The first Letters from the Dead event was first performed in Toronto near the spot where a young white Canadian woman was killed outside Toronto’s downtown shopping mall, The Eaton Centre. It was a response to the publication of images of youth killed in urban violence in that city under the grim front page headline “2005 Year of the gun. Is this the end?” (“2005”). The publication shocked communities of color because the media flurry took place only after the death of the young woman. Her murder was clearly dreadful, but the uproar in the media contrasted with the silence around the murder of racialized youths in cities across North America, demonstrating that there is inequality even in death.
The performance began with a funeral procession that brought the ghosts from Aboriginal, African-Canadian, Latino, Asian and working class white communities into a space from which their memory had been erased. Kara Springer, who designed the event, built a coffin lined with repeating media images of the dead youth. Four ghosts painted grey and white carried the coffin. Behind them, three women in black held each other and wept. Image corrals juxtaposed photographs of street violence with war and invasion by the US or its allies as the ghosts lowered the coffin on to the sidewalk. The mourners placed memorabilia beside it while the ghosts chalked the names of the dead on the sidewalk and then handed letters from the dead to audience members who read them aloud to the gathering. In warnings for the living, the letters told of disappointed hopes. One powerful letter, written by Leonarda Carranza, began “I want you to remember me the way I was the morning we left El Salvador for Canada – smiling and full of hope. Don’t remember me lifeless, a bullet in my head, blood on my face. Don’t remember me as I was in the newspaper – a portrait of violence…..” After the performance, as the procession receded, the shoppers walked away, stepping on the names of youth, slowly erasing them.
The ceremony brought images of death into the world of consumption, disrupting habit, inscribing the fragile traces of the lives of forgotten youth on the commercial cityscape, questioning the global social relations that underlie urban violence. Two years later in Kingston, Jamaica, this intervention was transformed into a commemorative walk when 300 participants walked across the borders of communities in conflict honouring the victims of urban violence from all spaces.