These messages represent just three of those currently on display in the Museo Casa de la Memoria Indómita in Mexico City, printed from the soles of worn out shoes of relatives searching for disappeared loved ones.
‘Huellas de la Memoria’ (Footprints of Memory) is the project of artist Alfredo López Casanova. Taking the shoes of people searching for missing relatives, he engraves the story of their owner and their search into the soles. These are then printed, creating the footprint.
Disappearance in Mexico has reached endemic levels. In 2012 government data on persons who went missing during the Calderón presidency was released, providing evidence that in the 6-year period from 2006, almost 27,000 people had disappeared. This figure is argued to be conservative by many human rights and relatives organisations, who have recorded many more disappearances that families are too scared to report to the authorities, and this figure has of course increased over the past 4 years. Based on that data, 12 people disappear in Mexico each day (Registro Nacional de Datos de Personas Extraviadas o Desaparecidos).
The idea of working with relatives to represent their search in this way came to López Casanova during the 2013 Mother’s Day march in Mexico City, a march which in recent years has become a protest for the mothers of the disappeared on a date which carries huge importance in Mexico and on which they feel they have nothing to celebrate. During the protest he listened to the sound of the marching feet and began focusing on the marching shoes. He thought, “Imagine if their shoes spoke, if the story of those steps was recorded”.
He asked a couple of mothers he was close to if he could explore his idea, and put these initial few pairs online, making a Facebook page for the project. He received positive feedback and other people with missing relatives began to contact him to be involved in the project. There are now 85 pairs on display in Mexico City.
As the collection has grown it has become in many ways a representation of the crisis of disappearance in Mexico. Included in the first 85 pairs is a pair from Braulia Jaimes, searching for her husband who is the first recorded case of enforced disappearance in Mexico in 1969. Included also are the shoes of Tita Radilla, searching for her father Rosendo who disappeared in 1974, and is the only case of enforced disappearance in Mexico to have reached the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The state was found responsible. There are shoes from every decade since and from each corner of the country, and there are several pairs from parents and children of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, disappeared on the 26th September 2014. International cases are also represented, including cases of disappearance from Argentina, Colombia, and Guatemala, and of migrants from Honduras and El Salvador who disappeared in Mexico trying to reach the United States. The project is also international in another dimension. There are now what Alfredo calls ‘mirror pages’ on Facebook in English, Italian, German and Japanese.
Engraving the shoes can be quite a time-consuming process. Where possible López Casanova, and the small collective of people that work with him, engrave directly into the soles of the shoes. However there are shoes where the sole is too textured or too hard, in which case lino is glued over the soles and engraved. The footprints are printed in green, a colour adopted by the relatives of the disappeared to represent the hope that they will be found, however two other colours can be used. Black footprints are made for those persons who were disappeared and have been found no longer alive, while red will be reserved for a pair he hopes to obtain from someone who has themself been killed while searching for their missing relative. The words are written and given to the project by the relative along with the shoes, and often address the missing person directly, for instance, “Son, I will continue to search for you until the last minute of my life, your Mum”.
The exhibition in Mexico City was inaugurated on May 9 this year, the evening before the Mother’s Day march, and was attended by many people with shoes in the collection. It is housed in a museum and cultural space established by relatives of people who disappeared during Mexico’s Dirty War in the late 1960s and 70s, and the Footprints exhibition sadly provides continuity to the permanent collection. When asked what they wanted to happen to their shoes after the exhibition, those relatives I spoke to said they want their shoes to travel, to continue to testify to the crimes of enforced disappearance and the searching they people are undertaking. These shoes and their footprints do just that; they testify to the searching, the journey, the tireless walking that their owners have been living since their lives were put on hold, and they will now continue to travel and speak about Mexico’s missing.
The English facebook page can be followed here.
The exhibition will be on at the Museo Casa de la Memoria Indómita, Calle Regina, Centro Historico, until the 26th June.