Butterfly with Broken Wings

Near a small village on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the brother of celebrated muxe performance artist Lukas Avendaño vanished one afternoon, leading him on a two year journey in search of his brother or his remains.

Seldom has an interview felt more insensitive than the afternoon we arrived at Lukas Avendaño’s family home. Lukas chose not to mention that he had postponed our interview the day before because he was returning home from Oaxaca City with his youngest brother Bruno’s remains, nor that our rescheduled meeting would overlap with his funeral.

The inscription above some of the portraits of desaparecidos reads “No Olvido, Ni Perdon” (I Do Not Forget, Nor Forgive). Image credit: Eukani.

When we arrived, Lukas was leaning against an old stone doorway that leads to the courtyard of his house in the village of Santa Teresa, Tehuantepec, Oaxaca. He was dressed immaculately in dark jeans and a pressed white, button-down shirt, his long jet-black hair wrapped up in a simple bun on top of his head. Flanked by two friends who stood motionless and protectively on either side of him, he waved listlessly in our direction and hesitated briefly before descending the stairs to embrace Damián and Roberto and usher us into a sun-blanched courtyard garden.

A few days before our first interview, Lukas had received a call confirming that Bruno’s remains had been discovered in a mass grave within the limits of Salina Cruz and Tehuantepec municipalities and verified through DNA testing. The confirmation of Lukas’ worst fears provided some degree of closure, but it did little to quell the thirty months of unrelenting terror that his family endured. How do you tell your mother that her baby boy has vanished? Is it any easier to tell her that he is gone forever? How do you mourn and accept the finality when so many questions have been left unanswered?

Image credit: Mario Patiño.

Bruno was last seen alive on the roadside near Villa de San Blas Atempa, just a few minutes’ drive from his mother’s home. A 34-year-old Naval policeman, Bruno was back home on vacation helping a man named Don Goyo load construction materials on the afternoon of May 4, 2017 when he vanished in an area called El Manguita. On a dusty roadside on the Transistmico highway, the trail of evidence began and ended like a snake that had swallowed its tail to silence the rattle.

Lukas spent nearly two and a half years of his life looking for his brother. His quest brought him to Tijuana, the epicentre of desaparecidos (the disappeared) in Mexico, where at last count 79,000 people have gone missing in recent years. He partnered with international human rights organizations and publicly challenged the indolence and incompetence of federal investigators. He staged live street performances in Mexico City to raise awareness about Bruno’s disappearance and to amplify the voices of tens of thousands of families still searching for their loved ones. He leveraged his celebrity and mobility when performing abroad by inviting ambassadors and staff attached to Mexican diplomatic missions in an effort to enlist those in positions of power to support his cause.

Bare-chested woman lying on Lukas' lap while Lukas wears a headdress.
Image credit: Mario Patiño.

Lukas is a trained anthropologist and an acclaimed performance artist whose work deconstructs conventional perceptions of gender, ethnicity, homosexuality, and migration. He is also muxe, a term that is often distilled and overly-simplified to mean the “third gender” in Zapotec society. Lukas has explained that long before Bruno’s disappearance, his creative impulses drew from an ancient well of rejection, cultural ethnocide, and identitarian warfare: “The [social] disappearance is the prelude to the physical one; because, before you even disappear physically, you are already a missing person, a cultural missing person, an economic missing person, a disappeared worker.”

But no amount of wisdom, resolve, or grace could prepare Lukas for the loss of Bruno. His performances, which had been steeped in themes of transformation and self-realization, suddenly became an extension of Mexico’s national nightmare of desaparecidos. “After my brother disappeared, I no longer knew how to describe what I do,” he confesses. “I couldn’t talk about [gender, ethnicity, homosexuality, or migration] without discussing desaparecidos.

La utopía de la mariposa – (The Butterfly’s Utopia) from Todo lo que somos on Vimeo.

Soft, sepulchral music reverberates from the inner chambers of the house where Lukas’ family has gathered for the funeral. Three musicians who Lukas has been expecting walk past the courtyard carrying their instruments, and he directs them toward the living room that has been transformed into a funeral hall. Lukas is composed, almost impossibly dignified given the circumstances. The only hint of his agony is the way his fingers squeeze his temples to stop his hands from shaking…the word that briefly escapes him…the weariness in his eyes…the precious memories that you know you have interrupted….

Lukas makes it clear that Bruno’s funeral is not where his crusade ends. “The next step is to discover why this happened to my brother,” he says, “and to search for justice.” There are hundreds of thousands of families across Mexico who have been initiated ingloriously into a fellowship of the grieving. They, like Lukas, have been stripped of their fear. They, like him, will march undaunted through the gates of hell to find what remains of their loved ones, agonizingly aware that desaparecidos in Mexico seldom come home alive.

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