"Help me, help me," screams a stout but strong elderly woman standing on the banks of a garbage-filled canal in Chimalhuacan, Mexico. The woman is Irinea Buendía, and she is acting in a street theater performance, holding a sign with the words: "I didn't commit suicide, you killed me." The woman in the photo is her daughter, Marina. Buendía is surrounded by dozens of women dressed in fiery costumes. They are all screaming the names of other women who have been killed in the State of Mexico.
This canal has become the final resting place for an undetermined number of women who have been kidnapped, assassinated, mutilated, and dumped in the sewage-filled water. The group gathered here is composed of various feminist collectives which have reappropiated this harsh environment as a public theater space. Femicides have become an alarming crisis in the state, where more than 1,500 women have been murdered in the past ten years. It is believed that the victims' gender was a primary motive in the majority of the assassinations.
All over Mexico, various womens' groups are using creative theater to combat the scourge of gender-based violence. In Mexico City, the Hijas de Violencia (Daughters of Violence) shoot street harassers with confetti guns and sing punk anthems to denounce sexual harassment. In Puebla, a state where women have been murdered by their boyfriends and partners, the organization El Taller hosts a feminist school to help women identity violence in their personal relationships.
Back at the canal, Diana Laura Lopez rubs glittery makeup on her eyelids, preparing to incarnate one of the assassinated women. Her face is radiant, but her reasons for participating in this performance are somber. "My cousin was assassinated two years ago by her stepfather," said Lopez, who is from a nearby municipality. "It helps open your eyes, understand your personal situation in a political context."
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Lopez joined with a handful of other young women to participate in activities organized by Redefem Edomex (Network to Denounce Femicide in Mexico State), a civil organization that aims to make femicides visible through "social, cultural and political actions."
"It's important to tell these stories in a different way, here in Mexico we have a murderous state," Redefem Edomex founder Manuel Amador told Broadly. "The state reports on these women's deaths, just saying there is another dismembered body, or another body dumped in a garbage bag… We don't hear their stories, so that's why we have to fill our performance with their humanity."
Redefem Edomex has conducted these performances throughout the state of Mexico, including ones where female activists take to the streets dressed up for their coming-of-age quinceañera, but smeared with bloody makeup that they say makes them look "dressed to die."
"It is a form of liberation, a way I can express myself, what I think, my feelings, my political posture, my social status and collectively call people's attention to let them know what is really happening here," said Lopez, putting the final touches on her costume.
Karen grew up in Cuatitlan Izcalli, another part of Mexico State that also has alarming rates of femicides. For safety reasons, she did not want to give her last name. Every day on the way home from school, men would sit next to her on the bus and attempt to cop a feel. One night, as she walked the dark alley to arrive at her house, a man followed her and started masturbating, requesting that she help him. It was this attack that provoked her and a group of university theater students to start the Hijas de Violencia, joining together to use performance to combat violence against women.
"We have suffered constant violence every single day. It lets you know that there is an imbalance of power in public space. It doesn't matter if they tell you something positive or negative, or how pretty you are," said Karen. "At the end of the day they are speaking to you without your consent."
Their first action as the Hijas de Violencia was to take a long walk armed with plastic guns filled with confetti. Every time someone whistled at or harassed them, they whipped out their confetti pistol and took aim. Men's reactions varied from fear to annoyance, but for the hijas, it's about empowering themselves, not changing male opinion.
Their latest move has been a punk rock ballad called "Sexista Punk," which features the hijas calling out street harassment with the lines: "What you just did to me is called harassment, you do that and I will respond / Sexist, macho, what do you want?"
Hijas de Violencia videos have gone viral, with feminist groups across the globe have contacted them to replicate their actions and translate the song. But the videos have also brought a slew of negative comments and violent threats. For personal safety, the Hijas only use their first names and take digital security precautions.
The are currently planning an action in support of Andrea Noel, a freelance reporter and VICE News contributor who was sexually assaulted on the streets of Mexico City. Noel uploaded a video of the attack, only for men to harass her at home and send her online death threats.
"Street harassment is just the tip of the iceberg, it's normalized violence that happens in broad daylight, everyone thinks it doesn't matter," said Ana, one of the founding members of Hijas de Violencia. "It's a chain, if they think they can say to you whatever they want, they can grope you and rape you, it's all related."
In nearby Puebla, a colonial city 90 miles southeast of Mexico City, theatre has also played a vital role in the Escuelita Feminista (Feminist Little School) created by the organization El Taller. A largely conservative city where abortion remains illegal, Puebla has become the latest hotspot in the femicide crisis that has struck the country. In less than three years, five pregnant women have been assassinated, allegedly by their boyfriends. It is believed that one other pregnant woman was also murdered and left in a dumpster; her body has yet to be found. In this same time period, 178 women have been murdered.
At a recent protest condemning the latest murder of a pregnant women, graduates of the Feminist Little School took to the streets and conducted symbolic closures of government institutions that they believe are complicit in gender based violence. "With our feminist school people just don't only learn, they also start taking action," said activist Gabriela Cortés, " even though here in Puebla, activism has a really bad reputation and in Mexico it is criminalized."
The Escuelita Feminista offers a 14 session course that combines feminist principles with popular education methods like Brazilian director Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed. Participants analyze their own relationships with their family and their partners, learn about feminist theory, and engage in self-defence workshops. The majority of the trainers identify as lesbian feminists, but the majority of women who participate don't even identify as feminists when they first arrive.
"The escuelita is a tool in the face of all these femicides because we speak about the rights that we have as women, many women that participate don't even know that they have these rights, and in the workshops they learn how to identify this violence," said Fabiola Báleon, a graduate of the school.
Puebla is geographically located in what is known as "the trafficking route," where thousands of women have fallen prey to human traffickers. Often, traffickers seduce these women to eventually kidnap and sexually enslave them. Through interactive exercises, the moderators help participants identify basic mechanisms of control, such as boyfriends who monitor their cell phones.
"The machismo is very deeply rooted, you are supposed to fall in love with prince charming who will maintain you, your whole life," said Cortés. "Romantic love teaches you that your only role in life is to be a mother, have children, maintain a household and it doesn't matter if you forgo all your objectives and dreams to accomplish that."
The members of El Taller have little faith in the government and its ability to end the violence and assassinations of women. They place more faith in their ability to elevate women's consciousness so that they can defend themselves emotionally and physically. They say that while they won't overcome the patriarchy single-handedly, every little action counts.
"You don't just go up to your grandmother one day and say, 'You know what grandma, God doesn't exist,'" Cortés said. "Little by little we are going to change this situation."