Narco Violence, as Seen by a Journalist-Turned-Artist

Binational artist Luz Maria Sánchez grapples with killings that haunt her family and her country of birth.

Luz Maria Sánchez and Artpace board member Lawrence Markey in front of “riverbank,” the second part of her installation “Diaspora I/II.”
Mark Menjivar, courtesy Artpace San Antonio
Luz Maria Sánchez and Artpace board member Lawrence Markey in front of “riverbank,” the second part of her installation “Diaspora I/II.”

Last spring, multimedia artist Luz Maria Sánchez took first prize in the first-ever Biennial of the Frontiers in Matamoros, Mexico, for a work focused on the dearth of coverage of narco violence by the news media. The same week, the mayor of Matamoros was nearly assassinated, and on the day of the event’s opening, there was another shooting three blocks from the venue. For those who question the broad cultural relevance of the contemporary art world, with its exclusive international fairs and million-dollar auctions, Matamoros provided a stark rebuttal. People who came out to see the exhibitions literally risked getting caught in the crossfire of a drug war skirmish.

Sánchez’s work was welcomed not just by the competition’s judges but also by border residents, who confront narco violence as a daily reality. It helped that Sánchez’s installation on display, “Unnecessary Force” (2014-2015), engages deeply with the problems they face. “It was good; people went to the opening,” Sánchez says. “You never know as an artist how people will react when you go to their arena and put the thing there. They were not offended. They were actually proud that things that they have to deal with every day were part of an art show. That, for them, was validating.”

Sánchez, whose work is now on view in both San Antonio and Houston, knows a thing or two about living with the effects of violence and seeing that experience transformed into art. Her father, Hiram Sánchez Felix, was a professor at the University of Guadalajara and director of the city’s Casa de Cultura. He collected French literature and wrote several plays that were performed on local stages. “He was more to the side of, you know, trying to change the world for good or whatever,” Sánchez explains in a tone of hard-earned disillusionment.

Despite the relative peace of Guadalajara, where many narco-traffickers located their families, violence was a fact of life for Sánchez growing up. She remembers spending time in her grandparents’ house in the prosperous Jardines del Bosque neighborhood. In 1985, in a house just around the corner, the Mexican-American DEA agent Kiki Camarena was tortured for 30 hours, injected with amphetamines so that he would not lose consciousness, and eventually killed. “It was a really nice neighborhood, middle class, affluent, and then you had that guy in that house for who knows how long, and he was killed,” Sánchez says. “That kind of thing permeated my childhood years.”

In 1982, Sánchez’s father was killed at home while she, her sister and her mother were out of the house. There were no signs of a robbery. According to a news-
paper article about the killing, the position of chairs around the kitchen table indicated that her father had sat down to talk with his murderers before they shot him 14 times. Sánchez, then 11, was the first to enter the house and discover him dying on the floor.

The murder was never solved. Sánchez suspects that powerful people were involved. “It was more a political event,” she says. “My mother was never able to figure it out. There were a lot of threats, and she decided never to look after justice.”

Sánchez has not made her father’s murder a central part of her biography as an artist. She doesn’t mention it on her website or in the supporting mate-
rial for her exhibitions. Her motives, it seems, are a mix of journalistic reticence — an unwillingness to place herself at the center of the story she’s telling — and the sort of carefully inculcated fear that permeates Mexican life, regardless of social class.

“I know here in the States you tend to always talk about your life,” she told me. “I always try to omit that information. But that’s one of the reasons I know about violence, and I’m cautious about it, and I don’t want to get into it. I’m always looking at it, like, from behind. In Guadalajara, in my family, we had violence really close to us.”

“Detritus” by Luz Maria Sánchez
Luz Maria Sánchez
“Detritus” at Houston’s She Works Flexible.

In person and in her art, Sánchez’s style is observational and exact, almost without an expressive first-person stance, except for, perhaps, one of detached and utterly rational horror. She could almost be viewed as an avant-garde journalist who broadcasts her dispatches from speakers shaped like automatic weapons and collects her supporting evidence in the form of migrants’ cast-off garments from the north banks of the Rio Grande.

Only after delving deep into her work and her life story do we begin to see Sánchez as much more than an impartial witness. The cumulative impression of her work over the past decade is that of personal grief transformed by rigorous intellectual practice into art that peers unflinchingly into the moral abysses of the present century and speaks truth to power.

Sánchez gravitated toward journalism at an early age, working for a local radio station as a teenager and continuing through her college years, while she trained as a musician. She did not begin thinking of herself as an artist until her late 20s. By then, her grounding in journalism had instilled in her the value of listening, researching and sharing information as a way to let the truth come out, rather than forcing it with partisan bluster. “I don’t see myself as an activist per se,” she says. “I see myself more as an accurate observer, within my scope as an artist. More than trying to get involved, get in groups or make a group, I’m more about letting other people look at things as I saw them. The process is really long. What I do is, I just research, read, look, talk. Eventually, I tie together thoughts in a way that — I don’t really know how I do it, there’s not a method necessarily. The real thing is, I research a lot.”

Indeed, Sánchez’s journalistic interests have at times threatened to sideline her artistic career. From about 2009 to 2013, Sánchez worked for Canal 22 Internacional in Mexico City, a public-television channel aimed at Mexicans living abroad. She led a department that aimed to expand the channel’s viewership. Eventually, however, Sánchez found that her art practice could not coexist with a government journalism job. “I felt like working for the government was really getting to a point where I could not do the artwork I was envisioning,” she says. “The two things I was doing were overlapping, and it ethically was not good. I started not showing that much, just doing my work. After I resigned, I was able to get into it.”

What she’s gotten into since resigning her post is an explosive series of works that amounts to a searing critique of the drug war of former President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and the more recent efforts of current President Enrique Peña Nieto to distract the national and international news media from ongoing episodes of violence.

One such work, “Detritus” (2011-2013), is on view through November 7 at She Works Flexible gallery in Houston’s Montrose district. This ever-evolving project collects thousands of news images of violence in Mexico. Sánchez has altered the images almost beyond recognition; the effect is similar to the rotoscope animation style used by filmmaker Richard Linklater for Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. At press time, with the help of data visualization programmers, Sánchez was building a timeline of the photos so viewers could observe for themselves how the Mexican news media’s coverage of narco violence fell off after the 2012 Pact for Mexico, a political accord signed by the country’s ruling party and the three largest opposition parties, and the subsequent tightening of telecommunications freedoms. The images are accompanied by violent audio clips from police frequencies in Mexico.

As the Mexican media has grown more and more silent about narco violence, ordinary citizens have stepped in to fill the void, sharing their experiences on social media of shootouts and police-narco confrontations. This sort of informal citizen journalism provides the audio content for “Unnecessary Force,” the piece that won the Biennial of the Frontiers last spring. The installation is currently in transit to Mexico City, where it will be viewable soon.

In this work, another sound installation, Sánchez eschews traditional wall speakers for an array of 74 automatic-weapon-shaped audio players, mounted as if in a police or paramilitary arsenal. Each weapon/speaker is loaded with a unique audio clip, gathered from YouTube, featuring a citizen-recorded episode of violence. Each audio clip plays only when its gun’s trigger is pulled. As in the current Mexican news climate, viewers can choose to tune out the violence if they prefer. For those who visited the exhibit in Matamoros, of course, tuning out the real-world gunfire in the streets was not an option.

Sánchez’s other current Texas exhibit, the two-part installation “Diaspora I/II” (2006) on display at San Antonio’s Artpace through January, is a relic from an earlier topic of interest for Sánchez — and from an important time of transformation for her as an artist.

There is no national monument in either Mexico or the United States to the thousands of migrants who have died trying to cross the militarized border. They die in limbo, sons and daughters of no nation, often buried without ceremony in paupers’ graves far from their families. Since the start of the millennium, in the absence of an official remembrance, an archipelago of small-scale folk and fine art memorials has appeared across the Southwest and Mexico: a wall decorated with crosses and coffins on the road to the airport in Tijuana; a smartphone app that projects digital calaca skeletons on the Southern Arizona desert; an installation of 2,501 life-sized clay sculptures in a Oaxacan ghost town.

Sánchez’s San Antonio installation is a particularly wrenching variation on the border memorial theme. The first section, “2487,” is a bare room featuring a white bench surrounded by 16 low-mounted speakers. Over the course of hours, the speakers play audio clips of Sánchez reading the names of individuals who died crossing the border. On the bench is a book listing the same names, with hometown, age, date and cause of death, if known.

“2487” by Luz Maria Sánchez
Todd Johnson, Courtesy Artpace San Antonio
Sánchez’s multi-channel audio installation entitled “2487” has recorded the names of 2,487 of an estimated 6,000 people who have died while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border since the start of the millennium. The piece was originally commissioned by Artpace San Antonio.

The concept came to the artist while she was living in San Antonio, her home base from 2002 to 2008. (She remains a non-citizen resident of the United States, though she teaches in Mexico City.) She’d been researching border deaths but could not find a comprehensive list of the dead; every nongovernmental organization that kept track seemed to ignore some names and would sometimes repeat names it did include. Sánchez resolved to compile a list that at the very least did not count the same body twice.

Relying on information from NGOs, she identified 2,487 names of the dead, a list she admits is incomplete — as any list would be, considering the ease with which a body can disappear in the vast Southwestern deserts. Sánchez’s list, like “2487” as a whole, has not grown or changed since 2006. In 2014, the International Organization for Migration estimated that nearly 6,000 migrants had died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border since the start of the 21st century, with perhaps 447 dead in the previous year alone. This one border has accounted for perhaps 15 percent of all immigration deaths in the world in this century, according to the group, though recent developments in Europe suggest that what has been a disproportionately local story may be going global.

Sánchez has been struck by the different reactions she’s witnessed among San Antonio museum-goers as they encounter “Diaspora I/II.” Non-Hispanic Texans reported feeling touched emotionally, often crying, overwhelmed by the rhythmic insistence of Sánchez’s voice or the relatable, quotidian details of the found-object sculpture. On the other hand, “Mexican Americans would go and look at the book to see if their family name is there,” Sánchez says. “It’s like the Vietnam Wall. ‘Oh look, an Alvarez is there, my family.’”

The second section of “Diaspora I/II,” titled “riverbank,” features an arrangement of objects Sánchez found on a series of trips to the border near Laredo in 2006. Probably all of these artifacts, from toothbrushes and plastic garbage bags to soft drink bottles and countless articles of underwear, belonged to people who survived the crossing.

Sánchez collected them from a small Rio Grande-adjacent property that, while private, is within range of Border Patrol motion sensors. The artist herself was confronted by Border Patrol while making her collections. “That means that as soon as these guys get out of the water, there’s really little time before Border Patrol shows up and says, ‘What are you doing here?’” Sánchez says. Migrants cross in clothes they intend to muddy up and discard immediately, she explains. They carry better, dry clothes in garbage bags on their backs. Once they’ve crossed, they dry off, change into these clothes and aim to quickly blend into the general population.

Sánchez stresses that river crossings and border deaths were not part of her personal immigration experience. She moved to San Antonio with her then-
husband, an American, after earning her Ph.D. in Barcelona. But making a new life in Texas compelled a series of revelations about both her home country and her compatriots immersed in the American immigrant experience: the fear and powerlessness of the Mexican-American underclass in the United States; the disenfranchisement from the Mexican political system of Mexicans living abroad; and, most consequentially for her practice, the eagerness with which U.S.-born Mexican-American artists speak out about politics, in contrast to her more reticent Mexican peers.

Looking at her native country from across the border, Sánchez felt provoked to unpack some thorny problems, asking questions that native Mexicans sometimes fear to ask. “Being here in Texas, for the first time I was able to see Mexico with another set of eyes,” she says. “The time that I spent here in San Antonio reflecting about these kinds of issues was very important in my career, because I made this shift toward more social themes, social justice-related.” This process first came to fruition during her 2006 residency at Artpace, culminating in “Diaspora I/II.” Now that approach informs all of her work, up to and including the award-winning “Unnecessary Force,” and her “Detritus” project in Houston.

Looking ahead, Sánchez hopes to keep a foothold in both countries. “For me, the ideal would be to be here and there, going back and forth,” Sánchez says of her two homes. “I haven’t found a way of doing it. I really feel, I don’t want to say inspired, because I don’t like that word, but each time I visit I think I should come and do a project. I’m always thinking [about] what I’m going to do. I don’t want to lose this other lens. Even if I’m in Mexico, the lens that I have is still the one that I got here.”

Michael Agresta, an Austin resident, has written for Slate, the Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal.

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