“Reality is so bereft of humanity, so barbaric, that we cannot grasp it without the delicacy of art. Through art we can feel the loss, and we can understand it without falling prey to sensationalism,” explained filmmaker Lourdes Portillo when I interviewed to her in 2009. My whole life has been shaped by art and literature, and it is no coincidence that one documentary – Lorudes Portillo’s Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman, 2001) – changed the course of my life. Portillo, like a detective, when to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico to try and make sense of the increased number of disappearances, rapes and murders of girls and women in the city. After seeing her film, I began to research the murders as they had been represented in literature. However, I became obsessed with understanding the reality of violence in what was then the most violent city in the world. I started to interview journalists, writers, activists, and artists working in the city, and eventually I felt that I had to go there. My initial visit to Ciudad Juárez changed the course of my research, because I became much more interested in the fight for social justice, and convinced that my writing had to bring awareness to the issue. And so I got involved in journalism, photography, and filmmaking, and made my research much more about the power of storytelling as a tool for activism. I made a short documentary, If Images Could Fill Our Empty Spaces, which explored violence in the city through the lens of four Ciudad Juárez photojournalists.
In the course of finishing my dissertation, I became convinced that academia needed a revolution, because the current structure places a high value on obtuse language, outdated theory, and subjects that have little practical application, and the system offers no alternative to the outdated dissertation. If students were empowered to create works with social value, I think everyone would benefit.
The following excerpt is taken from my book, More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico, which is a hybrid work of journalism, photography, and academic research. In between each chapter, I published interviews with writers, journalists, and activists working in Ciudad Juárez, and the book is illustrated with the work of photojouranlists from the city. As a writer, it is impossible for me to stop believing in the power of the written word, even in this fully virtual age.
Gruesome Inquires: Roberto Bolaño and Sergio González Rodríguez’s Shared Obsession with Feminicide[i]
Sergio González Rodríguez began writing for the Mexico City newspaper Reforma in 1993, and in 1996 he traveled to Juárez to investigate the increase in the disappearance and murder of girls and women. By the summer of 1999, his research began to show the involvement of policemen and politicians in the murders, and in June of that year he was kidnapped in Mexico City, beaten, and left on the side of the street. It was just after the kidnapping that the relationship between González Rodríguez and Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, who was had spent years working on a novel about the murders, began.[ii] According to journalist Marcela Valdés:
The year that González Rodríguez was first attacked, Bolaño had been working on his demented tangle for more than half a decade. Searching for information about Juárez, Bolaño e-mailed his friends in Mexico, asking more and more detailed questions about the murders. Finally, tired of these gruesome inquiries, his friends put him in touch with González Rodríguez, who, they said, knew more about the crimes than anyone in Mexico. Bolaño first e-mailed him around the time that González Rodríguez decided to write a nonfiction book about his investigation. (3)
González Rodríguez had already decided to use his extensive research for a non-fiction book, Huesos en el desierto, which would eventually be published by the editorial Anagrama in Spain. Thus, he and Bolaño nurtured a friendship based on a common obsession with the murders of women.[iii] As writers, they both faced the ethical question of how to represent graphic violence. Bolaño, who had never visited Juárez, relied on González Rodríguez to answer questions about the exact details of the murders. The friendship proved to be influential for Bolaño, and he included González Rodríguez as a character in his posthumously published novel 2666. In the essay “Sergio González Rodríguez In the Eye of the Storm,” written between 2002 and 2003, Bolaño describes how,
A few years ago, my friends in Mexico got tired of me asking for information – more and more detailed information, too – about the killings of women in Juárez, and they decide, apparently by common accord, to hand the job over to Sergio González Rodríguez, who is a novelist, essayist, reporter, and probably all kinds of other things besides, and who, according to my friends, was the person who knew most about this case, a unique case in the annals of Latin American crime: more than three hundred women raped and killed in an extremely short period of time, between 1993-2002, in a city on the U.S. border with a population of just under one million. (Between Parentheses 231)
Bolaño also discusses their relationship and thanks González Rodríguez for his substantial “technical help” in the writing of 2666 (231).
The relationship between these two works proves pivotal because Bolaño’s fiction feeds off the reality and statistics of feminicide violence as researched and documented by González Rodríguez. For example, feminicide researcher Monárrez Fragoso, upon reading 2666, noted the striking similarities between Bolaño’s descriptions and the original list of feminicide victims prepared by Casa Amiga, the first rape crisis center in Juárez founded by Esther Chávez Cano in 1991. She noted “the similarities between how Bolaño described the murder of a woman” and how they were described in forensic records and added, “it is not an original creation” (Personal Interview). Monárrez Fragoso argued that Bolaño should have discussed his reliance on forensic records given that many of his descriptions were copied from those records. In a 2004 interview included in Para Roberto Bolaño, Jorge Herralde, editor of Anagrama and long-time friend of Bolaño, also discussed Bolaño’s fascination with feminicide, highlighting the similarities between his descriptions of the victims and a forensic report. Herralde explained,
[…] the crimes of Ciudad Juárez (Santa Teresa in the novel) are, in effect, the bloody backdrop of the four novellas of 2666 and the specific subject of one of them, the penultimate, The Part About the Crimes. A meticulous and aseptic description of the assassinated women, as if it were a forensic report. (71)
Bolaño challenges readers with an eerily accurate fictional account of events rooted in a violent reality.
In Gender Violence, Héctor Domínguez and Ignacio Corona note the relationship between bodies and signs, arguing that the body becomes part of the discourse on feminicide and produces “a collective endeavor of a literary discourse in which ‘fiction’ is crisscrossed by references to factual events” (5). 2666 is such a work, and, as González Rodríguez said of his communication with Bolaño, “I transcribed judicial records of some case relating to the murder of a woman. He wanted to know how the crimes were described in forensic language” (Email). González Rodríguez writes Huesos en el desierto to create a historically accurate document that gives testament to the lives of feminicide victims. Bolaño, on the other hand, recreates the situation in which we, as humans, get desensitized to violence and cannot continue to function; we cannot continue to read, hear about, or see images of senseless violence. We shut down. His tactics are the opposite of those of González Rodríguez. Bolaño seeks to show us how easily we forget or look away from violence. He creates a situation in which one can see how difficult it is to maintain memory, to not look away, to continue to read of dead bodies and to feel that one person can make a difference in the face of such violence. González Rodríguez and Bolaño, though their techniques are different, raise similar questions about whose lives are seen as grievable. They show how, as Judith Butler discussed in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, “It is not just that a death is poorly marked, but that it is unremarkable” (35). They describe how victims of feminicide have been treated as anonymous piles of flesh in public discourse.
Bones in the Desert
The title Huesos en el desierto (Bones in the Desert) alludes to the bodies of victims of feminicide found in the unforgiving landscape of Juárez in empty lots within the city as well as on the periphery. The geography of the city is complicit in, or at least representative of, the memory problem: “The geography that devours them [victims of feminicide] is responsible for the feeling of uprootedeness and abandonment. This feeling is created by [the lack of] collective memory in the land that has expelled them” (Huesos en el desierto 87). As an influx of migrants looking for work continue to arrive in Juárez, they are greeted by silence on the subject of the killings. The theme of the desert as a geography of forgetfulness is evident throughout the work. The author describes Lomas de Poleo, a tract of informal housing and dumps on the northwest edge of the city near the U.S. border where many bodies of feminicide victims have been found, as “that fluid earth that repels memory” (26). However, for the author, the book’s title also has another meaning. As he describes, “It seems to me that what has happened there with the victims of systematic murders is very illustrative. Women’s bodies were abandoned in the desert, and therefore they are bones in the desert. I am not only referring to the geographic process, the telluric process, or even the figure of the desert as a representation of the opposite of civilization. I am referring to the desert of institutions there” (Personal Interview). González Rodríguez analyzes the power structures at work in Juárez and demonstrates how state institutions are responsible for allowing feminicide to continue.
In the absence of investigation, victims of feminicide are often forced to be associated with objects – shoes, clothing, and lipstick – rather than with names. González Rodríguez discusses how this exchange contributes to the anonymity of both the body and the life of feminicide victims (153). He suggests that bodies become identified by symbols surrounding the circumstances of their death, symbols that ultimately fail to identify or make real the lost lives. The desert, abandoned roads, shoes – these have become the protagonists of feminicide, things that appear in photos alongside the bodies of unidentified women.
The chapter “An Unfinished Life” in Huesos en el desierto structurally mirrors “The Part About the Crimes” in 2666 in several aspects. Both chapters recount in exacting detail the murders of dozens of women. González Rodríguez records details about victims starting in the year 2002 and moving back in time to 1993. He provides the date of death, the name of the victim (when possible), and a description of the violence suffered. For example, the chapter begins as follows: “23/09/02, Erika Pérez, between 25 and 30-years-old, brown hair, a blouse with a flower pattern, pants and panties below the knees, the strap of the purse around her neck, at the dirt path that crosses the streets Paseo del Río and Camino San Lorenzo” (257). The number of entries that begin with the words “unidentified” reminds the reader how many bodies remain anonymous. In 2666, Bolaño begins the chapter by describing feminicides from 1993 to 1997. Whereas González Rodríguez succinctly lists dates of death, names, and the cause of death, Bolaño couches stories within stories, showing the way in which gruesome deaths can get lost or buried among the layers of disparate information that make up media-driven societies.
According to Cynthia Bejarano, feminicide makes evident that “There is a politics in killing, and there is a politics in death” (Personal Interview). González Rodríguez captures one angle of the politics of death in Huesos en el desierto when he describes how state and federal authorities try to downplay the crimes or blame the victims. For example, González Rodríguez describes how, in 1995, the spokesman for the judicial police of the state of Chihuahua, Ernesto García, declared, “We would like to alert the community that women should not pass through unknown or dark areas of the city. They should be accompanied whenever possible and carry pepper spray to defend themselves” (15). This statement displays how the police, as state agents who are sworn to protect the population from violence, are warning women that they are responsible for their own safety.
The treatment of bodies in Huesos en el desierto and 2666 are similar in their efforts to record the graphic nature of the violence against women. However, González Rodríguez’s goal in writing the book is to leave testimony of the economic, political, and social forces that have contributed to the violence exercised against women, whereas Bolaño’s work explores more generally the metaphysics of horror and evil without articulating any stated goals related to fomenting social change in Juárez. González Rodríguez asserts that it was important to him to record information and sources related to feminicide, “Because in the future nobody will be able to say ‘This never happened’” (Personal Interview). The author acknowledged that he could have written the book in many different formats or even written it as a novel. However, “information, memory, the story of events, and the convergence of testimony were most urgent” (Personal Interview). The text depicts the tenuous relationship between memory and anonymity that plagues victims of feminicide.
The chapter “Unending Deaths” illustrates the spectral nature of disappearing women in Juárez. Although photos of the faces of missing women and victims are plastered around the city, often the bodies of victims remain anonymous due to poor collection of evidence or the decomposed state of the body. Thus the names and faces of victims often become separated from their actual bodies in death. When discussing the flyers that display faces of missing girls and litter the streets and signposts of the city, González Rodríguez describes “a spectral montage of faces, dates, signs, and impossible stains” (143). The flyers represent disembodied faces, thus causing those women to take on a ghostly quality. Even when bodies are found, they are, as the author describes when he lists the dead, “unidentified” (257). Through these observations González Rodríguez captures the difficulty of memory and remembering in the presence of anonymity.
The metaphor that Bolaño pursues to represent horror is a black hole, an ever-present part of the constellations that allows nothing, not even light, to escape. This vision of Juárez is problematic for feminicide researcher Monárrez Fragoso because “There is something that bothers me. It is as if you were reading about a city in semidarkness, a city without ethics” (Personal Interview). The black hole in the novel, the force that pulls in and routinely devours bodies, things, ideas – is the city itself, Santa Teresa. Echeverría, who compiled the first edition of 2666 as per the instructions left by Bolaño in his notes, reveals, “In one of his copious notes about 2666 Bolaño signals the existence of a ‘hidden center’ in the work that is hidden under what could be called the ‘physical center.’ There are reasons to believe that this physical center would be the city of Santa Teresa, the faithful representation of Juárez on the border of Mexico and the United States” (1123).
If the black hole is Santa Teresa, at its center is the date 2666, a date from which no one will seemingly escape.[iv] In the last sentence of “The Part About the Crimes” the narrator describes, “Even on the poorest streets people could be heard laughing. Some of these streets were completely dark, like black holes, and the laughter that came from who knows were was the only sign, the only beacon that kept residents and strangers from getting lost” (633). The streets are like black holes, and the only sign that remains is laughter. Perhaps, in the end, Bolaño does offer hope, for the black hole has not swallowed up everything and has allowed, at least momentarily, that a guiding sign remain for humanity. Among the ghosts, the darkness, the bodies, the blood, the rape, the hate, the corruption, perhaps the sign will be discovered. However, what Bolaño makes clear is that black holes are a permanent part of the human constellation of life, and periodically, the blackness overwhelms us with war, murder, and hatred, but we generally do not recognize it because we are too distracted, because it is easier to look away and forget.
[i] In the introduction to Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Américas editors Fregoso and Bejarano discuss the terms femicide and feminicide, and argue for the use of feminicide. They explain, “the concepts of feminicide and femicide are used interchangeably in the literature on gender-based violence and among the contributors to this volume. These are evolving concepts that, as noted in Bueno-Hansen’s chapter, are ‘still under construction.’ However, we will make a case for feminicide and, in the process, contribute some analytic tools for thinking about the concept in historical, theoretical, and political terms. In arguing for the use of the term feminicide over femicide, we draw from a feminist analytical perspective that interrupts essentialist notions of female identity that equate gender and biological sex and looks instead to the gendered nature of practices and behaviors, along with the performance of gender norms. As feminist thinkers have long contended, gender is a socially constructed category in which the performance of gender norms (rather than a natural biological essence) is what gives meaning to categories of the ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine.’ Instead of a scenario in which gender and sex necessarily concur, the concept of feminicide allows us to map the power dynamics and relations of gender, sexuality, race, and class underlying violence and, in so doing, shift the analytic focus to how gender norms, inequities, and power relationships increase women’s vulnerabilities to violence” (3-4).
[ii] González Rodríguez described how he got to know Bolaño stating, “I met Roberto Bolaño in Blanes [Spain] in 2002. I did not know him when he was in Mexico. I was a member of a rock band and a student. Our social circles converged in areas that he describes in the novel Los detectives salvajes: in the neighborhoods Roma, Condesa, the city center, and other parts of the city. All of these areas existed during that time as points of encounter for young musicians, artists, and writers. However, I did not know him then. I met him in the process of doing research for my book, Huesos en el desierto, and we communicated via email. This occurred in 1999 and 2000” (Personal Interview).
[iii] Jorge Herralde, editor of Anagrama and long-time friend of Bolaño discussed the relationship between Bolaño and González Rodríguez a 2004 interview with El Periódico of Barcelona. He stated, “The subject of 2666 came up in every conversation in the past few years. He spoke to me, for example, of the numerous times he consulted via email Sergio González Rodríguez, the Mexican writer who investigated the crimes in Juárez and published his extraordinary reporting about them in Huesos en el desierto” (64).
[iv] Echeverría adds that, “As for the ‘hidden center’…wouldn’t it indicate precisely that date, 2666, that covers the entire novel?” (1123).
Bejarano, Cynthia L. Personal Interview. 18 Aug. 2010.
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---. Los detectives salvajes. Barcelona: Anagrama, 1998. Print.
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---. Huesos en el desierto. Barcelona: Anagrama, 2002. Print.
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---. Personal Interview. 2010. 21 June 2010.
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---. “Respuestas a un cuestionario de El Periódico de Barcelona.” Para Roberto Bolaño. Bogotá: Villegas, 2006. 61-6. Print.
Monárrez Fragoso, Julia Estela. Personal Interview. 26 May 2011.
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