The Activists Using Embroidery to Protest Mexico's Murder Epidemic
For Fuentes Rojas, a collective that reclaims public space through peaceful protest, stitching is one way to remember those who have been disappeared or killed in their country.
A member of the Fuentes Rojas collective holds up a handkerchief stitched in memory of an anonymous victim from Chihuahua, murdered in 2011. Photo courtesy of the Fuentes Rojas Archives
Rows of handkerchiefs are strung between the trees, fluttering in the early Sunday afternoon breeze. Some are simple, threaded with stark block black letters, while others bear an elaborate, blood-red outline of Mexico. Each one carefully spells out a name and tells a story.
“Anabel Flores Salazar, a reporter for the crime beat of the Sol de Orizaba, was taken from her home by a group of armed men on February 8th. The victim’s body was found with the head covered by a bag, handcuffed and with the feet tied,” reads one.
“Mauricio Ortega Valerio, 18 years. Ayotzinapa, Mexico. Alive they were taken, alive we want them back. Never again,” reads another, referencing the 2015 forced disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero.
I’m in Coyoacán, Mexico City and in front of this patchworked web of handkerchiefs, some black, some white, some pink, sit a group of women—Elia Andrade, her sister Tania Andrade and Regina Méndez (plus her tiny xoloitzcuintle dog, Tonalli)—who together make up the founding members of the Fuentes Rojas collective, a group dedicated to reclaiming public space through peaceful protest.
Their method of choice? Embroidery.
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“Sometimes [the sewing sessions are] really peaceful, sometimes we stitch alone”, Elia Andrade tells me. “The minute people come closer to read the handkerchiefs, and they realize what they say, there are many people that reject it [and then] there are people that start talking to us.”
Originally, the Fuentes Rojas focus was on homicide victims, of which there were roughly 70 per day in Mexico in 2017. They’d stitch the names and stories in vibrant red thread—naming the dead is a technique also employed by Chiapas’ radical resistance movement, the Zapatistas, Andrade told me. Creating a captivating, tangible memorial that was hard to ignore was just the point, especially in a country with such a high track record of impunity.
“Many people wander through Coyoacán and many people, many families, try not to hear about these things, or they don’t want to open their eyes to the true situation in which the country finds itself; so it seems to us very important that we disrupt these spaces and not in a violent way, but a peaceful way… because we must find other ways to relate to one another that go beyond violence,” Andrade notes.
As time went by, the group broadened their focus: “more people joined and there were many who’d experienced the disappearance of children or parents.” In response, and although color codes aren’t always rigidly adhered to, Fuentes Rojas introduced green thread (“for hope”, explains Andrade), pinks for femicide victims—in 2016, at least seven women a day were murdered in gender-based killings—and black for deceased journalists (six reporters have died in 2018 alone).
And while the occupation of public space was always high on the agenda for Fuentes Rojas (“Public space only exists when one inhabits and occupies it, no?” Andrade points out), embroidery wasn’t always their calling, something at which their name—literally ‘Red Fountains’ in Spanish—suggests. Inaugurated in 2011, the collective first grew out of a Mexico City march held by the poet Javier Sicilia in memory of his murdered son, Juan Francisco. (This march in itself would flourish into the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, a.k.a. the Mexican Indignados Movement.) The Andrade sisters and Méndez were invited to participate in peaceful but public protests, during which they would dye the fountains red; however, after several meetings they found themselves warming to the idea of needlework instead.
Turning craft into a political statement might be nothing new—the Suffragettes could tell you that—but in Mexico, Fuentes Rojas gave rise to a new wave of craftivism. Much like the stories woven into each handkerchief, the word about Fuentes Rojas’ project spun a web across the country, beginning in Guadalajara, then Puebla, and making its way into other towns and cities from there. Andrade notes that “the initiative comes from us, from this collective,” but some of the contacts they’d invited to stitch with them formed “break-off cells and collectives, dubbing themselves ‘Bordando por la Paz’ (‘Stitching for Peace’).”
I spoke via email with Teresa Sordo, the coordinator of one of these groups, Bordamos por la Paz Guadalajara. The “intention from the beginning was to denounce [the killings and disappearances] , go out into parks to find people that needed to talk about the topic that until now had been silenced by the government with the help of the media.” Meanwhile, Hazel Dávalos of the similarly aligned Bordeamos por la Paz in Ciudad Juárez, adds that the handkerchiefs work to remind the viewer that victims “are people, not numbers.”
It’s clear that their craft is political, but is it ‘art?’ No, came the resounding answer, from Dávalos at least: “Our work is a political statement. We prefer not to call it art,” before elaborating that “by calling it art, we’d be closing off our protest to elitist spaces.”
Other public protest movements in Mexico do consider their work ‘art.’ Take the yarn bombing collective Lana Desastre, pioneers of the phenomenon in Mexico. They’ve embroidered everything from Mexico City metro cars to Day of the Dead altars, and even displayed 52 giant woollen breasts (under the Spanish pun ‘Lactejiendo’; ‘Lac-knitting’ unfortunately doesn’t have quite the same ring to it in English) in the garden of Mexico City’s Vasconcelos Library. Their work is both to “protest and beautify public spaces” Miriam Mabel Martínez, a member of Lana Desastre, writes to me.
Art or not then, all of these collectives, by weaponizing and politicizing a medium so typically associated with the ‘feminine,’ one that is in and of itself intricately linked to the storied Mexican textile tradition of elaborate embroidery and needlework, potently condemn Mexican impunity while lending a voice to the silenced.
As Andrade puts it, “every stitch, every breath, every emotion, every chat; what we’re interested in is empathy. We appeal to the emotions, completely different from those of power or violence. Yes, it’s a peaceful protest, but it’s also hard-hitting.”