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The Power of Mothers: A History of Disappearance

Paula Flores

Note: this Women's Media Center Feature is one of several that WMC's late editor-in-chief, Mary Thom, had assigned prior to her unexpected passing on April 26.

“For all of us, the only thing that moves us is our children,” explained Norma Andrade, Juárez activist and founder of May Our Daughters Return Home in a 2012 interview with Mexican filmmaker Ernesto Godoy. Andrade’s daughter, Lilia Alejandra, disappeared on February 14, 2001 and her body was discovered on February 21st, in what has become an epidemic of violence in Juárez over the last two decades. 

In 2013, the Juárez government started a citywide campaign with the title “Disappearances in Juárez have to Disappear.” They distributed 100,000 posters showing a woman’s clothes but no body, and these were posted around the city. Although the issue of disappearance has not gained much attention recently, the mothers of Juárez continue to turn their pain into action for justice for the disappeared and murdered. In February of 2013, a group of mothers marched to the capital, Chihuahua, to protest the 316 unresolved disappearances of 2012 and the 16 more that had occurred in 2013, all in Juárez.  Since one of the perpetual problems is that such cases are not investigated, the mothers met with the governor to demand that he investigate and resolve these crimes.

These activist women follow a long tradition of Latin American mothers who have taken to the streets to protest the disappearance of their children, notably the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. That group of mothers and grandmothers started demonstrating in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires in 1977, to protest mass disappearances perpetrated by the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.

Like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who were at first called “crazy” by government officials, the mothers in Juárez have faced both personal and physical attacks as they seek justice for their daughters. In 2011, Andrade survived a shooting attempt on her life in Juárez, one she believes was directed at silencing her activism. She was forced to flee to Mexico City for her safety. However, in Mexico City she was attacked again, this time stabbed in the neck. Andrade’s other daughter, Malú, became a human rights activist and works to support mothers in the same situation as Andrade.  Andrade appears in the documentary about disappearance and feminicide in Juárez, Lourdes Portillo’s Señorita extraviada (Missing Young Woman).

“Reality is so bereft of humanity, so barbaric, that we cannot grasp it without the delicacy of art. Through art we can feel the loss, and we can understand it without falling prey to sensationalism,” explained Portillo during our interview. It was through Portillo’s documentary Señorita extraviada (Missing Young Woman) and the work of Juárez photographer Julián Cardona that I first met activist Paula Flores. Their images of Flores, whose daughter María Sagrario was disappeared and later murdered in April 1998, showed a woman transformed by pain, a woman who passed through the phase of victimhood to become an activist. “Paula Flores has been a leading activist, and has had the wherewithal to do things that have some transcendence,” said Portillo. Flores created the the María Sagrario Foundation to fund a school in her neighborhood in Juárez, and her daughter Guillermina González founded and ran the NGO Voces sin eco (Voces Without Echo) from 1998 to 2001. When I met Flores in Mexico City in 2011, she discussed how she, like Norma, was inspired to continue her activism for her children and he grandchildren. Flores attended the presentation of Rafael Bonilla’s La Carta (The Letter), a documentary about her life. When Flores got up to speak to the audience, her tiny granddaughter, Ruby, stood up in her seat and yelled, “I love you grandma!”           

Mother’s Day is one day, that comes and then goes. Yet mothers and grandmothers like Flores and Andrade persist and,  in the face of overwhelming physical and economic violence, find the strength to create change.

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