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The Refusal to be Disappeared: Lukas Avendaño’s Xibalbay

Lukas Avendaño is an internationally lauded performance artist, anthropologist, writer, activist, and member of Mexico’s National System of Art Creators. Born in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Avendaño identifies, and is identified by his Binni Zaa (Zapotec) community, as muxe: a performance of gender that challenges colonial impositions of the male/female binary and its heteronormative corollaries. In order to respect this muxeidad as a way of being and doing, in the writing of this essay I follow Avendaño’s cue and alternate between “she/her/hers” and “he/him/his” pronouns. But my efforts are mere approximations, for muxeidad can only be understood within the totality of Binni Zaa collectivity, which, as Avendaño has argued, also has its contradictions.

Without delegitimating its utopic possibilities, while also investigating its precolonial origins, Avendaño uncovers said contradictions through his application of the arqueología de la memoria or archeology of memory: an excavation of taken for granted truths to reveal their complexities coupled with the tracing of emotional and sensorial genealogies to create other possibilities of being. As an experiential and embodied methodology, Avendaño deploys arqueología de la memoria to a life lived beyond categories and a performance praxis that tirelessly unmasks the discourses that pass for reality.

Arqueología de la memoria is central to Xibalbay, Avendaño’s recent multidisciplinary performance project. The title references Xibalbá, the underworld where the lords of fear, illness, destitution, violence, and death reign, as told in the Popol Vuh, a sixteenth century K’iche’ Maya text which is predated by an enduring oral tradition and ritual repertoire practiced throughout Mesoamerica. In contrast to the Popol Vuh’s placement of Xibalbá at the bottom of a nine-tiered underworld, Avendaño’s Xibalbay is not a distant or separate dimension. It is here, on the surface, though many refuse to see the quotidian reality of a México where nearly one hundred thousand persons have been forcibly disappeared since 1964, with over half “disappeared” in the last two years.

Avendaño has been inhabiting—and troubling—Xibalbá since May 10, 2018, the day his brother Bruno was also forcibly disappeared. Like the hero twins of the Popol Vuh, who descended into the underworld to recover their father’s bones and face the murderous lords of Xibalbá, Avendaño has tirelessly searched for her brother while confronting the Mexican state and other forces of death. After thirty months, Bruno’s bones were found and without pause, Avendaño continues to employ all means necessary—in the courts, streets, stage, and screen—to bring to justice the intellectual and material authors of his brother’s disappearance and homicide, and to indict the denial and indifference upon which Xibalbá depends.

Three people sitting in the woods.

Field recording process. Left to right: Abrahan Rodríguez Martínez, Rodrigo de la Cruz Abúndez, and Griselda Sánchez Miguel. Photo courtesy of Griselda Sánchez Miguel, 2021.

In September of 2021, I attended a preview of Xibalbay presented at the Centro de las Artes San Agustín Etla. While witnessing the performance, I came to sense the proximity and ubiquity of Xibalbá as a social reality of necropolitical dimensions—on my skin and in my bones—despite my growing numbness to the cold quantifications of a violence I have long been familiar with as a Guatemala-born researcher who writes about the catastrophes that have shaped Mesoamerican realities for the last five hundred years. During post-performance conversations with Avendaño, I silently asked myself (I did not ask aloud out of shame for my relative privilege): How was Xibalbay able to break through the psychological armature that shields those who, like me, have not been directly touched by this violence? By what means did Xibalbay make a death-world (to use Achille Mbembe’s term) that I previously knew mostly through numbers, reverberate through my body, bristle my skin, and elicit tears? Was this fear, rage, or something else?

Interested in what performances do more than what they mean, I will reflect on these questions and their relevance to resisting the multiple registers of forced disappearance, from the social, to the physical, to the ontological. I will do this through an engagement with Avendaño’s definition of aesthetics (a main component of arqueología de la memoria) as “another universe of understanding... a code composed of emotions... constructed, in time and space, through sensorial experiences.” But before delving into these questions, I will briefly describe the process behind Xibalbay.

Speaking with Avendaño and one of her collaborators, journalist and sound artist Griselda Sánchez Miguel, I learned that movement and sound were generated over the course of more than forty days in a process that Avendaño describes as: habitar/vitalidad/habitalidad expandida, an expanded form of inhabiting within vitality. Culled from Binni Zaa concepts, this habitalidad expandida took place in Avendaño’s community in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where he guided his ensemble of performers, Abrahan Rodríguez Martínez, Natalhi Vázquez, Marina Santiago, and Rodrigo de la Cruz Abúndez, to activate an arqueología de la memoria in each of their bodies—bodies with precolonial ancestries in Oaxaca and Morelos which this process sought to bring forth.

In support of the ensemble’s resultant choreographic findings and Avendaño’s transtemporal intent, Sánchez Miguel created a soundscape that meticulously interwove testimonies of families of the forcibly disappeared with multiple layers of sound. This process resulted in Xibalbay, with performers incorporating postures found in Mesoamerican codices and iconography. These postures flowed into movements excavated from strata of a collective memory that recall the ordinary actions associated with the life-sustaining maize cycle as well as extraordinary actions in the liminal space between life and death, including warfare, the act of birthing, and the ritual ball game that the hero twins played against the lords of Xibalbá.

Seven people standing in front of a building.

Some of Xibalbay’s cast members and production team, left to right: Daniel Salud (make-up), Olga Viviana Vallejos (masks and costuming), Abrahan Rodríguez Martínez (performer: Hunahpú and Cuchumaquic), Natalhi Vázquez (performer: Ixquic), Lukas Avendaño (director), Griselda Sánchez Miguel (sound artist), and Marina Santiago (performer: Ixmucané). Photo by Rodrigo de la Cruz Abúndez, San Agustín Etla, 2021.

These multisensory movements produced sounds such as the grinding of maize on stone, seeds orbiting the interior cavity of a womb-shaped gourd, and the distinctive rhythms of ayoyote seeds fastened on performer’s limbs. At key moments, the performers recited phrases from the Popol Vuh, which uncannily paralleled the testimonies of the families of the forcibly disappeared that comprised a central element in Xibalbay’s soundscape. The soundscape was composed of these voices along with layers of sound such as: water, fire, and other elements recorded by Sánchez Miguel in Avendaño’s community and beyond; the chanting, marching, and atecocolli (Nahuatl: conch shell) and huehuetl (Nahuatl: drum) recorded during protests against state violence and impunity; and other sonic sources that amplified and magnified the bodies and territories in which the Popol Vuh plays its story out, over and over again.

Returning to the questions surrounding aesthetics stated above, undoubtedly, the visual and sonic impact of the performers’ bodies coupled with the complex tapestry of sound did do this work of sensorial-emotional encoding. However, the visceral awareness of Xibalbá in the present was also activated in the space produced through the critical juxtaposing of the imagined (or perhaps remembered, as per arqueología de la memoria) physical sensorium of a precolonial Xibalbá and the sonic resonance of a living and transtemporal resistance to the Xibalbá of the here and now.

For example, towards the end of Xibalbay, I am unexpectedly overcome with corporeal sensations provoked by the resonance of the soundscape in juxtaposition to the performers’ movements, sounds, and articulations. In the background, a huehuetl is marking time, causing my seated body to hinge forward and back, following the rhythm not as a dancing-along, but, as an authority that compels the unintentional involvement of my body in the experience.

Then, the sounding of an atecocolli produced by a long breath forced through its spiraling chamber. The atecocolli’s vibration reaches my arms, making the hairs bristle. It echoes in my skull, and I can recall, and almost taste, the sweet resinous smell of copal that has long accompanied this sound. Meanwhile, Ixmucané—Ixquic’s mother-in-law, the twins’ grandmother, and the creatrix—kneels in front of her grinding stone. With torso and arms in vigorous forward motion, she pushes the metate back and forth against the flat volcanic rock, grinding maize, grinding the bone and flesh of the bodies which we inhabit in this dimension.

The huehuetl and atecocolli—and in the background, the faint sound of stone grinding stone—are punctuated by a high-pitched and full-throated voice rhythmically chanting: “¡Ahora, ahora, se hace indispensable: presentación con vida, y castigo a los culpables!” (Now, now, these are indispensable: the return of the disappeared, alive, and punishment for the perpetrators!) The same chorus of voices repeats, almost screaming: “¡Porque vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos!” (Because they were taken alive, we want them returned alive!) The voices echo behind my sternum, traveling to the surface of my skin and up my scalp like electricity and passing through my tear ducts, my eyes start to water.

One person with back tattoos standing in front of another person.

Ixquic (Natalhi Vázquez) confronting her father and Lord of Xibalbá, Cuchumaquic (Abrahan Rodríguez Martínez). Photo by Nayla Altamirano, 2021.

The chanting crescendos as Ixquic—the twins’ mother and daughter of a lord of Xibalbá, Cuchumaquic—walks to the front of the stage. “¡Alerta! ¡Alerta!” is repeated in a call and response, followed by: “Por qué, por qué, por qué nos asesinan, ¿si somos la esperanza de América Latina?” (Why, why, why do they kill us if we are the hope of América Latina?) Seemingly despondent, Ixquic holds maize cobs of multiple colors, which she starts to thresh, causing the seeds to violently fall to the ground, generating a visual memory of dismembered bodies (later I learned that this was Avendaño’s intended emotional-sensorial coding).

As Ixquic continues to thresh the maize cobs, seeds now almost covering the ground, the protest chorus repeats: “Siente la tierra vibrar, mira el fuego hablar” (Feel the earth vibrate, see the fire speak). Again, the hairs on my arms inexplicably bristle and I think, or imagine, that I can feel my pores opening. The ducts in my eyes seem to swell and then release into tears when I see Ixquic’s despondency grow into rage as she testifies that the lords of Xibalbá decapitated Hun-Hunahpú, the father of her twin sons, Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué, before burying him. Her wrath rising, she exclaims that the twins went to Xibalbá in search of their father’s bones, but upon finding his headless body, they could not bury him or even pronounce his name. Ixquic’s fury and indignation now at a pinnacle, she raises her face to the sky and screams: “Hun-Hunahpú!!!”

Repetitions of “Siente la tierra vibrar, mira el fuego hablar” with huehuetl and atecocolli, grow louder as the twins, Ixbalanqué and Hunahpú, walk along parallel lines toward the audience, facing us while Ixquic continues threshing maize and Ixmucané continues grinding at her stone. When the twins are closer, the soundscape pauses and Hunahpú issues a command to the audience: “Oigan nuestros nombres” (Hear our names). Ixbalanqué and Hunahpú continue approaching the audience. They look at us while indicting the lords of Xibalbá with the murder of their father and asserting their existence despite Xibalbá’s repeated attempts to destroy them. One of their pronouncements still echoes in my memory: “Nosotros somos. Estos son nuestros nombres.” (We exist. These are our names.) Softly, the chorus returns—“Siente la tierra vibrar, mira el fuego hablar.”

Walking backwards, Ixquic lets the now seedless maize cobs fall to the ground while crying out, “Esta tierra está fertilizada con los muertos” (This land is fertilized with the dead). In contrast, the twins continue walking toward the audience, almost crossing that invisible fourth wall that we imagine separates us from Xibalbay—or that, perhaps, separates the performers from this Xibalbá. Ixquic opens her arms to show empty hands. Ixmucané looks at the sky, then blows on the stone repeatedly, scattering the fine-powdered maize into thin air, perhaps in the way that the forcibly disappeared are ontologically nullified by our forgetting. Seeing the clouds of finely ground maize rise from stone, I feel newly vulnerable to the possibility of being physically disappeared, and, at the same time, I question my complicity in other forms of disappearance.

“Do not accept that you can be disappeared in the literal sense, you as existence, but if and when they do disappear you, do not accept that you can be erased.”

To this point, Avendaño argues that prior to the forced removal of a body, of a person, there is a long series of disappearances that are historical and social, though the body remains. This became clear to me when I asked Avendaño who she made Xibalbay for: “Ultimately, I made Xibalbay for my mother,” explains Avendaño. “For my mother who, ultimately, is me. Or for my mother who, ultimately, is one of those thousands of mothers... sisters and brothers who also live with the uncertainty of not knowing where their relatives are.”

Despite the relational sociality of this equation, Avendaño distinguishes between those who are forced into visibility through kinship to someone who has been physically disappeared, and those who, in contrast, are physically present but live, and die, in a state of suspended disappearance. Avendaño terms the latter the “historically disappeared” as they are “disappeared because of their class condition, because of their ethnic affiliation, because of their cultural condition, because of their null or scarce cultural capital, because they are from that sector where I come from. They are those peasants, those non-Spanish speaking monolinguals.... As long as they are not named as relatives of the disappeared, they are also disappeared.”

This leads Avendaño to assert that “physical disappearance is the last link in a series of previous disappearances.” Furthermore, the totality of all these forced disappearances, physical and historical, leads to the “disappearance of memory,” which Avendaño characterizes as “the most violent disappearance.” Actively forgetting the disappeared—or even passively disavowing their existence—implies that one tacitly accepts and even contributes to multiple forms of disappearance that result in ontological erasure.

As Avendaño makes clear, this refusal to be disappeared, to be ontologically erased, is distinct from the arqueología de la memoria which, we will recall, is a process of “excavating temporality.” In contrast, the “continuity of memory” is enacted by a series of refusals: “To refuse accepting that your family member does not deserve to be searched for—does not deserve to be searched for—and to refuse accepting that you may be disappeared... Do not accept that you can be disappeared in the literal sense, you as existence, but if and when they do disappear you, do not accept that you can be erased.”

It must be noted that the lords of the underworld change their tactics over time. And in response, the hero-twins must also shift their strategies. In Xibalbay, they make alliances with their mother, Ixquic, and grandmother Ixmucané, who embody the internal conflicts present in every collective, conflicts which must be faced and resolved if there is to be a necessary, and necessarily concerted, resistance against the reign of the death-world in this world.

As such, Avendaño’s choreographic inversion of the textual Popol Vuh centers the true protagonists of the transtemporal story: the families of the forcibly disappeared. Their resistant acts of remembering constitute a collective refusal of the nexus of disappearances that result in a necro-ontological temporality in which the disappeared are assumed to never have existed.

At the same time, Avendaño’s Xibalbay—as a continuing process of arqueología de la memoria—lays bare the finite conditions of a Xibalbá that disguises itself as the only possible world while activating the sensorial-emotional—that is, aesthetic—facilities through which we may remember, sense, and imagine a place in which one can fully exist without the threat of being disappeared.

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I thank Lukas Avendaño and Griselda Sánchez Miguel for the generous gift of their time, knowledge, and lived experience. Thanks are also due to José Eduardo Valadés Gaitán for his careful transcriptions of recorded interviews. Any errors in this essay are solely my own.