24.02.2020

What Do We Defend, We Who Were Born Here?

From Ecatepec to Culiacán, in the intersection of personal biographies, the writer Tonatiuh López narrates the common search with artist Ling Sepúlveda for finding possibilities of community healing through art in the face of the normalization of violence in these places which they left to finally come back.

When you are born and grow up in a demon-filled land, the small and large little devils you carry within you become the only company you can count on to defend yourself from their violence and the violence of other lands. It could be said that when you are born and grow up in certain places, you come out of the factory already “damaged goods,” or, if we opt for scientific theories—if we deny the undeniable faith—we might believe that you can’t be born damaged and that to be so, simply, has to do with a process of natural selection. The point is that “evil” is conferred upon certain latitudes. Normally, if you belong to a certain group (family) that considers itself to be part of the good (or the less bad) of a certain place that is at the same time “evil,” there is something else that germinates: the desire that this evil not take root, the dream of escaping the congenital. They tell you, “One day you’re going to get out of here”; “You’ll see how you will be different”; “Don’t associate with those people,” etc. When you are born and grow up in certain places, “good” lies in denying your origins; in turning your back on others like you; in aspiring to be that which you could not be because, in addition to the placement of the stars, what defines some destinies is the geographic (and geopolitical) position in which the mother gives birth. For some bodies, “evil” is primal and inherent.
Ling’s mother gave birth in Culiacan, Sinaloa.
Mine in Ecatepec, in the State of Mexico.

According to official numbers, Culiacan is the Mexican city with the highest number of serious crimes; these include murder, kidnapping, robbery, and other “incidents” of organized crime. According to official numbers, Ecatepec is considered to be the most dangerous Mexican city: in 2019, 97.4 percent of people over the age of 18 believed that living there was unsafe.[1]          
The Mexicas believed in the descriptive power of names. To name was to trace a story. In Nahuatl, Culiácan means, among other things, “place where the road twists.” Today, a good portion of those who live in Culiacan generate their income through activities linked to narcotrafficking and organized crime. In Nahuatl, Ecatepec means “windy hill.” Today, Ecatepec is the city with the worst air quality in the country. Perhaps the origin of our “evil” is millennial. Nothing is ever a coincidence.    
The preceding notes serve to paint a picture of our surroundings—Ling’s as well as mine—of those places which were not for us because we were forced to not be for them. You must leave behind the country and the misery. You must stop being workers and miserable. You must leave behind the farm and the animals and the misery. You must escape these places because there aren’t enough opportunities or because the opportunities that exist in them are what people from other places would call “miserable.” But, in the end, there are also many “good” things “there.” For, they are the places where we gained a language—a voice, faith, love, the idea of life. Places where others who love and whom we love stayed because they chose to defend the undefendable. Places that we cannot forget. Places in which, ironically, we feel safe because we feel that, in them, we can be our true selves. We left because they wanted us to, we came back because we wanted to, knowing that everything is always a contradiction.                                                          
Ling in Culiacan. Me in Ecatepec. Both of us began to work with “art” because, as I have already said, we were taught to dream of other places. But there weren’t sufficient resources for real and rapid mobility in our immediate environments. So we set out on our own to escape conceptually. When we could finally get out of our cities and their supposed limitations, “art” had already become our compass and our destination. We tried to lead what institutional, political, and social centers call “the art-life.” It made us uncomfortable and we made others uncomfortable. We felt alienated and we began to alienate. So we set out on the road home. We kept the damaged artifact in our pocket. We knew the path by heart. Ling in Culiacan. Me in Ecatepec. Ling, an artist. Me, a writer.        
This magazine helped us to develop the idea of writing about what it is that we are doing now that we have returned to our demon-filled lands. The editors of this publication thought Ling and I might have a lot in common because of the geographical stamps we each received when we were born, for, even though hundreds of kilometers separated us physically, both of us come from places marked by violence. This supposition makes a certain amount of sense. I suppose that like love, a cough, smoke, to be born in a place “like that” is an affliction that cannot be kept secret.     
What does Ling Sepúlveda do in Culiacan? In addition to working on the production of a body of work, which, explained in broad strokes, creates analogies between the violence implicit in the domestication of nature and the parallel subjugation of individuals in certain historical, socio-political, and labor systems, he has designed and launched he Almendro Artist Residency. Developed in collaboration with, cultural promoter and art dealer, Sofía Castillo, the project is located in Ling’s own house in the Tierra Blanca neighborhood. With less than a year of existence, Almendro has established itself as a reference point and meeting place for the local contemporary art scene. It is an independent initiative that has been envisioned in relation to three axes: 1) an international residency for artistic production and research tied to a specific context (the project extends its scope of research not only to the city of Culiacan, but also to the El Chino ranch and its natural surroundings); 2) a space for dialogue between locals, Mexicans, and international visitors (talks, critiques, events, etc.,); and 3) an instructive space that allows local emerging artists to encounter global languages and discourses through workshops, talks, and study groups.                                                                                                             
What do we do—myself and others—in Ecatepec? We are building a community museum without walls that aims to rescue the stories, characters, traditions, and spaces of the town in which I was born: Santa Clara Coatitla. The museum is called the Museo Arte Contemporáneo Ecatepec (MArCE) [Museum of Contemporary Art Ecatepec]. It is a collective of artists, managers, activists, and neighbors who began working together in 2015. Originally formed only of members who already inhabited the art world, MArCE was conceived as a fictional museum, an ironic play on the idea of the institution that opened a critique of the modes of aesthetic production and circulation in hegemonic spaces. Lacking a physical space and in the face of the needs of the local society and context, MArCE became a performative museum that organized site-specific actions in public space. The idea is to offer members of our community and the region’s general population the opportunity to come into contact with contemporary art and to use it as a means of giving voice to and representing their social, political, economic, environmental, and emotional worries, as well as to provide the opportunity to discuss as a group alternatives and solutions to such problems. In other words, to recognize ourselves in the complexity—and the tranquility—of what it means to live together.                                                                                            
In the words of the editors of this publication, putting into dialogue Ling’s and my experiences working on projects that draw attention to places marked by violence “could generate reflections on how artistic thought might allow us to discover new forms of social organization as a means of reconsidering ways of living in relation to the communal.” The truth is that what I found on my visit to Culiacan—in addition to a symbiotic relationship between personal and professional development and ideas about art and the social function of the artist, like the decision to root one’s practice in the local and to draw on networks of family and friends that such an environment offers—was a coincidence that deflates, or perhaps reinforces, utopian thinking.

Ling in Culiacan, me in Ecatepec (now, yes, part of the same sentence), we do what we do because, among other things, we hope to be understood by and in a territory from which we are completely alienated. Our people don’t understand that we are “artists.” They can’t, or don’t want to, imagine why, how, for what, or for whom someone who has this job lives (survives). Nor do they understand why we want to return when we managed to leave in the first place. They don’t trust us. They think—now them too—that we have something “evil” in us. And we don’t know how to explain to them that we came back—each of us to our own place at the margins—because in the center, in the supposed right place, we felt lost. In the center, far from the contexts that wove our elusive thoughts together, we understood that sometimes the imperative to seek life in another place only serves to help you find it where you originated. To live at the margins, to break with a world, to try to create another new one that would be wholly familiar.                          
In the days that I spent at Almendro, Ling often mentioned how he wanted to show his uncle, the owner of El Chino ranch, that he too could work the fields. Later, Brenda Castro, one of the artists-in-residence, gave a presentation of her work. The action took place only a few days after what residents of Culiacan refer to as “Black Thursday,” the failed military operation to capture Ovidio Guzmán, the son of “El Chapo” Guzmán, that unleashed a counterattack led by members of organized crime to force the army to release him, a battle that cost many members of the army, narcotraffickers, and civilians their lives. Understandably, not many spectators showed up to the presentation after those events. However, inspired by whoknows-what, Brenda, Sofía, and Ling went to El Chino. They brought with them drawings in which Brenda had traced the weeds that covered the fields before the growing season began. The land had changed after the planting of the tomatoes. The three of them attached the drawings to the posts that support the tomato plants. The laborers went to see them. Brenda, Sofía, and Ling explained the process to them. That day, everyone worked in the field.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
Ling also spoke about his landlord. He wanted to prove to him that his work was generating another kind of capital. He was sure that his landlord would be happy that his property was also a center where artists could come together. Something similar happened to me with respect to the MArCE. It isn’t that I wanted to prove to anyone that my work was productive (in fact, the financial precarity of people who execute these kinds of projects is worrying to me because grants, stimulus funds, and prizes almost always preclude the possibility of making a profit; as if those who award them what to help us to do “good” at the same time that they want to ensure our immobility). What I do want, though, is for my family, my town, the people that I love, to believe that we have a way of life that is worth defending and that we represent it together so that others “inside” and “outside” will realize that Ecatepec is more than just “the worst place to live.” Also, leaving aside the preoccupation with territory, I believe that another reason that projects like these exist is the lack of creative and political possibilities offered by institutions and centers which, worryingly, turn evermore in on themselves, abandoning the exercises and discourses of heterogeneity.

Sometimes going back is the only option for dissidence. To family, to the people, to friends, to those who always want to listen to you. And even though listening doesn’t always guarantee understanding, at the end of the day, everyone “has your back.”                                                                                

What do we defend, we who were born here? is a line from a text from one of Ling’s pieces. It is also, I believe, the question that guides our practices. Before becoming artists—and now I will return to the moment of birth and geographic specificity—we were Ling in Culiacan, Tonatiuh in Ecatepec. And perhaps, as a result of being born into the flesh of life, we chose to have this profession. And perhaps, as a result of being born into the flesh of life, we chose to reformulate it according to what our contexts offered us, so that others close to us—on those swathes of land that we were left to walk upon—may see that beyond being a peasant, a narcotrafficker, an employee, a thief…, there exist other forms of responding to one’s place that don’t demand escape. The earth belongs to whoever works it—that is the way in which we must try to make ourselves of her.
In an unpublished text titled Esos pellejos son carne [Those Skins are Flesh], Ling writes:
The artist’s task. If I hadn’t realized it before, I’ll never realize it ever. Work, a life of the field and of contemplation, seeing nothing. These form the frame and the language in a place where the giant flow of money is aspirational and the aesthetic that enshrouds it is that of the tailored suit and the silk cream shirt. Silk cream! How do you combine it all? Is it violent or beautiful?
It is neither violent nor beautiful, neither from here nor from there, neither at the margin nor at the center, neither good nor evil, neither artist nor anti-artist, neither local nor gentrifier, neither fictional demon nor fictional saint, neither this nor that: it is an oxymoron and a connection.
For Ling, music is important. My first morning in Almendro, I woke up to a song playing in the background. A song that I liked very much and that marked the beginning of my fondness for him: El tesoro [The Treasure] by the Argentinian rock band Él Mató a un Policía Motorizado. A YouTube user describes the song in the following way:
A kid comes running down a muddy street. Then some friends show up on motorcycles and they go do what any young person without the Internet would do, attack some abandoned junk with swords. They are going to have hilarious adventures together, like playing catch with a burning ball or digging up a dead man to get his sword and raise it up to the wind.

In Culiacan, Ling and Sofía were my friends on motorcycles because nobody walks there. They showed me the earth full of natural resources and, for that very reason, bearing the marks of the fight for its control that powerful groups engage in. I understood that the violence I felt was of another kind: the consequence of a vicious upbringing in a city that made us despise our lineage, imposed misery upon us as a punishment, and offered us only aspiration, debt, and self-destruction as solutions. Ecatepec, so far from God and so close to Mexico City.

In Culiacan, Ling, Sofía, and I, with violence as our vertex, together in a city that could seem very much like a piece of abandoned junk, go on hilarious adventures and exhume from our way of life a sword with which to defend ourselves against a dangerous world.

A sword to wage war against whoever wishes to wage war against us. To fight for a way of being, to imagine a life of dignity. So that running away isn’t our only path. Because in exile we have too much nostalgia and it weighs upon us. It weighs upon us not to be able to be like everyone else; neither here, nor there. It weighs never to be able to make ourselves understood. Because, as Ling says, “one acts the cholo, and I don’t even realize I’m not there anymore.” Sometimes it’s impossible to return, even when you come back. Is this violent or beautiful?
If you are reading this and your mother gave birth in a place surrounded by evil, look behind you, go back, find your sword and raise it up to the wind together with your friends on motorcycles, whoever they are. And sing:
Perdón si estoy de nuevo acá,
pensé que habías preguntado por mí.
Me gusta estar de nuevo acá,
aunque no hayas preguntado por mí
Voy a quedarme un poco acá,
cuidarte siempre a vos en la derrota
hasta el final, el final.
[Sorry if I’m new here,
I thought that you’d asked for me,
I like being new here,
Even though you haven’t asked for me
I’m gonna stay here a little while
Always take care of yourself in defeat
’Til the end, ’til the end.]

Notes

  1. Melissa Galván, “Ecatepec es (otra vez) la ciudad con mayor percepción de inseguridad” in Expansión política, July 17, 2019. . [Accessed December 17, 2019].

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