Written by MacArthur Foundation fellow Cristina Rivera Garza, Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country is an astute compendium of essays lamenting the longstanding history of femicide in Mexico, notably in —the Golden Quadrilateral: the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Sonora, and Durango. The harrowing events transpiring in Mexico are nothing new. Drug trafficking has been co-opted in Mexico since the mid-century when counterinsurgents, supported by the government, were paid off by drug cartels. In turn, drug cartels were given free rein by the government. Drug lords have been willing to do anything to turn a profit, even killing innocent civilians.
The flip side of the horror and violence is a country in a deep state of mourning—grieving. In fact, the author has been personally affected, as her younger sister, a 19-year-old architecture student in Mexico City, was murdered by her boyfriend in 1990. That painful death compelled her to write, to attempt to escape her pain and grieve. The crux of the book pivots on the act of grieving. As Rivera Garza eloquently puts it,
“where suffering lies, so too, does grieving: the deep sorrow that binds within emotional communities willing and able to face life anew, even if it means, or especially when it means, radically revising and altering the world we share.”
I have thought about this quote countless times. The penetrating anguish experienced by Mexicans is palpable, heart wrenching. Beyond the pale. But, I’ve also reflected on the pain and sorrow felt currently within the United States on two fronts—the hundreds of Black women and men who have lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement and rampant deaths caused by COVID-19. Rivera Garza illuminates the ways in which Mexicans have “radically revised” their lives establishing such social movements as #ropasucia to air the dirty laundry of gender violence perpetrated by men, especially those in positions of power. In the U.S. Black Lives Matter has been the catalyst for change, including efforts to defund the police and to influence reforms of the law enforcement where systemic racism runs deep. The lack of response to COVID-19 by the Trump administration also means we must work toward “altering the world we share.” The president’s inability to take either crisis seriously means it is long past time for him to wave the white flag.
The author brilliantly shows a nation in crisis since the 1970s. Not only are women being murdered, border residents live in fear. Public spaces have been radically altered. Children are unable to play outside or zoom by on their bicycles. Yet in the face of fear and violence, there are acts of resistance. Artist Alejandro Santiago erected 2,501 life-sized statues of migrants in Oaxaca representing those migrants who died en route crossing over the U.S.-Mexico border up to the time of Santiago’s own migration. The statues of men, women, and children are naked. Tattoos mark the men’s backs. Santiago notes that he never felt more naked than when he was interrogated by an ICE officer, which is why the statues also appear unclothed. The awe-inspiring exhibition evokes pain, but it is also a nexus of resistance. Santiago has inverted the migration narrative in Oaxaca. His fellow artisans, employed on the project, have been granted a reason to stay.
The book also helped me to better reckon with the body of burgeoning feminist literature. Truth be told, I have only recently begun reading the writing of Latin American women writers in earnest, though I have spent decades reading feminist literature written by U.S. authors. Nevertheless, I remember reading news coverage of the missing Juarez women written about in the Los Angeles Times in the late 1990s. Splayed across the front of the LA Times were the photos of missing daughters, sisters, mothers, and friends. Coverage continued over the decades, pointing at the hundreds—and now thousands—of deaths of young Mexicanas most of whom worked in the maquilas. So, when Rivera Garza released Grieving, I stopped to ruminate once again on these women. Armed with the insight from this masterful book, of which the majority of the pages of my own copy have been densely annotated or dogeared, I can better understand the burgeoning feminist literature by Latinx authors such as Fernanda Melchor and María Fernanda Ampuero and other women writers in Mexico, Ecuador, Argentina, and other Latin American countries. The common threads knitting together books like Grieving, Hurricane Season, and Cockfight are a repudiation of feminism and the exertion of patriarchy and misogyny. Grieving and Hurricane Season, both stunning works, craft stories about femicide. And remind us that femicide does not occur only on the outskirts of remote towns and villages. It happens everywhere. It is perpetrated by “normal men” who degrade, brutalize, rape, and then murder women. Rivera Garza reminds us that femicide is only a small step away from economic inequality, sexual harassment, and domestic abuse.
Melchor also uncannily crafts a story about femicide in the mysterious death of the Witch. In interviews, Melchor has revealed that she wanted to write a fictionalized tale about femicide. In her stunning novel, a gaggle of young boys find the body of the Witch in an irrigation canal. The rest of the book reveals different vantage points of characters who had interacted with the Witch. This is a tale about femicide but also the poverty, misogyny, transphobia, and violence against women that sears through the community. Like Garza Rivera, Melchor spins out a yarn that hits you square between the eyes—there is grisly violence and unspeakable sexual crimes all around.
While similar in some respects, Cockfight delves into the terrain of misbegotten family life. Men and boys in these tales commit unspeakable sexual crimes of violence. Like the other authors, Ampuero’s stories get beneath your skin with scenes of pending sexual trafficking and incest. Yet, there are also stories about femicide such as “Griselda” which reveals the violent death of the town baker. Others like “Auction” reveal a young woman abducted and then nearly sexually trafficked. Instead of laying bare victims of misogyny, sexual violence, and femicide, Ampuero upends that narrative, as little by little the female protagonists resist patriarchy. In the end of this collection, a wife grocery shopping for all her husband’s extravagant needs, decides to forego her marriage altogether. The book ends on a hopeful note in spite of the perpetration of violence and sexual exploitation.
Garza Rivera sheds light on the horrific crime of femicide. Yet, her prescient philosophy also puts Latin American literature by women writers into perspective. For Garza Rivera and others, the wanton murder of innocent women lies in popular Mexican attitudes toward women where the ‘f word’—feminism—remains a dirty word. It remains a deep-seated attitude pervading much of Latin America. This book is highly recommended for those interested in feminism, social justice, and political capital in Mexico.
Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country
By Cristina Rivera Garza
122 pages. 2020.