In an unflinching look at violence in contemporary Mexico, writer Cristina Rivera Garza aims to unlock the silence surrounding grief.
The introductory paragraph of Cristina Rivera Garza’s latest book “Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country” (Feminist Press, 2020) is like a film scene set in medieval times. Two bodies, a man and a woman hang from a bridge. Their hands have been tied. The woman’s ankles are also bound. It is clear that both bodies have been brutalized. The hanging woman has been disemboweled — entrails hang loose from her abdomen.
This particular murder, Rivera Garza tells us, took place on September 14, 2011; it mirrors the caliber of images Mexican citizens living in the 21st century wake to regularly.
Rivera Garza, a professor of Hispanic studies at the University of Houston and a recent MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’ recipient, has spent much of her career analyzing borders. In both her fiction and nonfiction, borders play a multifaceted role; they are geographical — the US/Mexico border; psychological — the border between sanity and insanity; and bodily — addressing how a woman’s body especially is denied safety within the boundaries of her own flesh.
“Grieving,” her first work of nonfiction to be translated from Spanish by Sarah Booker, addresses the persistent level of violence waged on people in Mexico locked between government corruption and drug cartels. Rivera Garza writes, “What we Mexicans have been forced to witness… on the streets, on pedestrian bridges, on television, or in the papers —is, without a doubt, one of the most chilling spectacles of contemporary horror.”
She acknowledges that scenes describing what human bodies endure before death — burning, maiming, decapitation — are difficult to write. “In fact, the very reason acts like these are carried out is so that they render us speechless. Their ultimate objective is to use horror to paralyze completely — an offense committed not only against human life but also, above all, against the human condition.”
For Rivera Garza the stakes are deeply personal. On July 16, 1990 her younger sister Liliana Rivera Garza was the victim of femicide. An all-out war against women, femicide is defined by the World Health Organization as “the intentional murder of women.”
“[G]rieving,” Rivera Garza writes “reshaped me from the inside out…it was right after the paralysis of my first contact with horror that I chose language. I wrote before my sister was mercilessly murdered, but I truly began writing, and writing for her, when my missing her became physically unbearable.”
The essays in “Grieving” are urgent. As I read her work, I felt an electrical charge run from the pages up into my arms, awakening my brain with an alertness that I rarely experience while reading. Her essays are gripping because they are concise. Each word is carefully selected and laid down brick by brick. The collection also weaves between the permeable boundaries of form — incorporating journalism, personal essays, poetry, and crónicas (short writings that chronicle events).
In a single essay, Rivera Garza covers a remarkable amount of ground. “On Our Toes: Women against the Mexican Femicide Machine” is less than eight pages, one of her longer essays. Similarly she approaches her subjects without any foot shuffling. There is no gradual onramp and she begins by using the most direct language possible: “Young Mexican women are enraged. And rightfully so. According to official SESNSP statistics from 2019, ten women are killed and 4,320 are raped in Mexico on a daily basis.”
People worldwide know about #MeToo, which, as a hashtag, rang out across Twitter in 2017. Others might also know that Me Too, as a movement, was started by survivor and activist Tarana Burke in 2006 to offer abuse survivors a voice. But how many people in the U.S. and abroad know about feminist movements in Mexico such as #RopaSucia (#DirtyLaundry) and #MiPrimerAcoso (#MyFirstAssault)?
Begun in 2015 by feminist poets Maricela Guerrero, Paula Abramo, and Xitlálitl Rodríguez Mendoza #RopaSucia was intended “to showcase incidences of misogyny in academic institutions and cultural circles.” Dirty laundry, of course, isn’t meant to be aired, but as women began speaking publicly about subjects they were supposed keep hidden, solidarity formed.
“Something happens when open secrets — ones we all know about and discretely share —are enunciated in public,” Rivera Garza writes. “They lose their spell, their capacity for stupor or paralysis.”
Secrets gave way to more secrets. The hashtag #MiPrimerAcoso prompted women of all ages to share “[m]emories of sexual harassment painfully uncovered the makings of a machista system that terrorizes girls in early life, forcing them into silence and submission thereafter.” Like with #MeToo, women began to name names — a brave move when, as Rivera Garza point out, “feminism has remained an f-word in Mexican vocabularies.”
Suddenly women were able to attach language for what had happened to them. Some women tweeted, “So it was rape after all,” finally able to confirm, under categories of sexual violence, what had occurred.
The “movement was brought to an abrupt halt,” Rivera Garza reveals, in April 2019, when popular singer Armando Vega Gil, who was accused of child molestation, committed suicide and women were blamed. Feminists were told they should stop ruining careers and keep their mouths shut. A celebrity’s suicide suddenly blocked from view the much larger issue at hand — equal protection for women under the law. Rivera Garza writes: “Let us not forget that women in Mexico did not gain the right to vote until 1953, and that femicide as such was included in the penal code only in the summer of 2012.”
Similarily, in August 2019, four police officers remained free after raping a seventeen-year-old girl. Women were outraged and took to the streets in protest. Rivera Garza wryly notes that “as a security officer attempted to assure women the case would be properly investigated, he was glitterbombed. Images of the officer’s head, doused in pink glitter, captured national and international attention.”
In a short essay titled “The Morning After” River Garza reflects on what it was like to wake up to the news that Donald Trump won the presidency. She recalls the immediate impact in the historically Mexican neighborhood, the Second Ward, in Houston — empty streets and an eerie silence.
As people eventually “begin to appear on sidewalks, at bus stops, in classrooms and offices” each individual possesses “[t]he look of someone who still doesn’t fully understand.”
She describes the disorientation she experienced, wandering in a fog of dislocation: “My colleagues, my fellow professors, my neighbors, the people I encounter every morning or every evening: Did they vote against me?”
Rivera Garza captures that sudden shift, both mentally and physically, when the unthinkable happens. “What does it feel like? Fucked up — that’s how it feels.”
To read Rivera Garza’s work is to experience a visceral relationship with the written word. It’s fitting then that the last chapter in the book is titled “Keep Writing.” Writing is what allows grief to speak, it carves a tunnel through silence and the accompanying experience of horror. Because testimonials have power.
“Because” she writes, “a paragraph is an extreme sport.” Because writing offers hope. “Because writing,” Rivera Garza reminds us “invites us to consider the possibility that the world can, in fact, be different.”