In The Labyrinth of Solitude, renowned Mexican writer and cultural critic Octavio Paz observed: “The word death is not pronounced in New York, Paris, and London because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death jokes about it, caresses it,
sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast loves” (Paz, 57). On the eve of All Saints and All Souls days, the Mexican drug war has spawned a new genre of death imagery that now threatens Paz’s cultural perceptions.
Lenin Márquez Salazar’s paintings document the impact of narco violence. In one painting of Aparecidos, a young boy wearing a cap with Sylvester chasing Tweety Bird smiles to the viewer before a bound body murdered execution style. The child’s innocence is blighted by the images of death that surround him in a dreamlike state. At first glance, he appears unaware, but on closer inspection he appears years older, as he holds the viewers gaze with an uneasy smirk. Is he the assassin or unwitting victim of a narco drama? In his landscape series Paisajes,the beauty of the countryside is tarnished by the bound and murdered bodies that mar it, but the dead are just as essential as the trees, mountains, and sky.
For years, drugs have—borrowing from Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters–haunted Mexico, exhibiting a “seething presence, acting on and meddling with the taken for granted realities” (Gordon, 8). It is exactly this type of haunting in Mexico that led sociologist Luis Astorga, writer Elmer Mendoza, journalist Ismael Bojorquez, and artist Márquez Salazar, all Sinaloans, to take on take on the muses of drugs and violence in their work since no one else was depicting their realities. These were not ethereal, but rather unique realities that now have spilled across state boundaries. Márquez conveys that death and
bodies littering the countryside are now fixtures of the natural state. He does not paint blood, but rather the beauty of the landscapes and of the victims creating a sense of unease begging the viewer to consider the ramifications of violence.
In El Velador (The Night Watchman), Mexican director Natalia Almada documents the life of Martin, a guard, who watches over the mausoleums of some of the most notorious Sinaloan drug lords. Like Marquez’s paintings, the film is about the quotidian realities of violence. Direct violence is never present in the film, but the documentary teems with the realities of broken lives that take on unusual spectacles in death.
At night, Martin hears the music, the laughter, and the gunfire from the young men who visit the mausoleums of their fallen brothers. In the morning, Martin cleans up the debris from the previous night’s fiesta among the tombs inspired by Roman neoclassical or Bauhaus styles: houses for the dead that rival those of the living. Young widows arrive with their children to clean the extravagant tombs of their husbands. While her children play on the graves, a young widow brings elaborate fresh flower arrangements, cleans the tiles, and carefully locks the doors at the end of the day before driving off in late model Audi sports car. The funerals include wailing mothers, banda music, and a snack vendor. The young toughs of the drug war find a resting place where they will be surrounded by roses, children, young widows, and the contractors forever erecting another elaborate memorial to a dangerous life that ended too early.
The artists Marquez and Almada capture the emotions of Mexicans who have endured unspeakable violence, curfews, and fear. Their art stands in sharp contrast to the images that the government and the narcos create. A celebration of violence, whether by the Felipe Calderon’s former government or the narcos, serves the same purposes to inspire fear through demonstrations of power. In the case of the government, the use of images of heavily armed hooded men with seized drugs or captured narcos depicts the righteous of the battle, and that all resources are being exhausted to protect Mexican citizens. The narcos leave the broken and mangled bodies of their rivals, traitors, or innocent victims to demonstrate their power, their impunity, and their government’s ineptitude.
We, too, are part of the spectacle because it is created for us. How else to explain the body of el jefe de jefes Arturo Beltrán Leyva posed with his amulets (ghostly horrors of secrets), and later covered in 500 peso notes? His santería and greed justify the multiple poses for the voyeur who demands answers or revenge? Beltrán’s posed bullet-ridden corpse circulated in the blogosphere until criticism emerged. In El Velador, Almada captures the builders of the mausoleums talking about Beltrán’s death. Yet, the posing of el mero mero backfired.
How would an image convey the power of the Calderón administration when the men responsible for theoperation do not dare show their faces because their families will be targeted? Rather, it is in the work of those who are willing to endure the burning of their lips—artists, journalists, writers, and filmmakers— that one finds the truth about death, violence, and an enduring drug war.