In Mexico—a country where an average of 11 people disappear every day—absence becomes a part of daily life. The faces of the missing peer out at you from newspapers and are plastered along the streets of any city you visit. In 2013, when I was I was conducting research for my book, More or Less Dead, which is about the disappearance and murder of women in Juárez, Mexico, I became familiar with stories of disappearance. Often, such stories are connected to human trafficking and the sex trade.
In October 2015, I returned to the city to present my book, and I discovered a new campaign among graffiti and other visual artists and activists to put up the faces of disappeared girls on walls around the city. While I did see many of those haunting works of street art, I also witnessed the particular life and otherworldly light of the city. This photo essay tells the story of a day in the life of the city, of what it means to continue to live among the disappeared, who are gone but never forgotten.
Doña Julia Caldera Chávez stands in her home in front of the only portrait of her daughter María Elena on the 15th anniversary of the discovery of María Elena's body. She disappeared on June 20, 2000 and her body was discovered on October 24 of that same year. Her murder remains unresolved.
Juárez photographer Itzel Aguilera had invited me to go to drop off a box of toys for Caldera's grandchildren. We arrived at Caldera's house Anapra, a community that grew out of a garbage dump and remains one of the poorest areas in the city, to find kids running around the dirt streets. It was only in conversation with Doña Julia that we became aware of the gruesome anniversary. Doña Julia invited us to eat tacos with her children and grandchildren while she got ready for church. After the murder, she turned to the church to survive, and her husband turned to drinking. Neither of them was happy with the other's choice, so her husband promised to give up alcohol if she gave up church. He quit. She didn't.
The white baby shoes belong to one of Doña Julia's granddaughter's, a reminder that time continues to march on despite the absence of María Elena.
"My daughter loved roses," Doña Julia told me, pointing to a dried rose in a glass on her bureau near a laminated photo of María Elena. Nearby, one of her granddaughters handed her husband a doll.
One of Doña Julia's granddaughters and her doll among the pink curtains that separate the bedroom from the kitchen.
The quality of light in Juárez is otherworldly.
Doña Julia's granddaughters. The younger grandchildren play while the teenagers look at Facebook. One of the teen girls has two different Facebook accounts. While I was there, Itzel warned the girl about the dangers of Facebook. Without the proper privacy settings, she said, anybody could see her photos or personal information. Itzel worried human traffickers would use Facebook to lure girls out of their homes.
I first saw Brenda Chávez Caldera in the documentary Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman) in 2008. Filmmaker Lourdes Portillo interviewed Brenda for her documentary, and at the time Brenda was a young girl. Portillo asked Brenda if she was aware that girls and women in her neighborhood had been murdered brutally. Brenda, with a shy girlish smile, responded "No." Not long after that interview, Brenda's sister María Elena disappeared. When we pulled up in front of Doña Julia's house, Brenda was outside. I said, "I think I know you." And I did.
Schoolgirls walk in front of a mural painted with the faces of disappeared girls. Local artists and families of the disappeared have been working together to raise awareness about disappearance in Juárez; they paint the faces of missing girls on the donated walls of schools, churches, and homes around the city. Many of these girls end up forced into the sex trade.
The dance of the matachines is passed down from father to son. It is an indigenous ritual used to celebrate saints like the Virgin of Guadalupe and Saint Jude, the Saint of Lost Causes. The matachines come to dance at the request of a family, and that same family invites the entire neighborhood to eat. Driving around one glorious Saturday with photographer Itzel Aguilera, we ran into this celebration. The family invited us into their home to eat and watch the dances. We were captivated by the tiny dancer.
Curious eyes watch over me as the matachines dance in the late afternoon sunlight.
Itzel and I parked above the highway to take a photo of the wall of a local school painted with the faces of disappeared girls and the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Itzel stopped at an intersection so that I could take a photo of the black crosses on a pink background painted all over the city in memory of femicide victims. When I looked over, this man flashed me some muscle.
The abandoned Cine Victoria was constructed in 1945. The home of birds, it has some of the most beautiful murals that I have ever seen and a turquoise ceiling.
From the street, all you see is a door with a hole in it and a bunch of debris, but inside the theater blooms in abandoned glory.
A quincañera and her escorts drive past a store that sells poison for rats and the other pests painted on the building. The same store that sells poison also sells micheladas, a typical drink with beer, lime, and salsa.
Diana R. Ramírez Hernández disappeared on April 1, 2011. She remains missing.
When it comes to disappearance, there is no way to measure such a loss, not in years or roses or memories. There is a way to measure the future, and it has to do with how we treat girls and women—and whether we make the choice to offer them economic and social equality.