The Disappeared of Xibalbá: Bodily Remembrances of the "Xibalbay" by Lukas Avendaño

In a descent into the underworld of forced disappearances, María Regina Firmino-Castillo talks about the constant battle against oblivion and the challenge of necropolitics present in Lukas Avendaño’s work.

Xibalbá here and now

Xibalbá is where the lords of terror, violence, and death reign. So says the Popol Vuh, a K’iche’ text written in the sixteenth century and preceded by oral and ritual repertoires still practiced in Guatemala and other parts of Mesoamerica.[1] According to these sources, Xibalbá is located on the ninth level of the ]]underworld, but in Xibalbay, Lukas Avendaño’s multidisciplinary stage work, Xibalbá is located here, on Mesoamerican land, where physical disappearance and violent death are constant conditions. In Avendaño’s home country of Mexico alone, nearly 110,000 people have been forcibly disappeared since 1964, with more than half of this number disappearing in the last three years.[2] And in my native Guatemala, it is estimated that between 1960 and 1996, the years of a genocidal war, approximately 45,000 people were forcibly disappeared; in times of “peace,” more than 35,000 people were forcibly disappeared between 2003 and 2017.[3]

Like the twin heroes of the Popol Vuh, who descended to Xibalbá to confront the lords of death, Avendaño has also traversed the underworld in search of his brother, Bruno, who was forcibly disappeared on May 10, 2018. After thirty months of searching, only his bones were found, but Avendaño continues to challenge Mexican necropolitics[4] in every possible arena—in courts, the streets, and onstage—to bring to justice the material and intellectual authors of Bruno Avendaño’s disappearance and murder.


I traveled to Oaxaca in September 2021 to attend the preview of Xibalbay at the Centro de las Artes in San Agustín Etla. I went as a researcher of the intersections between political violence and the arts, and I also attended to accompany Lukas in his artistic, political, and personal process. After the play and through conversations with Lukas Avendaño, I came to understand that the parallelism between the twin heroes of the Popol Vuh and the relatives of the disappeared not only reveals the violence of a region in constant conditions of war, but also highlights that, as Avendaño explains, “the physical disappearance is the last link in a series of previous disappearances.” Avendaño refers to what he[5] calls “the historically disappeared”: those who suffer “a double disappearance, or a seventh disappearance” that culminates in a kind of ontological annulment:

Because if labor disappearance is one type, if your disappearance due to your ethnic ascription is another, if your disappearance due to your socioeconomic status is another, if your disappearance due to your labor status is another, if your disappearance due to your gender or sex status is another, if your condition due to your disability is another, if your disappearance due to your null or scarce cultural capital is another, if your physical disappearance is another, then all these disappearances, really, what is summarized is the last disappearance, which is the disappearance of memory.

Avendaño considers this form of disappearance “the most violent” and expresses that “when one forgets, one accepts all these other levels of disappearances”; it is the same as telling the disappeared person: “You never existed.”

In Xibalbay Avendaño points out how this oblivion presents Xibalbá as an everyday Mesoamerican reality. By witnessing Xibalbay I became aware of this, and that this oblivion is fed by a generalized condition: the sensorial anesthetization to the multiple disappearances prior to the physical disappearance. This sensorial anesthetization, which becomes an epistemological and aesthetic problem, allows historical and physical disappearances and ontological annulments to take place with impunity, in which we are almost all accomplices.

The archaeology of memory as an aesthetic and onto-political tool

To break through this desensitization and create the possibility of other realities, Avendaño employs what he calls “the archeology of memory”: an excavation of taken-for-granted realities to reveal that they are neither natural nor necessary; rather, they are synthetic and dismantlable constructions. To the degree that the layers of superimposed realities are removed, fragments of sensory and aesthetic genealogies of realities hidden by colonial impositions and other forms of dominant power will be uncovered.[6] Avendaño applies the archaeology of memory not only as a scenic practice that unmasks the discourses that are taken for reality, but also to a lived existence beyond the insufficiently questioned categories of identity and gender.

This theory-poiesis-praxis stems from Avendaño’s experiences as a performance artist, anthropologist, writer, activist, and, most of all, as a muxe: a gendered experience specific to Be’ena’ Za’a (Zapotec) society that predates colonial impositions of the male/female binary and its catastrophic heteronormative corollaries. As Avendaño specifies in his writings on the subject, muxeidad is not a utopia; it is a complex totality of the Be’ena’ Za’a collectivity.[7] Despite Mexican patriarchal influences, muxeidad is based on an ancient matrix that Avendaño activates through the archeology of memory and the excavation of aesthetic elements that function, in his own words, as “another universe of understanding . . . a code composed of emotions . . . constructed, in time and space, through sensorial experiences.”

This handling of aesthetics within the archaeology of memory was evident from the process of creation of Xibalbay to its effect on stage. The work was developed during more than forty days of artistic residence in the town of Santa Teresa de Jesús in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. There Avendaño led his cast—Rodrigo de la Cruz Abúndez, Abrahan Rodríguez Martínez, Marina Santiago, and Natalhi Vázquez—and collaborators, including sound artist Griselda Sánchez Miguel,[8] in a process of memory archeology through an experiential encounter with the land, which included long walks in the countryside and physical work in the fields. This was complemented with choreographic studies of the Popol Vuh narratives, of Mesoamerican iconography in codices, and of the archaeological record where corporealities that survived multiple acts of colonial destruction can be traced. The result was a collective choreography composed of aesthetic elements discovered in the process and captured in gestures associated with the life cycle of corn, as well as extraordinary corporealities that transit the liminal space between life and death: combat, childbirth, and the ritual ball game, with which the twin heroes challenged and defeated the lords of Xibalbá.

Xibalbay: sensory coding and transtemporal awareness

The bodies of Xibalbay were multisensory, producing movements and sounds such as the scraping of stone on the metate, the cyclic rhythm of seeds orbiting the inside of a gourd, and the distinctive percussion produced by ayoyote seeds attached to the limbs of the dancers. At key moments, the dancers recited phrases from the Popol Vuh that strikingly reflected the voices of the relatives of the disappeared, an important element of sound art created by Griselda Sánchez Miguel in which these testimonies were intertwined with slogans, conch shells, and drums recorded during demonstrations against impunity in Mexico and Guatemala and sound elements recorded in Avendaño’s community—especially the sounds of picks, shovels, and machetes that recall the tools used in the searches for the disappeared.

This play between the visual and the auditory interwove the mythological Xibalbá with the everyday Mesoamerican necropolitics, manifesting on stage the bodies and territories in which the saga of the twins unfolds, time and again.

From my point of reference, Xibalbay provoked a sensory-emotional coding that I experienced cognitively and corporeally, despite my growing numbness to the cold quantifications of a violence that I am familiar with as a researcher, but have never experienced firsthand. This was made possible not only by the administration of aesthetics excavated through the archaeology of memory, but by a transtemporal rupture achieved through strategic juxtapositions between the physical sensorium, imagined (or perhaps remembered), of a mythological Xibalbá and the resonances, perceived in my body, of the living resistances against the Xibalbá of the present.

I remember key moments when this happened:

I hear and feel the vibration of the percussion of a huehuetl recorded during a march that has already taken place, specifically the 2018 march that commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the Tlatelolco Massacre on October 2, 1968. The huehuetl functions as a thread that crosses time: it marks the time of the dancers who represent events of a mythological temporality and, at the same time, it marks the time of recent and historical events. It inevitably marks my time, as a participant-spectator: I begin to sway from one side to the other, following the sound that demands that I listen, see, and feel with my whole body.
I see Ixmucané, the twins’ grandmother. She is kneeling before her grinding stone: with vigorous movements of her torso, she pushes the metate against the surface of the stone, producing sounds and images that not only evoke the daily grinding of corn, but also the primordial moment described in the Popol Vuh when Ixmucané grinds the corn with which she will form the bodies of the people who inhabit this ontological dimension, which, according to the Popol Vuh, is the fourth in a series of failed experiments. 
I hear how the sound of stone-against-stone is joined by voices from another space/time, those of a protest, which could be in Mexico, or Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador. The voices cry out—”They took them alive, we want them back alive!”—and the vibrations resonate behind my sternum, becoming an electric current that makes my skin bristle, goes up to my scalp, crosses tear ducts, turns into secretions that blur my vision, and crosses the separations between me and the others.
The call of voices intensifies as the twins’ mother, Ixquic, walks toward us, the spectators. Dejected, Ixquic begins to husk ears of corn; the kernels—flesh- and bone-colored—fall to the ground, like so many dismembered bodies.
The protesters repeat, “Feel the earth vibrate, watch the fire speak,” and Ixquic’s dejection turns to rage as she loudly claims that the brothers went to Xibalbá to look for their father’s bones, but upon finding the decapitated corpse, they were unable to bury him or pronounce his name.
Ixquic looks to the sky, and shouts the father’s name: “Hun-Hunahpú!!!” In the space between that archetypal name, other names come to my memory, including Bruno’s name, but in the spaces of so many remembered names, lies the silence of those who are forgotten.
There is silence, and the twins walk in parallel rows towards us. They stop, and Hunahpú pronounces: “Hear our names. Hear the names of our fathers. Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué come closer, almost crossing that invisible wall that separates us from Xibalbay, or that, perhaps, separates the dancers from this Xibalbá. They both look directly at us as they accuse the lords of Xibalbá—and us—of the murder of their father. With their gazes to the horizon, they pronounce:
We exist. These are our names. And our fathers are those who killed. Those who you see
here, we are the memory of the pains of our fathers.
Ixquic drops the shelled corn and says, with her voice rising in volume until she shouts:
When the people of the village returned to the land to plant their corn, they found bones and skeletons. Our land is where the dead of the people rest. This land is fertilized with the dead!
Ixmucané exhales over the stone, scattering the pulverized corn in the air, a fine powder that disappears into the void.

Thus Xibalbay ended. However, we remain aware that Xibalbá is still here, sustained by the ontological annulments in which almost all of us participate.

Coda: a dialogue against annulment

A few days later, I asked Avendaño if the archeology of memory and the insistence of not forgetting the disappeared are similar. Avendaño explained to me that they are different because “the archeology of memory is a process of digging in temporality so that this vestige of memory appears.” In contrast, the intention to “continue the memory” has to do with resistance to a kind of ontological annulment. In Avendaño’s words, this means:

Resisting to accept that your relative does not deserve to be searched for, does not deserve to be searched for, and resisting to accept that you can be disappeared . . . in the literal sense, you as an existence, but also even when you are already disappeared, that you fade away because time has passed . . . If we make ourselves invisible, how do we prove that we really exist? How do we prove that we really were, that we really came into the world, that we really had an existence? There is no way.

After this answer, I asked him if art on stage, like what he did in Xibalbay, can intervene in those levels of disappearance. He answered me with what will become the last words of this essay, but not the last words of Lukas Avendaño, who continues to make the disappeared visible and to urge us not to forget, and not to annul:

As long as I can continue to support myself on the stage, I can continue to bear witness that I am the descendant of a memory, of a tradition, of a matrilineal genealogy . . . as long as I can be in the sphere of the stage, I can bear witness precisely to our existences, as these invisibles . . . Because if I am not in the scene, it is not that Lukas disappears, it is that these histories, these memories, these corporealities, these existences disappear . . .

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Lukas Avendaño and Griselda Miguel Sánchez for the generosity with which they shared their experiences and knowledge. I am grateful for the editorial support of Griselda and also Maia Mihanovich; thanks to José Eduardo Valadés Gaitán for his meticulous transcription work.

*A preliminary version of this essay, “The Refusal to be Disappeared: Lukas Avendaño’s Xibalbay,” was published in Howlround Theatre Commons on October 28, 2021.


  1. Anonymous, Popol Vuh: Las antiguas historias del Quiche, trad. Adrián Recinos (Mexico: Fondo deCultura Económica, 1993 [1947])

  2. This figure is from the Search Commission of the Mexican Secretariat of the Interior.

  3. These figures are from the following sources: the report from the Commission for Historical Clarification, cited in Burt and Estrada (2022) and a study of the Group for Mutual Support in Dalmasso (2021).

  4. The concept of necropolitics was coined by Achille Mbembe (2003) to refer to contexts in which death, both physical and social, are the main forms of domination.

  5. To respect Lukas Avendaño’s wishes, I alternate between the pronouns “she” and “he” when referring to him.

  6. See Avendaño and Chatziprokopiou (2020) for a more extensive discussion of the “archaeology of memory.”

  7. On muxeidad, see Avendaño, “Carta de un indio remiso”, in Concilium: revista internacional de teología, special edition Teologías «queer»: devenir el cuerpo «queer» de Cristo, edited by
    Carlos Mendoza-Álvarez and Stefanie Knauss (November 2019). In: https://concilium-vatican2.org/es/originales/2019-05-06/.

  8. Griselda Sánchez Miguel is a sound artist, journalist, independent radio producer, and author of Aire, no te vendas: La lucha por el territorio desde las ondas (2016), available in: https://archive.org/details/AireNoTeVendas.


There are no coments available.

filter by


Geographic Zone