Women and girls of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, have been “disappearing” for decades. The language of vanishing used to describe these events masks the brute violence of their occurrence. In writing, speaking, and memorializing these events as mystic vanishings or bloodless disappearances, the colonial tropes of the magical brown body are conjured in the service of legitimizing murder, a fundamental component of imperial logic. Confronting the language of erasure and its associated myths, artist Elina Chauvet’s Zapatos Rojos (Red shoes) installations act as decolonial gestures of embodiment. This paper argues that in its many transnational iterations, Zapatos Rojos counters the disembodying and, therefore, dehumanizing language of colonial power through an emphatic marking of the corporeality of the vanishing while imaging the invisible workings of what Sergio González Rodríguez has called “the femicide machine.” Signaling the various colonial myths that have long perpetuated and naturalized these deaths, the red shoes denote the bodies of those murdered through their sexed and gendered implications as well as their status as commodities. Contextualized in relation to various activist groups and artists whose work enacts similar gestures, this essay examines the ways that Zapatos Rojos claims space for mourning while calling for accountability. What distinguishes Chauvet’s public art practices from many of her artist and activist contemporaries, I argue, is that they protest feminicide while simultaneously conjuring the colonial myths of promiscuity, disposability, and magic that sustain the “femicide machine.”

Las mujeres y niñas de Ciudad Juárez, México, llevan décadas “desapareciendo.” El lenguaje de la desaparición que se utiliza para describir tales sucesos oculta su brutal violencia. Al escribir, hablar o conmemorar un hecho así como una suerte de misterioso desvanecimiento, sin mencionar su violencia, los tropos coloniales asociados al cuerpo no europeo sirven para legitimar el asesinato, un componente fundamental de la lógica imperial. Poniendo el diálogo el lenguaje del olvido y los mitos que le son propios, las exposiciones de los Zapatos Rojos de la artista Elina Chauvet son, en efecto, actos decoloniales. Este artículo sostiene que en sus muchas iteraciones transnacionales, Zapatos Rojos niega el lenguaje desencarnado y, por lo tanto, deshumanizador del poder colonial al enfatizar la corporeidad de los desaparecidos mientras imagina el funcionamiento invisible de lo que Sergio González Rodríguez ha llamado “la máquina del feminicidio”. Señalando los diversos mitos coloniales que, desde hace mucho tiempo, perpetúan y naturalizan estas muertes, los Zapatos Rojos denota los cuerpos de las asesinadas a través de sus implicaciones de sexo y género, así como su condición de mercancías. En relación con varios grupos de activistas y artistas cuyo trabajo hace gestos similares, este ensayo examina cómo Zapatos Rojos reivindica un espacio para el duelo al tiempo que exige que los responsables rindan cuentas. Sostengo que lo que distingue el arte público de Chauvet del de otros artistas y activistas es que aquél se pronuncia claramente contra el feminicidio y, al mismo tiempo, llama la atención sobre los mitos coloniales de promiscuidad, desechabilidad y lo sobrenatural que mantienen viva la “máquina del feminicidio”.

Mulheres e meninas de Ciudad Juárez, México, estão “desaparecendo” há décadas. A linguagem do desaparecimento usada para descrever esses eventos mascara a violência bruta de sua ocorrência. Ao escrever, falar, ou memorializar estes eventos como sumiços místicos ou desaparecimentos incruentos, os tropos coloniais do corpo marrom mágico são conjurados a serviço da legitimação do assassinato, um componente fundamental da lógica imperial. Confrontando a linguagem do apagamento e seus mitos associados, as instalações Zapatos Rojos (Sapatos Vermelhos) de Eliza Chauvet atuam como gestos decoloniais de corporificação. Este artigo argumenta que em suas muitas iterações transnacionais, Zapatos Rojos contrapõe a linguagem desincorporante e, portanto, desumanizante do poder colonial através da marcação enfática da corporalidade do desaparecimento enquanto delineia o funcionamento invisível do que Sergio González Rodríguez chamou de “a máquina do feminicídio.” Sinalizando os vários mitos coloniais que há muito perpetuam e naturalizam essas mortes, os sapatos vermelhos denotam os corpos dos assassinados por meio de suas implicações sexuais e de gênero, bem como sua condição de mercadorias. Contextualizado em relação a vários grupos ativistas e artistas cujo trabalho representa gestos semelhantes, este ensaio examina as maneiras como Zapatos Rojos reivindica espaço para o luto enquanto clama por responsabilização. O que distingue as práticas de arte pública de Chauvet de muitos de seus contemporâneos artistas e ativistas, eu argumento, é que estes protestam contra o feminicídio enquanto simultaneamente conjuram os mitos coloniais de promiscuidade, descartabilidade e magia que sustentam a “máquina de feminicídio.”

On August 22, 2009, thirty-three pairs of empty shoes were placed on a sidewalk in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The collection of unpeopled footwear was arranged as if forming a procession. Every pair was painted red, a bold red that denotes the violent actions that their presence intended to mark (fig.1). These immobile, disembodied shoes were stand-ins for the hundreds of so-called disappeared women and girls of Ciudad Juárez. One of a series of such installations, Zapatos Rojos was created by artist and Juárez native Elina Chauvet (b. 1959) who has spent the better part of her career populating various public spaces with these items, objects that are often among the only remnants of the women and girls who have been systematically abducted and slaughtered since 1993.

Figure 1.

Elina Chauvet, Zapatos Rojos, 2009, installation. Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico (photograph courtesy of the artist)

Figure 1.

Elina Chauvet, Zapatos Rojos, 2009, installation. Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico (photograph courtesy of the artist)

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The first instantiation of Zapatos Rojos was on Calle Benito Juárez, a street that leads to the oldest border-crossing bridge in Ciudad Juárez. Like its later iterations, the project was populated through donations solicited by the artist, many of which are provided by families and friends of the abducted. If needed, the shoes are painted red and, as the artist has described, are then set out in a gesture intended to visualize rather than quantify the “disappeared.” The presence of the shoes, of course, is a metaphoric reappearance of the “vanished” whose faces appear on the countless posters that hang throughout the city. Telephone poles wrapped in layers of paper archive the biographical details of women and girls, shared in desperation by family and friends, most of whom never receive any definitive answers about the fate of their daughters, mothers, and friends; no bodies to mourn and bury; no closure that might begin to heal the wounds. Rather, the wounds hemorrhage and multiply. The posters continue to be hung and then rehung; the faces disintegrating in the heat and rain.

Confronting the economics of death at the Mexico-US border, Zapatos Rojos illuminates the workings of what Sergio González Rodríguez describes as the “femicide machine,” a social apparatus, he writes, that is “defined by mass economic regulation on an international, macroeconomic scale, and by assembly line production that differentiates products via flexible, automated methods, information technology, and specially categorized labor.”1 The murder of women and girls near this border, in other words, is far more than a matter of identifying individual assailants or alleged gangs of murderers and pathologizing their crimes. Rather, as González Rodríguez and many other scholars have argued, it is a matter of investigating the systems of economic exchange, manufacture, and labor that sustain, if not depend upon, the dehumanization of nonwhite people. Chauvet’s ongoing series Zapatos Rojos generates spaces for memorializing, mourning, and therefore humanizing the many desaparecidas in and around northern Mexico through an emphatic marking of public space. Signaling the various colonial myths that have long perpetuated and naturalized these deaths, the red shoes denote the bodies of the murder victims through their sexed and gendered implications as well as their status as commodities. The installation, like the work of various activist organizations in the region, claims space for mourning while calling for accountability.

This essay examines Elina Chauvet’s artistic practice in relation to a number of cultural producers and activists whose work has likewise addressed the effects of what Sayak Valencia has termed gore capitalism. Like fellow artists Margarita Cabrera, Teresa Margolles, and Lorna Wolfer, each of whom I discuss briefly later, Chauvet has created numerous artworks that disrupt the colonial imaginary through aesthetic practices that confront, reimagine, or simply defy its narratives. Focusing specifically on feminicide, however, Zapatos Rojos, as well as Mi cabello por tu nombre (2014) and Pietatem (2019), are distinct in that they illuminate the issue while simultaneously conjuring the colonial myths of promiscuity, disposability, and magic that sustain the “femicide machine.”

In solidarity with the many women of color feminists and art historians who have been doing this work for decades, this paper contributes to the disruption of dominant art historical narratives that so often exclude the work of Mexican and Mexican American artists. This persisting exclusion can only be understood as a complicit, if not participatory, role in the reproduction of the visual imaginary of coloniality, a system of image production that sustains various modes of cultural, socioeconomic, and political oppression including feminicide. Following the work of Rosa-Linda Fregoso and Cynthia Bejarano, among others, the term feminicide is used rather than femicide, centering the Spanish-language term and thereby resisting colonial epistemology. Femicide, moreover, refers only to the homicide of women and girls.2 As Fregoso and Bejarano explain in the introduction to Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Américas (2010), feminicide describes the systematic violation of women’s rights that includes, but is not limited to, the so-called disappearances to which the term femicide frequently refers. The expansiveness of feminicide accounts for the multiplicity of violations enacted upon feminized subjects that, while often manifest in physical harm, acknowledges the often less visible forms that oppression takes, such as economic disparity, lack of access to health care, and inhumane working conditions, among many other things. Perhaps most importantly, feminicide insists on the interdependence of these multiple forms of violence, making clear that an account of one explicit manifestation of oppression necessarily means engaging with others.

Fregoso and Bejarano’s rejection of the term femicide “is designed to reverse the hierarchies of knowledge and challenge claims about unidirectional (North-to-South) flows of traveling theory.”3 The newer term disrupts the dominant narrative of intellectual and political labor moving from North to South, which reinforces a relation of appropriation and derivation rather than innovation and mutual exchange. Like this rearticulating of the flows of knowledge production, Chauvet reorients images of Mexican and transborder subjectivity, propelling them into nonpolarizing directions rooted in communities on either side of the Mexico-US border and into broader transnational networks as well.

The exploitation, internment, and extermination of Mexicans and Mexican immigrants is the lasting legacy of what theorist Aníbal Quijano calls the coloniality of power. This concept, which accounts for the persistence of colonial power structures and forms of knowledge, includes, among other things, the institution of racialized hierarchies in which non-Europeans and nonwhites are deemed inferior, justifying social, cultural, political, and economic domination and exploitation.4 Grounded in Quijano’s coloniality of power, philosopher María Lugones considers how formulations of sexuality and gender intersect with the construction of race, erasing Indigenous epistemologies in favor of “biological dimorphism” and “heterosexual organization of relations.”5 The dehumanizing of colonized peoples serves both ideological and economic ends, illustrated most clearly in the institution of slavery and persisting in the various forms of racialized labor that remain the bedrock of capitalist production and profit.6

What Lugones termed the modern/colonial gender system is a foundation for understanding the persisting dehumanization of nonwhite people at the Mexico-US border. This paper argues that Chauvet’s aesthetic and conceptual interventions are decolonial practices of embodiment that work at countering the dehumanizing and therefore disembodying mechanisms of neoliberal capitalism.7 In contesting the colonial imaginary, the artist short-circuits the machinery of oppression through practices that reveal the stakes that institutions and individuals who constitute the ruling class have in maintaining power relations predicated on violent domination.

Born in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, in 1959, Chauvet is a largely self-taught artist who has been making work about gendered violence for decades. Trained as an architect at Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, it was while conducting art workshops there in Juárez in the mid-1990s that the artist first became aware of the abduction and murder of women in and around the city. In an interview with journalist Joyce Janvier, Chauvet recalled:

In my visits downtown, I was alarmed to see how many posters for missing girls were stuck to the telephone poles. That’s when I realized that the women in Juárez were dying or disappearing. Then and there I began to ask questions but did not find answers. Stories of women went underreported. The settling of accounts among gangs was treated with more importance; that was what made headlines in the newspapers. Plus, a lot of my past artwork speaks of domestic violence. This is an issue I know. That’s how my idea for the RED SHOES project was born.8

Zapatos Rojos and much of her subsequent work including Mi cabello por tu nombre and Pietatem reflect Chauvet’s sustained interest in confronting gendered violence. The subject also has personal resonance for Chauvet, whose sister was murdered in 1993. When asked who inspires her work, she responded: “Zapatos Rojos is dedicated to my sister, to her life, to the life she was unable to live, to the moments we have lost.…”9 The artist’s commitment to creating politically and socially engaged art derives from what she has described as an urgent need for change because, as she notes, “es doloroso vivir en México” (it is painful to live in Mexico).10

More than a decade before the first iteration of Zapatos Rojos, various activist groups and other cultural producers had been addressing feminicide. Among the most active and persistent of advocates in the pursuit of recognition of, and action to end, the deaths in northern Mexico have been mothers of las desaparecidas. What Cynthia Bejarano calls “mother-activism” consists of several groups of women including Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (Bring Our Daughters Back Home) (1993– ) and Voces Sin Echo (Voices without echo) (1998–2001), who, the author describes, have worked collectively to “transfer empowerment from the private sphere of citizenship reserved for mothers and housewives to the public sphere…” through marches, protests, and other awareness-building campaigns.11 Pink crosses can be spotted throughout cities, suburbs, and remote places across northern and central Mexico. They are either painted on lampposts and telephone poles or constructed of wood and staked into the ground at or near sites where remains of murdered women and girls have been found. In 2001, members of the international organization Mujeres de Negro erected a large wooden cross in Ciudad Juárez at the foot of the international bridge that crosses into El Paso, Texas. The pink crucifix was adorned with photographs, scraps of clothing, and 268 nails, one for each of the recorded murders in the city since 1993 (fig. 2).

Figure 2.

Memory-cross at Juárez toll booth, 2007. Paso del Norte Bridge to El Paso, Texas (photograph by Angela Fregoso, courtesy of Rosa-Linda Fregoso)

Figure 2.

Memory-cross at Juárez toll booth, 2007. Paso del Norte Bridge to El Paso, Texas (photograph by Angela Fregoso, courtesy of Rosa-Linda Fregoso)

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The exact number of murder victims is uncertain; the totals range by the hundreds, from the most conservative estimates of around four hundred to over one thousand. The greater numbers have been carefully calculated by several scholars including Dr. Julia Estela Monárrez Fragoso, a social scientist who has been researching these murders for decades.12 A pitifully meager number of people have been charged or prosecuted for these crimes, although clear patterns such as bodily mutilation suggest serial offenders and a systematic or ritual component to the murders. Many, but certainly not all, of the women and girls whose brutalized bodies have been found dumped in shallow desert graves, abandoned lots, landfills, or curbside on urban streets have been identified as either students or employees of the maquiladoras (foreign-owned factories that pay low wages) located in the state of Chihuahua, just one mile from El Paso. Of the latter group, who are frequently abducted en route to or from the factories, many are described as maqui-locas, a term used to justify their murder through its reference to women who live “la vida loca” or “la vida doble.” These phrases describe the lives of those who are alleged to engage in factory work by day and sex work by night. A further colloquialism for victims is the phrase “las inditas del sur” (little Indians from the South) a derogatory reference to those who travel to northern Mexico to find employment in the maquiladoras, which are known to hire women and girls in far greater numbers than men and boys.13

In her book Cultural Representations of Feminicidio at the US-Mexico Border (2018), Nuala Finnegan notes the paradox of the murdered who are made hypervisible by the actions of mother-activist groups as well as various public arts projects, including the dozens of murals painted by participants of Faces of Feminicidio. Cofounded by artists Lluvia Rocha and Maclovio Fierro Macias in 2010, Faces of Feminicidio began as a response to the frequent removal and destruction of the crosses and pesquisas (missing person posters) by the Mexican government. The murals, pink crosses, and posters have become a part of the iconography of cities in and around Chihuahua. Like Chauvet’s red shoes, these objects work to make visible that which the very term desaparecidas enacts: erasure. As Finnegan describes, however, for “the majority of citizens outside the immediate environment of Ciudad Juárez, the primary mode of access to the crimes is through the cultural texts that proliferate” such as songs, films, plays, books, and art exhibitions.14 While films such as Lourdes Portillo’s Senorita Extraviada (2001) and The Red Note (2018) have been acclaimed for their critical and investigative approach to feminicide in Juárez, others, such as The Virgin of Juárez (2006) and Bordertown (2006), are typical of a tendency to capitalize on the salaciousness of the crimes through the creation of fictional narratives that, as Nina Maria Lozano elaborates upon in her writing, hypersexualize and objectify the victims.15

In 2002, artists Victoria Delgadillo and Rigo Maldonado cocurated Hijas de Juárez, one of the first art exhibitions dedicated to feminicide in Mexico, at the Social and Public Art Resource Center in Venice, California. The curators note their shared desire to counter the status of these events as “urban legends” and create awareness through the display of a variety of artworks that take up the subject from diverse perspectives.16 While, for example, Raul Baltazar’s El vientre del desierto (2002) stirred some controversy for its blunt portrayal of mutilated female bodies, other contributors, such as master altar makers Ofelia and Elena Esparza, have focused on shifting recognition to the lives and identities of the victims rather than visualizing the cruel details of their deaths. In Para las muertas ofrenda (2002), the Esparzas, in collaboration with Delgadillo, created a ten-foot-high altar that featured a portrait of Laura Berenice Ramos Monárrez, a victim whose mother the exhibition organizers met during their travels to the El Paso–Juárez border the year before. Whether through reference to the brutality of the murders or recognition of the singular identities of those killed, Hijas de Juárez not only created visibility for feminicide but for the complex ethical questions that underlie any attempt to image it.

Many artists and activists have avoided the kind of overt picturing of death found in El vientre del desierto or Alex Rigola’s 2007 stage adaptation of Roberto Bolaño’s book 2666, a play frequently described as excessive in its portrayal of feminicidal crime, over concerns for the potential such images have for making spectacle or fetish of the rape-murders. As Schmidt Camacho notes, it is:

precisely because the feminicidio entails a social fantasy that certain women are made for killing, that is, to be used up to the point of extinction, that those invested in stopping the crimes must not collude with any depiction of vulnerable Mexican women as less than fully human, less than fully alive.17

For her part, Chauvet’s approach to imaging feminicide provides neither individual identities for those murdered nor direct engagement with the aesthetics of their gruesome deaths. Rather, Zapatos Rojos suggests both while calling up some of the mythologies that have come to simultaneously justify and mystify the killings.

Remnant, personal belonging, grave marker, or commodity—Chauvet’s zapatos signal all of these potential associations. The artist has explained her choice of shoes as having been somewhat obvious given the already weel-established connections between them and those who are murdered. She explains that while researching the issue, she discovered a “common thread” among many of the stories of missing women and girls was that they were abducted while walking to or from jobs at shoe shops, maquiladoras, or while out shopping.18 The object is also often among the single articles of clothing that remain of the victims and, as such, has come to symbolize these deaths. In Jenina Black’s simply titled photograph, Basura (2002), for example, what appears to be a woman’s shirt or dress is pictured. The stark black-and-white image closely resembles documentary evidence of a crime scene; the article of clothing looks to have been abandoned, buried, or, perhaps, newly unearthed. The flattened, soiled garment provokes consideration of its one-time wearer and, given the context within which the object was found, (an apparently otherwise deserted plot of dry, gravelly dirt), a viewer may well imagine the various circumstances that led to its having been discarded like basura (garbage). Exhibited in Hijas de Juárez, Basura provokes recognition of the ways in which the murdered women and girls are ideologically and, therefore, literally treated as disposable. The persistence of the crimes, the lack of local or international intervention to stop them, and the mythologies crafted to blame the victims for their own demise are all lasting legacies of the colonial project of which feminicide is a function.

A further distinction between Chauvet’s approach and many of those taken by artists featured in Hijas de Juárez is, of course, the level of direct social engagement, which bears an affinity to many of the mother-activist groups. The donation component of Zapatos Rojos extends the project beyond the marking of space or the process of memorializing in its potential to forge social and community networks and raise collective awareness. Through her work with school groups and community centers, Chauvet explains, she has been made acutely aware of just how pervasive the misconceptions about, or complete ignorance of, these murders are locally and globally. Unlike the pink crosses and pesquisas, however, the shoes of Zapatos Rojos index more than human loss. The amassing of these objects, which has grown from the comparatively meager thirty-three pairs of the first version to many hundreds in subsequent iterations, suggests the systems of mass production and consumption from which they derived, as well as the bodies that might have not only walked in but also worked to produce them.19

The collaborative and community-sourced structure of Zapatos Rojos decenters the artist as authorial agent, just as the public spaces in which the installation occurs make discursive the sites of production and display. The work has been hosted at a wide variety of venues, including public streets, art galleries, college campuses, and spaces directly outside of civic and municipal buildings. The recruitment process for folks willing to donate, paint, or place shoes differs depending on the host. Methods have included posters, social media campaigning, and community networking, which works not only to populate the installation but to forge relationships between various constituencies of a given public. The dynamics of collaboration, therefore, are particularly amorphous in this project, vacillating between artist, host, participant-volunteers, and viewers.

Often described as an itinerant installation, Zapatos Rojos has been created with varying levels of participation from the artist and an even greater degree of variability in terms of the identities of the volunteers. Depending on the site, the project can include shoes provided by family members or friends of victims of feminicide, as has been the case when it was in Juárez (2009), Oaxaca (2016), and Mexico City (2020). When hosted at Grand Valley State University in Michigan in 2017, on the other hand, the participants were primarily students and various members of that campus community, whose geocultural and socioeconomic subjectivities, no doubt, distinguished their relationship to feminicide as it occurs at or near the Mexico-US border. While the potential to create awareness and to educate various publics about these deaths is shared across the numerous versions of Zapatos Rojos over the last twelve years, the implication of the viewer in the violence that it indexes is ever contingent on location, identity, and countless other factors that position people uniquely within the machinery of global capitalism.

What is sometimes referred to as socially engaged, activist, participatory, or new genre public art has a history that is difficult to narrow, given the plurality of methods used as well as the contexts within which they are deployed. Within the Américas, collaboration, community engagement, and participation as material, methodological, or conceptual artistic practice can be traced to pre- and postcolonial approaches to cultural production, including what W. Warner Wood describes as the “social practice” of Zapotec weaving, the revolutionary prints produced by the collective El Taller de Gráfica Popular en México, and the antinationalist musical performances of the Tropicália movement in Brazil.20

While Euro–North American lineages are frequently anchored in the interwar European performative experimentation of Dada, the Situationists, or Constructivism, some scholars, critics, and artists have acknowledged the transnational development of modern art generally, and socially engaged practice in particular. Nato Thompson, for example, has aptly described socially engaged art as a set of “cultural practices [that] indicate a new social order—ways of life that emphasize participation, challenge power, and span disciplines.”21 It is not, therefore, a cohesive movement but rather a response to sociopolitical shifts and, as is certainly the case with its manifestations in the context of Mexico, is linked to political and decolonial strategies of resistance.

The colonial imposition of the artist-audience binary and the subsequent erasure of practices that articulate the relationship between cultural producers and consumers differently has meant that the erosion of art and life is often heralded as a triumph of the Euro–North American avant-garde. This is not to suggest that the development of socially engaged practice in Mexico has not been shaped by European arts. Rather, this influence is frequently a part of the ramifications of coloniality that persist in the form of education, training, and institutional values that limit, if not occlude, the visibility of Indigenous and non-Western practice. While there has been some fairly recent attention paid to the formative role that Mexican muralism and its practitioners played in the development of North American modernist movements such as social realism and abstract expressionism, for example, the relationship between historically colonized and colonizing cultures remains one that is primarily forged through appropriation and exploitation.

It has been, perhaps, the very dependence of social practice or socially engaged art on the innovations, activism, and labor of nonwhite people, feminists, and others active in Civil Rights and social justice campaigns that has, as former president of Creative Time Anne Pasternak has noted, meant an uneasy place within an art world that “prefers to frame artists as commodity makers rather than change makers.”22 Zapatos Rojos, which has now been staged in over ten different countries, is not just an attempt to make change in terms of creating awareness around and helping to end feminicide. As a socially engaged public art project, it also presupposes that a Mexican woman can address a public. It assumes that Chauvet is, in fact, counted as part of a public, as would be those to whom her work is addressed. The challenge, therefore, is not just that Chauvet’s work may be difficult if not impossible to commodify, but that it positions her and her audience as citizens, a necessary condition of participation in the public sphere. As the US government’s systematic detainment, criminalization, and dehumanizing of migrants who attempt to be recognized as citizens has made painfully clear, this call to be part of and address a public is an act of radical resistance in itself.23

Disposability

The economic engine of feminicide, as many scholars have detailed, was set into motion with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1992.24 NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, was designed to facilitate trade and investment across the continent. The maquiladoras were established through the granting of extensive incentives for investors that included tariff- and tax-free assembly, production, and export. Real estate in the state of Chihuahua was cheap and labor cheaper still. In her essay “Accountability for Murder in the Maquiladoras,” Elvia Arriola foregrounds the systemic abuse of workers as an additional investor privilege, one that is “guaranteed under NAFTA, repeated in The Central American Free Trade Agreement,” and that “virtually immunizes the transnational investor from accountability for harm to the worker, anticipated or not, when conducting business in Mexico.”25 The lack of regulation and complete impunity afforded factory owners creates, as Arriola continues, a “fatal indifference toward Mexican workers,” meaning, statistically, “an indifference towards working women.”26

In Norma Iglesias Prieto’s Beautiful Flowers of the Maquiladoras (1997), however, the author locates the gendered hiring practices of the factories far earlier than the implementation of NAFTA. Supported by research published by Jorge Carrillo and Alberto Hernández in the early 1980s, Prieto pairs this with a collection of first-person accounts of working conditions in the maquiladoras to narrate the creation of a unique workforce that “targets a category of workers whose age and gender ensure a consistent lack of workplace experience.” “This strategy,” Prieto writes, “facilitates their replacement without creating serious labor problems.”27 The ideal maquiladora employee emerged as a “hybrid of stereotypes based on sex, race, and class—she was not only more docile and passive then Mexican men, but submissive, easily trainable, and unlikely to pose problems with union organizing.”28

The workforce created by and required to sustain maquiladora productivity is, thus, one that is reproducible and disposable. In her book Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism (2006), Melissa Wright offers an in-depth analysis of the myth of the disposable “third-world” woman worker as a fundamental component of the capitalist global economy. The myth, Wright contends, is a discourse that produces the subjectivity of the woman who comes to personify human disposability both in and through her relationship to factory labor that depends upon her “attentive, dexterous, and docile” nature.29 Her lack of value, paradoxically, is the condition by which she is able to produce commodities for the corporations operating and profiting from her labor. She is valuable, in other words, only insofar as she is emptied of human value; as labor but not as a subject. Wright describes this mythology via an Althusserian model of interpellation, whereby it “establishes the expectations both for identifying disposable third-world women within specific populations and for determining how those subjects, so identified, should behave in relation to those who do the identifying.”30 The deplorable working and living conditions that so often cause death and disability in the maquiladoras (the myth would have it) are a matter of “destiny.”

This mythology, as Wright, Arriola, and many others have described, reaches far beyond the walls of the maquiladoras. Impunity granted to factory owners who deny accountability for the women and girls who continue to be slain off of company property extends to the police departments and countless other government officials whose complacent, if not complicit, responses to the abductions and murders illustrate the pervasiveness of female disposability. The co-constitutive relationship between labor, race, and gender, referred to by María Lugones and others as the “coloniality of labor,” is a fact of capitalism that requires the exploitation and dehumanization of nonwhite laboring peoples as the very lifeblood of factory production globally.31

The maquiladora has been referenced and even re-created by a number of artists whose work addresses the coloniality of power as it manifests in the economics of trade, labor, and consumerism at the Mexico-US border. Carlos Amorales’s Flames Maquiladora (2001–3), for example, bears some similarities to Zapatos Rojos in both form and content. The objects that populate much of Amorales’s installation, however, are created, rather than donated, by participants who are provided with patterns, vinyl, and sewing machines with which to construct shiny red wrestling shoes. In its staging at both the South London Gallery (2002) and the Fiftieth Venice Biennale, Flames Maquiladora featured several shelves showcasing dozens of identical red shoes of the type visitors were encouraged to make using the space and materials provided by the artist. Frequently described as a mock sweatshop, Amorales’s interactive installation suggests a relationship between the labor of the factory worker and that of the artist, forms of production that share histories of racialized and gendered exploitation.

As Alberto López Cuenca notes, however, “Amorales did not make his visitors work as mere parody” but as a mode through which the viewers became laborers working, as the artist does, for the art world.32 A poster titled “Work for Fun, Work for Me,” detailed the process of making the shoes which, unlike those found in Zapatos Rojos, were to be sold as art objects, inverting the disposability of the mass-produced factory product. While not one pair of shoes was completed during the various installations of Flames Maquiladora, the “spectacle of performing artistic labour,” as López Cuenca describes it, “made the art piece happen.”33 It was, in other words, precisely the enactment of temporary, outsourced, and unpaid labor, rather than the production of objects, that constituted the work. Staged in England, Italy, and the Netherlands, the shoes as well as the name of the installation signal the specificity of the maquiladora, rather than the more generalized conditions of a sweatshop, while indexing the global context within which colonial capitalism thrives and through which the United States, as well as numerous other so-called first-world countries, profit.

One among many of the artist’s transnational community-based projects, Margarita Cabrera’s Craft of Resistance (2008– ) also includes the staging of a mock maquiladora. Created for Artpace gallery in San Antonio, Cabrera’s project facilitated assembly-line-style production of copper butterflies using techniques indigenous to Michoacán, a Mexican region famous for coppersmithing. The important distinction between Amorales’s work and Cabrera’s lie in the latter’s insistence on the recognition of the participants as coproducers of the work as well as the interest in the ways histories of Indigenous craft production relate to, or are made invisible within, the art world. In her staging of assembly-line labor, Cabrera works to reimagine the factory as a site for potential collaboration, creativity, and agency.

While Flames Maquiladora and Craft of Resistance work to reconfigure or reimagine assembly-line labor, Zapatos Rojos deals far more directly with what Sayak Valencia has termed gore capitalism. Gore capitalism, she describes, refers to “the undisguised and unjustified bloodshed that is the price the Third World pays for adhering to the increasingly demanding logic of capitalism.”34 Within this logic, Valencia argues, violence itself has become a product. Taking the concept of the disposable worker further, the author and activist proposes that the corpses generated by the interwoven necro-politics of mass production, human trafficking, narcopower, and authoritarian governmental structures are not mere by-products of exhausted labor or indiscriminate crime but rather are commodities. Read alongside Chauvet’s project, the red shoes appear to function as stand-ins for las desaparecidas not just as memorial, remnant, or index of factory labor, but as proxies for the dead bodies themselves. The shoes and their corporeal referents share in their status as commodifiable objects within the brutalizing frameworks of gore capitalism.

To this end, the imperative in Chauvet’s art to address feminicide may be better likened to the work of fellow Mexican artists Teresa Margolles and Lorena Wolffer, as well as Regina José Galindo of Guatemala. In their various works addressing gendered violence, however, Wolffer and Galindo often use their own bodies, either through performative gestures or as medium. From 1995–97, for instance, Wolffer performed Territorio mexicano, an endurance piece during which the artist, naked and tied to a gurney, had a drop of blood drip onto her abdomen every minute over the span of six hours. The “self-torture,” as she described it, was a metaphor for the perceived passivity of Mexico and its citizens in the face of foreign intervention. In a later work entitled Mientras dormíamos (el caso Juárez) [While we were sleeping (the case of Juárez)], performed during 2002–4, Wolffer slowly disrobed before beginning to mark her bare body with a pen. As she encircled and contoured parts of her breasts, legs, and genitals, a voice read a police report detailing the murders of several women, one of whom, as Deborah Root states, was “six months pregnant, raped, and strangled.”35 After emphatically marking the parts of the body that are often the targets of sexualized violence and acts of mutilation, Wolffer put her clothing back on and then covered her body in a blanket. Although no longer visible, the audience was aware of what lay beneath the layers of fabric: a body whose race and sex identify it as a target onto which the weaponry of misogynist colonial capitalist greed trains its eye.

Perhaps the most recognized among these women, Margolles has established a reputation for confronting issues of violence, trauma, and death with a characteristically unconventional, if not morbid, deployment of bodily fluids and human remains. Lote Bravo (2005), for example, consists of four hundred to five hundred bricks made from a mixture of straw, clay, and earth that the artist collected from sites in and around Ciudad Juárez where violent crimes had occurred or human remains had been found. The probability that the bricks bare the traces of victims and perpetrators lends them a corporeality that is amplified by the evident hand-madness of their uneven planes and edges. While the indexicality operating in Zapatos Rojos functions on symbolic and metaphoric levels, in Lote Bravo the subjects to which the bricks refer are present, albeit only knowable through the texts that describe the piece.

Similarly, in Sudor y Miedo (2008) Margolles materializes the “disappeared” but this time in the form of vaporized water that fills an otherwise empty room. As the accompanying wall text explains, the room is “humidified with water brought from a morgue in Mexico City, where it was used to wash the bodies of murder victims prior to autopsy.” Among the corpses washed in the morgue, as Margolles has detailed in her sustained work in that space, are bodies that are never claimed or identified.36 They are, likely, victims of feminicide but also casualties of trafficking in drugs, weapons, and humans, each of which are the result of corrupt local and global political and economic systems that profit from the instability that this violence generates. As several scholars—including Macarena Gómez-Barris, Julia Banwell, Amy Sara Carroll, and Krista Lynes—have articulated, Margolles’s work is distinct in its capacity to not only confront the viewer with death but to implicate them in it through the embodied and sensorial experience she creates.37

While Sergio González Rodríguez and Melissa Wright have foregrounded the disposability of living nonwhite laborers, Valencia’s concept of gore capitalism points to death as the condition upon which their bodies become valuable. Globalization has brought about, Valencia writes, “an inversion of terms, whereby life is no longer valued in and of itself but only as an object of monetary exchange in the market: a transvaluation whereby the only measure of value is the ability to mete out death to others.”38 As Margolles and Chauvet’s practices illustrate, inverting the terms of disposability within the realm of cultural production has been a tactic deployed by numerous artists who have imagined the radical potential of mobilizing that which is perceived as extraneous or cheap. The shoes of Zapatos Rojos are not unlike those made at various maquiladoras by the hands of the victims (fig. 3). Chauvet’s repurposing of these one-time commodities troubles the capitalist system that depends on their faithful participation in the cycle of surplus supply and demand that would have these cheaply made objects discarded and emptied of value.

Figure 3.

Elina Chauvet, Zapatos Rojos, 2017, installation. Grand Rapids, Michigan (photograph courtesy of the artist)

Figure 3.

Elina Chauvet, Zapatos Rojos, 2017, installation. Grand Rapids, Michigan (photograph courtesy of the artist)

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Maqui Mythologies

Despite the work of various human rights organizations, activists, and cultural producers who have been pursuing justice for the victims and their families, little political action has occurred on the local or global level to address feminicide in Mexico in a sustained or systematic manner. The explanation for the persistence of the deaths is publicly framed as either a naturalized symptom of the chaotic and dehumanizing conditions of life in Ciudad Juárez, a place that González Rodríguez describes as having been globally branded a human “garbage dump,” or as punishment for the alleged amoral activities and social dissidence of its victims.39 Importantly, as Alicia Gaspar de Alba has emphasized in her writings, we know of these “disappeared” women “because they are dead.”40 Within the racist misogyny of global capitalism, the condition for these women’s appearance is as disappearance and the emphatic coding of their brutal deaths as such.

Chauvet’s choice of red shoes denotes the association of the murdered women and girls with the alleged salacious activities that are identified as the cause of death. Activities such as sex work or attendance at one of the dance clubs to which employees are often bused at the end of a work shift are but two justifications given for murder in Juárez. The red pumps and strappy high-heeled shoes that account for many of the donations to Zapatos Rojos certainly signal the trope of the maqui-loca whose rape, mutilation, and death are understood to be an occupational hazard or punishment for the social transgressions of independence signaled by traveling alone or earning a wage.41 The trope of the “bad woman,” as described by Gaspar de Alba, is a figure drawn from centuries-old Indigenous mythologies, perverted and co-opted through colonial conquest and capitalism.

In 2003, Gaspar de Alba coorganized a conference titled The Maquiladora Murders or, Who is Killing the Women of Juárez? The conference poster featured an image by artist Alma López. On the occasion of the conference, López, who has famously and controversially been reimagining figures like La Virgen de Guadalupe and La Malinche for over a decade, chose to depict the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui. Dismembered by her brother, Sun God Huitzilopochtli, the mythical goddess appears reassembled in López’s Coyolxauhqui’s Tree of Life, her fragments evoking those of the women and girls whose corpses are scattered throughout Juárez. Punished for her threat to patrilineal rule, Coyolxauhqui, and La Malinche, a woman long villainized for her role as a translator for Hernán Cortés, have been central in Chicana feminist discourse as symbols of cultural hybridity, resistance, and rebellion. Their demonization, of course, owes to the ways they have resisted the practices of spiritual, historical, cultural, and human extermination that have endured since the moment of colonial contact.

As Antonia Castañeda has written, “Ostensibly all women in colonial Mexico and Latin America…were suspected of being witches…by virtue of being female, by virtue of deriving from non-Christian, or ‘diabolic’ religions and cultures, and by virtue of being colonized…people who might rebel and use their magical power at any moment.”42 Part of the mythology of the disposable maquiladora worker, la bruja (the witch) is a dehumanized aberration whose sexuality is one of her most volatile threats. The power of the “racialized bruja,” Irene Lara contends, “is contained under the rubric of sexual witchcraft, a very old patriarchal construct in which women’s power is limited to her deceitful, manipulative ways.”43 The language of “vanishing” or “disappearing” annunciates the relationship between the colonial fantasies of the magical brown body with the construction of the disposable third-world woman worker. This matrix of colonial and capitalist epistemologies is both fuel for, and product of, the feminicide machine. Systemic murder is naturalized as a punishment for sexual deviance that is always already present in the feminized and racialized colonial body. This has been made most repugnantly clear in the discovery of women and girls who were brutally raped and mutilated, penetrated with large objects, breasts cut from the body or nipples bitten off before they are discarded.

The red shoes laid out by Chauvet, therefore, mark not only the lives of women and girls but also the attribution of their deaths to these mythologies and the language of magic (vanishing or disappearing) that perversely functions to both sanitize and legitimate their disposability. The violence enacted by using “vanished” or “disappeared” is one that both belies the systemic nature of feminicide and performs an ideological displacement of culpability from the individuals and systems that engender this slaughter to the ghosts of the women and girls themselves. In writing, speaking, and memorializing these events as mystic vanishings or bloodless disappearances, the colonial tropes of the magical brown body or, as Lara names it, “bruja-ization,” are conjured in the service of legitimizing murder, a foundational component of imperial logic.44

Ofrendas

The source of a witch’s power stems from her connection to the spiritual. As Lara, Ana Castillo, and others have written, la bruja, like la curandera (spiritual healer), possesses knowledge that defies Christian colonial belief systems; she has “been negatively coded as heretical, superstitious, diabolic, and/or primitive.”45 The perceived threat of a non-Christian spirituality within a colonial context has meant, of course, that its mention in relation to an artistic practice risks subjecting the work as well as its maker to similar processes of delegitimization and de-intellectualizing. “To speak of the spiritual with respect to the cultural practices of politically disempowered communities, particularly the work of women,” Laura E. Peréz contends, is “fraught with dangers.” She continues:

The linkages within imperialist and racist thinking between the spiritual, the female, and people of color are what make the conditions for talking about women, particularly women of color, and the spiritual especially difficult.…Regardless of intention…connections made between the spiritual and women of color finally reproduce dominant narratives about these as the inferior oppositions to the rational, Christian, Western European, and male.46

A greater risk, however, may well be the rearticulation of these oppositions through the persistent absence of nonimperial and precolonial spiritual epistemologies within histories of art and those of cultural production more broadly.

In the most recent versions of Zapatos Rojos, hand-scrawled messages are written either on the shoes themselves or on papers that have been tucked into or placed beneath them (fig. 4). These testimonios and the gifting of the shoes themselves call to mind Laura Peréz’s writings, namely her reading of various Chicana artworks as ofrendas (offerings). “I see their work,” she writes, “as sacrificial ofrenda, as transmutation of social or personal suffering into penetrating visions of the present and brave sightings of hopeful, better futures.”47 When considered through this model, Zapatos Rojos is just such an offering. Rather than reinforce an essentialist colonial trope of magical brownness linked to non-Christian spirituality, the mobilization of the spiritual here refuses the dehumanizing and absenting processes that constitute and sustain the coloniality of power. Rather, as Peréz contends, art as ofrenda converts the site (here the public spaces inhabited by Chauvet’s shoes) into an altar. The public space becomes a place where, to cite Peréz’s words again, “the material and the still disembodied are invoked, and where the embodied is reminded of its ultimate identity with the socially or culturally disincarnate that it would ‘other’ or regulate to the realm of seeming nonexistence.”48 Enacting what Gloria Anzaldúa described as “spiritual activism,” Zapatos Rojos emphatically bodies the “disappeared” without creating images of the brutality that risk fetishizing the deaths or reducing the women and girls to the sum of the violence enacted on their flesh.

Figure 4.

Elina Chuavet, Zapatos Rojos, 2018, installation. Santiago, Chile (photograph courtesy of the artist)

Figure 4.

Elina Chuavet, Zapatos Rojos, 2018, installation. Santiago, Chile (photograph courtesy of the artist)

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The use of might-be-otherwise discarded shoes recalls Tomás Ybarra-Frausto’s notion of rasquachismo, which he described as “the aesthetic sensibility of los de abajo, of the underdog” and “an attitude rooted in resourcefulness and adaptability, yet mindfulness of stance and style.”49 The innovation and subversiveness that characterizes rasquachismo is a product of an ability to “thrive” in the face of systemic oppression. Describing the term, Chicana artist and critic Amalia Mesa-Bains writes:

In rasquachismo, the irreverent and spontaneous are employed to make the most of the least.…[O]ne has a stance which is both defiant and inventive. Aesthetic expression comes from discards, fragments, even recycled everyday materials such as tires, broken plates.…In its broadest sense, it is a combination of resistant and resilient attitudes devised to allow the Chicano to survive and persevere with a sense of dignity. The capacity to hold life together with bits of string, old coffee cans and broken mirrors in a dazzling bravado is at the heart of rasquachismo.50

Chauvet’s use of old shoes is, no doubt, an expression of a rasquache sensibility in its retooling of these once seemingly benign objects to function as both indexes of absence and resilience. The evocation of las desaparecidas that the shoes suggest insists on the recognition of the dead and of the crimes themselves.

The gendered nature of the “disappearances,” like the activism it has spurred and the acts of mourning that have occurred in response to them, however, points toward a more distinct form of rasquache, one that, in 1999, Mesa-Bains named domesticana.51 Sometimes referred to as Chicana rasquache, domesticana shares with rasquachismo an orientation of resistance in relation to colonial structures and a celebration of cultural identity. It is distinct, however, in its critical stance to the gendered hierarchies of both Anglo-American and Chicano culture. This criticality is expressed with and through an honoring of the histories, memories, labor, and creativity of Chicanas whose experiences, as Mesa-Bains describes, are “replete with practices of domestic space.”52 Artists whose work engages with domesticana often communicate the tension of this space through the deployment of forms and materials that are frequently relegated to it, reactivating them in ways that disrupt multiple structures of value and meaning production, including the divisions between art and life, high culture and low culture, as well as public and private.

Zapatos Rojos performs these disruptions. When read as an altar built through accumulation, offerings, and gestures of care and creativity, Zapatos Rojos exemplifies domesticana. As in her own art, Mesa-Bains notes the common use of the home altar within domesticana expression. “The family altar,” she writes, “functions for women as a counterpoint to male dominated rituals within Catholicism. Often located in the bedroom, the home altar locates family history and cultural belief systems.”53 Among the items left at various iterations of Zapatos Rojos are votive candles, flowers, and the testimonios containing the names of missing loved ones and even photographs, objects likewise found on family altars. The gestures of mourning, memorializing, and care that characterize engagement with the installation are also not unlike those associated with the home altar. Zapatos Rojos is a public presentation of what is traditionally relegated to the home or private sphere, as the placement of the shoes not only brings light to the murders themselves but to the profound losses, sorrow, anger, and action that they have incited. A project that has increased exponentially in size over the years, Zapatos Rojos is also a materializing of a growing community consciousness over the issue of feminicide globally. In the face of the violent erasure that the shoes mark, Chauvet’s project insists on the production of memory, humanity, and agency for those murdered, performing that which Mesa-Bains describes as the heart of rasquachismo.

A number of Chauvet’s performative works engage with elements of the sacred, including Mi cabello por tu nombre (2014) and Pietatem (2019). In Mi cabello por tu nombre, Chauvet again invokes the names and bodies of the murdered women of Mexico (fig. 5). The video performance took place in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico on the seventh of November in commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which is officially recognized by the United Nations on the twenty-fifth of November each year. The video begins with the artist reading a parent’s account of identifying the remains of her child, including the statement: “All that I kept of my daughter is her hair. Her hair.” In front of the artist sits a pair of scissors, one pile of pink ribbons, and another of rubber bands. After reading the short statement, Chauvet proceeds to unfurl her long thickly braided hair. Twisting it into sections, she then cuts portions of it from her head, fastening each one with a rubber band and then picking up one of the pink ribbons on which a name is written. The artist reads the name aloud before securing the ribbon to the bundle of dark, wavy tresses. The stark white table at which the artist sits quickly fills with the freshly shorn hairs, leaving her scalp an uneven patchy terrain which is leveled by electric shears wielded by another woman. The video documentation of the performance cuts abruptly to a close-up shot of Chauvet’s profile, the buzzing of the shaver replaced with that of a tattoo gun whose needle pierces the side of her head. The newly exposed scalp is tattooed with the word “Justicia,” revealed to the viewer for just a few seconds before the video ends.

Figure 5.

Elina Chauvet, Mi cabello por tu nombre, 2017, performance, installation view. Associazione Culturale Officine Nove, Rome (photograph courtesy of Cristina Canali)

Figure 5.

Elina Chauvet, Mi cabello por tu nombre, 2017, performance, installation view. Associazione Culturale Officine Nove, Rome (photograph courtesy of Cristina Canali)

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As the title of the work explicates, the artist exchanges a portion of her own hair for the annunciation of the name of a “disappeared” woman or girl. The hair functions as a kind of votive or memento but also, of course, suggests the hair of the murdered victim that, as the statement at the start of the video narrates, is among the remnants that help identify otherwise unidentifiable bodies. Its color, texture, and length, moreover, signal the racialized and gendered dimensions of the murders, registering commonalities among those who have been killed in Mexico and elsewhere. The discomfort of the tattooing is perhaps a physical manifestation of the emotional and psychological trauma of these deaths and the fear that they instill. On another level, the tattooing of the word justicia might denote the harm inflicted upon those who seek to end these murders or to call for accountability over their persistence. Knowledge of the fact that the hair on Chauvet’s head will eventually grow back and cover the word further intimates the obfuscation of justice in relation to the deaths of the people whose names the artist scrawled on the long dangling pink ribbons.

The pink ribbons lend a kind of morbid nostalgia for lost or, in this case, violently abbreviated girlhood. They also evoke the pink crosses displayed across Mexico by activist groups such as Ni Una Más. These two objects come together in Chauvet’s Pietatem (2019), which was performed at the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea (MACRO) in Rome (fig. 6). Staged in the museum’s large atrium, the performance begins with the artist placing a cloaked object onto a white chair, next to which sits a brown suitcase. Next, Chauvet pulls a bag of dirt from the suitcase and begins to spread it across the floor with her hands, creating a grave-like rectilinear plot on the vast off-white floor. The artist then writes the word “PIETATEM” in the dirt with her finger before placing two vases of dried flowers and three lit candles at the site, reinforcing the funerary aesthetics of the piece. Wearing all black and kneeling, Chauvet then lights sage and wafts the smoke over the dirt before placing it in a goblet that sits among the candles. Silently, she lifts the cloaked object from the chair and sits, resting one bare foot on the floor and the other on top of the closed suitcase. The object is revealed to be a large pink cross from which dozens of pink ribbons dangle. She holds the cross with her right hand, its base resting on her leg. Her left hand is open, palm pointed toward the ceiling, and her eyes are fixed forward as she sits in silence in front of the grave she has made.

Figure 6.

Elina Chauvet, PIETATEM, 2018, performance. Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rome (photograph provided by Museo d’Arte Contemporanea)

Figure 6.

Elina Chauvet, PIETATEM, 2018, performance. Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rome (photograph provided by Museo d’Arte Contemporanea)

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The way that Chauvet has positioned herself in the chair is a clear reference to Michelangelo’s famous Pietà (1498–99), housed just over five miles from MACRO in St. Peter’s Basilica, in Vatican City. The word “PIETATEM,” scrawled into the dirt near her feet, is also a clear directive to consider this performance in relation to Michelangelo’s sculpture, which depicts the dead body of Jesus Christ draped in the oversized lap of his mourning mother Mary, just after Christ has been taken down from the cross upon which he was crucified. Pietà, an Italian word meaning both pity and mercy, refers broadly to this scene in Christian art, one wherein the sorrow over Mary’s loss of her son and the torment he endured are particularly salient themes. Michelangelo’s idealized and European-featured young mother is replaced by Chauvet, a Mexican woman whose age more accurately approximates that of Mary’s at the time of the Crucifixion. Instead of cradling a body, Chauvet holds a stand-in for the hundreds, if not thousands, of women and girls whose bodies remain unfound, unburied, or unmourned. She stands in for countless mothers who don’t have the chance to cradle the bodies of their children one last time before burial.

Pietatem is pietà in the accusative case, meaning that is it the direct object of a verb. Without a verb proceeding it, the word suggests more than it describes. Deploying the accusatory in this incomplete way, Chauvet may well be pointing the viewer to what those her performance mourns didn’t receive: mercy or pity. The title also suggests a lack of action on another level, that of those who are aware of feminicide and do nothing to end it. Staring out at the audience, Chauvet’s live body poses a perhaps more confrontational presence than would a marble sculpture. Her gaze is, of course, experienced by those in attendance in many ways, but it is unavoidably overdetermined by her subjectivity as a nonwhite woman within the literal and ideological whiteness of the space in which she is seated. As Judith Butler’s writings ask, Pietatem, Mi cabello por tu nombre, and Zapatos Rojos each beg the question: whose lives are deemed grievable?

Final Thoughts

Many recent versions of Zapatos Rojos have been created in response to other sites where feminicide persists including Argentina, Chile, and Peru. While colonial power structures undergird all of the various instantiations of feminicide that exist globally, the flattening out of the specific geopolitical and economic conditions that ignite, sustain, and even profit from these murders is problematic. While in no way invested in discrediting the power of solidarity and mass activist mobilization (and its necessity to create change), one may fear the loss of acute attention to the precise mechanisms of these feminicide machines, their conditions of possibility and profit within their respective socioeconomic systems. For example, Zapatos Rojos has been praised for its capacity to serve as an icon for a fictional “National Violence Against Women Day.” In this instance, feminicide as a tool for the success of global capitalism collapses into all forms of violence against women.

The need to illuminate the inextricable links and systemic working of colonial power is not at issue here but rather the ways this collapsing may be used as a shield to obfuscate the names and faces of those whose power and financial success are dependent on a well-oiled feminicide machine. Furthermore, this flattening abstracts the deaths of women and girls, whose “disappeared” identities are as much a part of the violence as are the brutalities committed against their bodies. Seeing feminicide in Juárez as a globalized “woman” problem dangerously avoids the work of disentangling the particular mythologies crafted in the context of Mexico. Not all women, not even all nonwhite women, are positioned identically within global capital, and the work of parsing out these particularities is a matter of humanizing in the face of the dehumanizing and murderous colonial project.

1.

Sergio González Rodríguez, The Femicide Machine, trans. Michael Parker-Stainback (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012), 9.

2.

See Rosa-Linda Fregoso and Cynthia Bejarano, eds., Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Américas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010). In their introductory essay to this volume, Fregoso and Bejarano detail the history of the term feminicide, first introduced within an academic context by Marcela Lagarde in 1987. Importantly, the term evolved out of the desire to localize and expand upon North American use of femicide, drawing on the research and activism of scholars working and living within Latin America.

3.

Fregoso and Bejarano, Terrorizing Women, 5.

4.

See Aníbal Quijano, “Coloniality of Power and Eurocentrism in Latin America,” Nepantla: Views from the South 1, no. 3 (2000): 533–80.

5.

María Lugones, “Heterosexualism and the Modern/Colonial Gender System,” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 22, no. 1 (2007): 190.

6.

For an in-depth discussion of the history of capitalism and its structural dependence on racist and dehumanizing colonial ideologies, see Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (London: Zed Press, 1983).

7.

I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer of this paper, who rightly pointed out the pitfalls of the term decolonial, which includes the violence enacted via its frequent metaphorical use. The “de-” of decolonial signals an undoing that isn’t necessarily—but very much can be—a function of anticolonial work, and so I use it here to describe the ways that Chauvet’s art illuminates and challenges the often invisible workings of capitalism. Although the shoes may well act in symbolic and metaphorical ways, their presence and the processes by which the installations are made have created very real opportunities for mourning, memorializing, education, and resistance.

8.

Joyce Janvier and Elina Chauvet, “Red Shoes Project: Mazatlán, Mexico” Women Eco Artists Dialog, no. 9, c. 2011, accessed July 19, 2021, https://directory.weadartists.org/mexico-violence-against-women.

9.

Original: “Mi hermana a quien dedico Zapatos Rojos, a su vida, y a la vida que le faltó vivir, a los momentos que nos perdimos…” Sofia Valenzuela, “Entrevista a Elina Chauvet,” Un Dia/Una Arquitecta blog, December 24, 2017, accessed July 19, 2021, https://undiaunaarquitecta3.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/elina-chauvet-1959/.

10.

Abril Becerra, “Elina Chauvet: Si no hay conciencia social en los artistas, mucho menos en el público,” Diario Uchile Cultura, November 7, 2018, accessed July 19, 2021, https://radio.uchile.cl/2018/11/07/elina-chauvet-si-no-hay-conciencia-social-en-los-artistas-mucho-menos-en-el-publico/.

11.

Cynthia Bejarano, “Las Super Madres de Latino America: Transforming Motherhood by Challenging Violence in Mexico, Argentina, and El Salvador,” Frontiers 23, no. 1 (2002): 126.

12.

See Julia Estela Monárrez Fragoso, Trama de una injusticia: feminicidio sexual sistémico en Ciudad Juárez (San Antonio del Mar, Tijuana: El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2013).

13.

See Alicia Gaspar de Alba, “Coyolxauhqui and Las ‘Maqui-Locas’: Re-membering the Sacrificed Daughters of Ciudad Juárez,” in [Un]Framing the “Bad Woman”: Sor Juana, Malinche, Coyolxauhqui and Other Rebels with a Cause (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014), 131–72, for an in-depth history of the figure of the maqui-loca and its relationship to various colonial mythologies regarding Mexican women and girls that function to blame victims for their own deaths. Gaspar de Alba also addresses the distinct legal articulations of rape and their associated punishments while noting, importantly, the relationship of these to the number of sex offenders sent to El Paso by the Texas Parole Board.

14.

Nuala Finnegan, Cultural Representations of Feminicidio at the US-Mexico Border (London: Routledge, 2019), 7.

15.

Nina Maria Lozano, Not One More! Feminicidio on the Border (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2019), xvii.

16.

See Victoria Delgadillo and Rigo Maldonado, “Journey to the Land of the Dead: A Conversation with the Curators of the Hijas de Juárez Exhibition,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 28, no. 2 (Fall 2013): 179–202, for a description of the exhibition and the curators’ planning process, which included traveling to the El Paso–Juárez border and participating in activist marches.

17.

Alicia Schmidt Camacho, “Body Counts on the Mexico-U.S. Border: Feminicidio, Reification, and the Theft of Mexicana Subjectivity,” Chicana/Latina Studies (MALCS) 4, no. 1 (Fall 2004): 24.

18.

Janvier and Chauvet, “Red Shoes Project.”

19.

I am indebted to a peer reviewer of this essay who noted the similarities between Chauvet’s amassing of shoes and the confiscation and collection of the personal effects of people imprisoned in death and labor camps during the Holocaust. While I in no way intend to minimize, compare, or flatten out the very distinct contexts of the Holocaust and feminicide in northern Mexico, large numbers of empty shoes laid out in honor of victims of mass trauma resonates visually with the display of the heap of once-worn shoes on exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, for example. The museum re-created the pile, along with similar heaps of confiscated objects such as eyeglasses, religious items, and utensils, from photographs documenting the collection sites at various concentration camps. The once loved, used, and worn objects mark the absence of their owners, a siting of the body through its absence that has become a hallmark of many public memorials including, most recently, the growing collection of shoes placed at the site of a former residential school for Indigenous children in Vancouver, Canada, where the remains of hundreds of children were unearthed in May 2021. Shoes have also been used to index the dead at the Danube Bank in Budapest, Hungary, where Arrow Cross militiamen shot Jewish people and threw their bodies into the river in 1944 and 1945, as well as the seven thousand or more shoes placed outside of the US Capitol in 2018 to commemorate lives lost to gun violence. There are many more instances across the globe, suggesting that empty shoes in public have a resonance that spans geographic, cultural, and temporal contexts as markers of violent mass death.

20.

See W. Warner Wood, Made in Mexico: Zapotec Weaving and the Global Ethnic Art Market (Tracking Globalization) (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008). In the chapter entitled “We Learn to Weave by Weaving,” the author describes the familial structure that determines one’s access to and level of skill in weaving, as well as the collective workshop environments in which weavers work. Deeply tied to family and community relations, therefore, the production of textiles in and around Oaxaca has never presented a clear distinction between cultural production and social life, as is the case with many modes of making that are frequently classified as craft. In order to reimagine the history of socially engaged practice, therefore, the discipline of art history would first need to reconfigure raced, classed, and gendered hierarchies that continue to position as inferior both craft and material production historically tied to the labor and innovations of women, nonwhite folks, and the working class.

21.

Nato Thompson, ed., Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991–2011 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; New York: Creative Time Books, 2012), 19.

22.

Anne Pasternak, foreword to Thompson, Living as Form, 8.

23.

An extensive body of literature addresses the formation of the public sphere and its exclusionary and inclusionary functions. Much of this literature departs from or responds to foundational texts on the subject, namely Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger and Fredrick Lawrence (1962; repr., Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), first translated into English in 1989. The formation of the public sphere has been taken up by many art historians who think about its construction in relation to dominant understandings of public art making and viewing. For example, see Rosalyn Deutsche, “Art and Public Space: Questions of Democracy,” Social Text, no. 33 (1992): 34–53.

24.

In November 2018, US President Donald Trump, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed the United States–Mexico–Canada Trade Agreement which renegotiates the conditions stipulated in NAFTA. The terms of the later agreement included Mexico’s commitment to pass new labor laws that provide workers increased protections and a minimum working wage of at least sixteen dollars an hour.

25.

Elvia R. Arriola, “Accountability for Murder in the Maquiladoras: Linking Corporate Indifference to Gender Violence at the U.S.-Mexico Border,” in Making a Killing: Femicide, Free-Trade, and La Frontera (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), 28.

26.

Arriola, “Accountability for Murder,” 45.

27.

Norma Iglesias Prieto, Beautiful Flowers of the Maquiladora: Life Histories of Women Workers in Tijuana, trans. Michael Stone and Gabrielle Winkler (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997), 36. For a more recent account of the conditions of maquiladora labor, little of which has changed since Prieto’s study, see Martha Ojeda and Rosemary Hennessy, eds., NAFTA from Below: Maquiladora Workers, Farmers, and Indigenous Communities Speak Out on the Impact of Free Trade in Mexico (San Antonio, TX: Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, 2006).

28.

Arriola, “Accountability for Murder,” 31.

29.

Melissa Wright, Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism (New York: Routledge, 2007), 84.

30.

Wright, Disposable Women, 5.

31.

Lugones, “Heterosexualism,” 191. See also Manuela Boatcă, “Coloniality of Labor in the Global Periphery: Latin America and Eastern Europe in the World-System,” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 36, nos. 3-4, Centers and Peripheries Revisited (2013): 287–314.

32.

Alberto López Cuenca, “Artistic Labour, Enclosure, and the New Economy,” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context, and Enquiry, no. 30 (Summer 2012): 5.

33.

López Cuenca, “Artistic Labour,” 5.

34.

Sayak Valencia, Gore Capitalism, trans. John Pluecker (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018), 19.

35.

Deborah Root, “Honoring the Disappeared in the Art of Lorena Wolffer, Rebecca Belmore, and the Walking With Our Sisters Project,” Transmotion 1, nos. 1 & 2 (2016): 43.

36.

In 1990 Teresa Margolles cofounded SEMEFO, a collective which took its name from the acronym for Servicio Médico Forense, Mexico City’s public morgue. The group, which included Arturo Ángulo Gallardo, Juan Luis García Zavaleta, and Carlos López Orosco, created art that bluntly addressed the politics of death in Mexico, often using the morgue as a site or medium for the artistic production.

37.

See Julia Banwell, Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetics of Death (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2015); Amy Sara Carroll, “Muerte Sin Fin: Teresa Margolles’s Gendered States of Exception,” TDR 54, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 103–25; Macarena Gómez-Barris, Beyond the Pink Tide: Art and Political Undercurrents in the Americas (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018); and Lynes, “Decolonizing Corporeality,” 23–49.

38.

Valencia, Gore Capitalism, 28.

39.

González Rodríguez, Femicide Machine, 58.

40.

Gaspar de Alba, [Un]framing the “Bad Woman,” 135.

41.

Perhaps more evident within the North American context, the red shoes also signal the iconic ruby red slippers donned by Dorothy in the film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz (1939), shoes that first belonged to the Wicked Witch of the East and were pursued by the Wicked Witch of the West throughout the film. The red slippers possessed powers that, when wielded by a witch, posed a threat of violence and destruction. The shoes could only be transferred from one owner to another, however, upon the death of the wearer, and so the affinities between the red shoes of Zapatos Rojos and The Wizard of Oz are worth noting: female death, power, and threat operate in both.

42.

Antonia Castañeda, “Engendering the History of Alta California, 1769–1848,” in Contested Eden: California before the Gold Rush, ed. R. Gutiérrez and R. Orsi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 237.

43.

Irene Lara, “Bruja Positionalities: Toward a Chicana/Latina Spiritual Activism,” Chicana/Latina Studies 4, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 19.

44.

Lara, “Bruja Positionalities,” 10–45.

45.

Lara, 14.

46.

Laura E. Pérez, “Spirit Glyphs: Reimagining Art and Artists in the Work of Chicana ‘Tlamatinime,’” Modern Fiction Studies 44, no. 1, Contested Spaces in the Caribbean and the Américas Special Issue (Spring 1998): 38–39.

47.

Pérez, Chicana Art, 6.

48.

Pérez, 6.

49.

Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, “Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility,” in Chicano and Chicana Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Jennifer González, C. Ondine Chavoya, Chon Noriega, and Terezita Romo (1989; repr., Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 85.

50.

Amalia Mesa-Bains, “Domesticana: The Sensibility of Chicana Rasquachismo,” first published in 1999, in González et al., Chicano and Chicana Art, 92.

51.

See Amalia Mesa-Bains, “Domesticana: The Sensibility of Chicana Rasquachismo,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 24, no. 2 (fall 1999): 155–67.

52.

Mesa-Bains, “Domesticana,” Chicano and Chicana Art, 93.

53.

Mesa-Bains, 93.