For several decades, fishermen from the Colombian town of Puerto Berrío have come across the remains of victims of violence along the Magdalena River, picking them up onto their boats and delivering them to the local morgue—sometimes in wheelbarrows, as though they were a truckload of soil. No masks, and no gloves. The villagers have grown highly invested in these unidentified corpses, whose tombs are marked NN (“No Names”). The only thing known about them is their sex. Juan Manuel Echavarría’s Réquiem NN is the portrait of the unusual ways the people of Puerto Berrío have come to deal with this anonymous detritus, re-signifying their dehumanized state by simply (re-)naming them—and treating them like saints.
Some villagers “adopt” a tomb, giving it a name and a last name (sometimes their own), cleaning it, placing flowers and candles on it, even painting it with vibrant colors—and to the chagrin of city officials. Someone, in order to avoid vandals, even installs a little windowpane with a lock and key in front of their adopted tomb. A man imagines his adoptee, Gloria, as a young blond woman, and sometimes dreams about her. One woman thinks several NN souls live inside her house, and another one brings a birthday cake to a tomb so she can sing “Happy Birthday” to the dead loved one she never knew. Sometimes two different people claim the same tomb as their own, which creates an uncanny kind of kinship between strangers, who end up splitting the costs of transferring the remains from a tomb to a private ossuary.
It eventually becomes clear that their devotion is more self-serving than sheer benefaction. The villagers grow close to their adopted souls in the hope—in the certainty, really—that the dead can grant them favors and even perform miracles if their tomb is well taken care of. Echavarría’s hands-off approach hinders us from mocking the believers’ naïveté. Instead, we begin to notice how the dynamic behind their creepy emotional attachments with the dead are similar to the defense mechanisms of projection and denial inherent to the human subject tout court. And that in filling the tombs with humanity, they aim to fill the emptiness they bear themselves.