Valerie Navarrete

Migratory Material: Epigenetics & Weaving at the US-Mexico Border

Following the journey of epigenetics and weaving, this thesis interrogates the influence of border politics as it records, reacts, and migrates through body and material. Untethered and intra-active, epigenetics and weaving represent objects that transform typical ways of knowing and seeing. Countless studies have demonstrated that genes retain a recollection of past experienced (lived or inherited), and that epigenetic regulators could be one physical materialization of these memories. Similarly, cycles of interdependent relationships have allowed weaving to materialize record-keeping for hundreds of years. Proposing new materials that expand modern medical epistemes, this thesis challenges disciplinarity, archival evidence, and the weaponization of objective singularity. This newfound conceptualization of trauma offers an object when we are lost for words. It gives meaning beyond the immediate or decipherable.
Always in motion.
Always in fray.
A disease of the border impaled into / onto / over / through / around / within the body.

Warping - Creating even tension by winding thread in a figure eight, oscillating around two posts, intersecting at a cross in the middle.

At a recent research visit, Kate Irvin, textile curator at the RISD museum, arranged a selection of Mexican weavings donated in the early 1900s. Of all the tapestries, the smallest and most worn piece demanded my attention. I picked it up with latex gloves, and like a baby with a heavy head, its top half flopped over behind its back. Overarching white beams exposed every fiber of the piece and prompted a medicalized reading that washed out any record of artistry. Strewn across the examination table, with no identification or origin, this piece was the only fragment we had to represent a breathing but nameless body. Treating weaving as a site for both creation and destruction, Julia Bryan Wilson fixates on “the material wearing out of textiles, the undoing of threads, the pulling apart of fibers through strain and repeated use.” Within its destruction, “edges—or borders-–become more prone to fray as they are subject to friction.” This is all to say, generations of movement and internalized tension cause a weaving to unravel, despite the illusion of timeless strength granted to a tapestry’s warp. All at once, the scientist part of my brain switches vision, I begin to see weaving through the biological semiotics of skin.


Blue and tan Mexican textile photographed at the RISD museum.

Mexican; Saltillo, Textile fragment, wool; cotton; 16.5 x 29.2 cm (6 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches)

The epidermal layer is always self-proliferating, pushing the dead cells off to replenish itself with younger ones.

Grab, pull, snip, peel. Unwrapping skin to reveal the shiny porcelain organs of mouse #234, Female, F1. It is my turn to weigh and package each sliver into sterile Eppendorf tubes and plop them into liquid nitrogen to freeze them in time, a snapshot of tissue for later analysis. In the near future, this sample will undergo 3-5 days of lysing, precipitation, and reverse transcription treatment—all to extract the purest samples of RNA. If RNA does not signify the language of biological code, but the expression of a word—is the role of a geneticist to read lines of poetry?

Is a body professing itself in ways we cannot read?

Shedding - Dividing warp threads into two groups.

Located high in the mountains of Central Mexico, tucked between the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Zacatecas, lies a sacred desert that bears the marks of the beginning of the world. The first women to trek the mountains of Wirikuta are goddess, Takutsi Nakawe, and her daughter, the corn maiden Niwetsika. Through a long and unfamiliar path, the mother and daughter lose sight of one another. Panicked to find Niwetsika, Takutsi gathers whatever she can to construct a loom. As the weaving extends and unravels to the floor, a channel of communication emerges from the land, revealing Takutsi the correct journey to Wirikuta. Soon after hearing of Takutsi’s journey, three curious and determined women decide they must see the mystical desert. Together, they lay the warp of the loom, pulling a series of lines that stand completely parallel to one another. Bringing the weft through a repetitive lull in and out, in and out, the goddesses weave until the same path reveals itself as it did to Takutsi. This is the first instance of weaving as told by current day Huichol Indians, and the birth of the first generation of Huichol people.

Two themes emerge from these initial observations of weaving traditions in Mexico from the Chiapas and Jalisco. First, materialization is seen as knowledge. The motions of organizing disjointed material provide information that cannot be seen, but shown, through geometric visions prompted by Peyote, or plant/animal allies collected on
pilgrimages. Second, knowledge is something that we inherit through physiological memory. Weaving is a ritual to summon the knowledge that remains beyond the reaches of one’s consciousness. Just as the weft transverses the warp over and under, a physical and mental migration through the borders of awareness is necessary to
obtain such information.

Western ideations of materialism do not predicate on what is inherited, but what is lacking. It produces to fill a void, rather than to reveal a path paved by sensation and intuition. Contrastingly, the epistemological significance of weaving is built on communication with ancestral ghosts. Where one does, but does not speak, the information threaded through the body.

Knowledge embedded into material is exactly how scientists in the 20 th century described deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA). In 1865, Gregor Mendel’s discovery of the infamous pea plant phenotypes suggested a vertical transmission of information in a controlled, non-randomized spread. Despite the world-shattering eureka, scientists remained perplexed. Collectively, they knew, there was a missing precursor to these phenotypic observations; a material capable of skipping across generations, carrying the necessary information required to communicate crucial information for embryological development.

Naming the study of this material after the 17th century concept of epigenesis, Waddington was the first scientist to propose a language for epigenetic studies. The name, epigenetics, literally refers to above genetics (Greek prefix epi-, where the root translates to ‘upon’ or ‘over’). One modification is the muting response from methylation; where methyl groups attach to the DNA strand, blocking proteins from reading and transcribing instructions for further protein translation. This is just one example of an epigenetic modification. Epigenetics is more technically defined as phenotypic differences accounted for by change in gene expression, rather than alteration of the genome itself. Thus, chromatin modification and non-coding RNA (both physical changes to the structure and subsequent inaccessibility of the gene) are two additional illustrations of epigenetic modifications. Scientists commonly refer to the inheritance of this epigenetic pattern as genomic imprinting. For those not well-versed in scientific literature, it can be a difficult concept to grasp onto; since there are thousands of unknown biological phenomena that simultaneously promote and inhibit unseeable pathways, ultimately contributing to a much larger network of genetic expression.

Originally, my fascination with epigenetics spawned from my own individual research in a lab studying the homeostatic regulation of epidermal stem cells, and its reliance on nutritional balance in the insulin-IGF pathway. Countless studies have demonstrated that genes retain some type of memory of past experienced (lived or inherited); and that epigenetic regulators could be one physical materialization of these memories. This newfound conceptualization of trauma offers an object when we are lost for words. It gives meaning beyond the immediate or decipherable. But it is also sensitive to the environments designed, by and for, dominant forms of power.

I have spent half of this thesis discussing the material properties of epigenetics and weaving. They are objects that, like language-textiles, fray in multitudes. What makes the material properties of epigenetics and weaving so exceptional, is their ability to migrate across time and space. They represent objects that unify groups of people—migrating across borders of skin, consciousness, and time. Their connectivity is eerily akin to nationalist imaginary glue, but it differs in two ways. First, chosen groups containing fragments of this memory are decided through progeny, not sovereignty. Secondly, the materials themselves are inaugurated as a subject of inquiry. They do not subjugate the bodies they are originally possessed by but reflect a greater subjugation of bodies from the outside.


Ink drawing of projectiles emerging from hills.

Yolanda Sonnabend's drawing of an epigenetic landscape. See page 109 in Waddington, C.H. "Tools for thought : how to understand and apply the latest scientific techniques of problem solving." New York : Basic Books, 1977.

Picking - Insertion of weft through the passage created.

What does it mean to feel betrayed by your own body? Medically speaking, the body is always betraying itself. Aging, autoimmunity, cancer. These are all common examples of attacks of oneself, by oneself. But there is a specific root of self-sabotage that I would like to probe further—the inability of language to substantiate a self that we identify with.

José Esteban Muñoz describes this frustration through a series of demands that prevent the body from sitting comfortably in its skin; a process where “identities-in-difference emerge from a failed interpellation within the dominant public sphere.” Interpellation, as a diametric pressure at the internal-external interface, creates an imaginary boundary for one to teeter between two conflicting realities: the secret depths of the self, and the white-washed version of the Other. As one grows, the pressure becomes more palpable. The body may fail to fit seamlessly, but the self is trained to pick and choose which attributes to surrender—or more accurately, forced to surrender. Moving in silence, even a glimpse at a reflection in the mirror, or a melt into a shadow on the sidewalk create space for peaceful disassociation. But once returning to the body, it is fair to ask: why does it all have to be so contained?

In Margarita Coda Cardenas’ Puppet, sociopolitical conflict bleeds into the inner conflict of protagonist Petra’s identity crisis. Rather than feeling like a self-actualized person with autonomy, Petra realizes she is merely a reflection, an image originating from the sociopolitical environment that she inhabits. She begins to recount critical moments in Mexican history, at one point experiencing an identity crisis during a history lesson on Spanish conquest. She repeats the question with one of her selves, asking, “ARE YOU MALINCHE MALINCHI? WHO ARE YOU? WHO AM I MALINCHI?”

If we probe the history of hysteria, we notice a pathological manifestation that, at its most radical expression, represents a disease of being locked in one’s skin, dealing with the contradictions between oneself and the expectations of the outside. Prior dominant frameworks have conceptualized one’s psychology through degrees of consciousness, compartmentalizing modes of lucidity without fully acknowledging the transience in between. That is all to say, moments of the experiential might flow into a repressed unconscious, but as this container fills to the brim, psychoanalytic language fails to register visible symptoms as signs of social malady.

Like Petra suggests in her identity crisis, Frida Gorbach proposes that colonial hegemony must serve as a precursor to feminine excess, that “the feminine [only] appears when the coherence of medical discourse is ruptured and when, to explain the illness, the doctors stop attempting to define it.” Contrary to the Western canonization of trauma studies, Gorbach uses clinical records from late 19th century Mexico to reposition hysteria as a byproduct of much deeper, colonial roots. Traditionally, Western physicians hypothesized that hysteria was a disease of women, caused by a migratory microbial between the uterus and the brain. In retrospect, they were correct to mobilize the ailment, but wrong for enclosing the journey within the body.

Many Mexican psychiatrists grew weary of this diagnosis and suspected the ailment must originate from the outside, perhaps even stemming from the sociopolitical climate of their patients. Psychiatrists such as Dr. Jose Galindo, Dr. Demetrio Mejía, and Dr. Fernando Malanco, shifted their exploration “from the search for physical wounds to the influence of exterior factors on the nervous system.” In a broader sense, this transition was emblematic of a more important shift in medical epistemology from “a preoccupation with the individual body to the relationship between body and environment.” This transition was even evident in symptom language, where terms like “over-civilization” were used to diagnose hysteria by physicians who blamed the social pressures of modernity for hysterical outbreaks.

While it might be easy to blame modernity for the emergence of hysteria, it is more difficult to define what modernity actually is. What are the implications? What is the physiological collateral? This is the only way to begin pathologizing figments of the historical imagination. 

Sadly, the inability to expand personhood beyond boundaries of cultural normalcy is a rebuke of knowledge (conscious or not) that remains untranslatable. For this reason, Negrete observes the same leakage between private and public barriers, where trauma escapes through physical changes in the body. When considering the release of this pressure, Negrete introduces the term, “sublimation,” to describe the psychological journey of unprocessed information that originates in the body and eventually leaks out. Resulting from the sublimation process, repressed, nameless energy materializes as a visible trace of emotions.

While I believe the hysteric framework helps to consider colonial trauma as a pathology seeping through a porous body; as a scientist, I am also interested in pursuing the material traces. In a landscape of data, science relies on the presumption that everything is capturable. Legitimized through intense data recognition, the world we inhabit becomes ruled by a very specific materiality of evidence—one that texturizes what is already seen. Studies that correlate discrimination and health status is one example of this. On one hand, there is value in translating discrimination through a set of numerics, for it compartmentalizes large meaning to a readable magnitude of good and bad. But in loops of talking more about the fact of the thing, scientists are roped into the political ideation of racial and gendered identities, solidifying the differences by asserting them as impenetrable truths. If we interrogate the delay in breaking this model, the issue is not the inability to feel empathy, but the stakes of legitimizing the agony of others as a form of evidence in itself.


Acrylic painting of a woman and her cat on a bed, with ink drawing of projectiles emerging from hills in the background.

“She Doesn’t Know,” Valerie Navarrete (2022) 30in x 40in, acrylic on canvas

Beating - Pushing the newly inserted weft yarn into the cloth fell/ already woven fabric.

Weaving, like hysteria, is feminized. It is therefore regarded with the same vocabulary of excess. Concerning pleasure, the consumption, production, or spectatorship, that defines femininity are often embedded in readings of the female body or objects that resemble it. As Janice Helland explicates in her work on decorative arts, “where softness and interiority, decorative and ornamental all participate in the binary categorizations so familiar to western culture,” the gendered conflation of textiles in inevitable. However, its unnameability “suggests that somewhere within the softness of fabric and the intricacy of stitching lie an inherent relationship that cannot be signified or secured: it is always ‘excess’ and therefore external to more easily and rigorously defined concepts.”

That being said, the reading of an object, especially through the haptic vision integral to textile analysis, is just as susceptible to projection by Western fantasies as any other artistic medium. However, in the making and historicity of fiber arts, we find something more valuable: a resistance to be known. This might conflict with object-oriented ideologies that ascertain a specific ontological stability of a material’s identity. Similarly opposed to fixed signifiers, Julia Skelly utilizes weaving as a stand-in for skin; using languages of excess to discuss the ways colonial violence has impeded the body. She finds it is “hard touch,” the “excess of touch,” that captures varying degrees of gore capitalism as it touches or impedes, women and victims of femicide.


Diagram of the thesis structure as warping, shedding, beating, picking, and twining.

Diagram of thesis structure through the vocabulary of backstrap weaving. The body is woven through semiotics of the border; and made visible through migratory materials of epigenetics and weaving. Drawn by Valerie Navarrete.


To contextualize, femicide, or the murder of women for being women, is a contemporary issue that has been addressed by at least 17 Latin American countries. The murder of women is differentiated from other homicides because all femicides are intimate, premeditated.

The downtown area of Ciudad Juárez contains a bus connection between the east and the west sides, an infamously precarious transitional area where numerous women have been found dead or missing. Unfortunately, with the onset of workers shuffling in, the violent realities of the border city remained. Although the statistics of overall homicides have been decreasing over the years, the percentage of female victims has been on the rise since the 1990s. With maquiladoras profiting heavily off cheap labor, and the supply of cheap labor remaining unquestionably high, there has never been an interest to enforce safety conditions for female workers.

To specify worker rights from female worker rights, I argue that the weaponization of feminine sexuality represents a separate metamorphosis of the worker’s body. She is not just dispensable, but she is immoral. Consequently, there is a tendency to superimpose blame onto the victims for the sake of mopping blood spills in the factory. Scapegoating to this degree is proof that there is a tactile materialization of embodied political knowledge and affect. This is where the language of textiles, and its parallels to skin and femininity, are particularly useful. Like Julia Skelly, Claire Pajaczkowska writes on the traces of touch in textiles, and how thinking in semiotics of tactility—even excessive tactility—can give representational currency to otherwise unnamable violence.


A cloth stained with blood and multiple colorful embroidered flora and fauna atop.

Teresa Margolles, Telabordada, 2012. Embroider Fabric, Guatemala Fabric with fluids from a murdered woman in Guatemala embroided by Guatemalan indigenous activists, Photo: Musée d’art contemporain deMontréal.


Opposed to the Western concept of death being the blunted end to life, Teresa Margolles is interested in memorializing bodies taken from violence at the US-Mexican border, performing disembodiment to convey a nuanced rumination on what has been broken, violated, or lost in political milieu. The emphasis on traces of material, and the namelessness of colonial violence that Margolles expresses through these traces, are both aspects of migratory materials that parallel the biological and artistic objects I’ve described before. Her process begins at the site of the murder, where a recruited team of volunteers sweep bloody murder sites, bringing white titanium sheets to soak up blood spills on the floors. Once clean and pure, Margolles dips the cloth into the victim’s blood, picking up the surrounding dirt and grime off the street where the body once rested.

Evidently, in all these pieces, Margolles relies on a key representational advantage of textiles that Pajacskiwaska notes to be, “the absorbent quality of cloth,” where “stains indicate the capillary action of fibers retain[ing] the meaning of mark-making.” Given the limits of testimony within trauma art, there is something captivating about physically shuttling violence through a material that forces the viewer to engage with newfound
empathic vision.

As desire, rage, agency, and pain, circumvent verbal expression, history is forced to decipher meaning through what is accessible. Often this either leads to depersonalized readings that strip agency from the individual, or dramatized readings that overdetermine the victims by discourse, not colonial reckoning. While the body can translate invisible codes transmitted by its sociopolitical landscape, downstream effects are often dismembered from the original signal.

Twining - Two warp threads twist around each other as they interlace with the weft

The expectation to contain space did not start with bodies, but with land. Hundreds of years ago, the first colonial rupture divided the world from ins and outs, triggering a cascade of pathological destruction. Lines that were carved to draw, to differentiate negative from positive, impaled the earth with Una herida abierta (an open wound), where the “Third World grate[d] against the first and bled.

With the health of humans entirely contingent on environmental homeostasis, the carving of land was mimetic to the carving of bodies. Consequently, what started as a bifurcation of land evolved to interpellations onto the self. Inside and outside, public and private, citizen and foreigner. Perhaps that is why the psychological collateral of this ailment remain unspeakable; for even the ways we produce knowledge have been partitioned with the same either/or dichotomies.

Without language to pacify the wounds of a bounded existence, the politics of the border have incited an autoimmune disorder, where betrayal of the colonizer superimposes as self-sabotage. A distortion of reality incited by Otherness.

How do you track this type of memory?

Is it even capturable?

There is little work to explicate how the ubiquitous reduction of personhood influences the psychology--and consequently, the physiology and immunology--of bordered bodies. Epigenetic studies on politically enacted terror are sparse and in-between. The most recent surge in studies is reactionary to the traumas of World War II. Namely, the nutritional effects of malnourishment from the Dutch famine, and the psychological transmission of nightmares from children of Holocaust survivors. Given the material plasticity of epigenetics, and its ability to challenge Western notions of genetic determinism, I am eager to conceptualize the body with the same opalescence as the Zincacantec and Mayan weavings, alongside the same porousness as the bloody textiles of Margolles.

The categorization of identity through cultural binaries is merely a way to suture a porous body, blockading organs inwards and outlining the body outwards. It is, medically, a way to impose bordering on personhood. As I look at the weaving before me in the RISD museum, I now see a body in ubiquitous repair. In this body, it is crucial to note the intermediate step of recording. For this inheritance in its cells is what materializes fiction in its skin, punctures holes that allow it to become porous, and chains it to every single external desire--despite its affinity to migrate.


Diagram of epigenetic modifications being DNA methylation, Histone code, and RNA-based mechanisms.

Diagram of common epigenetic mechanisms by Valerie Navarrete.


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