Between Grief and Gore

Writing through femicide in Mexico

By Madeleine Wattenbarger

An illustration of red-pink funeral flowers

“I understand Cristina’s repulsion towards her sister’s killer,” said a judge during the ceremony for a top literary prize in Mexico last year, “but as a reader I’m intrigued by that character.” The award-winning book was Liliana’s Invincible Summer, by the prolific, multi-genre author Cristina Rivera Garza. A work of nonfiction, it chronicled the life of her younger sister, who had been murdered by an ex-boyfriend decades earlier. The judge remarked that he wished Rivera Garza had said more about the murderer, and went on to recommend three other works that explore the interiority of men who kill women.

The English translation of Liliana’s Invincible Summer was published this March. It is, contrary to the judge’s musings, not a book about violence, but a book about love. It is not about Liliana’s death, but about Liliana. And as such, it offers a powerful answer to the question facing writers in Mexico: How to write about violence without reproducing its logic?

An illustration of red-pink funeral flowers

Media coverage often reduces victims, especially femicide victims, to the most morbid details of their demise.

The statistics are staggering. Over 100,000 people have been disappeared since the Mexican government declared war on the cartels in 2006 — the victims of organized crime as well as police and military forces. Ten women are killed each day in an intertwined crisis of femicide that has escalated since the mid-1990s. Yet media coverage often reduces victims, especially femicide victims, to the most morbid details of their demise. It is this “violence porn” that Rivera Garza writes against.

Her work is particularly essential for Anglophone readers, as an escape from gruesome, stereotyped litanies about Mexico. Luckily, in addition to Liliana’s Invincible Summer, there is now an English translation of Fernanda Melchor’s This Is Not Miami, set in the city of Veracruz during the early years of the drug war. These two books — true stories by masterful fiction writers — cast victims, not perpetrators, as their protagonists. Both forego grisly details and sweeping generalizations. They give us, instead, particular lives lived within violence, and the social context that creates it.

This Is Not Miami appears in English more than a decade after its original publication. The book was published as drug-war violence soared in the Gulf state of Veracruz. The stories give a glimpse into life in Veracruz from the 1970s through the early 2000s, and hint at the social and political structures behind the violence that colors each story. At the time Melchor wrote the book, narratives of the drug war mostly focused on the capos, or drug lords. She looks instead at its effects on ordinary people: low-level dealers, dock workers, bored young people getting into trouble, and families caught in the crossfire. However, as she writes in her introduction, the stories “refuse to enter into discourse with History with a capital H. At the heart of these texts is not the incidents themselves, but the impact they had on their witnesses.” Melchor enshrines individual experience over other ways of writing about violence. She wants to make her readers feel what her protagonists felt.

An illustration of red flowers

The book reads as a collection of short stories, but Melchor insists that it is a work of nonfiction, blending memoir, reportage, and local lore. In the Veracruz of This Is Not Miami, no one completely understands what’s going on. Most of the stories focus on a single incident: a crime, a supernatural encounter, or an instance of state corruption. The last story of the collection, “Zee for Zeta,” weaves together vignettes from the Veracruz of 2011, when the Zeta cartel’s terror began to escalate. A supermarket clerk quits his job after being forced to charge thousands of dollars with an unmarked credit card: “Without even raising his voice, the man told you and your supervisor that, if you didn’t charge him using that card, you’d both end up dead in the parking lot with a face full of holes and your brains blown out.” A young woman watches a brutal beating at a high-society nightclub: “You were really scared and you couldn’t believe that the city where you were born was turning into one of those horrible places up on the border where there’s nowhere to go out because of the constant shootouts.” A teenage boy waits for surgery on a bullet wound after being caught in a gunfight that killed his mother.

The horror is ever present, but Melchor resists sweeping metanarratives in way of explanation. Instead, she offers anecdotes that, in her retelling, become an understated social critique. In “The Vice Belt,” a grizzled dockworker recounts the hedonic Veracruz milieu of the 1970s, before President  Carlos Salinas dissolved the unions and ushered in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In “A Jail Out of the Movies,” a prison is shut down, and the people held there relocated far from their families, for the filming of a Mel Gibson movie. “Queen, Slave, Woman,” recounts the life of Evangelina Tejera Bosada, a carnival queen who was convicted of brutally murdering her two children in 1989. Tejera became a source of tabloid fascination; she was alternately rumored to be deranged, high on a newly ubiquitous cocaine, or part of a narco-satanic cult. The speculation continued for decades: “Some accounts claim she returned to the city and now lives as a recluse in a miserable downtown tenement, obese, ailing and out of her mind…. Some claim to have seen her in the luxury hotel resorts on the Riviera Maya, svelte, dripping in jewels, on the arm of one of the big bosses from Los Zetas.” Melchor writes that the media’s search for a sole motivation behind Tejera’s act ruled “out any reflection on the structural conditions surrounding it,” including “economic crisis, violence against women, the breakdown of the family, and Mexico’s failed social security and child protection systems.”

That social critique has become Melchor’s signature. She writes characters who are abandoned by the state and find themselves caught in cycles of crime and violence. Curiously, while This Is Not Miami avoids graphic depictions of brutality, her two most recent novels, the much-lauded Hurricane Season and Paradais, mix social commentary with an increasingly baroque gore. The crime at the heart of Paradais is violence porn par excellence, complete with porn-obsessed male narrators and the sexualized mutilation of women’s bodies. Here, Melchor takes the very approach that Rivera Garza forgoes. “I wanted the reading experience to be a violent one,” Melchor explained in an interview, “precisely to generate that shock in the reader.” She wants her readers to experience the brutality as closely as possible. She achieves her goal. An empathetic and critical reader, though, may be left wondering what to do with that shock. Melchor shows us how violence emerges, but she gives no hints of where to go from there.

An illustration of pink-red funeral flowers

Liliana’s Invincible Summer begins with the author emerging from a sort of paralysis. It is autumn, 2019. That August, the news broke that a police officer had raped a young woman in a Mexico City museum. Feminist protestors breached the glass doors of the prosecutor’s office and threw pink glitter on the police chief. Later the same week, during a larger march through the heart of the city, people smashed windows, graffitied victims’ names on the streets, and burned down a police station. They scrawled the phrase “Femicidal Mexico” across the Angel of Independence, one of Mexico’s most iconic monuments. The uprising became known as the “glitter revolution.” While feminist activists and the mothers of femicide victims had been denouncing the crisis for years, the 2019 protests marked a tipping point. Gender violence was finally in the public eye.

Rivera Garza had made a career out of documenting the violence in Mexico, especially against women. But she had never written about her sister Liliana, who was murdered in 1990. Liliana’s killer, Ángel Gonzalez Ramos, went missing after the murder, and the case was never resolved. The 2019 uprising, as Rivera Garza tells it, gave her the strength to finally return to Mexico City from her home in Houston and investigate her sister’s case. A guilty verdict had also just been reached in the murder of Lesvy Berlin, a college student killed by her boyfriend in 2017; “The news,” Rivera Garza writes, “which brought tears to my eyes, propels me directly into this place, this walk, this promise. Another world is possible, Liliana. Another love.” Rivera goes to the prosecutor’s office to demand her sister’s case file and is told that it does not exist. Writing Liliana’s Invincible Summer becomes her form of protest. She writes: “I must replace this file I may never find. There is no other option. In the future I will say, this is the split second in which I understood how writing defies the state.”

Through letters, diary entries, and interviews with Liliana’s intimates, Rivera Garza reconstructs her sister’s emotional life, from adolescence to death. Liliana exchanges adoring letters with girlfriends, moves to the city to study architecture, goes to the movies with her cousin, and travels to the beach with classmates, all while besieged by a jealous on-and-off hometown boyfriend. Rivera Garza also returns, intermittently, to explain the structural factors behind Liliana’s murder, and so many others. When Liliana was killed, femicide in Mexico had yet to become the epidemic that it is now. In the 1990s, women began to disappear in Ciudad Juarez and turn up dead on the city’s outskirts. Then, in the late aughts, as the drug war advanced, murders of women across the country became more common. Still, the crimes weren’t counted separately — as femicide — until 2012. Today, it is nearly impossible to open a Mexican newspaper without finding a story of a woman murdered, often by a partner.

If the absence of language causes violence, then writing itself becomes a preventative measure.

Rivera Garza is particularly interested in the lack of language around domestic violence. “Neither Liliana nor those of us who loved her had at our disposal the insight, the language, that would allow us to identify the signs of danger,” she writes. “What we did not know about domestic violence, about intimate partner terrorism, killed her.” If the absence of language causes violence, then writing itself becomes a preventative measure. She narrates the trajectory of Liliana’s relationship with her killer: the young man’s extravagant romantic overtures; his obsession, then his attempts to exert control over Liliana, even as she began a new life in another city; his repeated refusal to end the relationship. As she retells the events, Rivera Garza notes the early warning signs of intimate partner abuse. No one noticed until it was too late. Here, now, is a lexicon that could have saved her, a blueprint that could save many more.

When Liliana’s Invincible Summer was first released in Mexico, Rivera Garza put out a call for information about her sister’s murderer. An anonymous tipster located the man, who had died in California in 2020. The book brought Rivera Garza some resolution in Liliana’s case, but it is also part of a larger fight for justice in Mexico. In grieving her sister, she takes part in the collective grief for thousands of Mexican femicide victims. And by reclaiming Liliana’s life, she reclaims the life of so many others.

An illustration of red-pink funeral flowers

Rivera Garza joins a movement of Mexican women who have turned their grief into political potential. Among them is Lesvy’s mother, Araceli Osorio, whom Rivera Garza cites in the book’s early pages. After fighting for a resolution in her daughter’s case, Osorio has become one of a handful of visible public figures speaking against the femicide crisis. In front of government buildings, mothers of femicide victims raise pink crosses with their daughters’ names, and family members of disappearance victims carry photos of their relatives. The survivors recount, over and over, how their sons or daughters were killed or disappeared, and how the state has responded with indifference and impunity. They insist on storytelling and memory. Some advocate for broader policy change, but many fight simply for the state to keep individual cases open, to bring their daughters’ killers to justice and to continue searching for the disappeared.

Over several years, covering state violence and the feminist movement in Mexico, I have found myself numbed by horror at the accumulating deja-vu of brutality and impunity. Liliana’s Invincible Summer cracked open a wall of sorrow in me. I read the book in Spanish and English and wept both times. Crucially, though, it moved me not because it reproduces cruelty, but because of how it counters it. I have returned over and over to Rivera Garza’s lines about Liliana and Lesvy Berlin, two young women in Mexico City who met the same end, 27 years apart: “Could they have been friends? Could they have partied together, their manes of hair up and down, shiny and wild, in a crowd dancing to cumbia sounds? Could they have run to help each other in the middle of the night in case of asphyxia, strangulation, sudden death? … They are, I correct myself, substituting the present for the past. They are friends.” I wonder every day how to write into this violence, whether to opt for structural analysis or individual stories, the cold tone of a news report, or some tenor that captures the urgency of this unabated sorrow. Here, I find a key to combating the logic of violence. Rivera Garza refuses to let Liliana’s killer have the last word. Defiant, she writes her sister into life.

Madeleine Wattenbarger is a writer, reporter, and translator based in Mexico City.

Illustrations from Familiar Garden Flowers, published 1879, courtesy of Internet Archive