“It is not futile to sing the pain and beauty of having been born in America.” –Eduardo Galeano
Before I moved to Latin America, I researched the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. Every Thursday during the dictatorship, and for years afterwards, the mothers marched around the government square in Buenos Aires, the names of the children the military junta had disappeared embroidered on the kerchiefs they wore on their heads. Their presence and persistence was an act of the collective memory and a way of proclaiming their children’s continued existence. Learning about these women drew me towards working in Latin America, with the Mujeres Tejiendo Sueños y Sabores de Paz of Mampujan. I wanted to know what this research looked like in practice. I started this journey with sewing and with searching.
Today, I was shopping in Mexico City for art for my new home when I noticed simple cloth banners hanging from the trees near the fountain. In 2011, the year I moved to Colombia, a group of Mexican women and men formed the collective Fuentes Rojas. Their job to remember Mexico’s missing, Tania Olea, one of the founding members, tells me when I step forward to read the banners.
“While the disappeared have not actually vanished, in many ways, it is if they are completely gone from our society. We sew to bring them back.” Tania says. For seven years, Fuentes Rojas has gathered each Sunday in a lavish plaza in Coyoacan to embroider the names and stories of the disappeared, over 30,000 so far. “Impunity is collective forgetting. We do not forget.” According to the group, the act of taking the time to sew a name provides a space for remembering and for action.
When I mention that I worked with a group of women in Colombia who used sewing as a form of trauma healing, Tania’s eyes widen. She gestures to the banner behind her and I focus on the embroidered names: Medellin, Sonsón, Colombia. “We were in Colombia a few years ago for an encounter on memory and sewing.” Tania states. “While there, someone named Juana shared the story of a group of women from Mampujan who stitched their memories.”
Now it is my turn for my eyes to widen. Of the 21 million people who live in Mexico City, I never expected to run into someone who knows Juana Alicia Ruiz. Tania tells me that her own work is strengthened by knowing that throughout the continent, there are other groups of people sitting together with needles in their hands, writing a new collective story, where the missing and dead are present and violence has stopped.
“To sew is also a way of asking forgiveness,” Tania says, her eyes welling up. “We recently embroidered the names of the 73 migrants killed by cartels in 2010 and buried in a mass grave in Tamaulipas. There are so many people who travel through our country who also disappear. To embroider their names is to remember that we are also responsible for each other.”
Amidst the churros, the boutique stores, and the fountains, we hug each other and weep. I find myself crying not only for the disappeared, but for how life has come full circle, from Argentina, to Colombia, to Mexico. This conversation, this connection, feels like permission to leave Latin America.
Miriam Toews’ latest novel, Women Talking, is about a group of Mennonite colony women in Bolivia trying to decide what to do after they find out some men in the community have been drugging and raping them at night. The illiterate women grapple with how to leave with no map, neither of their region, nor of the broader world. One woman, Ona, suggests that the group can create their own map as they go. A few minutes later, another woman has seizure and the group wonders if is in response to the idea of map-making. “Not a conscious fear of do-it-yourself map-making, she explains, but of what it implies: that we are masters of our own destiny. That we will be setting off into unknowable space.”
We carry with us the memory the past and the present, yet we are always setting of into unknowable space. We move, imaging the path and writing down the map as we go. If all of this sounds like a giant pep talk, that is because I need one. I’ve started a new job in Canada and am back in Mexico for two weeks to say good-by to a life and place I love. I’m the new director of MCC’s advocacy office in Ottawa, a position which both thrills and terrifies me. Instead of moving to Mexico, I’m moving to Canada.
These are the lessons I carry deep inside of me as I go. Wonder and pain exist together. Armed groups, illicit economies, and all the damages of late-capitalism are connected throughout the Americas, reflected in news headlines and the tragedies of rising murder statistics and fear. These are not, however, the only threads that stretch and weave across our continents. In a plaza in Mexico City, we bring worlds together. We plant. We sew. We walk. We build altars. We create our own map and follow its contours. I am leaving Latin America, but I am carrying it with me. This work is part of who I have become. Agradecida.