Watery Graves: Latin America/ The Rivers

Watery Graves: Latin America/ The Rivers

Photo: Magdalenas por el Cauca, performance, video and photos by Gabriel Posada and Yorlady Ruiz.
Source: Museo de la Memoria Colombia


Sólo se requería como escenografía, un puente.
Los ríos se volvieron los mensajeros de la muerte.
Luego serían los trenes y los camiones, sin llegar
a reemplazar nunca, imposible, a los ríos.
(Alape Arturo, Magdalenas por el Cauca)

In her study on Ungrievable Bodies, Mexican scholar Ileana Diéguez asks: how to perform an impossible mourning? How to mourn disappeared, missing bodies? How to grieve those whose bodies have been profaned, dismembered, dispersed? In order to explore these questions in the Latin American context, Diéguez gives an account of recent artistic practices of mourning throughout this continent. Rivers are the recurrent topoi of ungrieved deaths. Rivers turn to be watery graves, floating cemeteries of unidentified bodies.

La muerte sigue bajando por el río

One of the works she cites is Magdalenas por el Cauca, an initiative of artists Gabriel Posada and Yorlady Ruiz in Colombia. Based on a collaboration with the inhabitants of Trujillo and Cartago, this collective project denounces the lethal violence experienced by the populations living at the banks of the Cauca river (especially between the late-80s and early-90s), and it pays homage to missing people and their mothers, sisters, widows. After a series of workshops with the locals, large-scale paintings and/or installations are placed upon wooden rafts. Often made of materials found by the river’s banks, these images portray the mourning relatives of those who disappeared. The rafts are left to flow with the currents of the river Cauca, following the destiny of missing people:

As one of the artists states, the corpses keep going down the river, and there are many of them; according to the testimonies of the locals, in one month and a half, at least fifteen corpses have been going down the river.

The question of impossible mourning in relation to the fluvial tombs is also explored by Colombian artist Erica Diettes in her work Río Abajo/ Drifting Away. Río Abajo consists of 26 digital impressions on crystals, based on photographs she took from clothes and objects of the victims, given to the artist by their relatives. As Diéguez remarks, ‘in the cases of forced disappearances – in Colombia, as in Mexico, Peru, Argentina, and other countries, the garments have been conserved with the hope that some time they could be given to those who are still expected to arrive’ (2013: 226, our translation). Referring more specifically to Peru, Diéguez explains how an Andean practice of ‘waking’ the clothes instead of the dead body took force again (ibid.).

Back to Diettes’ work,

clothing appears floating on the water, transporting us to the corpses that are thrown into the river to be vanished. The piece becomes a type of contemplation on the role of rivers in Colombia as a geographical space that evokes death, and furthermore, contributes to the mourning process of the victims as these images symbolically rescue the presence of a body they have not been able to find.

La maldita circunstancia del agua por todas partes […]
La eterna miseria que es el acto de recordar 
(Virgilio Piñera, La isla en Peso)

Moving from Colombia to Brazil, Ilha das Pedras Brancas or Ilha do Presídio is an island in the river Guaíba, very close to the city of Porto Alegre. During the Brazilian dictatorship, in the 60s and 70s, the island was a detention center for political prisoners. In 2011, the group Tribo de Atuadores Ói Nóis Aqui Traveiz presented a piece of ‘experiental theatre’ (teatro de vivência) in that particular place. Based on Ariel Dorfman and Tony Kushner’s Widows, this ‘performance on absence’ investigated the women’s fight to know where their relatives disappeared to during the decades-long military dictatorship, aiming at keeping this traumatic memory alive.

For a recording of this site-specific piece, visit the Hemispheric Institute.

The river becomes a character in his/her own right in Argentinian author Jorge Huertas’ play AntigoneS: Linaje de Hembras. This is a key re-inscription of the ancient text as, already from the title, it deliberately pluralizes the figure of Antigone. Sophocles’s story is interwoven with the dramas of recent Argentinian history, which the (male) author attempts to narrate from the side of women. Women actually interpret all the characters of the play, except from Creon. Buenos Aires is the main site and scenery of this version. Its sound is tango, and the bandoneón appears as a separate character. Intertextual allusions to lyrics of tango and quotes from Argentinian politics and culture abound. Antigone herself coexists with a chorus of women: ‘We, Antigones’. Yet, the iconic Argentinian reference is Eva Perón, in the character of ‘La Embalsamada Pelegrina’: a clear reference to the vicissitudes and consequent profanations of Evita’s embalmed body. In the beginning of the play, ‘La Embalsamada Pelegrina’ repeats Eva Peron’s declaration of the Argentinian women’s right to vote; but in a following scene she declares that she lied to her compatriots, and she laments the destinies of women still oppressed by men and their wars. Tiresias appears towards the end of the play, reciting in English verses of Jorge Luis Borges, whose poem on the poetic art also cuts across the play:

To gaze at a river made of time and water 
and remember Time is another river 
To know we stray like a river 
and our faces vanish like water.

For the poet’s voice reciting the poem see:

[Mirar el río hecho de tiempo y agua
y recordar que el tiempo es otro río,
saber que nos perdemos como el río
y que los rostros pasan como el agua
(Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Arte Poética’)

Personifying Rio de la Plata, the iconic topos of both Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the character of the river takes up mythical dimensions and it becomes the key metaphor for contagion. It begins as part of a still innocent nature, untouched from human intervention. Yet, reminding us of Heraclitus’ flux but also its re-appropriation by Jorge Luis Borges in his poem ‘Arte Poética’, the Rio is made of time. Influenced by humans, it states that it wants ‘to be a sinner’, ‘terrible as man’. This twist alludes to the stasimon of Sophocles’ Antigone, verses 332-334 (‘wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man’); in opposition though to the ancient poet, Huertas does not praise the wonders and technological achievement of men, but laments instead their crimes and continuous slaughter. Its hands are stained by human blood. The body of Polynices, such as the bodies of the disappeared ones, is thrown in its depths, left to perish. Orphan of names, the river receives the unidentified dead. At the end, the river-cemetery overflows its banks, and it begins throwing up those missing bodies which float in its depths. The unburied dead invade the living, and in this way the trilogy ends up as it begun: not only the plague comes back to the city, but also the Sphinx returns: the monster defeated by Oedipus before he becomes Theva’s Rex is once again menacing the polis.

In this imagery of fluvial tombs as those described above, Ophelia is a recurrent figure. Peruvian writer Sadrina Helfgott writes in 1964 an (unpublished) Antigone in which, according to Romulo Pianacci with a clear allusion to Ophelia, the main character dreams to bury her brother in the river, and to give him a watery grave: ‘the trance of the drown ones, the dream of shipwrecks’. Gambaro’s ground-breaking Antígona Furiosa also appears at the very beginning of the piece quoting the Shakespearean verses of Ophelia (act 4, scene 5):

He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone,
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.

and she goes on with the Elizabethan text.

To return to the work Madgalenas por el Cauca, Colombian artists Gabriel Posada and Yorlady Ruiz connect Ophelia to the real dead bodies of the river: one of the installations placed on the rafts that float through the river Cauca is named ‘Ofelia de Trujillo’, alluding to the massacre that took place in the region, and constructed by photos of missing people:


Marios Chatziprokopiou