NEW YORK, NY -- Andrea Arroyo, a Mexican artist based in New York, feels that people don't always connect with each other at political events or rallies about issues happening in a foreign country. "A place can feel psychologically and emotionally distant," she said.
So Arroyo and almost 250 artists from around the world are using art to remember the 43 university students from Guerrero, Mexico who went missing after being taken away by local authorities working with a criminal gang exactly six months ago on Thursday.
"Art helps people make direct connections at a human level," explained Arroyo. "And those vital connections can inspire you to push beyond barriers that separate you from others."
The disappearance of the 43 students shocked Arroyo into action last September. But when she rallied in solidarity with other Mexicans at a vigil in New York, she noticed that there was not much support outside of the expat community. So she decided to connect her activism with her art, and work with artist Victoria Roberts on a "digital quilt" to honor the missing.
Tribute to the Disappeared was inspired by the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was started in 1987 by a small group of strangers who wanted to document the lives of people who could be neglected by history. And similarly, both Arroyo and Roberts set out to memorialize the 43 students from Mexico and to remember others who have been missing.
Each panel of the memorial quilt shows how tragedy can weave different people together into one fabric. And artists like Martin Kozlowski were compelled by empathy and solidarity to volunteer for the project.
"I responded to the pain and suffering of the parents," said the political cartoonist about his quilt artwork. Kozlowski described how the "form of the child is missing from the form of the mother," a surreal depiction of how violence hollows out families and communities.
The digital quilt reflects different layers of society, including well-known professional artists, volunteers who had never done art, teenagers, seniors, men, women, students and other people who want to honor the memories of the missing.
"Disappearances are not always literal," said Arroyo. "There are other types of disappearances that make people and communities feel invisible. …[And] you can use art to integrate yourself into a much larger community. Connect the tragedy of missing students in Mexico with other tragedies [and forms of discrimination] around the world."
In the way the quilt is transcending groups and nationalities, the parents of the 43 Guerrero students have been looking beyond the Mexican border for justice and solidarity. A group of parents has been traveling the United States to raise awareness about the tragedy in Guerrero and to demand more answers about the missing students.
A group will also travel to New York in April to lobby the United Nations for help in the case of the 43 missing students. The Mexican government has declared the students dead based on testimonies of some arrested following the incident, but the families want more answers. DNA evidence has only confirmed the death of one student.
In the meantime, families of the Mexican students have said the international support is truly appreciated.
"Even if we don't know each other... the support you project, wherever you may be... means a lot to me as a human being," said Emiliano Navarrete, father of missing student José Angel Navarrete González, in a video interview last January to Mexican expats and other supporters in New York.