The beautiful light of a sunset over a rural Mexican landscape has been transported into UT’s Visual Art Center (VAC) by the exhibition Cómo hago para recordar / What I do to remember, which opened Jan. 24. It is a solo show of work by celebrated Mexican filmmaker and UT graduate, Juan Pablo González, and the first time his work has ever been shown in a gallery setting.
Upon entering, González’s atmospheric film clips surround you. Images of fields and ranches softly flicker on projected screens, shifting at times to simply white or black light. On the wall is a monochromatic painting that serves as a map, indicating the filmed locations. Walking past the VAC from outside, Rastos / Traces, a series of images of crops and farm tools displayed in a lightbox is visible through the glass. Land is central to Gonzalez’s work. It serves as both a subject itself and a starting point for human experience and emotion.
The highlight of the exhibition is González’s 2017 documentary Las Nubes, which is screened in the show’s second gallery every half hour. It is a look at daily life in Central Mexico, specifically the region surrounding the director’s hometown of Atotonilco El Alto, Jalisco, which has been impacted by the loss of agricultural jobs following the enactment of NAFTA and the growing presence of violent drug cartels in the region. The visual content of the film is far from dramatic. The camera work is direct and understated. The language, however, reveals a narrative of loss.
The film is a conversation between González, who remains unseen, and an aging agave rancher as he recalls what his family has been through. As he drives across the land in his truck, occasionally stopping to open a gate, the focus is on his eyes reflected in the rearview mirror. He recounts peaceful years, when his convenience store served as a gathering place for passing truckers and headquarters for local businesses. But he also remembers racing his daughter to the airport, sending her to America to escape harassment from her stalker as threats from his cartel increased in severity. During their years of separation, his family has struggled to stay close. The internet doesn’t reach their house, making regular communication difficult. Holidays that can’t be celebrated in person are harsh reminders of the ongoing reality of displacement. The rancher’s story makes intimate the macro-economic impacts of Mexico’s failure to enforce the rule of law in the face of cartel insurgents.
Mexico has the 11th largest economy in the world, but the cartels keep that growth from being felt by rural communities like Jalisco. Cartel intimidation keeps people in their homes, effectively stopping local trade. In Jalisco, the businesses that remain open are forced to sell to the cartel on credit, which is never repaid.
Little progress has been made on this issue since the 2017 premiere of Las Nubes, and the United States is partly to blame. The renegotiation of NAFTA into USMCA in 2018 threatened agricultural exports. The new trade deal’s aftershocks have hit hardest in communities vulnerable to economic uncertainty and fluctuating crop prices. Trump’s insistence that Mexico militarize its border with Guatemala has pulled troops away from protecting civilians. In 2019, as cartel activity surged, the homicide rate in Mexico reached its highest level in decades. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s response to crime has been to coddle the cartels with “hugs, not bullets,” and increase funding for social programs. This solution provides no quick answers and little comfort for people who are living in real danger.
Juan Pablo González’s meditative films serve as a reminder that economic policies impact individuals the media often fails to consider. They communicate powerfully but scale back from violence to show perseverance and hope. The exhibition leaves space to, as the title indicates, recordar, or remember, the people and places left behind.
Cómo hago para recordar / What I do to remember will be on view at the Visual Art Center through March 6, 2020.