MEXICO CITY — On Thursday, September 3, Marcela Aleman and Silvia Castillo entered the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico City (CDNH) and decided not to leave. They had been ignored for too long in trying to seek justice for their children, one who had been raped as a child, the other murdered. In Mexico, where 11 women are murdered a day and where 98% of murders go unsolved, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador insists that the movement to stop femicide is nothing but a conspiracy against his administration.

This is what the feminist activist groups #NiUnaMenos and Aequus have been fighting against and why, together with other families of victims of violence including children and seniors, they entered the offices of the CDNH to back up the two mothers last week and have been occupying the building since. After asking all employees to vacate the premises, they got to work, converting the office into a women’s shelter for victims of violence and their families. Already around 100 victims have come to seek lodging and legal counsel.

They also got to painting. They painted over the name of the agency on the front of the building. They painted “We do not forgive or forget.” They painted “Justice.” And they painted, “duuuude, not the wall!!” — a reference to public outrage over the graffiti left in the wake of past feminist protests, an outrage much louder than that over violence against women.

And then they painted over portraits of all-male historical figures. They adorned them with lipstick, eyeshadow, purple curls, “ACAB,” anarchy symbols, and flowers. They brought the paintings outside of the building, and displayed them in a row, upside down.

The images of the paintings have gone viral. “We never expected it to be such a hit,” the artists said in an interview with photojournalist Andrea Murcia Wednesday night. “It was improvised, we’re just working with what we’ve got around us.” The groups are auctioning off the paintings to fund their shelter. 

The painting that has gotten the most attention is that of Francisco I. Madero, the 33rd president of Mexico, by an artist who goes by Jomanu Art. He posted in response on his Facebook, “The most outrageous thing is that they believe that losing respect for the characters who made our Mexican history will solve the lack of the kind of government that we all deserve.” 

President López Obrador said at a press conference that he respects all protests but that he does not agree with vandalism, with what the protestors did to the painting. “Whoever knows the story of this social fighter would know that we should have respect for him … he paid for his work with his life. You can’t fight violence with violence.” 

In a viral video, one of the mothers leading the takeover, Erika Martinez, observed that the president doesn’t recognize the difference between violence against an inanimate object and human being. She walks in front of the buildings and yells, “This painting, these lips, these flowers were painted by my daughter who was sexually abused when she was seven years old. I want to know how the president is outraged about the painting. Why isn’t he outraged about the abuse of my daughter?”

Later, in a TV interview, she went on to say, “My daughter’s pain cannot be compared with that painting. When my daughter painted that painting, I didn’t hear it scream with fear. It didn’t say no. That painting is not alive. And my daughter, when she was raped, she screamed with fear and she said no. You can’t give more value to something that doesn’t feel than to a little girl who is going to suffer for her whole life.”

Another of the mothers leading the takeover, Yesenia Zamudio, responded in a public statement, “If he doesn’t agree with us painting the painting, I don’t agree with that my daughter was murdered and that for five years nobody has helped me.”

Press access to the takeover has been extremely limited. Most of the images leaving the building have come from photojournalist Andrea Murcia (@usagii_ko) who says she has access to these groups, “because [she] was showing up to their tiny protests and actions and meetings and treating them like their stories mattered before they were burning or painting anything.” 

Murcia’s iconic photos from inside the takeover have inspired hundreds of illustrated versions and even T-shirts in just a few days. She may have created icons, but was never out to take the spotlight. “I’m a photojournalist, not an artist. I’m not trying to create images for the likes. I just want the women to see themselves reflected as they are. If they do, then I will feel like my work is complete, I’ll be happy. Nothing else matters to me.” About the paintings, she says: 

We live in such a patriarchal machista country and men were always the heroes of our stories … Specifically with this administration, history is extra symbolic. And now they’re complaining about the damage to the paintings and disrespect to history without talking about who painted on them: women who have been raped, abused. But they’re not victims anymore. And they’re not weak. They’re strong. They are putting their bodies into the movement to create space. Their paintings represent more to me than the original paintings. It’s the new history. The history of women taking up space. We’re not scared anymore. That’s what the paintings represent. 

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Zoe Mendelson

Zoe is a journalist and troublemaker campaigning for a more chiller world. She writes about cities, emojis, maps, mushrooms, data, and other semi-related topics. Her writing has appeared in Next City,...