Public and Intimate Performances of Gendered Violence: HerStory of Feminicide in Ciudad Juárez

By Laila Espinoza

A magenta cross reads “Not one more!” at the Paso del Norte International Bridge, which connects El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, in 2006. (Photo courtesy of Valeria Puertas.)

There is a city on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border where over 3,000 girls and women have gone missing since 1993, and 913 women have been reported murdered since 2010. This city is Ciudad Juárez, the “sister city” of El Paso, Texas which, in the starkest contrast, has ranked as the fifth safest city in the U.S for a number of years. Between 2008 and 2010, Ciudad Juárez became an international headline. Reports about the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels fighting over trade corridor turf, rampant criminality, murder, and public displays of violence and torture made Ciudad Juárez the talk among all spheres of society. The public performance of excessive, unrestrained male violence and domination seduced the international media. This social performance reaffirmed, if not glorified, already existent notions of the Latin machista male in the Western imaginary and equally condoned the already existent gendered forms of violence against girls and women so prevalent in Ciudad Juárez. It is notable that, in the year 2010, the number of feminicides peaked significantly. Even so and ever since, the recurring and continued violence and forced disappearance of girls and women has continued and remains quiet and invisible. The feminized body was again forced to exist as another object of exchange, production, reproduction, and consumption caught in the middle of a war between two cartels over the frontier of the world’s most lucrative traffic of drugs and bodies, echoing a long history of colonization.

The stage had to have already been set so that the public exhibition of male violence against a woman’s body appeared as just another consequence of war over a territory. Spectacular scenes of men killing men, hangings, and drive-by shootings broadcast internationally covered a long past of gendered violence prior to the cartel with a sheet of silence.

In 1993, when the bodies of girls and women started turning up dead, maimed, and showing signs of atrocious rape and torture after having been missing for weeks, it was easier for not only authorities but also the media to look the other way. The little that the media would say about it was that these girls and women had been “mujeres de la calle” (women of the street). A social image of the victims of femicide as “indecent” women was scripted by the media and local government officials and transmitted to the community of Ciudad Juárez and across the border. Most people internalized it and echoed it back again among their neighbors and inside their own homes without reservations, given that there was an already existent strong ideology of marianismo persistently promulgated by the church and characteristic of colonial methods for patriarchal domination.  Marianismo, stemming from the Virgen María, means to be chaste, virginal, giving, and a self-sacrificing caregiver. I remember at 13, when the first bodies were found, hearing comments all around me every time the body of another girl or woman was found and identified. These types of comments expressed another form of violence, attacking the girls and women who were alive and had survived. A girl growing up in an environment that upholds severe standards on what is considered a “respectable, good woman” and punishes the “bad, disobedient woman” by means of unrestrained violence becomes a woman who is trapped not only in a society and in her house but in her own gendered body.

As the years passed, with more and more bodies of girls and women found dead and many more missing, some people in the community (mainly those who had lost daughters, sisters, and mothers) began to question their own beliefs about who were really the victims of the feminicide. More importantly, they began to question the definition on what is a “good” and a “bad” woman.

Bodies were found in the desert on the peripheries of the city and in the desert by the U.S border. Daughters, mothers and sisters were last seen on their way to work at the maquiladoras (factories), and some of their bodies were found dead in maquiladora parking lots. Girls as young as thirteen were found in vacant lots in the colonias (peripheral under-developed and impoverished settlements), and some were found dead in their own homes while their mothers worked at the maquiladora. Some of these girls as young as twelve had also worked in the maquiladora.

Pesquisa (missing person flyer) in downtown Ciudad Juárez, 2006. (Photo courtesy of Valeria Puertas.)

What social and economic conditions needed to exist in a city to be the birthplace of an industry that exploits human life, in particular the female body?

In 1993, NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) was ratified between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, which led to the growth of the maquiladora industry into Ciudad Juárez. There are over 300 of these factories operating in Ciudad Juárez – which is known as “the official birthplace of the maquiladora” – most of these settling in the colonias. The maquiladoras started operations in the colonias in 1993, the same year that the first bodies of girls and women were found. In recent years, graffiti artists have written “STOP MAKILLAS” on the walls of maquiladoras and muralists have painted mega-murals of the rostros (faces) of the girls and women who have been victims of femicide, visually echoing the magenta wooden crosses that have been planted all over the city and at the Paso Del Norte Bridge on the U.S.-Mexico National border.

Actions such as these mobilize a public visual protest against gendered violence and are a necessity for creating social awareness and solidarity, as well as for denouncing the government’s impunity. The time is also critically overdue to create and nurture intimate and tender spaces for girls and women for addressing and healing the effects that the feminicide has had on our self-image, our ability to be in our bodies, our psyche, our sexuality and our relationships with ourselves and with each other.

“Be An Active Witness,” performance in Ciudad Juarez by Laila Espinoza, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Valeria Puertas.) 

In 2016, I began to create a series of costumes, rituals, and performances in order to address the feminicides in Ciudad Juárez. My first ritual performance, titled “Be An Active Witness,” took place in downtown Juárez near the Paso Del Norte Bridge at the Mexico-U.S. National Border. It was a ritual of performing witnessing of the altars painted on each electric post in a very slow, intentional, and public way. By active witnessing I mean seeing with attention and care. I performed this witnessing by walking slowly, stopping at every altar, spending time looking at the faces of each girl and woman in the pesquisas, and reading each of their descriptions softly and tenderly. I used my own body as a moving altar by wearing my “Huipil Fronterizo” (Border Huipil), which I spent three months designing and constructing out of the curtains in my kitchen in preparation for the performance. I hand-painted and embroidered my Huipil with symbols that tell the story of the border, placing each symbol on the garment in relation to my body. For example, I embroidered a magenta cross on the area of my chest, and painted several white crosses representing immigrant lives lost across the desert and the 18-foot wall. I chose to make the Huipil for this ritual because of its historical, cultural, and spiritual significance. The Huipil is a type of dress traditionally worn by girls and women in Guatemala and Mexico, and it is meant to act as a shrine or protective enclosure for the sacred body. The Huipil also acts as a codified and embodied story of the girl or woman who wears it. Wearing my Huipil in Ciudad Juárez while performing “Be an Active Witness” created an intimate public space where the passive spectator becomes active by seeing the altars again through me. In other words, the ritual caught the attention of many passersby and their curiosity about the spectacle drew their attention to the altars again. These altars have been there for so long that they are not generally seen anymore, but the feminicides continue.

The ability to simply go for a walk, to be in the workplace and other public spaces without anxiety and fear is denied to the girls and women of Ciudad Juárez every day. Talking about the feminicide is very painful, and is considered a taboo subject for many members of the local community because it touches on physical, emotional, and sexual violence inside the home as well, itself a taboo topic. And yet, the magenta crosses all over the city are there to remind us not only of the dead and the disappeared, but also of the living girls and women who fear for their safety, and whose integrity is defined by those who see them only as objects. Art-making, ritual, and ceremony offer gentle and loving ways of facing, creating awareness, and eventually healing personal and social trauma such as gendered violence and the feminicide in Ciudad Juárez and beyond.


“Be an Active Witness” and “Huipil Fronterizo.” Performance and costume by Laila Espinoza,
downtown Ciudad Juárez, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Valeria Puertas.)

Laila Espinoza is a scholar as well as a visual and performance artist who grew up in Ciudad Juárez. Her research and practice are concerned with the politics of gendered violence, Indigenous Spiritualities and embodied art making. www.lailaespinoza.com

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