The Murals of Memory in Cuidad Juarez

April has been a very busy month for Paula Flores Bonilla. On Monday, April 13, the Juarez resident attempted to enter a courtroom as the trial kicked off of six men accused of kidnapping and killing 11 young women whose remains were found at a clandestine graveyard in the Juarez Valley in 2012.

But Flores, whose own daughter Sagrario was abducted and murdered in 1998 when she was 17 years old, was turned away along with her friend Irma Perez, mother of another murdered teenager, because the public viewing area was jammed with high school students on an apparent field trip. Flores challenged the wisdom of exposing young female students to the graphic testimony of the trial.

“This isn’t a game. It’s a very grave reality of girls disappearing, so why do they bring them there?” Flores questioned.

Three days later, on the 17th anniversary of Sagrario’s disappearance and subsequent murder, Flores and other relatives of missing or murdered young women took to the streets. In a zone undergoing an official urban revitalization, the relatives and their supporters repainted the fading black crosses set to a pink background which were first splashed on downtown utility posts and buildings many years ago and came to symbolize the international movement against femicide.

“Many mothers believe that by staying silent their case will advance, but it’s the opposite,” Flores said in an interview. “The only resource we have as family is to denounce all this. The only hope is for other countries to know that this hasn’t stopped, that femicide continues… the crosses we painted on the streets speak for themselves.”

Flores and friends wrapped up their April 16th action by staging a march down Avenida Juarez, chanting slogans as they approached the huge new mural of Mexican singer Juan Gabriel, who has emerged as the icon of the official campaign to revitalize Juarez, and continued on to the foot of the Santa Fe Bridge connecting with El Paso, Texas, where the group placed a photo of Sagrario on the Cross of Nails, a grassroots monument also erected many years ago in memory of the murdered girls and women of the Mexican border city.

Then there was the matter of another, unofficial but nevertheless meaningful mural- Sagrario’s mural. In recent days, local artist Maclovio has been putting the final touches on a large portrait of Maria Sagrario Gonzalez Flores painted on her family’s home in the working-class neighborhood of Lomas de Poleo. Maclovio, who is also a rapper, said that he works closely with family members to create murals that convey the personality and story of the individual honored by the work of art.

The objective, he said, is to create a “more profound mural of the person” that relates a “deeper history.” Maclovio characterized Sagrario’s mural as not only a particular image of the young woman but a visual landmark that triggers and preserves community memory in Lomas de Poleo.  “People who pass by will say, ‘Oh, that’s Sagrario,” he said. “This is a small way of returning Sagrario to her home.”

Sagrario’s mural is the fifth one of murdered and missing girls and women that has been painted this year in Ciudad Juarez.  The other works depict Lilia Alejandra Garcia Andrade, Brenda Berenice Castillo Garcia, Monica Janet Alanis Esparza and Esmeralda Castillo Rincon.

For 2015 and beyond, victims’ relatives have an ambitious goal of covering landscapes across the city with murals in honor of their loved ones. If the project keeps pace, well over 100 new murals could spring up in Ciudad Juarez.

Jose Luis Castillo, father of Esmeralda Castillo, a 14-year-old who went missing in 2009 and was identified recently by the authorities as one of the victims recovered from the Juarez Valley three years ago, said the murals are part of a “permanent campaign” by the Mothers and Relatives Committee of Disappeared Daughters to remember past victims and prevent future ones.

Although relatives are hoping the trial of the six Juarez Valley suspects could begin spinning the wheels of justice, officials are still stumbling when it comes to the preventative aspect, Castillo said.

“They aren’t doing anything. We are the ones doing presentations in schools, putting posters up. That’s why we solicit support from all the people of Juarez and nearby,” he added.

In order to raise funds for their cause, Castillo, Flores and other relatives sold fruit cups and other tasty treats at the 4th Annual Monufest, which was held April 19 at  the weekly Bazar Cultural del Monu located in the park next to the Benito Juarez Monument in Juarez’s downtown area.

Featuring a day-long line-up of folk, rock, rap and ska music, the event drew hundreds who mingled with friends, shopped at the regular Sunday flea market and learned first-hand about the stories of missing and murdered young women.

According to victims’ relatives, money is needed for paint to create the murals, print posters and reproduce t-shirts. In a cat-and-mouse game, family members replace posters of missing loved ones that are removed from the downtown area presumably by authorities anxious to create a new urban image.

Perla Reyes, mother of Jocelyn Calderon Reyes, a 13-year-old who vanished while she was presumably headed to downtown Juarez in December 2012, pointed to a fading t-shirt with her daughter’s picture and said new ones were needed.

Near the Benito Juarez Monument, the relatives’ group stringed clothes lines that dangled with mini-biographies of victims compiled from relatives’ memories and journalistic accounts, while  giant banners with the photos of scores of missing girls and women from 1987 to the present stared out into the crowd.

In a critical sense, the murals, posters, banners and biographies collectively represent an alternative, grassroots counter-narrative to the current urban redevelopment of the city as well as a popular movement to reclaim public space.

“Yes, we want pretty streets.  But first, we want our young women,” read one placard displayed off to the side of the relatives stand. “In Ciudad Juarez, the State is cleansing Avenida Juarez of women, but not of their traffickers,” read another message.

For Paula Flores, chapters of justice remain to be written for Sagrario and other victims. The longtime Juarense recounted how her family’s efforts forced Chihuahua state law enforcement authorities to finally arrest a suspect, Jose Luis Hernandez, in 2005.

According to Flores, the suspect admitted to getting paid for setting up  Sagrario  and was sentenced to 29 years in prison for murder, which he is serving in Puente Grande, the maximum security prison situated far from Juarez in the state of Jalisco and infamous for now-imprisoned drug lord Chapo Guzman’s 2001 escape.

Hernandez fingered two other men who still have not been arrested, Flores said. Years later, Flores said she occasionally checks in with the Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office but finds no progress in the case. “They have our phone numbers, but they don’t call us,” the Juarez mother lamented.

For videos and photos of the murals dedicated to Sagrario and other victims, the April 16 cross repainting in downtown Juarez and other pertinent information, check out the following Spanish-language page.

Kent Paterson writes for Frontera NorteSur

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Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.