TCRP Director Jim Harrington has a chapter in new book on the Juárez murders of women, published by University of Arizona Press: Chapter 7, “‘¡Alto a la impunidad!’” deals with the paradoxes of international law that make difficult the extension of human rights to citizens as well as the pursuit of those responsible for the impunity on the northern Mexican border.
Gender Violence at the U.S.-Mexico Border: Media Representation and Public Response, Edited by Héctor Domínguez-Ruvalcaba; Ignacio Corona224 pp.
The U.S.-Mexico border is frequently presented by contemporary media as a violent and dangerous place. But that is not a new perception. For decades the border has been constructed as a topographic metaphor for all forms of illegality, in which an ineffable link between space and violence is somehow assumed. The sociological and cultural implications of violence have recently emerged at the forefront of academic discussions about the border. And yet few studies have been devoted to one of its most disturbing manifestations: gender violence. This book analyzes this pervasive phenomenon, including the femicides in Ciudad Juárez that have come to exemplify, at least for the media, its most extreme manifestation.
Contributors to this volume propose that the study of gender-motivated violence requires interpretive and analytical strategies that draw on methods reaching across the divide between the social sciences and the humanities. Through such an interdisciplinary conversation, the book examines how such violence is (re)presented in oral narratives, newspaper reports, films and documentaries, novels, TV series, and legal discourse. It also examines the role that the media have played in this process, as well as the legal initiatives that might address this pressing social problem.
Together these essays offer a new perspective on the implications of, and connections between, gendered forms of violence and topics such as mechanisms of social violence, the micro-social effects of economic models, the asymmetries of power in local, national, and transnational configurations, and the particular rhetoric, aesthetics, and ethics of discourses that represent violence.
Gender Violence: An Introduction
IGNACIO CORONA AND HÉCTOR DOMINGUEZ-RUVALCABA
In recent years the phenomenon of violence and its sociological and cultural implications has emerged at the forefront of academic discussions about the U.S. – Mexico border. And yet there are few serious studies devoted to one of its most disturbing manifestations: gender violence.1 To address this specific issue, in April of 2005 we brought together a group of scholars at an interdisciplinary symposium – Dialogues on the U.S. – Mexico Border Violence – held at the University of Texas in Austin. Participants examined the complex roles that place, gender, and ethnicity have come to play in relation to the increasing violence along the border. The conference focused specifically on violence inflicted upon women and sexual minorities. The original triple concentration on place, gender, and ethnicity expanded in several directions. New perspectives emerged on various fronts, including the implications and connections between gendered forms of violence and the persistent mechanisms of social violence; the microsocial effects of economic models; the asymmetries of power in local, national, and transnational configurations; the particular rhetoric, aesthetics, and ethics of discourses that represent violence; the structural factors that perpetuate such discourses; and the economy and culture of fear. In other words, the approaches to the problem were – and we believe they must be – interdisciplinary.
As evidenced by the diverse perspectives included in this book, when we look at violence along the U.S. – Mexico border, we are not dealing simply with violence in the abstract. Rather, this book explores concrete instances of gender-based or gender-motivated violence, which requires interpretive and analytical strategies that draw on methods from a range of fields and disciplines. Political science, sociology, and anthropology appear as necessary in studying gender violence as do literary, cultural, and media studies. The conversations across disciplines that started at the 2005 symposium continue in this book as the contributors examine how such violence is the object of (re)presentation in a diversity of texts: oral narratives, newspaper reports, films and documentaries, novels, TV series, and legal discourse.
Even before the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1992, but more vehemently after it came into force two years later, diverse groups of intellectuals, artists, academics, and social activists on both sides of the border have called attention to the subject of violence. They have found a correlation between regional economic transformations and the increase of all kinds of violence. A number of scholarly works have addressed border violence from different angles, including gangrelated issues, governmental coercive policies (from both Mexico and the United States), the dehumanizing effect of the maquiladora system, conflicts related to undocumented workers, organized crime, and drug smuggling.2 The U.S. – Mexico border has been studied as the space where the fluctuating booms and downturns of the global, regional, formal, and underground economies and markets have a direct impact on such fundamental issues as the preservation and reproduction of human life.
There are considerable levels of crime and drug trafficking in Ciudad Juárez (three of Mexico’s five most important drug cartels operate in the area), exacerbated by an ill-reputed and complicit local police. The city’s infrastructure has not kept up with the numbers of migrants who have arrived to cross the border or to stay indefinitely. In fact, not only in Chihuahua but in other Mexican border states as well, the population has doubled in the past decade to 16.5 million (Laufer, 14). Across the border from Ciudad Juárez is El Paso, Texas, a city known in the past as the world’s blue jeans capital. The per capita income in El Paso is one of the lowest in the nation ($20,129), despite being a metropolitan area (Blumenthal, 20). Although purely quantitative indexes may not show the border region to be one of the most critical areas among major urban settlements in the Western hemisphere, a condensation of multiple types of violence makes this region different from many urban areas that deal with high rates of criminality.
At the literal contact zone between the so-called First and Third Worlds, multiple and polymorphous processes of physical, economic, ecological, symbolical, and psychological violence seem to be amplified: violence exerted by the legal system and its deadly toll on scores of undocumented border crossers; economic violence perpetrated against different populations and its effects on the displacement of people; ethnic violence against migrants; industrial violence against the environment and the border populations; violence between criminal organizations that not only affects the members of the mafias, but also society at large; and gender violence and its ever growing number of casualties. By a tropological substitution, “border” and “violence” appear now inextricably associated in the media. The “border” acquires ipso facto an ethical and political meaning, equally relevant to its representational deployment and study.
The fact that the border has appeared as a place of violence by a myriad of narratives compels us to reflect on the concept of violence in relation to notions of place, ethics, international law, and aesthetics. This reality also urges us to address processes of social class and gender identity – formation. As the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo (635) has claimed, interpreting the border “involves the simultaneous analysis of the theater and its symbolic dimensions, as well as the actual violence.” The core problem of representing border violence is then immersing oneself in conflicting representations and a diversity of proposed significations.
We define “gender violence” as psychological and physical harm that is inflicted on individuals on the basis of their gender or sexual orientation. Such a concept becomes central to the articulation of different critical views on a phenomenon that seemingly erodes social equality and puts into question notions of human value. Beyond the mere use of force or verbal and psychological forms of aggression, gender violence may also be understood as an extended set of conditions that impedes the realization of an individual’s full life potential. Therefore, it is akin to a wide variety of historical forms of oppression and repression. The exploration of its latent and manifest aspects is one of the themes that bind the chapters in this collection. In none of the chapters is “violence” defined in a limited way; rather, the contributors consider it to be a widespread phenomenon. In exploring such conditions, the authors have felt compelled to use inclusive concepts, such as that of “symbolic violence.” This is helpful in analyzing not only how violence manifests itself in a given context, but also, and most important, how it is engendered as “symbolic action.” To examine such a widespread phenomenon contained within a specific geopolitical context, the contributors have maintained a geocultural focus in their exploration of the sources and the cultural and political codification of such gender violence.
Violence against women or sexual minorities is of course not a new phenomenon nor an uncommon one. It is particularly evident when patriarchal structures are stressed by fundamental changes in the social framework that challenge their very existence. Amid the cultural conditions and socioeconomic developments of the border, there are thousands of young female workers drawn by the irresistible call of job opportunities in the foreign-owned assembly plant called maquiladora. Most migrate from poor rural environments to help their families, and they eventually find themselves caught in the process of adapting to life in an urban environment without immediate support networks. Scholars have observed how these women’s new economic role is quietly but profoundly transforming the traditional Mexican labor force and subsequently changing the face of society, which might also cause acute resentment among the patriarchal stakeholders (Quinones, Dead Women, 151). Such an interpretation of “context” is only one of the many hypotheses that insistently circulate among activists, journalists, and scholars, aspiring to produce usable insights to the phenomenon.
This rendering of violence and its relationships to the broader community and cultural context is important to the analysis. Violence might be understood then as an action that implicitly testifies “to the entailments of identity at work, such as that of gender and social class” (Campbell, 110). If that is the case, these women are not killed in random acts of fury, but because they constitute or “symbolize” a particular group of women: those on the fringes of a community implicitly defined in social, economic, and even ethnic terms due to the predominance of the mestiza or indigenous phenotype among the victims. More important, from an economic perspective women have come to personify social change and ultimately liberation from the traditional webs of institutional and social control. For this, they are perceived as doubly threatening.
To increase awareness about the femicides, or any other form of violence for that matter, we must go beyond the physical manifestation of the phenomenon and treat it as a heuristic problem at the intersection of disciplines and institutional frameworks. Such a proposition also implies some form of textual or semiotic interpretation. In Formations of Violence the scholar Allen Feldman (18 – 19) has explained that violence is normally treated as a surface expression of a deeper cause. Such a search for intelligibility in the violent act requires attributing meaning to that kind of action. In some way violence denotes a relationship between bodies and signs: it is the threshold where discourse becomes body and body becomes discourse. Condemning the ghost of the enemy and consecrating the innocence of the victims – against a local conservative discourse that blames them for their own death – has been the collective endeavor of a literary discourse in which “fiction” is crisscrossed by references to factual events.
A Manichean narrative introduces the victim sacrificed by an often unknown perpetrator who, as an empty signifier, is always (re)invented by different social actors. Each hypothesis that tries to define a category of perpetrators is also imagining an ideological enemy, a criminal to be blamed and punished on an ideological basis. Perpetrators become allegorical figures of a “killing society,” or a society in which killing increasingly tends to normalcy – that is, where murder is minimized or becomes a mere instrument of economical and political interests. This explains, in part, reiterative logic at work: it reveals traces of a social pathology. In this recurrent manifestation of violence, there is a general crisis of representation in its epistemological and political aspects. This means that the actors can neither construct a satisfactory truth-discourse about violence and crime, nor can they speak on behalf of the victims, as victimization is constructed in terms of moral or political assumptions that shape the imagined killer into ready-made forms. Likewise, as revealed throughout this book, murder, rape, kidnapping, and torture nurture socially and aesthetically produced discourses. These discourses proliferate and defy our sense of amazement through collective familiarization with violence. Bloody events presented as a public spectacle represent violence as a performative act for media consumption rather than as a problem for the community, whose solution requires the participation of the authorities as much as that of civil society.
Bridging Community and Academia
From our specific locus of enunciation, we are also reminded of the limitations inherent to our own professional practice, and at times we share the feeling of frustration of those affected by the collective tragedy of the femicides. And yet it is their struggle, undertaken with limited means, that serves as a moral example to inspire social change. In more personal terms this struggle empowers us to act from our own professional practice. Activism is not only taking these issues to the streets, almost a precondition to draw media attention, but also addressing them in a diversity of critical forums that can be established even in classrooms, where they need to be heard and discussed. For most of us, interpreting and discussing textual representations constitutes our primary professional practice. In relation to such an urgent issue as gender violence, the profession can foster a direct connection between theory and practice. Like those scholars who were devoted to the testimonial genre in the eighties, the study of violence establishes a collaborative agenda with local organizations, which constitutes another form of critical intervention and linkage between community and academia. The fact that this intervention may efface epistemological limits and distort the analysis is something that can matter only if we remain interested in a false sense of impartiality and critical distance. Writing about the present is always a risky business, but one that can offer the rewards of more direct social involvement.
Through the topics covered in this book, we offer a multifaceted analysis of the situation, but we do not claim to have come up with a ready-made set of solutions from our apparently safe haven in academia. Proposing solutions from a vantage point that is not integral to the community’s needs might seem unrealistic and ultimately self-defeating – not dissimilar to the hollow promises of political candidates as they make cyclical stops and promise quick solutions to historical problems. Yet the families and local communitarian organizations expect from institutions of higher learning not only a research interest but also practical collaboration. More important, they look for guidance in confronting criminal actions in a context of social injustice and, at times, hostility from the local authorities and diverse interest groups. They recognize that the accumulation of knowledge about their own community takes place in educational institutions. These institutions are all too often deemed alien reservoirs, however; the knowledge obtained by a host of researchers and scholars rarely returns to benefit the affected communities, often confined to hegemonic circles in both Mexico and the United States. This book operates in relation to this criticism and consequent social demand as much as it is motivated by our reciprocal desire to contribute to solving the problem of gender violence in the border.
Is the scholar turning into a preacher or a social activist? Such a difficult positioning is part of our critical proposal. It seems clear that effective intervention is not possible without questioning and even strategically suspending artificial boundaries and limits: those established by professional practices that discourage cooperation and solidarity; those imposed by legal frameworks that categorize social phenomena as “city” or “state” problems; those imposed by national ideologies and economic models that may allow the free flow of some processes and impede other interactions – trade and the transfer of wealth are seen as transnational, but crime, pollution, and poverty are considered local issues. In addition to this critical operation, our proposal’s centerpiece is a strategy for “building bridges”: between public and private entities; national and local communities; all sorts of secular and religious organizations and institutions; the academia and the media; and civil society and the government.
Most of the book focuses on the relationship between violence and another ubiquitous concept: power. Regardless of the alleged features of violence against women – be they of an economic, misogynist, ethnic, or classist nature, or a combination of all these – femicides are virulent and misguided expressions of power, making power a physical and deadly force. Given the relevance of the concept of “gender” in the analysis of violence and the critique of the government’s inefficacy in guaranteeing its citizens – particularly women and sexual minorities – public security, violence is analyzed as an asymmetrical relationship of power. Although it is not possible to generalize that such asymmetry is a precondition in all contexts for the appearance of violence, it is certainly a factor that contributes to explain its pervasiveness and recurrence in many groups, communities, and societies.
For some observers the authorities and civil organizations contribute to increasing the conjectural universe that encourages the proliferation of crime and delinquency (see González Rodríguez, Huesos, 76). By underscoring the authorities’ indifference toward the families of the disappeared and the murdered, such documentary films as Señorita extraviada by Lourdes Portillo (2000) and La batalla de las cruces by Rafael Bonilla (2005) and chronicles like Huesos en el desierto by Sergio González Rodríguez (2002) and La cosecha de mujeres by Diana Washington (2005) suggest that authority figures are the main culprits for applying violence. This violence is not applied within the constitutional framework, however, but within unwritten norms of patriarchal domination. The scenario of pessimism is generalized: on the one hand, the authorities are defined as de facto offenders because of the prevailing impunity along the border; on the other hand, mutual disqualification and distrust among the government, NGOs, and civil and international organizations impede any sense of real progress in the solution of the femicides.
What underlies this politics for bridging the fragments that constitute the sociopolitical is a reconstitution of what has been separated and, in many cases, isolated in social or communitarian forms of life mostly due to macroeconomic transformations and what cultural theorists and political scientists have conceived as the crisis of the nation-state. They ultimately affect our identity and roles as subjects and citizens. It is therefore important to explore different paths for reorienting political actions that aim for a society more aware of gender violence and more conducive to its prevention. We propose confronting gender violence with a diverse agenda amplified throughout the social universe – necessarily beyond geopolitical borders and disciplinary fields – by forging a participative democracy where political citizenship is conceived not only as the right to receive protection from the State, but also as an individual responsibility for demanding such a protection for all citizens.
To start with, this new citizenship can be based on a frontal fight against silence, injustice, and inaction regarding gender-based violence, themes that many women’s rights organizations have already advanced. As a group, the contributors of this book intervene in the politics of representation of violence (a) by analyzing the representational web that shapes and reproduces a discourse of violence in the media and (b) by revealing the discourses of power at play and the communitarian dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that operate transnationally on the basis of gender, social class, and ethnicity. We aspire to provide an understanding of gender violence and its different contexts, particularly those provided by media representations.
The Structure of This Book
One of the volume’s main arguments is that in the study of border violence we are, in essence, dealing with a cultural issue rather than with isolated criminal acts. These crimes are the undesirable result of a machista culture channeled by ingrained forms of pernicious representations of gender-based violence that multiply themselves throughout the local culture. This happens from their most innocent forms (such as jokes or song lyrics) to their antisocial manifestations (such as rape, torture, and murder) and by media and institutional practices that mislead the interpretation of violent events. Hence, this work analyzes textual representations and the embedded forms in which gender violence is codified and contextualized. Doubly victimized by criminals and the system of impunity on the one hand and by available systems of representation of violence on the other, the victims become a morbid source of image production as the material evidence of psychological and physical violence. For most citizens the media have been the main source of images and information about the femicides in Ciudad Juárez. This fact affords them an important role that could be used to avoid further production of discourses that perpetuate violence.
Civil society and academia increasingly assume the role of “lie detector” rather than “truth teller.” They support the decentering of information through alternative channels of social communication. In writing about gender violence, it is necessary to explain social interaction departing from the interpretation of these casualties. Above all, this endeavor involves a political and an academic commitment: a profound review of the fronteriza society’s ways of interaction, institutional frameworks, economic foundations, and cultural patterns.
The book is organized around four ways of enunciation. Two chapters are articulated around oral testimonies: from victims of homophobia (by Debra A. Castillo, María Gudelia Rangel Gómez, and Armando Rosas Solís) and from the mothers of the murdered women of Ciudad Juárez (by Patricia Ravelo Blancas). Two chapters deal with written discourses on femicides: journalism (by Ignacio Corona) and literature (by Miguel López-Lozano). Two chapters explore audiovisual media: film (by María Socorro Tabuenca Córdoba) and television (by Héctor Domínguez- Ruvalcaba). The final chapter (by James C. Harrington) revises the legal status of femicide cases in international courts. The interpretation of these different voices related to the phenomenon of border violence is one of the main achievements in this book.
Chapter 1, “Violence and Transvestite/Transgender Sex Workers in Tijuana,” finds in both public officials and clients the source of violence against transvestite sex workers. Violence is perpetrated by those who are supposed to protect the citizens from it. An argument that is reiterated throughout this book is that the agent or perpetrator of violence is the very representative of public order, be it policemen who harass and extort transvestites or government officials who neglect their responsibility of preventing crimes and enforcing the law. This perception of members of the government as perpetrators – and therefore at the heart of corruption and impunity – is prevalent among activists and the larger community at the border.Chapter 2, “We Never Thought It Would Happen to Us,” explores how this negative perception of the government has necessarily led to an empowered collective subjectivity, which has triggered an emergent grassroots activism.
This book also addresses the hypothesis that the prevailing representations of violence are founded on and by patriarchal views. Popular film, television, and the press predominantly represent violence as a failure of traditional morality. Policemen are seen as the heroes of B-movies, while immigrants and working-class males are frequently portrayed as victimizers who fail to fulfill their patriarchal duty: that of protecting women. Chapter 3, “Death on the Screen,” discusses how the representation of violence in local television broadcasts constructs the prevalent image of Ciudad Juárez as a violent city and its perpetrators as poor immigrants, thus establishing a view that the city is victimized by foreigners. But the insistent complaint that traditional morals have been relaxed calls for a consolidation of patriarchy as a way to stop the femicides.
This is also the basis of B-movies that explore the same phenomenon, as is argued in chapter 4, “Representations of Femicide in Border Cinema.” Contrasting the hypotheses that point to the patriarchal system and the negligence of governmene3t representatives as responsible for the femicides, local television and B-movies rely on the institution of the police and traditional morality for the protection of women against “evil men” or “male monsters.” Chapter 5, “Over Their Dead Bodies,” offers a case study on the problematic representation of violence in border newspapers, which often function as an instrument of terror production. For Corona, the sensationalist stories deployed by the press, far from inspiring the population to organize and participate actively in deterring systematic gender violence, provoke apathy and pessimism.
Literature written by nonborder writers and their concerns about human rights on the border is the object of analysis in chapter 6, “Women in the Global Machine in Patrick Bard’s La frontera, Carmen Galán Benitez’s Tierra marchita, and Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders.” López asserts that globalization is the main factor contributing to violence along the border. An international view concerned with universalizing human rights has been one of the most promising attempts to provide legal frameworks and approaches to confront, legislate about, and ultimately reduce gender violence.Chapter 7, “‘¡Alto a la impunidad!’” deals with the paradoxes of international law that make difficult the extension of human rights to citizens as well as the pursuit of those responsible for the impunity on the northern Mexican border.
These two chapters pose the central question of an antiviolence and anti-impunity politics discussed throughout the book: how can we break the borders that impede the plenitude of human life? The authors’ own conclusions echo that of the volume as a whole. It involves a radical critique of national political boundaries that further deepen important legal vacuums, economic globalization’s dehumanizing system – or “necroeconomics” – that tacitly produces expendable populations; the patriarchal features of governmental, social, and religious institutions; and the media’s dominant discourse that contribute to support a cultural system in which gender violence often becomes deadly invisible.
Copyright © 2009. The Arizona Board of Regents.