Lucy Popescu

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Archive for the ‘Mexico’ Category

Book Review – La Lucha

Posted by lucypopescu on May 18, 2015

La LuchaMexico has long been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and human rights activists to work in. Critics are often abducted or murdered with impunity. Furthermore, over the past two
decades, gender based violence reached such epic proportions: Juárez city, for example, has become known as the “femicide” capital of the world. This is the chilling backdrop to Jon Sack’s graphic novel, part of a series published by Front Line Defenders (FLD), a Dublin based international human rights organization.

The book centres on a real life figure, Luz (Lucha) Estela Castro Rodríguez, a lawyer and campaigner for women’s rights in the state of Chihuahua, considered one of the most violent regions of Mexico. In 2002, Lucha cofounded the organization Justice for Our Daughters, and in 2005 the Center for Human Rights of Women. Through her work, Sack and Adam Shapiro, head of campaigns at FLD, gained access to the stories of ordinary Mexicans who have been devastated by the murder or disappearance of loved ones and of those who have fled to the United States.

These include the Salazar Reyes family. Josefina, a wellknown activist, protested against a proposed radioactive waste site in Sierra Blanca, opposed the militarization of
Juárez, and denounced the mass murder of women in the region. In August 2008, the military abducted her son Miguel Ángel. After being tortured for sixteen days, he was released. Three months later, Josefina’s other son, Julio César, was murdered at a wedding. Josefina continued her protests until January 3, 2010, when she, too, was murdered. Her
brother Rubén was killed seven months later. On February 25, 2011, the bodies of Magdalena Reyes Salazar, her brother Elias, and his wife Luisa Ornelas Soto were found dumped along
the side of a road in Guadalupe, Chihuahua.

By using black and white comic book art – arguably more effective at drawing the reader in than a block of text describing the violence – Jon Sack immerses the reader in his subject; his representation of shootings and torture powerfully conveys that violence is commonplace in Mexico. Employing light and shade to great effect, he presents the killers as shadows – a chilling reminder of how Juárez’s faceless murderers continue to escape justice.

Originally published the TLS

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Film Review – Who is Dayani Cristal?

Posted by lucypopescu on July 25, 2014

who is dayani cristalMarc Silver’s award-winning documentary, Who is Dayani Cristal? (2013), co-produced by and starring Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, explores the identity and tragic fate of one economic migrant after he attempts to forge a life for himself in the United States. Every year, thousands of Mexicans, Central and South Americans illegally cross the Mexican-US border in search of work and at considerable risk to their own lives.

One of the most inhospitable terrains that the desperate migrants have to navigate is the Sonora desert in Arizona, known as ‘the corridor of death’. Here, decomposing corpses or body parts are regularly picked up by the border patrol. A team of experts then have to set about trying to identify the victims in order to notify their families and return the bodies to them. This is no easy task – sometimes they have only bones and of the 2000 bodies recovered from the desert over the last decade, 700 remain unidentified.

When yet another anonymous body is brought into the Medical Examiner’s Office in Tuscon, Bernal and Silver decide to follow and record the forensic investigation and their attempts to discover the man’s identity. The only clue is a tattoo on his chest bearing the name ‘Dayani Cristal’.

After the man’s origins come to light, the film’s team use the testimony of his family and friends, to retrace the dead man’s journey. Bernal joins a group of migrants travelling across Central America before they attempt to cross the notorious Mexican-US border. The cinematography is superb. The reconstruction of the journey includes breathtaking imagery of the harsh landscape the migrants are up against as well as stunning footage of young men riding atop a train known as ‘La Bestia’. Footage from their journey is combined with interviews with various border officials and the forensic experts who are clearly determined to discover the identities of the dead.

At the heart of this moving film is a firm rebuttal of the demonisation of migrants and the usual rhetoric surrounding ‘aliens’ and ‘illegals’. The US border officials are unexpectedly compassionate, focusing on the humane rather than political issues, and the dedication of the forensic team is truly impressive. Silver and writer Mark Monroe draw out the universal themes of hope, aspiration and love and underline the fact that the majority of impoverished migrants, like the tattooed ‘Dayani Cristal’, risk their lives on a daily basis to provide for their families.

Wisely, they choose to reveal the man’s origins, his personal story and reasons for travelling north only at the end. This is documentary filmmaking at its best – one that delivers a definite message and packs a powerful punch.

Originally published by


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Book Review – Write Against Impunity

Posted by lucypopescu on November 3, 2013

Freedom of expression is a noisy, uncomfortable, disorderly business. Emotional and intellectual discomfort is the characteristic of a healthy society. John Ralston Saul, President, PEN International, Write Against Impunity, 2012

The Day of the Dead (El Día de Muertos) is celebrated in Latin America from 31 October to 2 November. At this time, families remember their deceased loved ones by visiting graveyards, erecting and decorating altars in their homes, cooking their favourite food and lighting aromatic candles. PEN, the international association of writers, is using this mortuary festival to commemorate their fallen colleagues, murdered with impunity in countries such as Mexico, Honduras and Brazil.

To highlight and protest against the alarming lack of justice in the region, PEN has published a bi-lingual anthology, Write Against Impunity. A mixture of poems, essays and prose, the collection features the work of writers from all over Latin America, including Homero Aridjis, Gioconda Belli, Lydia Cacho, Ariel Dorfman, Carlos Gamerro, Elena Poniatowska and Sergio Ramírez. Former writers in prison, such as the Cuban journalists Jorge Olivero Castillo and Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso and Peruvian poet Melissa Patino, have also contributed texts.

As the second most dangerous country in the world to work as a writer it is no surprise that most of the contributions either come from or are about Mexico. Since December 2006, at least 48 print and internet journalists and writers have been killed there and at least nine others have disappeared. Many of the Mexican writers focus on the terrible wall of silence surrounding the femicides in the border town of Juárez. Carmen Boullosa dedicates a poem to Susana Chávez Castillo, a fellow poet and activist who led protests against the unsolved murders; her strangled and mutilated corpse was found in the city in early January 2011. Recalling the Greek myth of Philomena, Boullosa writes:

I am the mutilated tongue.
They severed me from a body to torment it,
they wanted to cause pain and leave my accusation of infamy mute.
To provoke fear.

The best pieces are those that tackle impunity head on. Authors from countries where human rights abuses are less endemic still want to offer solidarity to their neighbouring colleagues. Bolivian writer, Gaby Vallejo Canedo, rages against impunity with the lines:

I am the voice of all of them and I can’t stand it any longer to have been born with so much beauty in my hands, in my voice, and not to have found anyone to protect me.

Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world and 28 journalists have been assassinated since the June 2009 coup d’état. Erick Tejada Carbajal writes a concise, chilling account, reminiscent of George Orwell’s dystopian fiction:

The tentacles of impunity are so plump and numerous that they envelop people and public opinion on a daily basis…perpetual resignation has become our only defence mechanism… death is our daily bread and it travels around in little motorbikes, in big white vans, and along pathways and on noisy police patrols.

The only anomaly is that there is nothing about Brazil, where at least 11 print and internet journalists have been killed since 2010. But Cuban Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso surely speaks for all victims of impunity when he writes of an “association of shame”. He goes on to describe the victims: “men and women, some young, some not, that stand up to Power.” And concludes “Some time ago I heard someone say: ‘bravery is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it.'”

Write Against Impunity makes for a sobering read, but I cannot think of a better way to celebrate the Day of the Dead than buying this testament of writers’ courage. You know you are supporting PEN’s valuable work in the field of free expression at the same time as remembering those darker parts of the world in which writers are so brutally silenced while trying to expose corruption or effect change.

For further information, to read Write Against Impunity online or to buy a print edition visit International PEN.

Originally published by Huffingtonpost.

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Book Review – Slavery Inc. The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking

Posted by lucypopescu on November 17, 2012

Lydia Cacho, the Mexican writer and women’s rights activist, has endured intimidation, abduction and imprisonment because of her investigative journalism. Following the publication of Los demonios del Edén (The demons of Eden), an exposé of a Mexican child pornography ring in Cancún in 2005, she was tortured, judicially harassed and suffered numerous death threats.

This has not deterred her from continuing to write about the complicity of business men and other powerful people in criminal activities. Her latest book focuses on global sex trafficking. Such are the dangers of investigating this appalling trade in human beings that Cacho was forced undercover. She carried fake ID and dressed as a prostitute in order to infiltrate various nightclubs; on one occasion, she adopted a nun’s habit to enter La Merced, one of Mexico City’s most dangerous neighbourhoods.

Cacho’s research took her to Burma, Cambodia, Japan, Thailand and Turkey as well as Latin America. She concludes that it is the “inequality of cultures, economies and legal systems” that has helped this modern slavery to thrive. Cacho argues that the exploitation of women and children occurs because of their vulnerability – whether because of poverty or their subservient role in a male-dominated society – and because of weak sanctions against their mistreatment. Victims are often “enslaved by the cultural values of violence against women” or conditioned to believe that they have no alternatives.

Importantly, Cacho focuses on the clients who not only fuel demand but also contribute towards the normalisation of sexual slavery. Time and again she is told by men that they like Latin American women because they are “docile” and “obedient.” It is the clients who create the markets, Cacho argues, and men’s increasing willingness to pay for sex with trafficked victims is part of the backlash against women’s liberation. Even more devastating is the burgeoning trade in children and virgins. Cacho sees this as a means for men to exert control emotionally and mentally as well as physically; the younger the victim, the more compliant he or she is likely to be.

Cacho says that those who defend prostitution as “part of a liberal philosophy” ignore “the connection between trafficking and prostitution”, and that those who are enslaved, either through poverty or coercion, are not willing participants.

This courageous book comes with an introduction by Roberto Saviano who wrote a best-selling exposé of the Camorra Mafia in Naples. Both writers have faced terrible consequences for daring to point the finger at powerful men. Cacho has named names and further death threats have caused her to flee Mexico. She’s risked her life in order to report the truth.

Originally published in The Tablet.


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Impunity in Mexico – Lydia Cacho

Posted by lucypopescu on August 29, 2012

Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist – since 2006, 67 journalists have been killed and 14 have disappeared in the country.

Lydia Cacho, an author and women’s rights activist, has faced intimidation, abduction and imprisonment because of her investigative journalism. In 2005, she published Los demonios del Eden: El poder que protege a la pornografía infantil (‘The demons of Eden: the power that protects child pornography’), exposing a Mexican child pornography ring in the popular resort of Cancún. A businessman, José Kamel Nacif Borge, known as the King of Denim, because of his jeans factories in Puebla, accused Cacho of libel. He is cited in the book as having ties with Jean Succar Kuri, the owner of a hotel in Cancún who, at the time, had already been detained and charged with heading the child pornography and prostitution network. Kamel Nacif did not deny that he knew him but denied any involvementand claimed that his reputation had suffered as a result of Cacho’s book.

On 16 December 2005, Cacho was arrested at gunpoint by Puebla state officials. She endured a twenty-hour car journey from her home in Cancún to Puebla, where she was physically threatened. Upon arrival she was charged with defamation and faced up to four years in prison if found guilty.

In February 2006, taped telephone conversations between Kamel Nacif and the governor of Puebal, Mario Marín, were released to the local media. They revealed the extent to which Marín had been involved in Cacho’s arrest and detention. Kamel Nacif offered “two beautiful bottles of cognac” as a token of appreciation for the governor’s part in the arrest of Cacho. Following a year-long battle, during which she suffered repeated death threats, the defamation charges were dismissed. However, her acquittal was only the result of her case being transferred to another state where defamation is no longer considered a criminal offence.

After the tapes came to light, Cacho filed a countersuit for corruption and violation of her human rights. Disappointingly, the court in Cacho’s home state of Quintana Roo ruled that although there was evidence of arbitrary detention and torture it could not accept her case for jurisdictional reasons (it recommended that she take the case to Puebla) and closed the investigation.

In 2010, Cacho published Esclavas del poder, in which she revealed the names of people in Mexico she alleges are involved in the trafficking of women and girls. The English translation, Slavery Inc. The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking, is published at the beginning of September by Portobello Books.

In June last year, shortly after taking part in an event in Chihuahua, northern Mexico, Cacho received further death threats by phone and email which made direct reference to her journalism. She believes that they were issued in retaliation for her having revealed the names of alleged traffickers.

More worryingly, on 29 July of this year, Cacho received a call on her handheld transceiver, used only for emergencies. An unknown a male voice referred to her by name and said: “We have already warned you, bitch, don’t mess with us. It is clear you didn’t learn with the small trip you were given. What is coming next for you will be in pieces, that is how we will send you home, you idiot.”  Concerned by this breach of her security system, Cacho has since fled Mexico. Article 19 reported that she will remain out of the country while its Protection Programme for Journalists develops a strategy to provide her with adequate protection.

This courageous author will be in conversation with Helen Bamber OBE, who works with victims of trafficking, in London on 29 August

You can also send messages of support c/o: Fundación Lydia Cacho. Email:

Originaly published by the Independent online

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The Dead Women of Juárez

Posted by lucypopescu on January 23, 2012

Since 1993 over four hundred women have been abducted and murdered in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua (both are in in the state of Chihuahua, north Mexico). Many of the women are brutally beaten and raped before being killed and their bodies dumped in the desert or on a secluded street. Others simply disappear without trace.

When the murders first began to be reported, the authorities were openly discriminatory in their public statements. According to Amnesty, sometimes ‘the women themselves were blamed for their own abduction or murder because of the way they dressed or because they worked in bars at night’.

Often, the victims are young women who work in the region’s maquiladoras. For many impoverished women in Mexico working in these sweatshops is their only option. The assembly plants have been in operation since the 1960s but rapidly spread during the 1990s after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force and created a trading bloc between Canada, the United States and Mexico. Those unfortunate enough to work under sweatshop conditions make clothes for US -based companies such as Levi Strauss and Gap.

Juárez is now the most heavily populated city in Chihuahua State and given its proximity to the US there are also high levels of drug-trafficking and crime. The women have become a lot more visible as they travel to and from work, and their new found independence inevitably breeds resentment amongst local men. Most of the murders remain unsolved and violence against women continues to this day. The city has been dubbed the ‘femicide capital of the world’.

This is the backdrop to Sam Hawken’s assured debut novel The Dead Women of Juárez. Texan boxer, and a recovering drug addict, Kelly Courter works in Juárez as a human punch bag for Ortíz, a shady boxing promoter. Kelly always loses to the up-and-coming native Mexicans. He has few friends, except for his girlfriend, Paloma, who works for the human rights organization, Mujeres Sin Voces (Women without Voices) and her drug-dealing brother Estéban. When Paloma’s horrifically mutilated body is discovered in a stretch of wasteland, Kelly is implicated in her murder and he is brutally tortured to extract a confession by the sinister Captain Garcia.

Rafael Sevilla, a middle-aged narco-cop, has his own reasons for wanting to become involved in the investigation. Joining forces with Enrique, Garcia’s disillusioned assistant, Sevilla sets out to find the real perpetrators of the crime.

Hawken draws a devastating landscape of poverty and corruption. He contrasts the innocence of the victims and their families with the arrogance of those wielding power; the deprivation of the poor with the opulent, gated-accommodation of the rich; the inexorable spread of the drug cartels with the apparent inability of state officials to halt the never ending violence in the region.

Rumours and speculation about who is responsible for the killings run rampant and many believe that the people behind the murders are being protected. As well as the suspicion that drug-traffickers and organised criminals are involved there are also theories that the crimes are the work of wealthy businessmen killing for kicks. Hawken’s taut, brutal thriller intertwines all these suppositions and powerfully demonstrates that violence against women, corruption and lawlessness are all closely linked.

Media attention surrounding the feminicidios has been eclipsed by the violent war between the drug cartels. Hawken’s politically-edged novel draws a welcome focus back to the killings. There are no easy answers but readers can get involved via Amnesty International who continues to lobby the Mexican government. As Hawken points out in his Afterword: “this problem will be solved not with a bullet, but by bringing all those responsible for the abuse and murder of Juárez’s daughters to judgment before the law.”

Originally published by

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Mexico – PEN campaign for murdered journalists

Posted by lucypopescu on November 10, 2011

Maxine Young inspired by José Guadalupe Posada

Mexico’s El Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), dates back to indigenous times. However, many of the celebrations associated with the festival, which takes place from 31 – 2 November, have evolved over time.

The tradition of printing satirical images of politicians and celebrities, drawn as skeletons, was begun in the 1890s by Jose Guadalupe Posada. An engraver, based in the old heart of Mexico City, behind the National Palace, Posada started his career as a political cartoonist before becoming a commercial illustrator, drawing sensational events for broadsheets as well as depicting the daily horrors, murders, and tragedies of city life. But he is best known for the dancing skeletons and grinning skulls that lampooned the rich and famous during El Día de Muertos. La Catrina, his upper-class, elegantly attired calvera, was to become one of the most popular figures of the Day of the Dead celebrations.

Today, journalists who attempt to investigate or draw attention to corruption in Mexico – whether engineered by state officials or the notorious drug cartels – are more likely to find themselves threatened for their work or even killed.

PEN, the international association of writers, is bringing a more sombre tone to the normally jocular ritual by remembering those journalist and writers who have been murdered in Mexico in recent years.

Since December 2006, when President Calderón began his military campaign against the drug cartels, 35 writers have been murdered (33 print journalists, one author and one poet), while a further eight print journalists have gone missing. Others have been threatened, harassed, driven into exile or otherwise censored. A number of these increasingly gruesome crimes occur in states where organised crime has a strong presence, and particularly affect local journalists.

Mexico is now rated as one of the most dangerous places  in the world to work as a journalist and many see the National Human Rights Commission as inadequate to tackle the escalating violence. Drug-trafficking is blamed for many of Mexico’s ills and while it is true that much of the violence against those journalists who attempt to investigate their crimes comes from these quarters, there is also corruption amongst state officials and powerful businessmen, who have the money to buy complicity or silence. Another inherent failure of Mexico’s justice system is the apparent inability to punish and prosecute those in positions of power who abuse their office.

One of nine print journalists to have been killed between January and September 2011, was Susana Chávez Castillo, a prominent poet and activist who led protests against the unsolved killings of women raped and killed in Ciudad Juárez; her strangled and mutilated corpse was found in that city in early January 2011. Reporters Ana María Marcela Yarce Viveros and Rocio González Trápaga were abducted in Mexico City on 31 August 2011; their bodies were found the next day, naked with nooses around their necks and their hands tied behind their backs. Political journalist Angel Castillo Corona was murdered along with his 16-year-old son in Ocuilan, Mexico state, on 3 July 2011.

A recent report commissioned by Canadian PEN and the University of Toronto faculty of law’s international human-rights program, entitled Corruption, Impunity, Silence: The War on Mexico’s Journalists, suggests that Mexico’s journalists have to contend with laws that limit freedom of expression and effectively muzzle their attempts to expose corruption at both local and state levels. It claims that the Mexican government has delayed implementing reforms that could protect reporters, while continuing to prosecute citizen journalists under its complex communications laws.

The eminent Mexican poet José Emilo Pacheco has written some verses especially for PEN’s Day of the Dead campaign.

This atrocious month has finally passed

And left us so many dead

That even the air breathes death

And death is drunk in the water.

I can’t resist the wound of so much death.

Mexico cannot be the plural cemetery,

The enormous common grave

Where our hopes lie exhausted.

We already drown the future

In the abyss that opens each day.

 José Emilio Pacheco, ‘The Altar of the Dead’

Readers might like to send/emails appeals to President Calderón via your nearest Mexican embassy: Protesting the murder of 35 print journalists and writers and the disappearance of eight print journalists since the start of his term in office in December 2006; Calling for a full and impartial investigation into these crimes, focusing on the journalists’ and writers’ work as a possible motive, with the involvement of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression; Calling on President Calderón’s government to fulfil promises to make crimes against journalists a federal offence, by amending the Constitution so that federal authorities have the power to investigate, prosecute and punish such crimes.

Originally published in

Mexican PEN's Day of the Dead altar

Mexican PEN's Day of the Dead altar

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Film review – Miss Bala

Posted by lucypopescu on October 30, 2011

Dir: Gerardo Naranjo

Running time 113 minutes

The violence of Mexico’s drug cartels is impinging daily on the lives of ordinary people. Since 2006, decapitations, corpses left hanging from bridges and body parts found on the beach are just some of the reported atrocities. President Calderon’s decision to use the army to fight the cartels has made little difference and, if anything, has resulted in more bloodshed.

Gerardo Naranjo’s salient film, Miss Bala, offers a vivid portrait of this darker side of Mexico. But rather than just focus on its criminal underworld, Naranjo, and co-writer Mauricio Katz, have painted a broader canvas that confronts head-on Mexico’s socio-political problems, namely the poverty and corruption that have created a lawless vacuum filled by the criminal gangs.

Set in Tijuana, on the Baja California Peninsula, Stephanie Sigman stars as twenty-three-year old Laura. She lives with her father and young brother and they make clothes for a living. Laura and her best friend Suzu decide to enter a local beauty queen contest. The night before their formal audition they visit a local nightclub. It’s raided by a criminal gang who open fire on the clubbers. Laura manages to escape but concerned for her friend, she begs a local cop to help her find Suzu by radioing to his colleagues – instead the policeman delivers Laura into the hands of the criminal gang.

This is the beginning of Laura’s nightmare. Lino (Noe Hernandez), the leader of ‘La Estrella’, takes a liking to Laura and instead of killing her – which would have been the more likely outcome in another border town, Ciudad Juarez – he enlists her help.  First he makes her park a car full of dead bodies outside a US government building as a warning to the Drug Enforcement Administration. When she tries to return home to her family, Lino and the gang follow her there.

Laura is then sent to across the border to San Diego as a mule, carrying money for weapons. On her return to Mexico she is caught in a shoot-out between the army and Lino’s gang. Saved by Lino, he delivers her to the beauty pageant, which she wins. But even this is rigged, it turns out, so that Laura can be used again as bait to lure a prominent army General into a hotel ambush.

Wisely, Naranjo steers clear of too many violent action scenes and leaves the gorier side to the audience’s imagination. Miss Bala is not just a fantastic thriller – it also illustrates how the drug gangs infiltrate everywhere and are the main architects of the savagery that is infecting every level of Mexican society today.

Naranjo does not shy away from exposing all those who have contributed to the nightmare: It’s the American demand for drugs that finance the cartels; the police are shown to be in the pay of the drug barons; and President Calderon’s deployment of the army is represented as chaotic (and ineffectual); With the character of Laura, Naranjo also captures brilliantly the fear and hopelessness felt by ordinary Mexicans who get caught up in the violence.

The cinematography is impressive with Mátyás Erdély’s carefully composed action shots, perfectly balanced by quieter, suspenseful scenes. Interweaving politics (without preaching) into an essentially mainstream film, Naranjo has forged a compelling drama from Mexico’s violent war.



Originally published by

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Film review – Circo

Posted by lucypopescu on September 14, 2011


Dir: Aaron Schock

74 minutes

DVD £12.99

“The circus is tough and beautiful” says Tino, the ringmaster and central character of Aaron Schock’s documentary, Circo, charting the ups and downs of a Mexican troupe. One could say the same of Schock’s film.

The Ponce clan has worked in the circus for over a hundred years but mounting debts and Mexico’s erratic economy strain both the business and family life.

Schock follows one branch of the family through rural Mexico and charts the breakdown of Tino’s marriage to Ivonne. Despite its name the Gran Circo Mexico is a small outfit, although Tino dreams of one day being successful enough to tour Mexico’s major towns and cities.

The grim reality is that often the villagers cannot afford the luxury of entertainment, so the family are forced to offer tickets for free. While Tino’s children work day and night to make the circus a success, training for hours, unpacking and setting up the tent, feeding the animals, amongst other chores, it is Tino’s father who pockets the meagre proceeds.

Such perceived injustice riles Ivonne to the point of wanting to split up her family. Throughout, she expresses her worries about Tino putting the circus before her and claims that she wants her children, all illiterate, to have an education. Her youngest looks in amazement at some children they pass and comments “all they do is go to school and play”. No such normality for the Ponce offspring. Life in the circus, Schock suggests, is both a blessing and a curse.

Of course their work is exotic – the family travel with caged tigers and a lion, miniature ponies, llamas and a camel – and they are all skilled performers. Tino’s eldest son has no difficulty attracting adoring girlfriends in every village. But as any good performer knows, practice makes perfect, and Schock carefully captures the endless toil that lies behind the children’s acrobatics, the clowning and daring feats of endurance.

There’s no denying that the circus exerts a pull on both performer and spectator. What is remarkable about Circo is how Shock manages, in such a short space of time, to capture both sides of circus life: The glamour and the grime, the thrills and the hard graft.

As well as documentary, Circo is part road movie. Schock shows us the real Mexico, not the picture postcard variety. Here, stunning landscapes are set against rural poverty. The changing scenery gives us an idea of the vast distances covered by the troupe, at the same time as suggesting the monotony of continuous travel. By the end, one realises that life on the road is as constrictive as it is liberating.

The domestic troubles of Tino and Ivonne invest the film with a gritty realism that is reflected in Schock’s cinematography – he gives as much importance to the lines of clothing hanging out to dry between trailers as he does the performers on the tightropes. The message is clear. The Ponce clan are as confined by the circus as the animals that accompany them.

Originally published by Cinevue

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The Museum of Death

Posted by lucypopescu on February 3, 2010

The old silver-mining town of Guanajuato, in central Mexico, has become famous for what must surely be one of the most popular museums in Mexico. Situated high on a hill overlooking the city, the Museo de las Momias houses one of the best collections of mummies in the world. But the big difference between these mummies and those from Egypt, for example,  is that these bodies belong to ordinary people originally buried in a nearby cemetery; their preservation was accidental and occurred through natural means.

The museum’s history reveals something of the Mexican entrepreneurial spirit and their attitudes towards death today. In 1865, the local cemetery was deemed full and the authorities decided to begin charging a burial fee. Unclaimed bodies were to be exhumed and moved (presumably cremated) in order to make room for those corpses that had relatives willing to pay for a plot. When the first remains were dug up in the same year, to the surprise of the authorities, many of the bodies had been preserved; aided by the rich mineral content of the soil and Guanajuato’s dry climate.

Those realisng that the unclaimed, mummified corpses provided an opportunity for financial gain, began to display them for public consumption. Like a fairground attraction it has lost nothing of its original appeal. As the skin dried out and tightened, jaws had unclenched, teeth had protruded and mouths fallen open to form grotesque expressions of horror adding to the spine tingling horror of the spectacle.  The venture proved hugely popular and remains highly profitable to this day.

Just a few years ago, the mummified corpses were exhibited carelessly, open to the elements; propped up against a wall in the museum. You could sniff them and those daring enough could reach out and touch them. Once again, death was being presented as a fairground attraction.After numerous fingers had poked holes in the parchment-like skin, the mummies were removed and encased in glass – although it seems that this decision was reached in order to keep them financially viable rather than to preserve their dignity.

Children as young as four are taken into the museum, giggling excitedly as they are led through the dimly lit halls.  To them, there is nothing morbid or macabre about the display. I am sure that at the same age, I would have had nightmares for years to come. There does not seem to be any moral issues at stake here. Bodies are considered worthy of display 1) if they are in relatively good condition, 2) remain unclaimed or 3) their relatives were/are unable to pay the burial fees. The fact that the identities of many of the mummies are unknown allows for myth and rumour to grow up around the unclaimed corpses and all manner or yarns are spun as to how they met their end – usually dictated by their grotesque expressions.  The museum claims that one is a German; another is listed as a French doctor – two foreigners who evidently died, alone, in a strange country. A woman from the 1920s is thought to have been buried alive after slipping into catalepsy. The final, frenzied movements of her hands are frozen above her face, apparently in a last ditch struggle to escape this gruesome death. Another body is that of a drowned man – we are asked to note the purplish tinge of his skin. The tiny bodies of babies are also included in the display (the musem boasts the smallest mummy in the world) as well the body of a pregnant woman and a murdered man – the knife wound clerly visible above his ribcage.

The stomachs of the mummies, when exposed, resemble nothing so much as empty sacks of shrivelled leather; vacant shells, devoid of life. It reminds me of one of the most terrifying aspects of death – watching as the blood drain from the body and the colour and texture of the skin slowly changes to resemble cold, pale marble. Suddenly, the departure of the soul is tangible or at least imaginable.  This fine parchment is one step further on, the stage just before the skin begins to turns to dust. 

Inevitably, given our strait-laced views towards death, the Museo de las Momias experience is surreal. It is like stepping onto the set of a Hammer House of Horror film. The detail is extraordinary – in some cases, tufts of hair are still visible. Amazingly, the hunger for images of death, for most of the visitors, remains unabated. The museum has recently opened a separate room (at additional cost), called “the culture of death”. It includes a mummified corpse laid out in a coffin to resemble a vampire, and another punctured by metal stakes, some holograms of insects and fragments of finger nails.  The man in front of me snaps absolutely everything with his digital camera as if in a consumer frenzy.

Mortality is big business in Mexico. There is even a shop selling official teeshirts, jewellery and mugs, and a whole market outside dedicated to this cult of death.

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