Juana Barraza Samperio (La Mataviejitas) as “La Dama del Silencio” (all images courtesy of Susana Vargas)

MEXICO CITY — Following a recent study published by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) about race and class, I sat down with Susana Vargas, one of Mexico’s leading feminist academics and an expert on what she calls “pigmentocracy,” to talk about the visualization of machismo, sexism, race, and class in Mexico. Vargas, who has a PhD in philosophy from McGill University in Montreal, is the author of the book Mujercitos, which employs images from the Alarma! tabloid of trans women who “were being criminalized [for] their failure of masculinity.” In the book, she writes about the contradiction of exhibiting men who pretended to be women within the pages of the tabloid, in an extremely homophobic/transphobic culture — thereby using the tabloid as a space of resistance.

Vargas’s next book, which she’d just finished writing at the time of this interview and which will be published in 2018, is about the legendary serial killer “La Mataviejitas” (which means “the old woman killer”) and how the lucha libre wrestler turned murderer transcended stereotypes about femininity and masculinity in Mexico. Police searched for years for a stereotypical evil-genius man, before eventually catching the female Mataviejitas. Vargas argues that she was then persecuted as much for the killings as for her transgression of femininity; authorities regularly used images of the “manly” woman to demonize her in the eyes of the public. Vargas further posits that characters like the mujercitos (trans womenand Mataviejitas reveal long-standing patterns of machismo and pigmentocracy in Mexican culture, which she visualizes and illustrates through images of these two specific cases.

Vargas has also curated exhibitions such as Colección Jumex, In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni at the Jumex Museum and written extensively about contemporary art. Her work has been cited by journalists and academics in Mexico and internationally. She’s also an educator and has participated in multiple roundtables and seminars about “queering curatorial practices” and the queer body.

*     *     *

Devon Van Houten Maldonado: Who was Mataviejitas and who were the mujercitos? How do you use these characters in your writing to demonstrate conflicts of pigmentocracy and machismo in Mexico?

Susana Vargas: El/La Mataviejitas is the nickname given by media and authorities to the alleged serial killer of elderly women whom police struggled to find from 2004 to 2006.  Finally, in 2006, police caught a female [lucha libre] wrestler red-handed: Juana Barraza Samperio, as she fled the scene where an 82-year-old woman had been strangled with a stethoscope. Barraza, who came to be known as La Mataviejitas, now lives in Santa Martha Acatitla, where she is serving a sentence of 759 years in prison for killing between 11 and 16 elderly women, depending on the source. I first wrote about Barraza in my MA thesis, and I also wrote about Performing Mexicanidad.

Images from Mujercitos by Susana Vargas

The Mujercitos were assigned masculine gender at birth but they identify with different versions of femininity. They were photographed for the “nota roja[“red news”magazine Alarma! as they were either getting married or at a party raided by police. What’s interesting about these photographs is that, in a country with alarming rates of homophobia and transphobia, Mujercitos were allowed in the photographs, a space of feminine subjectivity that the rest of the society denies them. I studied these photographs because I was interested in the juxtaposition of the visual text and the contrast of the photographs with the rest of photographs in Alarma!, which is known for its gruesome content.

DVHM: What’s the difference between pigmentocracy and racism?

Image from Mujercitos by Susana Vargas

SV: For me, the way I use pigmentocracy in my work, I’m able to talk [about] the subtleness of racism and classism together. I see these positions as relational; they depend on other factors. It’s not a pigment per se, but how a person is perceived according to the combination of their skin tonality and their class, and how that position can change very fast if that person is hanging out with other friends in a lower-class neighborhood. What I am interested in exploring is how racism and classism work at the same time.

I started using the term “pigmentocracy” during my dissertation to analyze the relationship between class and skin tonalities as constitutive of [subjectivity] as much as gender and sex identification. The photographs of mujercitos posing for the camera of Alarma!, I argued, worked as a site of resistance to the machismo in Mexico. The photographs show mujercitos posing for the camera and not really wanting to be women, but to occupy feminine subjectivity. Many of these mujercitos worked as sex workers and maybe profited more from the fantasy of many Mexican men. That is “macho probado[proven macho] — to have sex with a woman who has a penis.

Juana Barraza Samperio (La Mataviejitas)

So I use pigmentocracy as a system in which skin tones are perceived from social and cultural interventions, linked to a certain socioeconomic level. This ties with La Mataviejitas because criminality plays an important part in pigmentocracy. After the revolution, the ideal Mexican was mestizo and macho. In both scenarios, Barraza transgresses the ideal of a Mexican. I have argued that Barraza has not [only] been made responsible for her crimes but has been criminalized for how she looks: She transgresses the normative standards for women.

DVHM: What are the unique challenges of queer, feminist, anti-racist and other activism in Mexico, as opposed to somewhere like Canada, where you were partially raised, or the United States?

SV: I would say the persistent machismo, though not as a biological determination of men or how men are raised to occupy the public space, for example. I’m thinking of machismo more as a space of power, the space of power that men hold and that many women desire, too. I think many women can be macho [as well], and that comes precisely from the desire of wanting to have power and not be oppressed. To feel free to walk at night on the street, to call the shots, to be heard, to be taken seriously, to be respected, to be paid fairly. But the disadvantages are that it seems to come in a package with territoriality, possessiveness, and, to me the most dangerous, wanting to occupy that space of power to reproduce the same hegemony and oppression that you have been subjected to. I need to work more on this, but that’s my intuition — how that oppression generates so much hate and resentment and, if not made conscious, comes out frequently, especially now that we have a very precarious situation in Mexico.

DVHM: Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) recently published a study which, you said, reveals how pigmentocracy works here. What did the study say, and did anything surprise you about the findings?

SV: On June 16, INEGI [published] the results of a study on intergenerational social mobility. They made surveys all around the country, asking people between 25 and 64 years old about their socioeconomic status and the variables that influenced the way they lived. This was the first time that questions about ethnicity were asked to people who are considered “indigenous” in Mexico. People were asked to self-identify their skin tonality, and the person taking the survey also had a sort of Pantone palette of possible skin tonality results. The results show, for the first time, the relationship between skin tonalities, [education], and type of work. The results didn’t surprise me, because whiteness is seen as a space of privilege, and this is not new in Mexico or in the rest of the world. Moreno Figueroa said that darker skin tones cannot consistently occupy the space of racial privilege — whiteness.

DVHM: Hopefully most of our readers are familiar with the ways that machismo and sexism manifest in visual culture, but can you explain some of the ways that pigmentocracy is visualized in the images that surround us?

SV: In pigmentocracy, skin tones exist relationally and contextually: The social meaning of each “color” is shaped by human intervention on biological raw material. Within this system, who is “white” is also “rich” — that is, whiteness works as a space of desired privilege, an aspiration of social belonging. Thus, following Monica Figueroa, whiteness is not always associated with a “white body.” Not all white-skinned people occupy a place of legitimacy, but whiteness is an issue that, while it includes pigmentation as one of its elements, goes beyond that. Being “white” in Mexico is not only a matter of a certain color but also of social relations and cultural context.

Examples of this are everywhere. In 2013, there was a scandal because for the casting of a commercial for Aeroméxico the producer requested actors of “white complexion” who seemed “upper class” and “not morenos” [brown], because, we know, brown people are perceived as having fewer economic resources and, therefore, are not [likely] customers of the airline’s Premier Club. Also, in politics, during electoral campaigns, you can see the faces of politicians, both men and women, photoshopped to occupy the space of whiteness and be more likable and trustworthy. Last year I wrote about some of the contemporary artists working with this subject for Terremoto Magazine: Santiago Sierra, Erik Meyenberg, Colectivo Zunga, Yutzil Cruz, Zac Blas.

Devon Van Houten Maldonado lives and works in Mexico City, by way of Portland, Oregon and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. He has contributed to Paste Magazine, OZY, Terremoto and Aesthetica Magazine....