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Salvaging the luminosity of a lost city

While the murder of hundreds of women in Juárez, Mexico, eventually attracted international attention – and with it, sensationalist headlines – photographer Itzel Aguilera’s work engages with the complex realities of her city.

"My idea was to begin to embrace the city," said photographer Itzel Aguilera, describing her attitude when she moved to Juárez in 2008, the first year it achieved notoriety as the most violent city in the world. In all my trips to Juárez, I had never heard anyone say those exact words. Aguilera arrived in the city with her husband and young daughters, Valeria and Dalia.

At the time Valeria was six years old and Dalia was seven months old. "What happened?" Aguilera asked. "We were going through a very difficult time, a period of true violence that was lived starting that year and continuing up to 2010. But in 2008 I already felt afraid. I began to realize that I didn't have very many options to go out."

In this situation, Aguilera began to consider what kind of photography she wanted to pursue. Living among some 22 million souls in Mexico City, her previous home, she had pursued both commercial projects and personal ones. Her series of portraits of the Mennonite community in northern Mexico are haunting black and whites that capture the joy of a life lived closely in connection with the earth. In Juárez, however, her work turned inward to represent the intimate details of daily life.

Photography by Itzel Aguilera

Aguilera explained, "I began to take photographs of our daily scenes. It wasn't a very forced confinement. I never felt claustrophobic. I didn't sit down and cry because I couldn't go out. I considered it a special situation in that, at that time, my daughters and I had to be protected in the house. We went out to the porch and to the patio."

And there is no way to explain it except to say that the series of photos of her daughters produced during the three highest years of violence in Juárez capture an almost unimaginable sense of peace, a world nestled within a world.

The sense of intimacy and tenderness captured in those photos of Valeria and Dalia is extraordinary, moments in between moments: the drawings that the two girls left on the steamy bathroom mirror after a shower, Dalia laughing on the patio in the rain, bodies napping in the sunlight. "The media is very cold and calculating, very into numbers. I would like to salvage the luminosity of scenes, of children. They are very candid photos," explained Aguilera.

Photography by Itzel Aguilera

"My photography was limited almost exclusively to exploring everyday images: spaces, the bedroom, games, the shower, water, laughter. After a few months, we extended our range—we went out to the patio, to the front porch of the house." This home photography project with her daughters was her way of coping with life in Juárez. "I needed to document those moments we lived in confinement," she said.

But news of the outside world filtered into the warm cocoon of home. As Aguilera watched how the city was represented in the national and international media, she asked herself, "How are you going to display your work? Who are you going to show it to? Because they are families, but they are people who have suffered a loss. For example, a father in one of the homes I visited was ravaged by alcohol. You see their loss, the fatality, the disgrace." Was there a way to represent the city, as damaged as it was, but still capture its humanity?

Photography by Itzel AguileraAguilera would stand out on her porch taking photos of the explosive Juárez sunsets and thinking about the news of the day. She began to connect each sunset, as intricate as a fingerprint, with a particular crime. "One Saturday or Sunday I had just read the terrible news that they had found the bodies of the Reyes Salazar brothers, who had disappeared. They were activists who had been persecuted for a long time. Their bodies were found in the Valle de Juárez. It was impossible for me to be there physically in solidarity. I remember that I took the camera, went to the patio, and looked up at the sky in lament, lament for what another part of Juárez was experiencing at that moment – the burial. I had the habit of going out to photograph the sky in the evening. I am at a point in the project where I am linking sublime images of the sky with a coincidental act of violence that occurred at that time."

Aguilera's photos capture cottony clouds swathed in the light at the end of the earth, the light of Juárez. The way that she has continued to embrace her city, to make it her home, and to find meaning in acts of everyday life is a thing of beauty.

When I was in Juárez in 2013, Aguilera took me to the official memorial park dedicated to the eight female victims whose bodies had been dumped in the Cotton Field in 2011, just in front of the city's Association of Maquiladoras building. The memorial, which cost 1.2 million dollars, was built to comply with recommendations made by the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in 2009.

The court found Mexico guilty of not effectively investigating the abduction and murder of the women and ordered Juárez to create a national memorial for the victims, to pay reparations to the families, and to investigate the murders.

But on November 7, 2011, when the memorial was unveiled in a public ceremony, several of the victims' family members attended the event to protest and criticize city officials. They pointed out that the deaths and disappearances continued and that crimes were not being properly investigated or punished. Disappearances were disappearing, as the unfortunate wording of the anti-disappearance campaign suggested.

They were being officially ignored, unresolved, and forgotten to all those except the family members who lived that disappearance as a constant present, one that did not allow even the small peace that comes with being able to bury a body. On the way to the memorial, Itzel pointed out that it was surrounded by a high wall and was almost impossible to enter given that there was no parking lot.

"It is as if the government didn't want people to go there," she said. On the bars of the fence at the front of the park, I found posters asking for help finding missing girls who had disappeared in 2012: Perla, Esmeralda, María de la Luz, Jessica, Idall, and Nancy Iveth. How did a park dedicated to the memory of murdered women also become the place where residents taped posters of disappeared girls?

On my last night in the city in May 2013, I sat in an ice cream parlor with Aguilera and her daughters. Valeria and I ate cookies and cream ice cream while little Dalia attempted to eat a giant cone of lime ice cream that mostly ran down her face and onto her shirt.

Valeria proclaimed her love of ice cream and said, "Things I wish would never end: ice cream, fruit, my age." Then, sitting up straight in her chair, legs swinging beneath the table, she said, "But pollution and violence—I wish they would end."

This is an extract from Alice Driver's recent book More or Less Dead: Femicide, Haunting and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico.

About the author

Dr. Alice Driver is the author of More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico. She is the translator of Abecedario de Juárez, a collaboration between journalist Julián Cardona and artist Alice Leora Briggs that explores and maps the new language of violence in Mexico. Driver is currently working on Photographing Freedom with Civil Rights leader Mary King. Her writing focuses on human rights, women's rights, and activism and has been featured in publications such as Al Jazeera English, Salon, Ms. Magazine, and Vela.  


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