Late in the afternoon on August 16, I approached Glorieta de Insurgentes, a major roundabout where the neighborhoods of Roma and Juárez meet. The atmosphere was one of excitement. It’s unusual to travel by foot on Insurgentes, the longest avenue in Mexico City. But I was joining a protest. The flyer announcing it told us to cover our faces and plan escape routes. I joined a commanding mass of women. It was just a little past the designated start time, but we were already breaking LED screens with crowbars. We were shattering the glass on bus stop advertisements for business magazines. We were spraying paint on most surfaces.
The sun that day went down on dozens of broken windows, a trashed bus station, entire blocks covered with graffiti, and a flaming police station. Ángel de la Independencia, the golden, half-nude female angel that has become the emblem of the city, was vandalized—or updated, depending on your perspective. Its base was almost entirely covered with feminist slogans: “México feminicida” (Mexico murders women), “Somos malas podemos ser peores” (We’re bad, we can be worse), and the war call that led us all there that day: “No nos cuidan, nos violan” (You don’t protect us, you rape us), addressed to the police. Some days earlier, the press reported that a minor had accused four policemen of gang-raping her. This was only one of three incidents of misogynistic violence attributed to the police last summer. A homeless woman was assaulted, and a teenage girl was raped in a museum.
On the morning of August 16, I had visited Susana Vargas, a writer and researcher. I felt tense, even fearful, as I walked to her house from the subway station. The circumstances made it seem that no place was safe. On Vargas’s sunny patio, we exchanged pleasantries and shared our anxieties—an appropriate prelude to a conversation about feminism and the shapes it takes in art, in Vargas’s work, and in our city.
For Vargas, feminism is praxis, and her approach owes much to Teresa de Lauretis’s essay “The Technology of Gender.” In it, de Lauretis addresses a subject “not unified but rather multiple, and not so much divided as contradicted.”1 Vargas interprets this concept as a relational position, one “not fixed but constantly adapting and changing in its interactions with others.”2 This means the rejection of gender as biological determination or as mere sexual difference, and the adoption of what de Lauretis designates an “analytical and critical method of feminism, [a] practice of self-consciousness.”3
Vargas’s book The Little Old Lady Killer: The Sensationalized Crimes of Mexico’s First Female Serial Killer (2019) tells the story of Juana Barraza, who captured Mexico’s imagination after her arrest in 2006. She murdered at least forty abuelitas (grannies), entering their homes by posing as a social worker. The police had been looking for a male suspect and snatched up Barraza by a fluke. A neighbor of her last victim saw her fleeing, and a couple of low-ranking cops chased her down. But she was not immediately investigated. Even though witnesses had reported seeing a woman with short, coppery blonde hair leaving the crime scenes, the authorities concocted the fantasy of a cross-dressing murderer and continued to search for a man.
Vargas argues that gender essentialism not only allowed Barraza’s spree to continue longer than it otherwise might have, it also led to an exceptionally harsh sentence: 759 years in prison. While white male serial killers are often described as unusually intelligent, Barraza was just characterized as manly. She was demonized, as artist Paloma Contreras put it in a recent presentation of the book, “not necessarily for the crimes committed, but for trespassing on the realm of male aggression.”
This tension was rekindled in the aftermath of the August 16 protest. People, not only men, spread the hatred thickly on social media. The protesters were denounced on TV and in newspapers. Concern rarely expressed for the victims of feminicidios spilled forth for broken windows and defaced monuments.
At the protest, I ran into Betzabeth Torres, a young artist who belongs to the collective Mamífieras, a portmanteau of mami (mommy) and fieras (wild) that also plays on the feminine form of the Spanish word for “mammals”: mamíferas. The group originally formed in and around La Esmeralda, the National School of Painting, Sculpture, and Engraving, but has grown to include women with backgrounds in psychology, biology, and other disciplines. For their latest exhibition at the project space Pandeo in August, titled (beginning with a neologism) “Mamiferalis en la tierra gris” (Mamiferals in the Gray Land), they took on the theme of the city. Torres contributed two of the show’s most striking pieces. Agradecimientos 2 (Thank You 2, 2018) is an oversize note written with black paint on white paper, bitingly but also sincerely thanking people, institutions, and objects. “Thanks to La Esmeralda for showing me the art world, for teaching me how to smear myself with shit,” she writes. “To dogs for guiding me when I’m adrift . . . sexism and feminism for fucking up my life . . . lesbians for existing.” This list of succinct personal and political statements reads like a call to arms.
Her video Defectus Faecalis (2013) likewise offers a choppy, forceful account of how Torres positions herself in the world. It’s a series of snippets of her life in the city as documented on her phone: she walks the streets at night in a hoodie, watches a Hi-NRG crowd raving under a monument, stands outside in the rain, rides public transit, and strolls congested streets downtown. The work’s naturalism reminds me of something Vargas told me: that the city’s infrastructure protects us. There are prevalent street lights, sidewalks, and bike paths. That is not the case in many parts of Estado de México or the industrial zones of Ciudad Juárez, areas known locally, nationally, and internationally as hot spots for feminicidios. There is no city to watch you there. Just ditches and darkness. These are not places made with people in mind, let alone women walking alone at night.
In their manifesto, Mamífieras members state their goals as creating alliances among women and bringing bodies together for free movement in public space. These overlap seamlessly with the objectives of Camila Gb, an artist, performer, goldsmith, poet, and organizer who founded the Llorar (Cry) collective. For her, the only good reason to engage with an art industry plagued by sexism and abuses of power is to build inclusive networks of friendship. Gb sees art as a domain not of singular genius but of collective creation and shared knowledge. She advocates for a vernacular aesthetic rooted in context and collaboration, an art that maps the relationships and responsibilities of a community. She can’t be an artist without also working as an organizer. Llorar was established in 2017, and although Gb has not had a fixed space since the end of last year, she continues the program, which includes poetry readings, performances, art shows, queer and feminist meetings, workshops on health issues, and parties to raise funds for artists’ projects.
As we talked in a dainty café near her metal workshop, Gb twisted and knitted receipts from convenience stores and ATMs into long delicate strands of barbed paper. It’s therapeutic as well as diaristic for her. The paper trail keeps her mind occupied while reminding her what she has done and where she has been. From those long, wiry strands, she weaves large nets, both rugged and frail, often installed precariously, as if washed aground. Her jewelry also plays with variations on these shapes. She plates the paper wire with gold and bends it to make chokers and earrings that resemble the basic sun-shape we all drew as children: a circle with points radiating outward.
I first met Gb at one of the most extraordinary art-related gatherings I’ve ever attended. Earlier this year, her friend and colleague Lourdes Martínez invited a group of women art workers to Lagos, the art space where she was a resident, to tell us about the work she was making there at the time, #pinturadepatos (#duckpainting). At first, it seemed innocuous enough. I’ve seen the hashtag pop up on my Instagram feed, usually accompanied by pastel-colored paintings that occasionally suggest the simplified silhouettes of ducks. But that day she really took us on a ride. Martínez’s genius is finding fortuitous connections among images and making sense of them in relation to some aspect of toxic masculinity, be they the monstrous women painted by José Clemente Orozco, pornography, or things emblematic of abstract concepts like the cult of militarism, shitty relationships, the division of labor, or animal sexuality. Martínez said she depicts mallards in small sculptures and oil paintings because all duck sex is rape. Martínez calls her method patoidolia, a play on pareidolia, the human tendency to attribute familiar shapes and patterns to random combinations of forms. Her project “Patoidolia” is a series of works expressing her visual obsession with ducks. Martínez writes that she sees “ducks power-drilling my corneas, implo-ejected into my psyche.”4 In the painting Solo para mujeres (Rocco Siffredi) (For women only [Rocco Siffredi], 2018), she depicts a duck-snake, or maybe it’s a duck-dick with that perturbing corkscrew shape. The creature wears a bow tie and a hat. It slithers across a flowering prairie. It’s named Rocco Siffredi, after the porn star notorious for his rough anal sex scenes. There’s a lived-in darkness lurking under the surfaces of Martínez’s duck paintings. It materializes in a warning to her male peers: “Teach me how to kill you and how to replace you.”5
At the August 16 protest, I ran into Argentina-born, Mexico-based artist Ana Gallardo. She told me she felt this protest might be different. We could feel the rage going up our nostrils along with the smoke from burning ads. Gallardo has always been aware that the opportunities available to her in the art world were not half as enticing as those that were open to men. To her, being an artist means trying to change the world, or at least “a commitment to its meaning.”6 For Gallardo, as for Gb, art makes sense only in the collective experience, so she has dedicated several years now to building communities with older adults and understanding how attitudes toward aging and death operate in different societies, while seeking to overcome the notion that one’s last years must be a useless or empty time. In the series of videos “Acciones Primarias” (Primary Activities, 2014) groups of elderly people get to do what they most enjoy doing, and share their knowledge with her. In one, she learns to perform traditional Japanese dances, sing karaoke, and garden with an elderly woman and man in Sorocaba, Brazil. For an iteration of Escuela de Envejecer (School of Aging), 2016–, Gallardo set up a series of workshops at the Museo Jumex with a trans activist, a music expert, and a storyteller. These projects examine the isolation and invisibility that the elderly face when capitalism no longer recognizes them as producers of value. In addition to her work as an artist, Gallardo runs La Verdi, an art space and residency that operates in both Buenos Aires and Mexico City, where it is located near La Merced, a gigantic marketplace whose perimeter is dotted with sex workers. Many of them are not there voluntarily; the area has been identified as a hub for human trafficking. “In this city, everything happens in plain sight,” Gallardo said. “Both the good and the dreadful.”7
Martínez wrote to me that Mexico City “is teetering on the edge of a collapse that never actually happens.”8 For all these artists, as for most of us, the city can feel like both ally and executioner. It’s where we encounter each other and where we become a crowd, a city with enough resources to lure us all from different parts of the country to find cherished friends and colleagues. But it is also where we are in danger of being attacked and murdered. Following Vargas and de Lauretis, we must stay aware of the position we occupy at any given moment as individuals; but I also believe we must think of ourselves more often as a mass, whether a destructive or constructive one. After the August 16 protest, I felt for the first time that the city was mine, ours. Women had taken back the streets. They belonged to us as much as they did to our abusers. The slogan rang true: “Somos malas, podemos ser peores.”
1 Teresa de Lauretis, “The Technology of Gender” in Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1987, p. 2.
2 Interview with Susana Vargas, Mexico City, Aug. 16, 2019.
3 De Lauretis, p. 20.
4 Lourdes Martínez, PATOIDOLIA: #pinturadepatos, artist’s pamphlet produced at Lagos, Mexico City, May 9, 2019.
5 Lourdes Martínez, lecture at Lagos, May 15, 2019.
6 Interview with Ana Gallardo, Mexico City, Aug. 19, 2019.
8 Lourdes Martínez, email message to the author, Aug. 26, 2019.
This article appears under the title “We Can Be Worse” in the November 2019 issue, pp. 76–81.