El Grito.

Mexico is currently in the midst of a self-denominated “war” against the country’s drug cartels. Initiated in 2006 by right-wing President Felipe Calderón, this conflict has claimed the lives of 33, 797 people, according to government figures. Let us take a moment to absorb this number. 33, 797 people: civilians, law enforcement officers, drug-dealers, innocent bystanders. Thirty three thousand deaths.1

This eruption of violence affects the livelihoods of thousands of families in northern cities and border towns, and has led to an unprecedented climate of fear in the country. The latest national polls indicate that 8 out of 10 Mexicans believe the “narcos” are winning the war, and more than half of the population disapproves of President Calderón’s actions against the cartels. Moreover, despite the concentration of this conflict’s violence in specific (mostly northern) cities, the constant display of gore and violence on Mexican television has led to a perception of widespread insecurity throughout the country.

Every September 15th, Mexicans celebrate their national independence in a traditional “El grito” ceremony, where the President stands on a balcony on the National Palace and shouts “¡Viva México!” (“Long live Mexico!) in front of hundreds of thousands of bystanders and millions of TV viewers. This public display of patriotism commemorates the original “grito” of 1810, when independence leader Miguel Hidalgo called for an uprising against Spanish rule, resulting in a war that ended four hundred years of colonialism.

Last year, the Mexican government organized a series of special mass celebrations to mark the bicentennial of this national holiday. Given the political and social turmoil caused by the violent “war” against the drug cartels, the bicentennial celebrations prompted a period of national introspection. In a sense, the 2010 “grito” served as a moment of refection on the country’s past achievements and the current state of affairs, where numerous public commentators questioned whether there was anything worth celebrating. In this context, Emilio Rojas’s installation, El Grito, interrogates the role of this political ritual,the constructed mythology of national heroes, and the legacy of the first war for independence in Latin America. This work uses footage from President Calderon’s four “grito” ceremonies to present a critical and nonconformist response to the festive atmosphere of that historical night. By responding to the President’s patriotic cries with his own desperate cries, the artist creates a tension between the optimistic tone of the national holiday and the country’s ongoing problems. The artist thus transforms this celebratory cry to one of frustration, collective fear, and anger towards what he perceives as the state’s paralysis.

With this work, Emilio Rojas joins the ranks of contemporary Mexican artists who use their work to protest the country’s current violence. As the performance progresses, the desperate shouting takes a toll on the artist’s body, damaging his vocal chords and rendering him voiceless near the end.2 Thus, his faltering voice serves as a powerful metaphor for the impotence that most Mexicans feel towards the daily violence. More importantly, the act of sacrificing his voice for this political protest reminds us of the personal sacrifices of everyday Mexicans in this “war” against the cartels. In a time of heightened fear and uncertainty, with an ongoing conflict where victory seems elusive and the costs unjustifiable, Rojas’s work asks us to question the significance of the President’s “grito” as a patriotic gesture.

written by Jorge Amigo.

1 This figure can be misleading. The government’s national intelligence service published this number in January 2011, but did not provide further details disclosing which social groups were included in this count, or in what percentage..