Reconstructing Paper Maps: From Thumb Tacks to Pixels

Cecilia Farfán Méndez y Mike Lettieri
Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies
University of California San Diego


Fotos: Marcos Vizcarra


There are stories that find you. But that happens to journalists and rarely academics. Mike and I arrived in Sinaloa from San Diego, California for a project on the relationship of local media and international press. We wanted to understand what are the stories that journalists sinaloenses want to tell and how they are different from the “war on drugs” coverage from the foreign press.

Los mapas de papel

A year before our trip, Mike had worked with Natalia Reyes, activists and feminist, producing maps on femicides in Veracruz, Baja California, and Sinaloa. When Mike told her about our trip, Natalia suggested a conversation to discuss the possibility of using visual tools, like maps, to help groups searching for their missing loved ones.

That night Natalia explained how the mothers searching for their children are not only excavating the state looking for human remains, but facing challenges in their interactions with state authorities. She told us about Eleazar Hernández, better known as “Rayito” who went missing in Jalisco after traveling from Culiacán to be a judge in a dance competition. Even though Rayito’s mom had submitted DNA samples in Jalisco and Sinaloa, Rayito’s body remained at the coroner’s office for months before being identified. Because of the work of mothers searching for their loved ones in both states, Rayito was able to return home and not end up buried in a common grave.

Natalia cautioned us that our conversation with Isabel Cruz, founder of the Sabuesos Guerreras group,would not be easy. Battles with those who should protect citizens have also fostered distrust. The next morning, Natalia, Mike and I visited Isabel’s home, which also functions as Sabuesos Guerreras headquarters. One of the first things we noticed, were the paper maps hung on the walls that with thumb tacks of different colors identifying places where they had searched. While showcasing their fight, the maps also brought to the fore the fragility and precarity of their work.

One day we will ask Isabel what she saw in us. La jefa, as Isabel is known, shared with us how other researchers had requested her “data”, but she had declined. After all, the manila folders were not only files but evidence of the lives of their children. Mike and I left that meeting full of ideas, but also aware of our responsibility of acknowledging the limits of what we could do.


Más allá de la colaboración

Three principle were clear and have guided our collaboration with Sabuesos Guerreras:

  1. Information belongs to Sabuesos Guerreras
  2. This was not an academic project, but a collaboration where tools from academia could help activists
  3. Our support would be data-centric: improving data organization and archiving techniques. We not only wanted to preserve the memory of the work done by Sabuesos Guerreras, we wanted to give them products that would help in their interactions with authorities.

The process has been informed by the same collective spirit that guides searches. From the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego we formed a partnership with Siria Gastélum from the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized crime in order to improve Sabuesos’ equipment for recording and saving data. Natalia Reyes, and her Feministas Alteradas are intellectual authors and travel companions, Norma Sánchez, committed culichi with her state and country, has been instrumental for the success of this collaboration, and Dante Aguilera has donated his time and space to allow our work.

This process has been one of the most enriching ones Mike and I have had in our careers, precisely because it has not only been a scholarly endeavor. The day we presented at the Juan Panadero workshop, the maps we produced, with the information we were entrusted with, the Sabuesos said to us “we are not alone”. Afterwards we sang “las mañanitas” for one of them on his birthday and sent light wherever he is.

There is a lot that remains to be done. The alliance with Marcos Vizcarra and Revista Espejo es nuestra contribución para humanizar y visibilizar las voces que ahora innegablemente hacen parte de nuestra historia como país. Nuestra expectativa es también una invitación para que este tipo de Collaboration entre la academia, la sociedad civil, el periodismo de investigación y también las autoridades continúen para regresar a casa a quienes no han sido encontrados.