Representing Tragedy: Thinking about the Feminicide in Juárez
It has now been twenty years since the world first began to hear about the horrific murders of women in Ciudad Juárez. The story started out as the darkest of mysteries. Beginning in 1993, women and young girls—most of them low-paid workers in the maquiladoras or assembly plants that proliferated along the U.S.-Mexican border, especially after NAFTA was passed—began to vanish without a trace. Later, the bodies of many of them, sexually violated and often brutally mutilated, would be discovered in the desert or in less populated areas outside of the city. No one claims responsibility for these acts, and the bodies have continued to appear with terrible, if unpredictable, frequency. Some of the bodies have been unidentifiable, while some of the missing women have never been found. As the numbers of the murdered and disappeared climbed into the hundreds, and as national and international awareness about the crimes developed, so did outrage – outrage not only over the viciousness of the crimes and terrifying anti-female hatred so evident in them, but also over the initial indifference and incompetence of the Mexican authorities in investigating the murders and abductions, and in bringing those responsible for them to justice.
Twenty years later, over 500 women have disappeared and the vast majority of crimes remains unsolved. One of the things that has changed, however, is the growing number of films, novels, art exhibits, and television shows that try to raise awareness about the tragedy and that attempt to broaden the ways in which it might be understood. While all these productions should be praised for keeping the women of Juárez within the public’s attention, we should also pause to think about what kind of attention these works bring to the phenomenon. How do they encourage us to think about the victims? How do they frame the crimes? In 2010, for example, the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago organized an exhibit and symposium entitled, “Rastros y Crónicas: The Women of Juárez”. Truly ground-breaking, the academic symposium brought activists, scholars, and lawmakers from Mexico and the U.S. together to discuss the wide-ranging political and cultural factors that created the context for what is now called the feminicidio/femicide. (For more on the term “feminicidio,” see Rosa Linda Fregoso and Cynthia Bejarano’s book, Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Américas.) Speakers discussed several important issues that enabled the crimes to occur with impunity—everything from the habitual devalorization of poor female workers by the maquiladora system, to reactionary social responses to changes in traditional gender roles (women were becoming primary breadwinners and experiencing greater social autonomy), to the fact that Juárez city officials wanted to preserve the city’s image as pleasant, crime-free, and business-friendly, and thus worked hard to silence any news about violent atrocities committed there, because it was “bad P.R.”
The museum’s art exhibit also brought together many stunning and haunting works by Mexican and Mexican American artists. However, the image that was used as the centerpiece of the exhibit (and one of the primary images used to promote the exhibit in the media)—Mexican artist Rocío Caballero’s 2009 painting Broken Dreams/Los sueños rotos—left me with some questions. Caballero’s piece is unquestionably very beautiful: it depicts a young woman standing in the desert, under a stormy sky, dressed in a white wedding gown, flanked on either side by large pink crosses (a reference to the symbol adopted by activists to call attention to the feminicide, as well as to Christ as an innocent victim, crucified between two thieves), and holding in her hands a chain of white paper cutouts in the shape of little girls. Clearly, this is a moving image that reminds the viewer of the many innocent lives that have been lost.
However, I wonder if this image plays upon our sentiments and sorrow, only ultimately to transform these feelings into rather conservative attitudes? The young woman in the painting seems only to be mourned because she is an icon of the most traditional female identities—wife and mother. Dressed in her wedding gown, she is the perfect virgin who will never marry; holding her chain of paper dolls, we mourn her because she will never be a mother. Marriage and motherhood—these are the “broken dreams” implicitly referred to in the title, and explicitly in the artist’s statement that originally accompanied the painting. As viewers, we are not only asked to feel the actual loss of these women as wives and mothers to the nation, but presumably also to identify with them, to feel “their” supposed loss of these dreams and aspirations—as if the greatest tragedy were not the loss of their own lives, but their inability to pursue marriage and bear children.
This is not to argue, of course, that none of the murdered women had these aspirations, or that these are not good aspirations to have. But I do find the painting, despite its beauty, disturbing because of the way in which it implies that these losses are what make the women mournable at all. This is a painting that, with its beauty, seems powerfully to encourage us to forget some important historical details: Many of the murdered women were young, single, and probably sexually active—a fact that should not detract from our ability to imagine them nonetheless as innocent victims, but that should lead us to question the fact that many of the early investigators blamed the murdered women’s supposedly loose sexuality for the crimes. Since many were migrants from the South, lured to the North by the promise of a job in the maquilas, this might have been a first moment in their lives when they were experiencing many kinds of autonomy in social and sexual aspects of their lives. Some, it should be said, might even have been fleeing from the less attractive realities of family environments: sexually repressive, sexist, or patriarchal attitudes, or domestic abuse situations.
The painting, though, sanitizes and simplifies these women’s emerging sexualities and actual hopes through the white wedding dress, which implies a “proper,” socially acceptable, destiny for them. The young woman’s humble, downward-turned head and stance in the painting (looking at the paper chain of children) is furthermore reminiscent of the Vírgen de Guadalupe’s iconic stance, thus making the virgin in the painting simultaneously the Virgin Mother of the nation, as well as a kind of Pietà, forever frozen in sorrowful contemplation of her dead or unborn children. We are encouraged by the painting subtly, I think, to live our own lives as a form of compensation for the broken dreams that were denied the woman in the painting; these are the dreams we should make come true, the noble dreams we should have, that we are lucky enough to be able to turn into realities. Thus, what I find important and revealing about Caballero’s piece is the ways in which it gives us a picture of the conservative terms in which women’s lives are valued, the kind of social destinies that are considered morally appropriate for them, and the ways in which women are trained to think about and experience their own sexualities and opportunities for liberty in a world where traditional roles are rapidly changing. Many have speculated that the sexual violations and mutilations of the bodies of the murder victims in Juárez represent a kind of sick and perverse condemnation of, or revenge on, these young women’s sexuality and new autonomy. It seems a shame then to memorialize them through a figure that transforms our grief into an idealized and unreal set of desires for virginity, marriage, and motherhood. Out of all the haunting masterpieces that were included in the “Rastros y Crónicas” exhibit, though, only Caballero’s piece has become part of the museum’s collection, on permanent display.
If Caballero’s painting disappoints us with its sanitizing of sexuality, Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s 2005 novel, Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders almost represents the opposite end of the spectrum, telling a story that is openly centered on the reproductive sexuality of maquiladora workers. Gaspar de Alba, a well-known lesbian novelist and academic, fictionalizes the story of the women of Juárez by turning it into a readable thriller and mystery. The protagonist of her novel is Ivon Villa, a woman finishing her Ph.D. and about to start her career as a professor at a university in California. Ivon and her partner, Brigit, are presented as self-consciously upwardly mobile, “model” lesbians: they have formalized their commitment to one another and, now that Ivon’s career is finally taking off, they have decided to start a family. The novel begins as Ivon takes a plane back home to El Paso in order to meet the maquiladora worker named Cecilia who, thanks to Ivon’s cousin’s help, has agreed to sell her as-yet-unborn child to Ivon. Ivon intends to smuggle the child back to the U.S. to adopt it as her own. On the evening when she is supposed to meet Cecilia, however, the maquila worker is abducted and murdered. Ivon is subsequently pulled into the murder investigation, both because of her critical interests as a feminist scholar and because of her personal desire to find out about the horrifying new realities in the bordertown she used to call home.
Ivon eventually discovers that when women apply to work in a maquiladora, they are required to take an invasive and embarrassing pregnancy test. Ostensibly, the reason for the test is to ensure that the workers are notpregnant, since pregnant workers are immediately fired because they drain factory revenues. Ivon comes to theorize, however, that the masses of brown women migrating to the border region to work in the maquiladoras are seen as an actual threat to U.S. interests: “What happens if they cross over? More illegal Mexican women in El Paso means more legal brown babies. Who wants more brown babies as legal citizens of the Promised Land?” (332). Ivon thus starts to see all the regulation of female sexuality in the maquiladoras, as well as all the overt sexualization of female bodies in the sex clubs and bars throughout the bordertown, as the two faces of a single economic situation: a reliance on mass female labor and a simultaneous desire to keep that labor force subordinated and under control. At a crucial point in the novel, Ivon scribbles down in her notes: “Although we love having all that surplus labor to exploit, once it becomes reproductive rather than just productive, it stops being profitable. How do we continue to make a profit from these women’s bodies and also curtail the threat of their reproductive power?” (332).
Gaspar de Alba’s novel thus introduces an interesting theory about the centrality of regulating women’s sexuality to the workings of the New World Order at the border. Still, the theory raises more questions than it answers. Since many of the assembly plants along the border are multinational and not just U.S.-based, it’s difficult to see why European- or Asian-based corporations would care so much about whether or not undocumented brown women were sneaking into the U.S. to give birth to children. While it is clear that regulating their employees’ sexuality forms part of the way that maquiladoras control their labor force, this could be seen more simply as part of the coldhearted, dehumanizing, and familiar strategies of neoliberal corporations to keep their costs low and their workers efficient. If you don’t have to pay for health benefits, and you can fire anyone who becomes pregnant, then you can keep workers insecure about keeping their jobs (so they accept less pay and follow rules), and you can keep competition among workers up (since anyone who gets pregnant is easily replaced), etc.
Ivon seems to turn to her theorizing as a way of wrapping up her experiences on the border, but it’s difficult for the reader to accept her conclusions with much finality or confidence. This is because of two reasons: First, the theory seems to trade on the dominant cultural fear that the masses of women working in the maquiladoras are a baby-making horde. It exaggerates their reproductive potential as the most important or feared aspect about them, even as the novel then implies that their truest or most subversive power thus resides primarily in this reproductive potential. But this seems to undervalue the many goals and varied aspirations that actual, real-life workers have, and again to reidealize the figure of the mother as the only possible form of self-empowerment. The novel does not really delve into the labor organizing or campaigning for better working conditions, human rights, and safety that have characterized some of the maquiladora workers’ own empowering activities. (For more on this, see Alicia Schmidt Camacho’s excellent article “Narrative Acts: Fronteriza Stories of Labor and Subjectivity” in her book Migrant Imaginaries.)
Second, Ivon loses credibility with the reader because she herself has been involved in human trafficking—she is, after all, trying clandestinely to buy a baby from a maquiladora worker and bring it to the U.S. illegally, and she never seems explicitly to realize how problematic this is. Isn’t she then also contributing to the dehumanization and exploitation of these women’s reproductive power? Gaspar de Alba seems to have intended for the reader to ask this question, because even some other characters point out to Ivon that secretly buying a baby from a poor woman seems “sleazy” (16). But since Yvon is trying to adopt a child as a lesbian, the whole issue of the adoption tends to be cast in progressive terms, an aspect that further tends to distract attention from some of the potential moral sticking points involved. (And there are many—transnational adoptions and the traffic in children is currently a hot topic among many international feminists.) At the end of the novel, when Ivon seems to go forward with a different adoption for seemingly more humanitarian reasons (and the price of the child drops from $3000 to $1000), the sleazier implications of the transaction are forgotten, and neither Ivon (nor the novel) seems to make a big deal about them.
In fact, the novel leaves the central question of the exploitation of maquiladora workers virtually in the background once Ivon’s middle-class sister is abducted by a pornography ring that is making snuff films. Most of the novel is then taken over by Ivon’s attempts to find her sister before she is murdered by the pornographers. Gaspar de Alba commendably tries to bring the issue of sexual exploitation and the sex industry along the border into the novel, but this plot tends to upstage the dynamics related to the maquiladoras.
Gaspar de Alba’s novel still makes for exciting reading, despite the limitations in the plot and the protagonist that I have been describing here. Sometimes, it is possible to read a book that, even if it does not fully pull off what it is trying to achieve, still raises a lot of interesting problems along the way. What I hope is that we will always remain critically attentive to the ways in which various works of art ask us to think about the crimes and the victims, and whether there might not be other ways to remember them. Clearly, no one has yet found a perfect way to represent the overwhelming tragedy and still unsolved mysteries of the murders in Juárez. Indeed, even representing the atrocities of the murders within the contours of a mystery—a popular genre usually consumed as entertainment, that comes to a close when all the loose ends are satisfactorily tied up—seems in some fundamental way to get the whole story wrong. Real life doesn’t end so neatly. In real life, the most important questions—perhaps most of all, why did this happen to them?—will never be satisfactorily answered.
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Bill Johnson González. Assistant Professor in the English Department at DePaul University, where he teaches courses on Latino Studies, American literature, and critical theory. His article on “On the Downlow”, a film shot in Pilsen, will be published in January in the journal GLQ.