MEXICO CITY — María Elena Ríos has conflicting feelings about her saxophone: She once blamed the instrument for bringing her to the brink of death — but it also has been her salvation.
Ríos, 29, thought her career as a musician and her devotion to her saxophone were what led her former boyfriend — an influential politician — to hire the men who splashed acid onto her face and body, disfiguring her. Later, she learned he simply couldn’t accept that she had broken off their relationship.
Some of the attackers and the ex-boyfriend are in jail, but Ríos still had to come to terms with her instrument. Her love of the saxophone, in the end, is helping heal the psychological scars left by the terrifying attack.
“We are reconciling, little by little,” Ríos said of the musical instrument. “I hated it, because I thought it was responsible” for the 2019 attack in Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca. She’s performed live since then, but still wears a mask covering her lower face.
“It bothered my attacker a lot that I was a musician,” Ríos recounts, “because he said we musicians were vagrants, poverty stricken, that we just took drugs and that when I went to concerts I probably participated in orgies.”
The ex-politician who allegedly ordered the attack is being held in jail while awaiting trial, as are two other men, but another remains at large.
Meanwhile, Ríos has joined a movement calling for greater punishments for acid attacks and says the saxophone is her “sword” in that battle on behalf of victims.
Mexico City legislators have proposed a bill bearing her nickname, “Malena,” which would classify acid attacks as a distinct, serious crime equivalent to attempted femicide. Currently they are treated as simple assault or bodily injury.
Acid attacks are most common in South Asia, but also have been documented in many other parts of the world, including Latin America.
The Carmen Sánchez Foundation, started in 2021 to highlight the issue in Mexico, says government health data from 2022 suggests more than 100 women were attacked by chemicals or some kind of corrosive agent, though only 28 were reported to authorities.
Ríos remembers having to choose, at age 9, between playing soccer and joining one of the musical bands that are a popular community activity in the rural villages in Oaxaca.
“I am not her anymore. I am not the beautiful young woman who played the saxophone anymore,” said Ríos. “Today I can say I have been forced to become a defender of my own rights, and a defender of the rights of other fellow women survivors.”
She was hospitalized for five months after the attack, and still recalls the sadness in her parents’ eyes when she awoke in hospital.
She now attends musical classes in Mexico City, where she has taken refuge since the attack. The federal government has provided her with bodyguards because her attacker was wealthy and influential.
Ríos said she and her family were harassed before the attack, when she tried to break off the relationship. She says the harassment continues, and that she lives in constant fear for her life.
The man accused of ordering the attack, Juan Manuel Vera Carrizal, was a local legislator and businessman. He has declared himself innocent and his lawyers deny he had any involvement.
Even though he was jailed and expelled from his political party in 2020, Ríos says he still has influence.
In January he was almost released to house arrest after a judge tried to reclassify the crime, applying rules for a lesser offense. But because her case has gained has gained national attention, the attempt failed.
Music is now a refuge for Ríos. “When I begin to assemble my saxophone, I feel like I am putting myself together,” she says.
Last year she was invited to play on stage for the first time after the attack. It was at the annual Vive Latino music festival in Mexico City with the rock group Maldita Vecindad.
She says it made her feel “eternal.”