and Collective Work in Performance

Pequeños Territorios en Reconstrucción tells a collective story in a collective way, re-enacting the physicality of making and placing concrete blocks to construct a home; shifting among varied voices; working to make the collective of women present visually on stage while also acknowledging the important role of human rights lawyer and activist Patricia Guerrero in advising the Liga de Mujeres Desplazadas. Many of the women in the Liga and the “City of Women” are Afro-Colombian, and on their webpage they describe themselves as a multiracial and multiethnic community, though the performance does not explicitly address the questions of race and ethnicity as these intersect with gender in the experience of the displaced women. The violence that the women flee from and then encounter again when they have the audacity to build their own homes is juxtaposed in this performance with the violence of the drug wars and a luxurious home and zoo built by Pablo Escobar.

small concrete blocks on stage made into houses

Creating block houses. Performance of Pequeños Territorios en Recconstrucciòn by Teatro Linea de Sombra. January 2016. Photo by T Delgadillo. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The playwrights, actors, and director first heard about La Liga in 2010 from an article in El Proceso about heroic women that included the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and women fighting against feminicide in Juárez, Mexico. They traveled to Colombia from Mexico to meet the women of the Liga, and visited them twice more in the following years to learn about the neighborhood they were constructing and to participate in arts workshops in the newly founded “City of Women.” Out of those repeated visits, a relationship developed, one that felt to the creators of Pequeños Territorios en Reconstrucción as something they could learn from, living as they do, too, in a country beset by violence. Yet the performance resists easy comparisons between Colombia and Mexico, and this collaboratively produced and enacted interactive performance asks audiences to attend to the specific contexts of each place. Auad Atala, Alicia Laguna, Eduardo Bernal, Jorge A. Vargas, and Noé Morales collaborate to tell the story of the “City of Women,” and the threats of violence and attacks that the women experienced for their initiative. They are joined in this performance, as they are in each run of the work, by two children from the “City of Women,” who also participate in telling the story of their home, of their mothers, of their neighbors, and of their peers – with great pride and delight! The story unfolds in various modes: the actors and children speaking as they construct models of the “City of Women” on stage intermixed with documentary footage as well as real and imagined text projected on a large screen at the back of the stage. As the story unfolds, the model-sized “City of Women” is slowly constructed on stage by the actors and children, and then populated with images of the actual women who built this neighborhood, concrete block by concrete block, with their own hands. The performance ends with an invitation to the audience to visit the “City of Women” that has been reconstructed on the stage, view the pictures and layout firsthand and discuss the project with the actors and children. The audience responded with much warmth and interest to this last section of the performance, engaging in dialogue both with the creators of this performance and with other audience members.

Remembering and Enacting Feminist Action

The “City of Women” in Turbaco, Colombia, is not new; it came into being fifteen years ago, and yet this performance conveys the significance of feminist action that it represents and positions the audience to consider its relevance in contemporary contexts. In this way, it both remembers and enacts, because the conditions that gave rise to the Liga and City are conditions that women face across the Américas. This interactive performance takes a distinctly different approach to the history of feminist action against violence in the Américas than that recently taken by the Argentine government in two important actions. In January of 2016, La Jornada reported that the Argentine Minister of Health stripped the name of one of the founders of the Mothers of the Plazo de Mayo, Laura Bonaparte, from the title of public hospital. Bonaparte’s name had been added to the hospital’s name upon her death in 2013 and in homage to her work on behalf of the disappeared and tortured. In addition, María Coronel, and other employees of the Escuelita de Famaillá in Tucumán — which was the first clandestine center of detention run by the last dictatorship, and which had been transformed into a memorial space dedicated to human rights issues – were dismissed. Coronel is quoted in La Jornada saying [my translation]: “Memorial sites are not just official jobs; they are the result of years of struggle and we will continue to maintain them no matter what, they are not going to disappear us.”[2]

Intimacy and Violence

Another contemporary performance that employs and combines the techniques of documentary and those of drama is Hugo Salcedo’s Música de Balas. Salcedo’s work won the 2011 National Prize in Dramaturgy and was reprised recently by four talented young actors – three men and one woman — at Casazul in Mexico City. The cast includes Christel Klitbo, Christhian Alvarado, Quetzalli Cortés, and Raúl Rodríguez. Música de Balas, or The Music of Bullets, took place in a small black box theater, the Sala Experimental Ludwik Margules, an intimate setting, with audience members sitting on three sides of performance space. The actors make use of the small performance space to great effect, and sometimes move among the audience, and include them as “extras” in some dramatic scenes. A series of first person accounts about the experience of narco violence in Mexico fold, and through these narratives we begin to take stock of the trauma induced by this violence and the danger of it becoming an everyday state of being. These dramatic accounts are sometimes supplemented by and sometimes alternated with documentary footage or photographs of violent events and acts in the country over the past decade. In Música de Balas the victims of violence lament their loss, manifest their trauma, critique government action and inaction, question the perpetrators of violence and those of us who witness it as it ultimately conveys how we are all victims.

pink cards clothespinned to wire line

El Tendedero by Mónica Meyer. March 2016 at MUAC. Photo by T Delgadillo. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The retrospective exhibit of Mexican feminist artist Monica Mayer’s work, Si tiene dudas…pregunte, or “If you have questions…ask” — now on display at the MUAC or Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo, and running until July 31, 2016 — also explores the intimacy of violence in several projects, including an interactive piece titled El Tendedero or “The Clothesline,” an updated version of a 1978 installation pictured in the exhibit that questioned women about their experience of Mexico City. El Tendedero questions viewers about the experience of sexual harassment and violence. The piece asks a series of questions about when and where viewers experienced sexual harassment or violence, how they acted in response, how this changed their behavior, and what they’ve done to prevent such violence in the future. The questions and answers, written on pink cards, are attached with clothespins to wire lines, forming a wall of hanging pink cards, all seemingly the same and yet unique and distinct voices. The title of the piece explicitly challenges the sexist discourses that cast sexual violence and harassment as “private” and “intimate” dirty laundry that should not be aired (often to protect the “reputation” of perpetrators), discourses that remain prevalent throughout the world. A panel discussion linked to the exhibit, “Vocabularios contra el acoso,” offers a valuable discussion of the human rights of women in local and global contexts that begins from a consideration of this particular art project.

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Closeup of El Tendedero by Mónica Mayer. MUAC. March 2016. Photo by T Delgadillo. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In these distinct and innovative ways, Mexican artists are engaging the fictional and the documentary to invite audiences to join them in exploring a series of questions relevant not only in Latin America but throughout the  Americas. Pequeños Territorios en Reconstrucción aims to have as much of an impact on theater audiences as the women of the Liga had on those around them by critically representing the ways that their collective creative and progressive energies destabilized acceptance of violence. Música de Balas represents the terror experienced by ordinary men and women subjected to extreme forms of violence as well as uncertainty in ways that combats de-sensitization and reminds audiences of the enduring impacts of trauma. El Tendedero allows us to hear the voices of women combatting sexual harassment and abuse as it opens a path for audiences to enact their own resistance to this violence.

[1] Sergio Ramírez. “La superproducción más cara de la historia.” La Jornada. 20 enero 2016.

[2] Stella Calloni. “Retiran nombre de fundadora de Madres de Plaza de Mayo a un hospital en Argentina.” La Jornada. 20 enero 2016.

Theresa Delgadillo is a member of the Editorial Group for the Mujeres Talk website. She is an Associate Professor of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University and the author of Latina Lives in Milwaukee (Illinois, 2015) and Spiritual Mestizaje: Religion, Gender, Race, and Nation in Contemporary Chicana Narrative (Duke, 2011).