Re-membering Vanessa Guillén and Coyolxāuhqui

On my morning walk, I stopped by the Federación de Clubes Zacatecanos del Sur de California where for the past month artist Juan Solis had been working on a mural memorializing Vanessa Guillén.  It was covered in gauzy fabric in preparation for the dedication ceremony scheduled for later in the morning. Back at home, over a cup of coffee, I began to cry. Devastated by the injustice of her death, I thought about how scared she must have been during the last moments of her life. And about how her grandmother, Lorenza Almanza, must have felt during the eight-hundred-mile bus ride from Río Grande, Zacatecas, Mexico to Houston, Texas — crossing a border that separates so many families to attend her granddaughter’s funeral.

I returned a few hours later to find community members, politicians and television crews gathered to witness the unveiling of Solis’s mural, “Justicia para Vanessa Guillén y todas las Mujeres.” Guillén was a twenty-year-old US Army soldier murdered on April 22 by a fellow soldier inside Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. Her dismembered body was found two months later, buried along the Leon River. In this monumental public artwork, Solis lovingly renders Guillén as her iconic image in uniform, emerging from vividly colored flowers. On the left side of her chest where her heart is, Solis superimposes an image of La Virgen de Guadalupe. Above her image on opposite sides are the stars of the U.S. flag and a partial image of the Mexican coat of arms. In this mural we can see the intersecting traces of the social historical forces that shaped Guillén’s life, circumscribed her death and affect how she is remembered.

A hundred feet from the mural is a replica of the Coyolxāuhqui Stone sculpted by Carlos Venegas in 1985. The original, created sometime between 1469-1481, was unearthed in 1978 at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan in present day Mexico City. Separated by millennia of mythic time, it is perhaps by cosmic design that Guillén and Coyolxāuhqui find themselves in proximity. It is certainly a result of the long history of art and activism in East Los Angeles, where murals are a feature of the vibrant visual landscape. Conventional interpretations of Coyolxāuhqui come from the Florentine Codex, a 16th-century ethnography by Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún. Through this colonial lens, anthropologists have interpreted the Coyolxāuhqui Stone as a literal representation of Mexica’s “blood thirsty” cultural and spiritual practices rather than as metaphor for cosmological relationships. The Coyolxāuhqui Stone has thus been interpreted as a carving depicting her body dismembered by her brother Huitzilopochtli to prevent her from murdering their mother.

Privileging the work of indigenous scholars and the oral traditions, spiritual practices, and birthing rituals of Indigenous/Mexica culture, Xicana feminist scholars Jennie Luna and Martha Galeana reclaim Coyolxāuhqui’s image as a “birthing text,” a metaphor for the connection between women’s reproductive cycles and the phases of the moon—a text that teaches later generations of young women about the “tremendous work a woman warrior has to endure in order to birth her human creation.”

How will Vanessa Guillén be remembered? As merely a victim of state sanctioned patriarchal violence, her body torn asunder? Or will she be re-membered and celebrated as a catalyst for a movement to dismantle patriarchal militarism? In a sense, Guillén has been symbolically made whole again, beautifully rendered on a wall of a community organization which works to support and bring together people from her cultural homeland of Zacatecas.

Juan Solis:

Federación de Clubes Zacatecanos del Sur de California:

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