Empowering Women at the Border as Creative Placemaking: Mujeres en Ritual Danza-Teatro

Kenia Delgadillo as Antigona in Antigona en la Frontera, Tijuana, Baja California. Photo: Alejandra Villalba. This article is part of the Creating Place project. View the full multimedia collection here.

By: Dora Arreola1 (Tampa, FL) | April 25, 2018

Introduction: The Border Context and the Creation of MER

There are many ways to perceive Tijuana: as the first corner of México, or the last, or as the doorway to Latin America, or to the United States. I grew up in the hills above the city, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the San Diego skyline, watching the border patrol cars and helicopters chasing migrants who were trying to cross to the USA, every day. The border was literally in my backyard, in my face – a horrible stretch of rusting metal, leftover from the first Gulf War and recycled in México as a fence to stop the perceived infiltration of Latinos into the United States. As a child, this very concrete border fence reminded me every day that I was considered inferior, poor, dirty, criminal, that I was not wanted, that I could not cross. As an artist, as I grew, that fence invited me to transgress.  

During my early adulthood, I understood that living, crossing, and dying at the border are intimately connected to the experience of each individual at the intersections of gender, race, and class. Crossing the border, even with documents, is easy only for a portion of the population. I understood at a very early age that while attempting to cross into the United States, a person with indigenous features, lower class status, or non-conforming gender expression is going to experience high levels of discrimination, immediate denial of application or entry, hyper-inspection and/or violence. Capitalist values, white supremacy, and heteronormativity are fundamental to the enforcement of immigration laws in the United States.

Fast forward to today: the border between Tijuana, México and San Diego, California (US) is the most frequently crossed border in the world. This region is among the biggest maquiladora (factories owned by multinational corporations) industries and sexual tourism industries in the world – both of which are predominantly controlled by men, but fueled by the exploitation of (predominantly) women workers. Also today, twenty-four years after the Guardian Project and NAFTA, with high levels of organized crime, human trafficking, femenicidio (the genocide of women based on gender), thousands of deportees and asylum seekers thrown into Tijuana – still the city lives, and with a lot of vitality. Part of this vitality is a thriving community of artists, and a small organism known as Mujeres en Ritual Danza-Teatro (Women in Ritual Dance-Theatre).   

Mujeres en Ritual (MER) is the only dance-theatre company of only women in México. In 1999, I founded the company with a group of women artists from communities on both sides of border. We came together as a response and resistance to the systematic oppression of women at the US-México border, a way of transforming ourselves from object to subject. The company became a safe space to share and publicly expose stories of oppression, a space for empowerment and public voice.

We create theatre from a feminist and queer perspective, to expose the dynamics of power in our city, and the power dynamics between the two countries. Since its founding, MER has been creating work about migration and border issues, critically addressing issues including globalization, human trafficking and the sex industry, feminicide and colonization. We address issues of justice by creating opportunities for empowerment, transformation, and public voice through performances and community engagement.

Mujeres en Ritual creates original work through a collaborative process, and values creation by, for, about, and with women from the community, centered on the expressive needs, physical abilities, cultural/historical and personal experiences of the participants. The company is a vehicle to tell the stories and raise the voices of people who are not commonly heard, or who don’t have power in society – voices of differently-abled people, queer voices, women’s voices, and more. By speaking a story that’s never been told before, or embodying an experience for which words are not sufficient, or seeing oneself represented on stage, or allowing oneself to break the taboos of gender representation for the first time – these are the moments when voice and agency begin to manifest.  

Some of the company’s central projects have been created through a series of community-based workshops, or developed in site-specific locations of the border region. Organizations we have partnered with include: Casa de la Mujer in Maclovio Rojas; Casa de la Cultura de Tijuana; Casa Familiar of San Ysidro, CA; Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego, CA; Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT), and the Autonomous University of Baja California (UABC) in Tecate, Rosarito, Ensenada, and Mexicali. The following sections offer a few in-depth examples of representative productions, and how we develop our work through a place-based aesthetic, and community-based process.

Fronteras Desviadas / Deviant Borders

Andrea Assaf and Dora Arreola in Fronteras Desviadas. Photo: Mercedes Romero.

With Fronteras Desviadas/Deviant Borders, our first collaboration with playwright/performer Andrea Assaf, we developed a unique, bilingual workshop  and performance process using writing, storytelling, and movement, with women on both sides of the border. In addition to workshops for women artists, we also worked with two community centers – one activist group, and one service organization – where we facilitated community-based workshops. In México, we held workshops at La Casa de la Mujer in Maclovio Rojas, a community in resistance halfway between Tijuana and Tecate, sandwiched between maquiladoras, that the Mexican government wants to evict. This community was founded by migrants from the south of México in 1994, and at the time of the project in 2004, its leaders were operating underground. We also worked with a parenting class at Casa Familiar in San Ysidro, California, for mothers who have already been sucked into the criminal justice system – all of them Mexican women, whose children had been taken away by the state.  

In the workshops, we offered writing/story prompts about gender and identity at the border: When do I experience myself as “woman”? What is deviance? What is on “the other side” (que hay en el otro lado)? We shared our writings and stories, improvised and created movement together. The workshops were repeated with different groups, using the same structure, with some modifications depending on the space and the participants’ capacity for movement or writing (literacy). We then invited participants to contribute their stories, writing, or movement phrases, if they wished, to the creative process of developing a script and movement score for the performance. These pieces of writing and stories became collective poems. The results of the workshops were gratifying, including texts charged with meaning, strong content, and emotionality, as well as profound movements with intensity and complexity that reflected the life experiences and visions of the women of these communities.

With this project, Mujeres en Ritual explored the limits of gender, taboo, sexuality, and legality in the Tijuana-San Diego region. In addition to the community we also did extensive research on the maquiladoras, sex tourism, the history of Tijuana (particularly during Prohibition in the US), and the horrible phenomenon of feminicidio, as an extension of US-México relations and political economy. In the US imagination, Tijuana is often associated with sex, drugs, decadence, and illegality; but rarely is there an acknowledgement of US responsibility in creating the political and economic conditions that make these markets flourish, or accountability for the exploitation and violence that accompany them.  

As professional artists conducting workshops in marginalized communities, I felt it was important for us not to engage in “missionary art” or anthropological study, but to create a means of genuine collaboration with other women. In conducting cross-border collaborations, we had to confront inherent power dynamics, and clarify our practices and intentions. “Missionary art” enters with the idea of wanting to “save” communities, a fundamentally paternalistic approach; while “anthropological” art positions the artist as a falsely objective observer or “expert,” and usually creates a situation of appropriation. As facilitators, we were full participants in the creative process, opening spaces by sharing our own experiences and stories. We were collaborating with other women in order to understand ourselves better, to journey back into our own histories and reveal the complexity of multiple oppressions together. We were not there to speak for others, but to work together to tell a collective story.  

The result was a mix of prose monologues created from the collective poetry and found text; a mix of live and recorded voices. We built a bilingual show of approximately one hour. The performance presents a juxtaposition of two parallel histories coexisting in the same space:  while the actress-dancers embody and give voice to the experiences of women in the border region, following the cycle of rituals in the life of a woman, a tour guide named “El Chamuco” leads the audience on a journey from night to day through the red zone of Tijuana. The script interchanges lines of Spanish and English in the women’s sections, while El Chamuco is performed in the dominant language of the country we’re performing in. The audience recognized various icons, local and national, as well as the rituals and cultural elements particular to each country. The show premiered in Baja California, and toured to four cities in 2005 – Tijuana, Tecate, Mexicali, and Ensenada. It also toured in the United States (Massachusetts, and North Carolina at the annual meeting of Alternate ROOTS), Nicaragua, and Canada.

Aqui debería estar tu nombre (Here Should Be Your Name)

Darinka Ramírez and Bertha Denton in Aqui deberia estar tu nombre. Photo: Jonathan Lee.

In November 2010, Centro Cultural Tijuana (CECUT) commissioned Mujeres en Ritual to create an homage to Mexican poet Noé Carrillo, who disappeared in 2003. Carrillo was a significant writer and cultural leader in Baja California, who had published two books before his disappearance, as well as numerous poems. He wrote subliminally and explicitly about homoeroticism in an ultra-oppressive and homophobic border region context. His themes of silence, invisibility, absence, and queerness were, for Mujeres en Ritual, frames for the exploration of the México-USA border as a heteronormative system that influences the level of violence and homophobia in the region, and violence against the LGBTQ2+ community.  

Carrillo lived in Tijuana, but disappeared in California – which would have required an international investigation that the family declined. Because most of the company members lived in Tijuana at the time, and some had known Carrillo before his disappearance, it was natural for the company not to limit their (re)search for Noe to publications about his writings or his disappearing, but to expand to family, friends, colleagues, and spaces he frequented. We were searching for a way to bring him back through his poetry, a way to reinforce our intentions and magnify the queerness in our work, cities, regions, countries, by inspiring ourselves with the most radical and socially hidden aspects of his life as a homosexual man.       

First, I abstracted from Carrillo’s poetry the passages that we would explore. I then assigned site-specific explorations to the performers, drawn from recurrent images in his work – such as abandoned houses, bars or nightclubs, parks or beaches. The performers explored these locations through public acts, with the intent of discovering parallels between their own inner subjectivity (experiences, memories, imagination), and the poetry of Carrillo. These were the first metaphors we used to create movement or actions – a physical subtext based on the personal lives of the actresses, their own stories – layered into the texts of Carrillo. The sites stopped being places meaningful to the author only, and became places of the actresses’ creation. Once the individual actions were developed, we returned to the studio and began the journey back to the collective encounter with the life of Carrillo.

Next, the ensemble fused the selected fragments of their solo actions with others, under my direction, to create duets and trios. This part of the process began to reveal the homoeroticism and queerness contained in the text, as well as the loneliness, silence, and absence of the author. The work became more deeply personal and less (directly) related to the text; yet, however apparently distant from their origins, the composition of actions now related more closely with the themes and content of Noé Carillo’s poetry than any good intentions to express them verbally ever could have.

Aquí debería estar tu nombre was a multi-lingual performance. Some of Carrillo’s poems were performed in the original Spanish, and some translated for the first time into English. Mexican Sign Language was also incorporated into the physical vocabulary of the piece, in addition to the abstract language of the actions. We wanted the sign language to be a creative element, not just literal translation. Sign Language functioned as a metaphor for silence and the embodiment of hidden meanings in the text; similar to the experience of being queer, there were signs embedded in gestures that were recognizable only to those who understand the vocabulary.

The combination of Noé Carrillo and Mujeres en Ritual merited a feminist and queer analysis of his poetry, which allowed us to break traditional roles that theatre conventionally gives women performers. The actress-dancers of the company performed a whole spectrum of gay male identity (from drag queens to hyper-masculine closeted men). Through this project, Mujeres en Ritual pushed the boundaries of sexuality and gender representation, and made connections between violence against LGBTQ2+ people, women’s experiences, and the issues of the border region.

Telares (o el olvido) / Looms (or, The Forgetting)

Dora Arreola in Telares. Photo: Francesco Galli.

In 2009, we began a multi-year performance research project based on Telares (o el olvido) / Looms (or, The Forgetting) – an epic novel and three-part play about colonization and memory, by Mexican author Fabiola Ruiz. I was interested in Telares as a source text for a new theatre trilogy, created through a devised process. The trilogy includes: “Yo, Rumores Silencio” (a solo I first developed at the Grotowski Institute in 2009),  “La Urdimbre” (developed at La MaMa Umbria and shown as work-in-progress at the Spoleto Open in 2014), and “El Tejido,” which is still in development (shown as work-in-progress at ROOTS Week 2015).

Telares is the story of a small forest village where the inhabitants, without realizing it, are caught in a struggle between tradition and modernity. The text explores what happens in indigenous territories with the arrival of capitalism, and how it devastates the lives of the inhabitants. The main character, Rumores Silencio, comes from a family line of shamans, which he can no longer recall. Two opposing spiritual beliefs – one imposed by colonization, and the other buried by a litany of conquistadors but still pulsing in his dreams – tear at him. It is also a story of resistance through the reclamation of ancestral or pre-Hispanic practices.

In this performance, Mujeres en Ritual is exploring both indigenous rituals and Catholic traditions, and how they have mixed. For the indigenous people of México, as well as for displaced Mexicans in the US, the practice or reclamation of rituals is a way of resisting oppression and cultural extinction. When a tradition starts to disappear, colonialism in the guise of modernity begins to devour identity, causing people to forget. Telares is about this practice of resistance. Using a transformative process of owning, not appropriating, of building on what is close to our identity and culture, rather than looking to an “other,” this project furthers the company’s practice in the intersecting fields of gender, migration, ritual, and performance.

Through this project, I am reanimating stories from my own childhood and community – to remember and practice the rural and indigenous traditions that we have been separated from by migration, urbanization, and borders. With Mujeres en Ritual, I am exploring traditional dances, songs, and ritual elements from the Northwest of México as creative material, feeding our contemporary form with traditional ones. We are preserving our own history and identity by creating a contemporary, performative vocabulary rooted in traditions that hover on the brink of extinction – knowing that it is our way of resisting disappearance, erasure, and the “forgetting.”  

Conclusion: MER as a Force in Creative Placemaking

Through time, Mujeres en Ritual has become a solid community of women artists active on both sides of the US-México border, creating artistic projects and consistently exchanging professional development. Over 30 women have been part of the company, creating more than 15 full-length performance works, with hundreds of performances and workshops, through our 19-year history. Most members of MER are now professional artists and educators, as well as leaders of important cultural institutions, community organizations and artistic groups, who continue to develop the work and values of the company. MER has inspired, motivated, and empowered hundreds of women, and has influenced, trained and mentored new generations of artists. MER has had a significant impact in the Tijuana-San Diego region, establishing the presence and voices of women in the public sphere, as leaders of arts and culture.  

Since its founding in 1999, Mujeres en Ritual has become a voice of this geographically and politically specific place. Through its works, the company empowers the community and  dignifies city of Tijuana. We believe in the transformative possibilities of queering the border, through embodiment and staging the lives of women and LGBTQ2+ communities. MER is dedicated to exposing issues of gender violence in the border region using an interdisciplinary and intersectional critique, from a global social justice perspective. MER also offers new possibilities for creating interdisciplinary, cross-border collaborations, and an embodied approach to understanding issues of im/migration.  

We believe that empowering women through performance is an act of creative placemaking, in a region where dehumanization and feminicidio are epidemic. As we move toward twenty years of the company, Mujeres en Ritual will continue stirring up, disrupting, unsettling and queering the collective imaginary of the USA-México border.

. . .

Photo: Freddy Jimenez.

Dora Arreola is the Artistic Director of Mujeres en Ritual Danza Teatro. She has more than 25 years of professional experience as a theatre and dance artist. She is currently an Associate Professor in the School of Theatre and Dance at the University of South Florida. In 1987 she was a participant at Grotowski’s Workcenter in Pontedera, Italy. She founded the company Mujeres en Ritual Danza-Teatro in 1999, and has worked as a performer, teacher, director, and movement specialist in Mexico, the United States, Nicaragua, Canada, Poland, and India. She received her MFA in Directing from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 2009. Arreola has directed more than 30 productions, often featured in diverse international festivals, such as I, Rumores Silencio at the 2009 Meetings with Remarkable Women Festival at the Grotowski Institute in Poland. She choreographed and performed La Urdimbre an excerpt of Telares by Fabiola Ruiz at La MaMa ETC (2015);  Versalii Icones at Judson Church in NYC (2009); Ananya Dance Theater’s Daak at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis; and co-created, directed and performed in Fronteras Desviadas/Deviant Borders which toured in Mexico, USA, Nicaragua, and Canada. Arreola has taught workshops and master classes at various universities and cultural institutions including: the Grotowski Institute (Poland), Arizona State University, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Amherst College, University of Minnesota, California State University-San Marcos, California Center for the Arts, and Smith College. She has received grants and commissions from the Ford Foundation, Cultural Contact (US-Mexico Fund for Culture), Fideicomiso para la Cultura de Mexico y Estados Unidos, the National Performance Network, and more.

To read an interview with Dora Arreola by Theatre Communications Group (TCG), visit:  http://www.tcgcircle.org/2014/07/site-specific-work-en-la-frontera/

For more information on Mujeres en Ritual Danza-Teatro:  



1 With translation and editing support from Andrea Assaf. Sections of this article were first published in:

  • “Gender and Transformation in Fronteras Desviadas/Deviant Borders.”  The Journal of American Drama and Theatre (JADT). Special Issue: Border Crossings.  26.2 (2014), pp. 34-66.  City University of New York/Martin E. Segal Theatre.  And,
  • Mujeres en Ritual: Género y Tranformación / Gender and Transformation. Co-authored/edited with Sergio Rommel Guzman Alfonso. Tijuana, México: CONACULTA, 2014.
Alternate ROOTS supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition or spirit. We are a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together. As Alternate ROOTS, we call for social and economic justice and are working to dismantle all forms of oppression—everywhere.