Blog posts by: Patrick O'Hare

Cardboard in the Alley: Reflections on Violence and Public Space in Zacatecas, Mexico


In this blog post, Patrick O’ Hare explores the types of intervention in public space that cartonera publishers in Zacatecas made against a background of violence.

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Blog posts by: Patrick O'Hare

Cardboard in the Alley: Reflections on Violence and Public Space in Zacatecas, Mexico


Cardboard in the Alley: Reflections on Violence and Public Space in Zacatecas, Mexico

by Patrick O’Hare

In January 2018 I moved to the 16th century city of Zacatecas to work with cardboard and independent publishers as part of the Cartonera Publishing project. This was a city that Mexicans had warned me about, and praised, in equal measure. They spoke of its atmospheric cobbled streets, intimate size, and world-class art galleries but also of its poverty and high rates of kidnapping. Yet during the month that I conducted fieldwork there, it struck me as a quiet, picturesque, colonial city: somewhere from another era. I asked Óscar, part of the Rey Chanate independent publisher with whom I researched, whether warnings had simply been the chatter of nervous middle classes? “No”, he responded, “the violence is here, even if you can’t see it and the centre of the city is relatively safe and protected”. As a long-time resident, how did the violence affect him? He told me that he experienced it “by living in fear that any day I will receive a phone call telling me that my parents or brother have been kidnapped”. Indeed, the city had been experiencing a boom in kidnappings, particularly in popular neighbourhoods, with police records registering one kidnapping per week this year (Díaz 2018).

Drug cartels also operated in the rural areas of Zacatecas –the shiny, expensive SUVs were tell-tale signs – recruiting young people in a state that has lost thousands of mining jobs, and which provides one of the largest pools of Mexican emigration to the United States. My arrival in the city coincided with that of a team of researchers from Mexico’s foremost university – the UNAM – who collaborated with Óscar as part of a partnership with the state Secretary for Crime Prevention. The idea behind the action-research project was to both map out and encourage cultural and community centres in the marginal barrios around Zacatecas state – places from where young people could be recruited into drugs cartels. The hypothesis was that increasing the cultural offering in such neighbourhoods would encourage young people to discover avenues for creative expression, develop new skills, and become attracted to the world of culture over and above that of drugs. Violence in Zacatecas was not constrained to marginal or rural areas, however, as evidenced by a shoot-out that took place just a block from the central Rey Chanate workshop during the course of my stay, and the masked armed police that patrolled the city daily, brandishing military-grade weapons from the back of pick-up trucks.When Rey Chanate decided to organise the ‘First Festival of Savage Rock’ in the Plazuela del Moral, a small square that their workshop overlooked, this was not explicitly aimed at combatting violence, but it was about reclaiming public space for autonomously organised cultural events. The Plazuela del Moral is an interesting type of public space: while clearly public, it is hidden away and surrounded by two-story flats whose residents, with no gardens or patios of their own, often treat it as their terrace. The group of neighbours who live around the square are diverse, and include, alongside long-term older residents, a branch of Alcoholics Anonymous, another of Neurotics Anonymous, an artisanal brewer, a recording studio, and Rey Chanate. On the night of the festival, young people came from all over the city to listen to local rock musicians, many of whom were friends of either Oscar or the other members of Chanate.


Oscar assembing a book in the Rey Chanate workshop


While permission for events like the rock festival usually has to be sought from municipal authorities, Oscar had what might have been the more challenging task of soliciting support from the elderly female neighbours whose houses backed onto the plaza. One might wonder whether these residents could get along at all, but Óscar told me that they hadn’t actually had many problems. Every time that a group wanted to use the plaza, they would seek permission from the other residents and check that proposed dates didn’t clash. The most regular occupants of the plaza were in fact the elderly residents, who used it for the religious events of the congested Mexican Catholic calendar. The rock festival, as a publishing initiative, created a bridge or “contact zone” (Askins and Pain 2011) between older residents who listened from their windows, and the young rockers converging in the square.

Marina Peterson argues in her ethnography of musical performance in public space in Los Angeles that “representation, recognition, and participation, tenets of democracy, structure public concerts as civic performances” (2010: 105). Her examples are drawn from Chicano musicians like Latino Elvis impersonator El Vez, who creates a sonic space for shared identity and belonging through music. “Learning about another culture through its music at a public concert projects empathy and understanding towards audience members whose music is being performed”, she argues, “as well as others who share a cultural attachment to the music” (106). Yet Peterson perhaps exaggerates the potential for consensus inherent in public space when she suggests that “the civic of public concerts is a space of consent, a space safe for difference and a space where difference is made safe” (ibid).

The general emphasis placed on unity and consensus in public space has been critiqued by Rosalyn Deutsche (1996) in her writings on public art. Drawing on Lefort (1988), she argues that when “guardians of public space refer their power to a source of social unity outside the social, they attempt to occupy – in the sense of filling up, taking possession of, taking possession by filling up – the locus of power that in a democratic society is an empty place” (275). Art critics, meanwhile, often concede that “public art is difficult to define and stress the incoherence of the contemporary public” but “still equate public space with consensus, coherence, and universality and relegate pluralism, division, and difference to the realm of the private” (281). The focus on unity, consensus, and the “proper” use of public space, she suggests, often creates an “outside” into which categories of people such as the homeless are relegated, physically excluded from public space and discursively disaggregated from the public.

As in Deutsche’s idea of the public, which draws on Mouffe’s (2000) theoretical framing of agonism, placing conflict instead of consensus at the heart of democratic polity and public space, we do not truly see the creation of a consensual community at the Plazuela del Moral. Rather, we find the management of difference, whereby slots for using the square are allocated to distinct communities of religious and cultural actors. These actors have views which in many ways are irreconcilable. Rey Chanate’s heavy drinking sessions, and certain art exhibitions – one of homo-erotic screen-prints comes to mind – go against the core values of the Alcoholics Anonymous group and the elderly Catholics respectively. Although the latter were exposed to ‘savage rock’ in their apartments during the length of the festival, they did not come outside to sit with the black-clad rockers to enjoy it, just as Óscar and others from the Rey Chanate do not join in in the religious processions or events. The temporal frames of plaza use are carefully policed: just as Oscar was thanking the neighbours for their collaboration, they pulled the plug on the electrical connection – the 10pm curfew had been reached. Yet rather than Mouffe’s ‘agonistic pluralism’, agreements between the Plazuela del Moral neighbours appear closer to a Habermasian model of reasoned debate. While such debate ensured the emergence of agreement about the use of public space, it fell short of the creation of a unified public, since each group remained divided in separate congregations and activities.

Events organised in the plazuela fitted into a broader pattern of cultural appropriations of public space that occurred during my fieldwork period in Zacatecas, often instigated by cartoneras. The main cardboard publisher in the city, Juan Manuel García Jímenez, and his Editorial La Cecilia organised two events in an alley (callejón) on the other side of the Chanate workshop at the beginning and end of my stay. I was present at the first of these, where he hung screen prints – he is principally a grabador, or printmaker – that he and a colleague had printed on low-cost paper. The prints were held with clothes pegs on a washing line, and the idea was for the street exhibition to catch the attention of passers-by in a way that works exhibited in the closed space of an art gallery would not. Not only that, but Juan Manuel was also happy with people taking home the works that they liked, free of charge. During the inauguration of the event, friends and passers-by alike chatted with the artists and chose their favourites to hang on their own walls. By the same time next day, only a few prints were still hanging, and I had even observed a few women furtively making off with the clothes pegs.


Passers-by peruse hanging callejón art in front of a regular taco stall


The other event that took place in the same callejón was the presentation of a cartonera co-edition between the established Cecilia and a new cardboard publisher called Cartorama. Such events drew on a particular Zacatecan tradition of parties that move around from one alley to the next: callejoneadas. In these events, a band, normally mariachi or brass, is hired, and alcoholic drinks are carried by a man with a donkey, then consumed in small ceramic cups. Traditionally, such callejoneadas were organised privately to celebrate events like birthdays and weddings, but members of the public could join in with the festivities, so that groups would swell as they moved from one alley to the next. These days, in line with Zacatecas’s shift to a tourist economy, callejoneadas have become more commercial in nature, and visitors to the city can pay to go on a tour of the city’s callejones, drinks and donkeys included. The cartonera interventions appear to signify a return to the spirit of the ‘alley-parties’ of old, where events are free and involve a spontaneous mingling of locals and visitors, passers-by and cultural aficionados, as opposed to a more homogenous group of tourists who have all paid to participate. Like the event in the plazuela, they are also ‘contact zones’ or ‘safe spaces’ for the congregation of a diverse public, organised and curated by autonomous counter-cultural actors without support from the state.

Events such as those held in Zacatecas highlight the extent to which the activity of cardboard publishers spreads beyond book-making towards diverse engagements with art and music in public space. They also demonstrate the way that cultural actors in Mexico respond creatively to the encroachment of violence into their public spaces, managing to simultaneously innovate and tap into rich civic and cultural traditions such as the callejoneada. Alongside the violence of shoot-outs, kidnapping, and displays of military might, there is also a structural violence of centring state security in the touristic, patrimonial centre of the Zacatecas while neglecting the city’s hinterlands. With distrust of the state extremely high in Mexico given endemic corruption, the peaceful management of and coming together in public space form part of what Villareal (2015) calls ‘regrouping’ strategies undertaken by civil society in response to these multiples forms of violence. What the savage rock festival did was to bring people from the outside into the centre and create a safe space not by force, but through subtle forms of care-taking. Here, the neighbourly stare out of a window can be seen not as a failure to engage, but as a looking out for, as well as a looking out. With the callejoneadas meanwhile, ephemeral new communities are constituted by unexpected encounters: a crowd of passers-by that gathers in a lane to hear a poem, or to appreciate, and perhaps take home, a work of art or a cartonera book.


Askins, Kye and Pain, Rachel. 2011. Contact zones: participation, materiality, and the messiness of interaction. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2011, volume 29, pages 803-821

Deutsche, Rosalyn. 1996. Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics. Cambridge: MIT Press

Díaz, Alfredo. 2018. #Data Los índices de secuestro en Zacatecas. El Sol de Zacatecas, August 24th, 2018. Available at:

Lefort, Claude. 1988. Democracy and Political Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Mouffe, Chantal. 2000. The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso

Peterson, Marina. 2010. Sound, Space and the City: Civic Performance in Downtown Los Angeles. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Villareal, Ana. 2015. Fear and Spectacular Drug Violence in Monterrey. In: Auyero, Javier; Bourgois, Phillipe, and Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (eds.). 2015. Violence at the urban margins. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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