Zahara Goméz Lucini, Recetario para la memoria

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2020 (here). Hardcover with dust jacket and obi (9.5 x 6.75 inches), 109 pages, with 70 reproductions in color and black-and-white. Includes texts in Spanish by Constanza Posadas Certucha, Las Rastreadoras del Fuerte, Daniela Rea, María De Vecchi Gerli, and Zahara Gómez Lucini. Editing by Zahara Gómez Lucini; design by Clarisa Moura; copy-editing by Tinta Roja Editoras. In an edition of 1000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: To eat is an everyday necessity. It fuels our bodies and keeps us going. We eat sitting or standing, while taking a break, or on the run. “When we eat, we feed ourselves,” my grandmother used to say, “but when we share a meal, we nurture each other.” Sharing a meal is different, because it alters the meaning of time and space. The time we take to prepare, cook, and set the table; the spaces we make for another with one another. For the moment we sit down, we commit to the act of being present, and in doing so we allow for new and different ways to find and recognize each other – through stories and experiences, memories and remembrances, silence and questioning.

It is this ritual of connecting that lies at the heart of Zahara Gómez Lucini’s Recetario para la memoria (Memory Cookbook). A collaborative project, the book unites Gómez Lucini’s photographs and the recipes of the Rastreadoras del Fuerte, a group of women based in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, a state in northern Mexico.

Each of these thirty dishes speaks through its local ingredients and flavors, and is named after the loved one to whom it is dedicated. Take, for instance, “Las Pizzadillas Para Roberto” – a type of quesadilla made with braised beef and shredded cheese that is accompanied by refried beans, salsa, and a cucumber-lettuce salad. “It’s very simple, but it was my son’s favorite,” Mirna Nereida Medina Quiñonez explained in an interview. “He called them ‘pizzadillas’ (‘little pizzas’) because I’d use two tortillas, instead of just folding one in half. Then, my son would cut it into four pieces, just like pizza slices.”

As with most cookbooks, each recipe of Recetario para la memoria includes a list of ingredients and instructions, and is paired with a mouthwatering photograph of the dish you may eventually taste. Unlike any other cookbook, however, each recipe also comes with a date. “14 July 2014” we read under the pizzadillas – the day that Roberto Medina Quiñonez, at age 21, “was forcefully disappeared”.

Forced disappearance, which connotes abduction, murder, and disposal, has been a problem of horrific scale across Latin and Central America since the late 1960s. Originally instigated by the state (that is, dictatorial governments, such as Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile or Jorge Rafael Videla’s in Argentina) to rid itself of so-called political and religious enemies (meaning anybody remotely critical), the situation in Mexico is somewhat different, as people are disappeared within what is considered a democracy. Drug cartels and human traffickers certainly play a key role, but it is the continued negligence and complicity of the federal as well as local governments (including corrupt members of the police and the military) that fail to prevent or prosecute these crimes against humanity. Instead, friends and families reporting a missing loved-one tend to be stigmatized by often-false implication of the victim’s criminal involvement. The truth is, forced disappearance can happen to anybody, at any moment, almost anywhere. In Mexico, there are currently more than 73,000 desaparecidos, as the victims of forced disappearance are called.

The last thing that Mirna Nereida Medina Quiñonez knows of her son, who sold CDs at a gas station, is that he called his wife at 5:45pm to tell her he was coming home. According to witnesses, he was seen boarding a black pick-up (nothing unusual or out-of-the-ordinary), but never got off. How does one cope with that absence and terror, with that pain of not knowing?

Out of this helplessness and propelled by her ardent promise to find her son, Medina Quiñonez founded the Rastreadoras del Fuerte in 2014. Consisting of about one-hundred thirty women (mothers and sisters), the Rastreadoras are one of more than a hundred of such collectives, which have emerged across the country. The group got its name from the investigative reporter Javier Valdez Cárdenas, who was fatally shot by assailants in Sinaloa in 2017. It is a play on the Spanish word “rastrear”, meaning “to track”, and their city, El Fuerte. The group meets every Wednesday and Sunday morning, shares breakfast, then searches the territory for human remains. It is important to note that the women don’t consider themselves as looking for bodies or bones, but for their tesoros, their darlings. Zahara Gómez Lucini met the Rastreadoras in 2016, and worked with them for two years, before proposing this idea of making a book.

Born in Spain, Gómez Lucini is the daughter of an Argentinian journalist who fled his country during its military dictatorship (1976-83). Growing up, she heard him and his exiled friends talk about the desaparecidos. The subject’s continued presence and Gómez Lucini’s own questions eventually led her to write a thesis on the photographic representation of forced disappearance. It also drove her desire to become a photographer – first at Magnum. Out of an increasing disillusionment with, what Gómez Lucini felt, photography’s lack of real impact, she began to collaborate with and document the work of forensic teams in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico (which is how she was introduced to the Rastreadoras). The idea for Recetario para la memoria emerged after exhibiting her photographs of tools, landscapes, and close-ups of bones (which you can view on her website), and realizing that this form of exposure didn’t benefit the Rastreadoras in ways they most needed – that is, monetarily, to cover expenses of office space, internet (for their databases), and most important, for gasoline to reach the mountains and countrysides they search.

Looking for a collaborative format, where everybody has a voice, Gómez Lucini sought the spaces that interest her most – those in which traces and memories unfold, where things are seen and felt from different perspectives, where they gain new meaning. In the Rastreadoras’ case, these spaces exist within their homes, in their dailyness, into which Gómez Lucini was invited and became part of. It is here, where they sit and share a meal, that they speak about their loved ones differently, Gómez Lucini says – “About what they liked and didn’t; about their weaknesses; about who and how they were – this is when the desaparecido stops being a ghost.”  Noticing that many of these women hadn’t cooked their loved one’s favorite dishes for years, Gómez Lucini suggested a cookbook that would honor them as much as their stories. The Rastreadoras agreed, and the project began.

Recetario para la memoria is neither a cook- nor a photo-book, but claims a new, hybrid territory, in which Gómez Lucini’s photographs are as essential as the recipes they accompany. There are, of course, her images of the prepared dishes, which capture colors, textures, and consistencies with such sensuality, you can almost taste them. Perhaps you consider them illustrative, at first glance (albeit tenderly so). Their actual potency, their symbolism, reveals itself in relation with Gómez Lucini’s landscapes, which are interspersed throughout the book.

One scene to a double-page spread, we see a land of low horizons, baked soil, and hazy skies. The light is glaring; it makes your eyes squint and contours flicker. And within this seeming endlessness of heat, small female bodies begin to appear – searching, pausing, shoveling. “I’m very struck by these silhouettes in the middle of nowhere that search and search. It seems like something impossible to do, almost absurd,” Gómez Lucini wrote me. It is these landscapes, their hostility and vastness, that makes you understand the cool, comfort, and protection the interiors provide, where food is prepared and shared – especially then, when Gómez Lucini captured not only the dishes, but small details that define these spaces, such as a drawn curtain, kitchen décor, or speckles of light reflecting from a wall or table cloth. Nothing can harm this world, so it appears.

The heart-wrenching reality of loss manifests itself at the end of the book, where a delicate, four-page sequence pairs small, monochrome snapshots of those who went missing with short paragraphs, giving us their names, the date of and their age at disappearance, their profession, who is or has been looking for them, if they were found or are still being searched for. It hurts to read and see their faces.

Equally moving are the few black-and-white images that precede and follow this sequence. These are photographs, mostly of details, in which everything speaks of absence – a pair of legs standing in front of a stove; a profile lost in thought; a mother working in the kitchen, wearing a T-shirt that says: Te Buscare Hasta Encontrarte – “I will search for you until I find you”.

The resistance that lies within these everyday gestures is also reflected in the book design’s care for detail. It begins with a dust jacket reproducing a tablecloth. Its floral pattern, its creases and small, lasting stains feel tender, but can’t conceal what lies underneath, and on the book’s cover: the detail of an enlarged map, where a nail punctures the location of a pit. Revealing itself like a secret, Recetario para la memoria is organized within four loose sections, each marked by a text (five in total). All are written by women, including the Rastreadoras and Gómez Lucini, and speak about the meaning of food, loss, the search itself, providing dates and historical context, about what it takes to remember, and the purpose of the book itself. Pages and fonts change colors, depending on who is speaking and from which perspective (such as black pages and white font for the Rastreadoras’ text), as do the types of paper – the thicker pages for that which is present; the fragile, thinner ones for those who are gone and those they left behind.

Considering the many books published each year with the premise to create awareness and propel change, Recetario para la memoria is amongst the rare examples that actually do. Fifty percent of the proceeds from each book purchased go directly to the Rastreadoras. The project has created awareness both inside and outside of Mexico, as groups of women who worked in isolation have begun to form networks, allowing for better support structures and more forceful demands directed toward the government. Cooking with one another, their loved-ones’ favorite dishes in particular, has helped them live and cope in an equally significant manner as their searches. “People think it stops hurting once you find your loved one’s remains”, said Medina Quiñonez, who found her son Roberto’s in 2017, “But the pain never ends.”

Thematically, Recetario para la memoria aligns itself with a series of Mexican projects that address the emotional trauma of forced disappearance. There is, for instance, La casa que sangra by Yael Martínez (reviewed here) that visualizes the dramatic familial impact of his brother-in-law’s murder. Equally symbolic, yet quieter and more delicate in its approach is Mariceu Erthal’s (still to be published) project Cartas a Gemma – a portrayal of filial absence through the eyes of Gemma’s parents and Erthal’s, as she spends time in their home and with Gemma’s objects. All of these projects are personal explorations of grief; they aim to advocate change and provide a certain kind of healing.

What makes Recetario para la memoria singular – is us, our active involvement, and the form of empathy we can offer. Not just in purchasing the book and learning about people we never knew. But in remembering them, the Rastreadoras and their family members, by preparing and sharing their dishes: the ceviche for Marian Gisele, Camilo’s pozole, Juan Francisco’s custard, or something as humble as the boiled eggs for Juan Octavio. Each recipe is a pocket of hope, each dish a (hurting) memory that we can preserve and honor. Coming together in the way they these recipes and images do, they are agents of change, but most of all, of love.

Collector’s POV: Zahara Gómez Lucini does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up with the artists directly via her website (linked in the sidebar.)

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