More than four months have passed since 43 students from a teachers college in Mexico disappeared. The students went missing after the local mayor detained them and reportedly turned them over to a drug cartel. Mexican authorities now say the students were killed, their bodies burned, and their remains thrown into a river.
This Saturday, 43 Bay Area artists are coming together to raise awareness about the missing students, as well as more than 20,000 Mexicans who have disappeared in recent years and are presumed dead.
The artists -- a mix of painters, sculptors, musicians and performance artists -- will each represent one of the 43 disappeared students, who attended the Ayotzinapa Normal teachers college.
Artist Dennis Maxwell feels a personal connection to the events in Mexico. He is from Chile and during the 1980s protested the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Thousands of people disappeared during Pinochet’s 17-year reign.
“I always felt like it was one of the most cruel things that the dictatorship in Chile did,” Maxwell says. “Because those families are still searching for their missing person. It’s a kind of punishment that never ends.”
In November, Maxwell was thrust into the middle of the crisis over the missing students when his brother, Laurence Maxwell, was arrested while protesting the disappearances.
The Mexican government charged him and 10 others with terrorism and attempting to murder a police officer. Maxwell went to Mexico to try and win his brother’s release. Only after intense international pressure did the government drop the charges.
“After they were released and I came back to San Francisco, I was full of anger and rage against the government in Mexico,” Maxwell says.
He isn’t alone. At an event at the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco last week, the Mexican consul general was heckled when he suggested the blame for the disappeared students rests with organized crime -- and not the government.
The Mexican government has long been criticized for colluding with the drug cartels, even as top officials wage a war against them. The missing students have become a rallying cry to protest government corruption and drug-fueled violence.
Maxwell and others wanted to channel the rage they felt into an artistic medium.
Mexican performance artist Violeta Luna is telling the story of Jose Luis Luna Torres, who shares her last name.
“For me to have this symbolic brother, who was disappeared, is something that has inspired my performance,” Luna says.
Artist Ricardo Cartagena also feels a personal connection with the students. As an activist during the El Salvadoran civil war, he was arrested and disappeared. For six months, his family didn’t know whether he was alive or dead. He then spent 11 years in prison before moving to San Francisco.
“In my time, when I was young, I also dreamed of making changes in my country. And these young people wanted the same,” Cartagena says.
“The young always have their dreams – of equality, of liberty. And one doesn’t weigh the consequences that they could be arrested, that they could be disappeared, tortured and assassinated.”
Cartagena’s painting depicts student Julio Cesar Lopez Patolzin blindfolded. His face is horizontal, a reference to prisoners having their heads pushed to the ground. In the corner a hand sticks out, holding a lit candle. Cartagena says it represents the faith that Lopez and the other students will appear alive, or at the very least that their bodies will be returned.