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The Theater as Commons: The Occupation of the INBA Theater in Ciudad Juárez image
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On October 6th, 1990, a group of artists and intellectuals chained themselves to the doors of the INBA Theater in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua’s Zona Pronaf ('Pronaf Zone’) in order to protest the privatization and potential demolition of the building. That evening, the growing crowd of protesters gathered outside of the theater decided to occupy the building itself in order to force the municipal government to undo its privatization. The occupation lasted until May of the following year and ended without the use of violence on part of the Ciudad Juárez municipal government. This paper argues that, in its early stages, the occupation of the INBA Theater formed a challenge to the hegemony of the city’s economic elites in two ways. First, by framing the INBA Theater and the broader Zona Pronaf as representative examples of municipal corruption and asserting the occupation as the pueblo (people) reclaiming space for themselves, the occupation’s organizers assigned a new urban meaning to the INBA Theater and proposed an aspirational urban meaning for the rest of the city. Second, by engaging in ‘commoning’ practices, the occupation’s organizers introduced citizens to a horizontal democratic form of self-governance that stood in stark contrast with the dominant forms of urban governance in Ciudad Juárez. This paper forms part of a larger project that aims to map the political development of Ciudad Juárez’s community of cultural producers. Understanding this development in terms of hegemony, urban function, and urban meaning enables us to read it as a process involving actors that learn from their successes and failures in order to more effectively build a movement aimed at ‘refounding the city’.

right to the city, occupation, commons

By Carlos Hernán Salamanca


On October 5th, 1990, the front page of El Fronterizo, one of the three most prominent local newspapers in Ciudad Juárez, featured a three-part article with a headline that read: “Resuelto el Problema del Pronaf: J.M.”[1] After over a year of local controversy and logistical setbacks,[2] Ciudad Juárez municipal president Jesús Macías had finally solidified its sale of the 106 thousand square meters that comprised the Zona de la Programa Nacional Fronterizo (National Border Program Zone, Zona Pronaf) to former municipal treasurer and prominent Chihuahuan businessman Leopoldo Mares Paredes. After Mares finalized the evictions of the store-owners located inside the Pronaf Commercial Center in September 1990,[3] it seemed as though all that stood between him and the U.S.-inspired mall that he intended to build on his newly-purchased land were the Zona Pronaf’s existing structures.[4]

The editorial section of the same issue of El Fronterizo featured an article entitled “La PRONAF y la comunidad.” In it, an unnamed author urged readers to think through what the sale would mean for the broader Ciudad Juárez community.[5] Not only did the Teatro del Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (Theater of the National Institute of Fine Arts, INBA Theater) and the INBA Museum of Art grant prestige to the often-denigrated border town of Ciudad Juárez, as the editorial argued.[6] The buildings also provided a space for local artists to host galleries, for theater and dance troupes to host performances, for fiction writers to host workshops and readings, and for elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools to host their yearly graduation ceremonies.[7]

The INBA Theater and the artistic community that utilized it became thorns in the sides of both the Ciudad Juárez municipal government and Leopoldo Mares’ investment firm when, on Saturday, October 6, 1990, a group of artists chained themselves to the doors of the theater in opposition to the future that Mares imagined for the building. That evening, an ad hoc general assembly decided that the growing crowd of protesters gathered outside of the theater ought to occupy the theater itself in order to force the municipal government to reverse the sale of the building. The artists and intellectuals would keep the theater under physical occupation until May of the following year.

The occupation of the INBA Theater is distinct from the various human rights movements that emerged in Ciudad Juárez in 1990 for at least two reasons: the first is its centralizing of a specific public space, and the second is its methods for achieving its desired ends. As such, within Ciudad Juárez’s historiography, occupation of the INBA Theater has more in common with the student and popular urban movements of the 1960s and 1970s than it does with the human rights movements of the 1990s. It is telling, for example, that the Escuela Superior de Agricultura Hermanos Escobar (Hermanos Escobar Agricultural High School, ESAHE), established as a popular university in the midst of the 1960s student movement in Ciudad Juárez,[8] provided the occupation with a considerable amount of material and ideological support.[9] It is important to note, nonetheless, that the occupation is not without precedent nor was it the last of its kind: the Movimiento Inquilino (Tenant Union) strike in Veracruz, Mexico (1922–27) and the Anti-austerity movement in Athens, Greece show that the occupation as a tactic has a long history and a promising future.[10]

Since the mid-1990s, Ciudad Juárez has become a popular object of academic study due to the conditions of its maquiladoras, the rampant feminicides that take place in its peripheries (and its centers), and the violence that drug trafficking organizations have brought to the city. Though a growing body of literature discusses local grassroots responses to these conditions, it nonetheless tends to situate these responses within national and transnational contexts, only rarely incorporating the actions of local political institutions into its analyses. Similarly, historians and geographers tend to focus on the role that urban governance and political economy play in the shaping of Ciudad Juárez’s built environment. The ways in which local grassroots movements have influenced the built environment appear in the peripheries of these narratives, if they appear at all. Both bodies of literature have almost entirely neglected the long and complex history of cultural activism in that now-infamous border municipality.[11]

This paper forms the first part of a research project that aims to fill these gaps in both bodies of literature. While recognizing Ciudad Juárez’s place within the transnational network of inter-urban competition, I focus specifically on that the city’s transnationality manifests itself within the realm of local urban governance. Likewise, by situating the occupation of the INBA Theater within the history of Ciudad Juárez’s built environment, I aim to demonstrate that social movements deserve a place in that history.

Using the oral histories of individuals affiliated with the occupation, newspaper articles from El Fronterizo, El Norte, and Semanario Ahora, and internal documents from the occupation, all of which I collected personally, this paper argues that the occupation of the INBA Theater formed a challenge to the hegemony of the city’s economic elites in two ways. First, by framing the INBA Theater and the broader Zona Pronaf as representative examples of municipal corruption and asserting the occupation as the pueblo (people) reclaiming space for themselves, the occupation’s organizers assigned a new urban meaning to the INBA Theater and proposed an aspirational urban meaning for the rest of the city. Second, by engaging in ‘commoning’ practices, the occupation’s organizers introduced citizens to a horizontal democratic form of self-governance that stood in stark contrast with the dominant forms of urban governance in Ciudad Juárez.

Following Casas-Córtes et al.’s reasoning in regards to ethnographic methodology, I understand the occupation of the INBA Theater — its necessarily incoherent whole as well as its component parts — as more than a simple case study; rather, I understand it as a “situated [source] of analyses and concepts that … shape [my] understanding of the problem” and potential solutions.[12] As the authors suggest:

“[M]ovements are complex in the ontological and epistemological work they do: being able to produce knowledge that recursively affects reality — the same realities inhabited and worked on by academics — and organizationally operating through networked relations and fields.”[13]

Put another way, this paper recognizes the occupation as a complex network of knowledge producers. This network, far from bounded, is “complex, diffuse, and not easy delimitable.”[14] Indeed, the network of actors involved in the occupation of the INBA Theater has gone on to form a crucial aspect of the political discussion regarding Ciudad Juárez’s past, present, and future.[15] In light of this fact, which places the occupation and I in a common contemporary political field, I do not intend to represent or explain the occupation. Rather, I intend to engage with the knowledge produced therein and “put them into another code of language”[16] — namely, that of anglophone academia.

Common Space, Hegemony, and Urban Change

It is tempting to understand the occupation of the INBA Theater in terms of the theory and practices associated with the ‘Right to the City.’ However, Foster and Iaione’s critique that “to the extent that the ‘right’ to the city is dependent on a rights-endowing government, local or national, the odds [of success] are quite low [because our] current era is one of rights-entrenching and not rights-enhancing states”[17] rings especially clear in Ciudad Juárez, where urban citizenship has a long history of instability.[18] Moreover, while it is the case that the occupation did attempt to “claim some kind of shaping power over … urbanization [and] the ways in which [Ciudad Juárez] was made and remade,”[19] its extra-legal methods (i.e., the unauthorized occupation of a building considered private property) place it outside of the policy-oriented paradigms of the contemporary ‘right to the city’ movement.[20]

As such, it makes more sense to think through the occupation of the INBA Theater as a claim to a ‘commons’ and not ‘rights.’ As Foster and Iaione explain, “[t]hese claims consist not simply of the assertion of a right to a particular resource; rather, they assert the existence of a common stake or common interest in resources shared with other urban inhabitants as a way of resisting the privatization or commodification of these resources.”[21] Stavrides takes the notion of ‘the commons’ even further. Common space, in contrast with public and private space, is:

“space used under conditions decided on by communities and open to anyone who participates in the actions and accepts the rules which were collectively decided upon. … The community is formed, developed, and reproduced through practices focused on common space. To generalize this principle: The community is developed through commoning, through acts and forms of organization oriented towards the production of the common.”[22]

As such, common space is not a fixed object; rather, it is a process and a set of spatial relations that are produced by a practice of commoning — i.e., of democratically “[defining] and [producing] goods and services to be shared”[23] — that is always open to ‘newcomers,’ and, subsequently, oriented towards expansion. This process does not rely on the reproduction of discrete ‘communities’; rather, it opens opportunities for the communication of difference within a common space.[24] Commoning, then, ought to be understood as the articulation of new forms of social relationships that offer glimpses into new forms of social life.[25] In this sense, the occupation of the INBA Theater may be associated more closely with Lefebvre’s notion of ‘revolution-as-festival’ than with his notion of ‘the right to the city’.[26]

This paper relies heavily upon Antonio Gramsci’s understanding of the role of the state in a class society.[27] Instead of theorizing the state as a rigid mechanism of class domination, Gramsci suggested that the state’s function was rather to organize the interests of the subordinate classes such that the dominant class could claim to represent the interests of all classes within a given nation-state and thus become a ‘universal class.’[28] However, while it must make concessions in order to maintain its status as a ‘universal class,’ the dominant class must not compromise its interests to such an extent that it loses its dominance. This process is what Gramsci calls hegemony.

In contrast with directly coercive means of class domination, hegemony is the process through which dominant classes create and maintain ‘spontaneous consent’ among subordinate classes. In other words, it is the process by which subordinate classes maintain their view of the dominant class as the ‘universal class.’ Hegemony manifests itself in terms of what Gramsci calls a ‘historical bloc’, which features economic, political, and ideological aspects.[29] That is, the dominant class must lay claim to the interests of the subordinate classes in the fields of politics, economics, and ideology. At the center of this process is a culture — a term that Gramsci uses to refer to ‘conceptions of the world’[30] — that accepts the dominant class as a ‘universal class.’

Manuel Castells’ theory of urban change allows us to examine the dynamics of hegemony at the level of the municipality. For Castells, urban change takes place when a transformation in ‘urban meaning,’ a term that he uses to refer to the structural goal assigned to the city by and through the conflict between historical actors with contradictory goals and interests,[31] takes place.[32] ‘Urban function’ refers to the organizational mechanisms through which the city performs the goals that its historically defined urban meaning assigns to it. Because a given city’s role in the international network of inter-urban competition determines its urban meaning in the neoliberal era,[33] Castells’ understanding of the city is useful for establishing a relationship between a city’s political economy and its form of urban governance.

If we use these two frameworks as lenses through which to examine urban governance, we see that urban meaning functions as one of the mechanisms through which the state organizes hegemony. Because urban meaning requires a culture — a conception of the world — that views city projects and initiatives as congruent with the interests of all of a city’s residents, urban meaning forms one of the mechanisms that the municipal government may utilize to maintain ideological hegemony. Likewise, because urban meaning is often determined according to the city’s political economy, it is also one of the mechanisms through which the municipal government may maintain economic hegemony. Urban function may be understood as a mechanism for maintaining political hegemony, for urban function relies upon the legitimacy of the institutions tasked with carrying out a given city’s urban meaning. As such, Castells’ understanding of social change ought to be understood as a transformation in a historically determined structure of hegemony.

Understanding social movements in terms of their interactions with the hegemony of a dominant class allows us to describe with more depth the political terrain that these movements navigate and to understand movement practices in the context of this terrain. Manuel Castells’ understanding of the ‘urban’ allows us to examine these dynamics at the level of the municipality without compromising the ways in which these dynamics are determined by forces of a larger scale.

Urban Meaning from Above

The Pronaf and the PIF, 1961–1975

The 1960s saw the introduction of two federal programs that would radically alter the social and spatial dynamics of Ciudad Juárez: the Programa Nacional Fronterizo (National Border Program, Pronaf), and the Programa de Industrialización Fronterizo (Border Industrialization Program, PIF). Both programs emerged as part of Ciudad Juárez politician and real estate businessman Antonio J. Bermúdez’s broader plan to ‘nationalize’ the Mexican border economy and to effect a ‘just’ balance of trade between Mexico and the United States.

The federal government initiated the Pronaf in 1961 as a means for ‘nationalizing’ both culture and consumption along Mexico’s northern frontier by “increasing the sale of Mexican goods and reducing the flow of pesos to the American side.”[34] Those leading the program hoped to attract investment in tourism and manufacturing in order to stabilize ‘the income’ and ‘the economy’ of the border’s inhabitants.[35] They embedded these cultural and economic aspirations into Ciudad Juárez’s built environment by constructing infrastructure and by beautifying northern sectors of the city.

The most significant physical manifestation of the Pronaf’s aspirations was the construction of the Zona Pronaf, a kidney-shaped superblock located three kilometers east of the city’s historic center and a kilometer south of the Córdova International Port of Entry (today Bridge of the Americas) to the U.S. The Zona Pronaf featured an artisanal market, a supermarket, the Pronaf Museum of Art, and the Pronaf Convention Center (later to become the INBA Museum and the INBA Theater), which was inaugurated on September 12, 1964.[36] This hyper-modern building complex was intended to portray Ciudad Juárez as a modern ‘shop window’ into Mexico for U.S. tourists.[37]

Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos inaugurated the Programa de Industrialización Fronteriza (Border Industrialization Program, PIF) in September 1965.[38] The program, a response to alarmingly high levels of unemployment along its northern border, aimed to industrialize the area with the help of foreign investment. Toward this end, the PIF guaranteed foreign business firms complete ownership of its products and duty-free importation of machinery and raw materials on the condition that the products be exported from Mexico and that the assembly plants, referred to as maquiladoras, would hire exclusively Mexican labor.[39] The institutionalization of the PIF in the form of national law would not take place until 1971,[40] and the construction of foreign assembly processing factories along Mexico’s northern frontier would not begin until the mid-1970s.

Flaherty argues that, despite that the Pronaf was “fleeting and mostly fruitless[,] overlaps in ideology and leadership between the two programs suggests that the Pronaf should be understood as a patio-cultural preparing of the ground for BIP.”[41] What is certain is that these two programs paved a new path for economic development in Ciudad Juárez, one that depended entirely upon the maquiladora industry and tourist consumption. By framing both the Pronaf and the PIF in terms of an economic development that they claimed would benefit all of the city’s inhabitants, real estate businessmen such as Antonio J. Bermúdez were able to establish political and economic hegemony in the city. Furthermore, insofar as these two industries became integral parts of the city’s economic base, they altered urban meaning in the city such that its ‘goal’ became to sustain and grow both the maquiladora and the tourist industries.

Juárez Nuevo and the sale of the Zona Pronaf

Ciudad Juárez saw an influx of multinational corporations and a spike in the construction of commercial centers in the mid-1980s due to the peso devaluation of 1983.[42][43] In response, the municipal administration of Jaime Bermúdez Cuarón initiated the Juárez Nuevo project in order to accommodate this new period of growth. The project aimed to modernize the city’s economy by improving existing roads in the center and building new ones in the periphery,[44][45] and by purchasing land in the city’s southwestern periphery to make way for the construction of industrial parks.[46] In effect, the Juárez Nuevo project aimed to build the infrastructure necessary to facilitate transnational investment in the city. The program was not without its set of controversies. Far from the “citizen participation and social cooperation” that President Miguel de la Madrid claimed birthed this program,[47] the municipal government implemented these aspirations by means of forced evictions,[48] coerced payments to the city,[49] and backdoor dealings between Bermúdez himself and local real estate businessmen.[50]

As part of both the spike in the construction of commercial centers and the city’s tourism promotion plan,[51] the Trust that the city tasked with overseeing the Zona Pronaf sold a majority of the land that comprised the zone to former municipal treasurer and local businessman Leopoldo Mares on May 23, 1989 in order to regenerate consumption in the area.[52] Mares bought the land at less than half its market value with the intention of demolishing the existing structures in order to build a U.S.-style mall in their place.[53] The Zona Pronaf, which a Diario journalist described as a ‘wolf’s mouth’ in 1989,[54] had been through a long period of recession; according to shop-owner Enrique Savignon, sales in the Pronaf Commercial Center fell drastically in 1975 and had yet to improve.[55] Both the Juárez Nuevo project and the sale of the Zona Pronaf ought to be understood as attempts to promote the growth of the three most significant aspects of urban meaning in Ciudad Juárez: tourism, commerce, and the maquiladora industry.

The sale of the Pronaf was met with its own sets of controversies: claims that the municipal government made decisions without consulting the people that they would affect;[56] store-owners protesting their eviction from the Pronaf Commercial Center;[57] and speculations that the sale was Bermúdez Cuarón’s way of paying back a debt owed to Leopoldo Mares.[58] These controversies — in addition to those surrounding the Juárez Nuevo project and the complaints of corruption in the 1986 and 1988 elections at local, state, and national levels — put the local Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI) in a precarious political position. Its ability to represent the interests of all of its constituencies was faltering. Thus, when activists chained themselves to the doors of the INBA Theater in the Zona Pronaf, the PRI municipal administration’s range of possible responses was severely constricted.

As Stavrides notes,

“Collective disappointment … poses new problems of governability: it seems that two crucial tasks are laid before … the governing elites. The first is to ensure that people continue to be defined by social bonds which constitute individuals as economic subjects, as subjects whose behavior and motives can be … controlled by the use of economic parameters and measures only. The second task is to ensure that people continue to act and dream without any form of … coordination with others. Collective actions and aspirations … are to be blocked.”[59]

Given this observation, the question arises: How was the occupation of the INBA Theater able to last for seven months, and did it end with a set of concessions on part of the municipal government instead of with violence? The rest of this paper will offer preliminary answers to these two questions by examining two specific ways in which the occupation challenged the hegemony of Ciudad Juárez’s economic elites.

The Theater as Commons: Urban Meaning and Urban Function from Below

In the weeks leading up to the INBA Theater’s final scheduled event, writer Willivaldo Delgadillo and artist Francisco Alberto Hernández organized what they called a ‘symbolic’ occupation of the theater. The two of them gathered a group of five artists that intended to create a weekly spectacle by chaining themselves to the door of the INBA Theater each week with the aim of amassing opposition to the theater’s demolition.[60] On the day of the action, however, those present decided to take this plan further; an ad hoc general assembly decided that the growing crowd of protesters gathered outside of the theater needed to physically occupy the theater in order to force the municipal government to reverse the privatization of the building.[61] That night, the Consejo de la Toma Pacífica del INBA (Committee of the Peaceful Occupation of the INBA, CoToPaI), tasked with coordinating the occupation, was formed. Out of approximately 100 attendees, only 7 offered to take part in the CoToPaI. The rest, as Luis Carlos Ortega recalls, were too intimidated by the prospect of municipal repression to take up a leadership role. Those present refused to evacuate the theater until it was formally declared cultural patrimony of the city, and thus exempt from privatization initiatives.[62]

The first coordinated projects that the demonstrators organized were regular events with which to maintain momentum and community support. A week after the occupation began,[63] the occupation organized the “Festival Artístico Cultural ‘Toma del INBA’” (Artistic-Cultural Festival ‘Occupation of the INBA’), a day-long cultural festival that included folkloric dance, theater, poetry, and comedy. It also organized a Fall Theater Festival — as Luis Carlos Ortega recalls, the most attended theater festival in the city’s history — and a Day of the Dead celebration in November 1990.[64] In so doing, the occupation demonstrated to the broader city public that the oversight and the funding of the municipal government wasn’t necessary for the regular functioning of the theater.

The occupation of the INBA Theater was never organized along concrete political lines, always favoring individual opinion over collective unity. However, certain discourses within the occupation aimed to use the occupation itself as evidence that, not only did artistic production and distribution survive without the help of the municipal government; they were actually better off without the meddling of the latter.[65] As Juan Manuel Izquierdo describes these conditions:

“The existing [theater troupes] in this city are developing a work of true quijotes [sic] by struggling against the windmills that the lack of subsidies on part of the institutions and agencies represent… [Those institutions] that, not in accordance with the development of artistic-cultural activity, hinder it with a series of bureaucratic obstacles.”[66]

Izquierdo then goes on to outline the specific bureaucratic process that organizing a cultural event entailed. Here, culture represents a ‘commons’ that the municipal government has intentionally made scarce and that the occupation intends to re-appropriate and re-distribute among the broader Ciudad Juárez community. As such, Izquierdo frames the circumstances surrounding the occupation of the INBA Theater in terms of a reclamation of ‘culture’, understood within this discourse as a specific set of artistic expressions.

The occupation’s organizers took this argument further. A banner staked to the ground in front of the doors of the theater proclaimed “ALTO AL ROBO DEL PRONAF” (“AN END TO THE THEFT OF THE PRONAF”), indicating by inference that the occupation was what would make that aspiration a reality. In this sense, ‘culture’ was portrayed as the force that would correct the wrongdoings of the municipal government. Within this discourse, the INBA Theater itself represented a microcosm of this larger process. Willivaldo Delgadillo summed up this discourse perfectly when describing his interpretation of the street performances of two mimes associated with the movement: “The mime against power. The mime can do it, he’s the jester.”[67]

Soon after the occupation began, the CoToPaI sent a letter to their ‘fellow artists’ indicating that:

“[The INBA Theater] finds itself permanently available for the cultural action of all groups, regardless of what the art deals with and the social condition of the artists. You [the reader] can make use of the [Theater] for free. The only requirement is to schedule your event in the calendar wherein all events are registered [so that we can] avoid [accidental double-booking]. We’re struggling to place this theater at your disposal because we know that one of the rights of the artist is that of having a space in which to perform freely and without obstacles.”[68]

Here we see the first glimpse of a common space developing within the occupation of the INBA Theater. Although remaining implicitly restricted to ‘fellow artists’, the opening of the theater to any and all artistic expression offered artists of all different mediums a common forum and a common meeting place. Indeed, as Armando Santinalles recalls, the most important aspect of the occupation of the INBA Theater was just that: the coming together of practitioners of traditionally separate means of artistic expression: actors, essayists, musicians, painters, even mimes — all were welcomed at the occupied INBA Theater.[69] Here, too, we see that, although articulated in terms of ‘rights’, the occupation of the INBA Theater was about laying claim to a commons — that is, ‘a common stake’ in the INBA Theater, which was to be shared with other urban inhabitants. The limitation, however, was that the form of access to the ‘resource’ in question — whether to access as spectator or access as performer — was restricted to the CoToPaI’s ‘fellow artists’.

Aside from artistic events, the most common point of contact between organizers and participants of the occupation of the INBA Theater and the general public was the petition that the former asked all members of the latter to sign. As mentioned above, the INBA Theater functioned as the site for graduation ceremonies for schools of all educational levels; it was an “endearing” place where many generations of people had memories of a public rite of passage. Willivaldo Delgadillo recalls, many were predisposed to support the occupation for this reason. As such, “a lot of people circulated around there. They’d arrive, sign, converse, talk [sic]. Some entered the theater to see the event taking place, others stayed outside. It was like a festival.”[70] Many ambulant vendors brought material support for the occupation in the form of food and drink to the extent that they could.[71]

The first genuine commoning practice that took place in the occupied INBA Theater took the form of a collaborative mural located on the central wall of the theater’s interior (which has since been painted over. As an article in the newspaper El Norte, worth citing at length, describes the origin of the mural:

“Everything started when the buckets of acrylic paint arrived, those present got excited, grabbed brushes, mops, sticks, and even with their bare hands they started to paint their relief [sic] … There’s an old woman, Eulalia Mendoza, that … is always seated in the theater knitting, she brings food and whatever she can; she became so moved when she saw everyone painting that she got up and gave the mural her own brushstrokes.”[72]

Moreover, Francisco Alberto Hernández, occasional spokesperson for the occupation, described the process of painting the mural as such:

“The painter uses the technique of their choosing… The individuality of the painter is respected and the collective work is made stronger. Everything is valid, what is not permitted is to invade the spaces already painted into, whoever wants to paint can do it in a white space; if he asks for permission no one will give it to him, if he asks ‘can I?’, how are we to know if he can? That’s why we let whoever wants to paint, paint.”[73]

Here, we start to see the spontaneous development of a genuinely common space, one in which different elements are invited to collaborate and converse. An initiative adopted without the guidance of any centralized structure, the mural represents the first time that the distinction between creator and producer of art is blurred within the walls of the occupied INBA Theater; regardless of his or her experience with painting, all who want to paint are invited to do so with the same ‘respect’ that is granted an accomplished artist. Indeed, although the mural is divided into ‘irregular rectangles’, Hernández invites artists who share a common border to collaborate so that the paintings don’t end up isolated or separated.[74] Though far from coherent, a nascent notion of an expanding commons as the occupation’s internal logic began to emerge.[75]

Although an ultimately fruitless effort, the occupation attempted to consolidate its commoning practices into a formal decision-making body through the establishment of the Coalición de Artistas e Intelectuales (Coalition of Artists and Intellectuals, CAI) on November 1, 1990. This organizational body, whose objectives were to “[r]escue [the INBA Theater] for the patrimony of Ciudad Juárez residents,” to “promote … and exercise the art of the culture of [their] city,” and to “[e]stablish deep links of solidarity … and a deep, transcendental commitment to the community [among its members],”[76] became responsible for administrating the occupation from then until after the formal occupation had come to an end.

The highest authority within the coalition was the organization’s popular assembly, which could be summoned either by the central committee or 33% of the coalition’s membership.[77] Membership in the coalition included “anyone who [subscribed] to the constitutive Act [of the coalition],”[78] which allowed for the participation of members from all walks of urban life. The task of the central committee was simply to represent and to carry out the decisions made at the level of the assembly.[79] Teetering the line between participatory democracy and centralization, the structure of the CAI would eventually lead to a split between two factions within the occupation of the INBA Theater. This split would go on to spark the end of the occupation on May 6th, 1990 — exactly 7 months after it began.


The specific series of events and set of circumstances that led to the end of occupation are beyond the scope of this paper. Nonetheless, I show that the discourse and the practices of the occupation in its first months represent significant challenges to the hegemony of Ciudad Juárez’s economic and political elites. By framing culture as commons and by positing that the INBA Theater represented a microcosm of a larger process through which culture would overcome the power of the municipal government, the occupation of the INBA Theater offered a discursive alternative to the urban meaning imposed by the municipal government. In its place, the occupation of the INBA Theater posited culture and cultural production as central to the urban meaning that it aspired to assign to the city. It might be said, then, that the occupation, instead of providing an ‘alternative economy’, provided an alternative to economy.[80] Moreover, by striving to create a common space within the walls of the occupied INBA Theater, the organizers of the occupation provided both a method for the expansion of the commons and a concrete way of living and relating to others that stood in stark contrast with the city’s dominant methods of urban governance. It challenged the legitimacy of Ciudad Juárez’s urban function by proposing and demonstrating an alternative method for bringing urban meaning into being. Understood in tandem, these two aspects of the occupation of the INBA Theater constitute a serious threat to the already-unstable hegemony of the city’s political and economic elites.

Understanding social movements in terms of their interaction with hegemony at the level of the municipality offers us a way to understand the trajectory of social movements in the context of the political terrain from which they emerge. In so doing, this theoretical framework not only provides the tools for explaining the successes and failures of a given social movement; it also provides existent social movements with a way to evaluate different options for political action. Moreover, understanding social movements in terms of their interactions with the hegemony may also allow us to understand how even regressive movements, such as that of the drug-trafficking organizations that have risen to infamy in the past decade of a half, interacts with the hegemony of a dominant class in a symbiotic—and not antagonistic—relationship.

Because every social movement entails a specific spatiality,[81] understanding the trajectories of past and present movements can also offer us a deeper understanding of a given city’s built environment. In the context of Ciudad Juárez, such an understanding can explain the expansion and subsequent retraction of autonomous neighborhoods under control of the Comité de Defensa Popular (Committee of Popular Defense, CDP), as well as the demolition of the two campuses that once comprised the ESAHE in the early 1990s.[82] Understood within the framework proposed above, learning about the drug trafficking organizations that have waged war on one another and on the Mexican state since 2006 in Mexico’s northern frontier may allow us to arrive us at a more thorough understanding of the contemporary developments of metropolises throughout and on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

This paper forms part of a larger project that aims to understand the occupation of the INBA Theater as a crux in the historical development of a politicized community of artistic producers. In future research, I will explore the ties between the occupation and successive mobilizations that revolved around culture in that now-infamous border metropolis. I will also ensure that a linear narrative of the development of this community is available for those artistic producers that continue to treat Ciudad Juárez as a laboratory for artistic production; in so doing, I’ll ensure that the lessons of the related social movements of the past are not lost on the social movements of the future. I’ll also ensure that my role as part of the network that birthed this movement is not lost in the annals of academia; rather, I will offer my research for future practical use out of respect for those research informants who shaped my own understanding of the occupation of the INBA Theater.

End notes

[1] “The Problem of the Pronaf [Zone] is Resolved: Jesús Macías.” Translation mine. “Resuelto el Problema del Pronaf: J.M.,” El Fronterizo (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), October 5, 1990.
[2] Juan Carlos M. Prado, “El avalúa al Pronaf, un regalo para Mares,” Semanario Ahora (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), no. 139 (August 11–18, 1989), 3.
[3] Rubén Villalpando, “‘Los Sacaron, no se Salieron,’ dice Hayen,” El Fronterizo (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), October 5, 1990.
[4] Osvaldo Hernández, “Solo dos en contra del Acuerdo del Fideicomiso,” El Fronterizo (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), October 5, 1990.
[5] “El Pronaf y la Comunidad.” El Fronterizo (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), October 5, 1990. Translation mine.
[6] For a history of Ciudad Juárez’s notoriety in national and international discourse, see García Pereyra, Rutilio, Ciudad Juárez la Fea: tradición de una ciudad estigmatizada (Cd. Juárez, Chih.: Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, 2010).
[7] Willivaldo Delgadillo, interview with author, Sanborns Café in Cd. Juárez, August 16, 2016.
[8] See Alicia de los Ríos, “La Huelga de 1967 en la Escuela Superior de Agricultura Hermanos Escobar,” Chihuahua Hoy: Visiones de su historia, economía, y Cultura (Cd. Juárez, Chih.: Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, 2016), 113–147.
[9] José Alberto Dávila to Marcos López Torres (Director of the ESAHE), 7 November 1990.
[10] See Jorge Durand, “Huelga nacional de inquilinos: los antecedentes del movimiento urbano popular en México,” Estudios Sociológicos 4: no. 9 (1989), 61–78; and Stavros Stavrides, “Occupied squares, societies in movement,” Common Space: The City as Commons (London: Zed Books, 2016).
[11] There are very few exceptions to this trend. In English-language literature, see Kerry Doyle, “PACTO POR LA CULTURA: THE POWER AND POSSIBILITY OF CULTURAL ACTIVISM IN CIUDAD JUÁREZ” (Master’s thesis, The University of Texas at El Paso, 2011).
[12] Maribel Casas-Córtes et al., “Transformations in Engaged Ethnography: Knowledge, Networks, and Social Movements,” in Insurgent Encounters: Transnational Activism, Ethnography, and the Political, ed. Jeffrey S. Juris and Alex Khasnabish (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 215.
[13] Ibid, 219.
[14] Ibid, 207.
[15] See Doyle, “PACTO POR LA CULTURA.”
[16] Casas-Córtes et al., “Transformations in Engaged Ethnography,” 221.
[17] Shelia R. Foster and Christian Iaione, “The City as Commons,” The Yale Law & Policy Review 34: Iss. 2, Art. 2 (2016), 284.
[18] See Alicia R. Schmidt-Camacho, “Ciudadana X: Gender Violence and the Denationalization of Women’s Rights in Mexico,” CR: The New Centennial Review 5, no. 1 (2005), 255–292.
[19] David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” Rebel Cities: From The Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (New York: Verso, 2012), 5.
[20] Foster and Iaione, “The City as Commons,” 283.
[21] Ibid, 284.
[22] Stavros Stavrides, Common Space: The City as Commons (London: Zed Books, 2016), 165.
[23] Ibid, 2.
[24] Ibid, 55.
[25] Ibid, 2.
[26] See Gavin Grindon, “Revolutionary Romanticism: Henri Lefebvre’s Revolution-as-Festival,” Third Text 27, no. 2 (2013): 208–220.
[27] Hyug Baeg Im, “Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony in Gramsci,” Asian Perspectives 15, No. 1 (Spring–Summer 1991), 133.
[28] Ibid, 131.
[29] Ibid, 130.
[30] Kate Crehan, Gramsci Culture and Anthropology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 81.
[31] Manuel Castells, The City and the Grassroots (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 303.
[32] Stuart Lowe, Urban Social Movements: The City After Castells (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 32.
[33] David Harvey, “From Managerialism to Entrepreneurialism: The Transformation in Urban Governance in Late Capitalism, Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human 71, no. 1 (1989).
[34] Óscar J. Martínez, Border Boom Town: Ciudad Juárez since 1848 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978), 117–119.
[35] Antonio J. Bermúdez, Recovering Our Frontier Market: A Task In The Service of Mexico (México: [s.n.], 1968), 27.
[36] Óscar J. Martínez, Border Boom Town, 117.
[37] George F. Flaherty, “Consuming Desires: Beautification and Repatriation at Mexico’s Northern Border,” in U.S./Mexico Border Spaces: Arts, Built Environments, and Landscapes, ed. Katherine G. Morrissey and John-Michael H. Warner (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, forthcoming), 2.
[38] Cámara de Diputados, Dirección de Servicios de Investigación y Análisis, Informes Presidenciales — Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, by Elena Rosales, RE-ISS-09-06-13 (Mexico, DF: Subdirección de Referencia Especializada), 15.
[39] Charles E. Rumbaugh, “American Utilization of the Mexican Border Industrialization Program,” California Western International Law Journal 1, No. 1 (1970), 131.
[40] Michael E. Bulson, “Mexico’s Border Industrial Program: Legal Guidelines for the Foreign Investor,” Journal of International Law and Policy 89, No. 4 (1974), 92.
[41] George F. Flaherty, “‘Anxious Desires’: Hyperbolic Beautification under Mexico’s National Border Program, 1961–1971” (manuscript in preparation, October 2017), 12.
[42] Alejandro Lugo, Fragmented Lives, Assembled Parts: Culture, Capitalism, and Conquest at the U.S./Mexico Border (Austin, University of Texas Press, 2008), 71.
[43] Guadalupe Santiago Quijada, Políticas Federales e Intervención Empresarial en la Configuración Urbana de Ciudad Juárez, 1940–1992 (Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua: Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, 2013), 222.
[44] Miguel de la Madrid, “V Informe de Gobierno,” Informes Presidenciales: Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado (México, D.F.: Dirección de Servicios de Investigación y Análisis, 2012), 277.
[45] Leticia Castillo, “El verdadero Juárez Nuevo: la cuenta la paga el pueblo,” Semanario Ahora (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), no. 37 (August 28–September 4, 1987), 3.
[46] Leticia Castillo, “Bermúdez: un gobierno a servicio de su patrimonio,” Semanario Ahora (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), no. 18 (April 17–24, 1987), 3.
[47] De la Madrid, “V Informe,” 277. Translation mine.
[48] Leticia Castillo, “El arrebato a ejidatarios, táctica del Juárez Nuevo,” Semanario Ahora (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), no. 38 (September 4–11, 1987), 3.
[49] Castillo, “El verdadero Juárez Juevo,” 4.
[50] Castillo, “Bermúdez: un gobierno,” 4.
[51] Denise Bezick, “Tourism plan offers new life for Juarez,” El Paso Times (El Paso, TX), February 2, 1990.
[52] Francisco Cruz Jiménez, “’El precio de venta del Pronaf es ridículo,” Semanario Ahora (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), no. 126 (May 12–19, 1989).
[53] Osvaldo Hernández, “Solo dos en contra,” El Fronterizo.
[54] “PRONAF, BOCA DE LOBO,” Diario de Juárez (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), April 1, 1989.
[55] Javier Padrón, “Únicamente 9 Firmaron el Convenio: Enrique S.” El Fronterizo (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), October 5, 1990.
[56] “Pronaf: Asunto de Interés Colectivo,” El Diario de Juárez (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), January 23, 1989.
[57] Rubén Villalpando, “’Los Sacaron, no se Salieron,’ dice Hayen,” El Fronterizo (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), October 5, 1990.
[58] Juan Carlos M. Prado, “El avalúa al Pronaf,” Semanario Ahora, 3.
[59] Stavrides, Common Space, 160.
[60] Willivaldo Delgadillo, interview with author.
[61] Luis Carlos Ortega, interview with author, Plaza las Misiones in Cd. Juárez, July 11, 2017.
[62] Lorena Castillo, “Artistas y Demás Siguen con la Toma de la Sala,” El Fronterizo (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), October 8, 1990.
[63] “FESTIVAL ARTISTICO CULTURAL ‘TOMA DEL INBA,’” Diario de Ciudad Juárez (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), October 13, 1990.
[64] José Alberto Dávila, interview with author, Sanborns Café in Cd. Juárez, July 10, 2017.
[65] Juan Manuel Izquierdo, “¿qué no hay teatro?” UNO DOS TRES (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), November 1990.
[66] Ibid.
[67] Willivaldo Delgadillo, interview with author.
[68] Consejo de la Toma Pacífica del INBA, COMPAÑERO ARTISTA (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), n.d. Translation mine.
[69] Armando Santinalles, interview with author, Café Único in Cd. Juárez, July 21, 2017.
[70] Willivaldo Delgadillo, interview with author.
[71] Luis Carlos Ortega, interview with author.
[72] Rohry Benítez Navarro, “A pintar mural con brocha gorda en pared central del INBA, invitan artistas a todo aquel que quiera,” El Norte (Cd. Juárez, Chih.), October 19, 1990.
[73] Ibid.
[74] Ibid.
[75] See Francisco Alberto Hernández, “INBAción se escribe con V,” UNO DOS TRES (Ciudad Juárez, Chih.), November 1990.
[76] Coalición de Artistas e Intelectuales, ACTA CONSTITUTIVA (Cd. Juárez, Chih., November 1, 1990), 1.
[77] Ibid, 2.
[78] Ibid, 1.
[79] Ibid.
[80] Stavrides, Common Space, 53–54.
[81] See Manuel Castells, The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
[82] See Fernando Álvarez Altamira, “Cronología Histórica de la Escuela Superior de Agricultura ‘Hermanos Escobar’: Una escuela que se niega a morir,” (México, D.F.: Asociación Nacional de Egresados de Chapingo, A.C., September 2010).

About the author

Carlos Hernán Salamanca is a fourth-year Latin American Studies and Mexican American and Latina/o Studies double major at The University of Texas at Austin. He is currently working with Dr. Héctor Domínguez-Ruvalcaba on a research project that examines the 1990 occupation of the INBA Theater in Ciudad Juárez as a crux in the historical and political development of cultural activism in that now-infamous border municipality. His research interests include space and place, historical geographical materialism, the U.S./México borderlands, urban social movements, and architectural history.