La Batalla de las Cruces: An analysis of representational
paradoxes of women activists in Ciudad Juárez
UWC Pearson College
Lo importante de estos grupos es que se dio voz a las mujeres. [The important thing about these groups is that they gave voice to women.]
Esther Chávez Cano, La Batalla de las Cruces.
Twenty years after the first gender-related murders or feminicides were detected in Ciudad Juárez in 1993, it is still hard to believe that these terrible crimes are mostly unsolved. (1) To date, more than 1000 feminicides have taken place in this border city and the fact that many of the women’s corpses exhibited signs of sexual assault and torture and were dumped in the desert, has contributed significantly to the climate of horror surrounding these cases. (2) On the other hand, the unresolved status of these murders motivated a proliferation of local and international outrage directed towards the Mexican state and the government of Chihuahua for their inability or unwillingness to stop these crimes. While this appalling situation could easily account for the ubiquitous representation of death in the constructions of juarense women in a variety of media, there are notable differences in the two main embodiments of feminicide: the victim and the activist. In this essay, I will examine the representation of the juarense female activist as portrayed in the documentary La Batalla de las Cruces [Of Battles and Crosses] (2005) as one that brings to the fore important paradoxes with respect to the dominant narratives surrounding the feminicides in Juárez.
2003 was a breakthrough year for activists seeking to give a voice to the murdered women of Juárez. For instance, the appearance of the Amnesty International report on the subject was the culmination of ten years of constant efforts by several NGOs and other committed individuals to bring international attention to the problem. Legitimized and inspired by this report, thousands of protesters crossed into Juárez on February 14th, 2004 as part of the V-Day and Amnesty International march. In the wake of this conspicuousness, the appearance of the fronteriza activist as an increasingly relevant cultural representation of women in Juárez began to emerge.
In this respect, La Batalla de las Cruces is an exemplary text that illustrates the different avatars of the image of the activist in contrast with most other films and writings where the portrayal of the victim still overshadows all others. This film is a Mexican documentary directed by Rafael Bonilla Pedroza and researched by Patricia Ravelo Blancas from CIESAS (Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social). It is part of a research project that focuses on the social protests and actions that have arisen from the long scourge of feminicides in Juárez. (3) Here, the figure of la activista comes forth in its multiple embodiments: from the bereaved mother who now campaigns for basic public services in the poorest colonias of the city to the director-founders of well-recognized local organizations such as “Casa Amiga” and “Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa”. (4) It must be noted here, that the film is quite unique in exploring the question of which activists have more right to speak for the victims of feminicide: whether the mothers and the family members or the more professionalized NGOs who work to change societal dynamics in other fields in addition to their efforts against the impunity of the murders of women in Juárez. The crucial questions of class, rights of representation and speaking agency that emerge from the comparison of both of these portrayals will be further examined as well. In any case, even the title of the film in English, “Of Battles and Crosses,” addresses the struggle of all activists, making their role central.
To begin with, I believe that by centering on the figure of the activist, La Batalla de las Cruces cannot escape two exceptionally important paradoxes of the juarense feminicide, paradoxes that I am calling the paradox of the activist and the paradox of the public woman. On the one hand, the paradox of the activist highlights their entrapment within their representation as the voice of the victims, thus existing only in relation to death. In other words, by becoming spokeswomen for the victims, they become part of the dead and therefore it is difficult to view them as subjects with agency in the world of the living. On the other hand, the paradox of the public woman alludes to the alleged “impropriety” of Mexican women who step outside the private space. As long as their presence in the hegemonic public arena continues to be contested via the sexualization of the victims and of the activists themselves, the activists will face the dilemma of having to counter slurs that “discredit” them as “public women” while at the same time avoiding falling into patriarchal stereotypes that insist on “sexual innocence” and circumscribe the behavior of “proper” women to the home.
La Batalla de las Cruces must be situated within a panorama of cultural representations before proceeding to a more in-depth analysis of the issues that are raised by this documentary film. While there are at least ten more documentaries on the Juárez murders, a couple of B-movies, a few other mainstream movies (Bordertown and El Traspatio come to mind) and some telenovela-style productions from both sides of the border, the presence of the activist in them tends to become sidelined by that of the absent victim. This is true even of Lourdes Portillo’s Señorita Extraviada (2001), possibly the best-known documentary film on the subject of feminicide. Here, Rosa Linda Fregoso argues that Portillo’s film’s emphasis on the depiction of victimhood ―that extends to the families of the murdered women― is eminently apparent in the aesthetics of the documentary, which emphasize the innocence of the murdered victim (“We Want Them Alive!” 125). The other larger point that the film insistently makes is the denunciation of the ineptitude of the media and of local and federal governments to provide any kind of support for these families, moral or otherwise. Both of these characteristics place Señorita Extraviada towards one end of the continuum of representations of the Juárez feminicide, where the voice of the activists is mostly drowned by the silence of the dead women.
The other end of this spectrum of portrayals clearly includes La Batalla de las Cruces because of its repeated links to all the different variants of activism that work against the impunity of feminicide in Juárez. Nevertheless, this film and other texts like it have an important antecedent in El Silencio que la Voz de Todas Quiebra (1999), a book that originated in a creative literature workshop in Juárez. El Silencio works as a primary example of how fictional narrative and journalist-style reporting were first combined around the subject of the murders of women in Juárez. While the mixed format of the book makes it less effective as a narrative device than La Batalla de las Cruces, it is certainly recognized as the main predecessor of activist-inspired cultural representations on this topic (Gaspar de Alba 343), for bringing about an awareness of feminicide at a time when juarense grassroots consciousness was still being consolidated.
Since many of these local organizations have either disappeared or evolved in light of the continued inability of the juarense authorities to end the feminicide, La Batalla de las Cruces could be viewed as a summary of the issues and conflicts arising from women’s activism in this border area.
One of the key aspects to take into account in the analysis of La Batalla de las Cruces is that it offers a particularly academically-oriented representation of the activists who work against feminicide and gender violence in the border. In fact, its director, Rafael Bonilla Pedroza, has explicitly mentioned that the film ―made in collaboration with sociologist Patricia Ravelo Blancas from CIESAS― developed from:
La urgente necesidad de que los medios no se constituyan en amplificadores de la superficialidad, la misoginia y el morbo, y la no menos urgente necesidad de que investigaciones serias y profundas cuenten con los medios para ampliar su espectro de influencia. [The urgent need for the media not to amplify superficiality, misogyny and morbidity, and the equally urgent need for serious and thorough research to have the means to expand its scope of influence.]
From Bonilla’s words, one can extrapolate what has been an uneasy relationship between local media players ―who have tended more towards a nota roja approach to feminicide― and Mexican and U.S.-American researchers, who display a more didactic take on this issue. Furthermore, it is important to note that this statement implies that scholarly investigations can expect to be limited in the “consumption” of their portrayals by an audience outside academia. In the following discussion of La Batalla de las Cruces, I will consider whether the format of a documentary can actually make inroads into popular depictions concerning the Juárez feminicide.
The overall structure of the film keeps with one of the four fundamental functions of documentary film, “to persuade or promote” (Renov 21). In this case, as it is with the majority of documentaries pertaining to the Juárez feminicides, the element of promotion refers to the implicit purpose of advancing the viewers’ awareness of the conditions of gendered violence in this border city. Alas, the complete fulfillment of this goal assumes that the film would be able to extend its reach beyond an audience that may already be sensitive to this situation. As for the objective of persuasion, the spectators of La Batalla de las Cruces can readily assume that the film intends to influence them towards taking action against the impunity surrounding these crimes, a step that many may feel unable to take. Bonilla’s film insists on both of these unstated aims by means of keeping to its educational approach, in which the viewer is methodically introduced to the main themes of the documentary by following a traditional structure in which “experts” are brought in to validate the film’s discourse and interviews with family members are used to provide emotional gravitas to the situation. Thematically, La Batalla de las Cruces is divided into sections announced by on-screen titles, with the exception of the first shot and the conclusion. The thematic sections are meant to guide the audience chronologically through the ordeal that a family goes through when a young woman is first reported missing, as well as to propose different hypothesis about who is behind the feminicide. Later sections also consider proposed solutions to end this phenomenon and give an overview of the organizations that work towards this goal.
The initial take of La Batalla de las Cruces pans around a desert-like scenario where photographs of young women are semi-buried in the sand. This is used as a flashback throughout the movie, arguably to redirect the viewer’s attention to the victims. The opening voice-over begins by stating, “A large majority of the murdered women were from the south.” If one were only to consider this establishing shot and initial words, it would seem that this film is playing into the stereotypes that present the figure of the marginalized victim as not originally from Chihuahua, exactly like so many other texts. Here, Homi Bhabha’s definition of a stereotype is perhaps the most fitting, as it is characterized as: “a simplification because it is an arrested, fixated form of representation that […] constitutes a problem for the representation of the subject” (107). Such a statement is noteworthy because it highlights the difficulties inherent in any attempt to maneuver outside of a stereotyped depiction, particularly when others make an effort to speak for these victims. As long as the women keep being perceived as helpless, lonely and silent in the imaginary of the city and of the border, they will be trapped into a representation devoid of a voice or even subject status.
At first, the introduction of La Batalla de las Cruces, where the names of eight murder victims materialize on screen, also appears to comply with the victim paradigm, but soon this perspective starts to change. Each name comes into view with a photograph of the young woman when she was alive, and in every case, a family member of the deceased speaks about the initial disappearance, thus placing the film in the appalling context of “A decade of impunity and violence towards women.” The advent of these relatives in the beginning of the movie situates them in a prominent position textually, as the future protagonists of the documentary narrative, and in contrast to the cast of “experts” that will appear subsequently in the film. And while these brief interviews with the family members may initially seem to reproduce the noxious fascination with this kind of stories that one may find in a nota roja periodical, the film’s in-depth viewpoint contradicts this impression as it moves forward. It does so particularly by legitimizing the relatives’ right to speak for the victims. In fact, the names of these family members do not appear until much later in the film, thus reinforcing the idea that ―at least in the beginning― their only role is to lend their voices to the victims they represent.
In the context of feminicide in Juárez, it is not surprising that the family members who do turn into activists, as well as the female members of advocacy organizations, tend not to immediately occupy a public space of their own. As has been mentioned earlier, this hesitance originates in the perceived societal “contradiction” between their public appearance in demonstrations and a patriarchally expected domestic/private status. In other words, it is the act of protest itself that situates them and “disgraces” them as “public women” along with the murder victims who dared to work or go out at night (Wright, “Paradoxes” 279). Therefore, the lack of space in Mexican popular culture for the figure of the woman activist is hardly surprising, precisely because it appears to be too controversial within the context surrounding Juárez in general. This disparaging representation as “public women” may also be the root as to why some activists have taken such great pains in representing the victims as sexually innocent hijas de familia or as responsible daughters, working only to help support their families. In La Batalla de las Cruces, the photographs of the victims as angelical quinceañeras or the mention of the jobs some of them held, are certainly part of the characterization of the murdered victims as “private” (decentes) rather than “public” (indecentes) young women.
However, this recreation of a private/public woman dichotomy is certainly a thorny one for female activist groups, as it perpetuates sexist paradigms that attempt to keep them off the streets as protesters and that question the intrusion of the murdered women into public spaces in the first place (Wright, “Paradoxes” 282). My own reading is that Bonilla’s documentary does its best to showcase the difficulties to distinguish between local, culturally relevant strategies of representation ―such as the ubiquitous quinceañera pictures of the victims in the documentary― and what are mostly mediated expectations of femininity (virginal, “pure” girls), directly derived from patriarchy. If one considers that, for a stereotype to exist, the adjectives related to it must be “constantly contradictory,” it is plain to see how this can lead to a facile depiction of the Other as “sexualized and innocent” at the same time (Bhabha 82, emphasis mine). And yet, for the juarense activists, the contradictory portrayals of themselves and of the victims of feminicide they represent are only one of the many struggles they face.
La Batalla de las Cruces addresses these battles in a chronological fashion, beginning with the moment when the young women are reported missing. Thus, the first thematic title that is shown on screen is “Desaparecer” [“To Disappear”]. Here, one must note the significance of choosing this politically charged term, particularly in Latin America, as it brings back extremely unnerving recollections of “Dirty War” tactics used by authoritarian governments in the 70s and 80s. (5) It is also remarkable that the filmmakers utilize this crucial term to contrast positions between “experts” in positions of judicial authority and one specific family member in the beginning of the documentary. Firstly, Ángela Talavera, the Special Prosecutor for Female Homicides in the State of Chihuahua in 2005, states that a disappearance is not technically considered a crime under Mexican law, but that it is nevertheless treated as a “preliminary investigation,” and that from their standpoint, the first hours looking for women who have “disappeared” are the most vital ones. This is obviously not enough for Rosario Acosta, the aunt of 10-year old victim Cynthia Rocío Acosta, or for Marisela Ortiz, founder of “Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa”, who plainly call the authorities liars, claiming that the police routinely waste those precious first hours. By presenting the figure on screen of “328 women murdered in Juárez from 1993 to 2004” (Source: Chihuahua State Prosecutor’s Office), the film cleverly takes sides with the latter position in this argument.
Apart from contrasting the patently differing views on the feminicides of the authorities in Juárez and the activists, La Batalla de las Cruces takes an uncommon look at the divergences that have arisen between activists, concerning their dissimilar stances with regard to the composition and the aims of their organizations. The section “Documentación y denuncia” [“Documentation and denunciation”] begins this discussion. Here, an initial point of contention between the two best known juarense activists, the late Esther Chávez Cano and Marisela Ortiz, revolves around what they believe are the originating factors for the feminicide. While the former stresses intra-familial violence, the latter disregards this argument as one aligned with government versions that basically “protect the real assassins.” Ortiz goes on to support the line of reasoning which deems that “these women were killed by people they didn’t know […] simply because they are women, were women, who had absolutely no power.” And while one could argue the total opposite, that these women were targeted precisely because of their perceived empowerment and all its negative connotations within a patriarchal society that expects domesticity, the point is that there are no single interpretations that can be offered to comprehensively elucidate the Juárez feminicides.
Yet, La Batalla de las Cruces incessantly proposes urgent explanations. For instance, the three sections titled “Violencia,” “Estadísticas,” e “Inicios,” [“Violence,” “Statistics” and “Beginnings”] continue presenting the cast of “experts” in the documentary while at the same time, proposing several theories about the feminicide in relation to the statistical breakup of alleged causes of murder. Then, the list of regrettably familiar usual suspects: “serial killers, […] organized crime, […] snuff movies, organ traffic, […] lone assassins, […] gangs of drivers, police and detectives” is symbolically linked to the close up of a cross that stands at one of the border passages with heavier traffic. This cross is riddled with nails that bear a pink ribbon with the name of a missing or murdered woman, and activists throughout the city have placed others like it since 1999 as a reminder. These crosses have been interpreted as a means to make the feminicides visible (“Presentación” 4). One could also extrapolate that in some way, the crosses represent the burdens of memory that the family members have to bear. In any case, the strong religious connotation of this symbol must not be overlooked, as it could be problematically associated with more traditional views, reminiscent of the “public woman” dilemma. Additionally, Rosa Linda Fregoso, in the article “Voices Without Echo,” explains the pink crosses as a way of representing the unspeakable, the unrepresentable; as marking the victims as a class of targeted people (147). Now, one of the difficulties inherent to this explanation is that by categorizing juarense women into a collective presence, a certain de-individuation is bound to occur, one that paradoxically reproduces their lack of agency by concentrating primarily on the space of absence left behind by the victims.
It is precisely this absence that is fiercely challenged by the family members of the murdered women throughout La Batalla de las Cruces. Therefore, subsequent sections of the film, such as “Búsqueda” y “Hallazgo” [“Search” and “Discovery”] focus more on the mothers’ strategies as well as the actions taken in their search of justice for their missing daughters, from posting flyers all over the city to protesting, along with other groups, the incompetence of the authorities in the prevention and investigation of the crimes. On this note, though, one would do well to consider Alicia Schmidt’s reflection that, at the end of the day; “the mothers’ movement consists of the small percentage of women who were able to mobilize the material and psychological resources to act publicly as the bearers of injustice” (“Ciudadana X” 272). And yet, the film documents how this is an extremely difficult path to choose, as these mothers and other activists have had more than an uphill battle in their struggle, to the point that quite a few of them have received anonymous death threats and others have been even physically assaulted either by the police or by other unidentified individuals. (6)
In order to expand on this discussion of the juarense “mothers’ movement,” it would be convenient to revisit an important cultural referent that comes to mind while examining the interviews with las madres de Juárez in La Batalla de las Cruces: the similarities they share with the most famous maternal-driven Latin American activist group, Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. While both of these representations conjure up the Mater Dolorosa archetype, the Mexican women “who have lost their daughters to inexplicable violence; only […] find that the border society refuses to recognize their claim to violated motherhood” (Schmidt, “Body Counts” 31). This assertion bespeaks of a widespread misogynist prejudice that resorts to blaming the victims and by extension, their families. In Bonilla’s documentary, the lack of sympathy that the family members receive from the authorities includes patriarchal accusations of not taking “proper” care of young women, expressed in interrogations such as: “she was your daughter, so where the hell did you leave her?” What’s more, there are relatives in the film who recall feeling questioned and even threatened when they lodged the complaint of their loved ones’ disappearance with the police or tried to distribute flyers. An additional but paradoxical difference with Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo is that while the mothers in Juárez ultimately depend on the state for the procurement of justice for their daughters, the Argentine women directly blamed the state for the disappearance of their children (Schmidt, “Body Counts” 49). And yet, as La Batalla de las Cruces shows in the section “Cartel de Policías” [“Police Cartel”], the juarense relatives similarly believe “that police are behind it all,” not only because they don’t solve these crimes but because the family members think they are protecting the actual killers. Without going as far as claiming state-sponsored violence, the assessment of the mothers in the film often coincides with that of the sympathizing experts, as all of them insistently comment on the climate of impunity that asphyxiates Juárez.
In fact, with respect to the analysis of the murders, La Batalla de las Cruces does not shy away from implicating powerful social actors in the Juárez feminicides. One of the most articulate voices in the film, Diana Washington Valdés ―a journalist from El Paso who has reported on this subject extensively― traces the successive cover-ups and fraudulent incriminations that have led her to believe that serial killers, gangs and powerful drug traffickers, as well as the police are involved in the crimes. In the sections “Culpables. Inocentes,” “Víctimas. Victimarios” y “Gobierno,” [“Guilty. Innocent,” “Victims. Perpetrators” and “Government”] her professional point of view and that of other specialists are compared to the more experiential one of the mothers, thus legitimizing the narrative as a whole. That is to say, the film earns an “emotional” justification from presenting the claims of the victims’ families but manages to obtain a “scientific” validation of its outlook on the juarense feminicides by also communicating the positions held by academics, journalists, and directors of governmental, professional and non-governmental organizations.
One of the distinctive qualities of Bonilla’s film is precisely this portrayal of the array of viewpoints that emanate from the different activist groups. In the section “Organismos No Gubernamentales” [“Non-Governmental Organizations”], La Batalla de las Cruces focuses more acutely on the conflicts inscribed in the representation of the juarense activists. (7) At this point, the viewer may note the most open depiction of the tensions between groups, initially exemplified by the questioning of the funding of some organizations ―such as the Instituto Chihuahuense de la Mujer [Institute for Women of the State of Chihuahua], which depend financially on the state government.
Another point of contention between activist associations ―which is also reflected in this documentary― touches upon the reported clashes between groups composed primarily of victims’ relatives and those which may be more heterogeneous in their constitution. (8) Firstly, there is a great contrast between the educational and socioeconomic level of groups founded exclusively by family members and other, so-called “professional” NGOs. Here, Patricia Ravelo, the main researcher for the film, further argues that these organizations “don’t train [the mothers] to be self-managing, to strengthen themselves, to empower themselves.” (9) Nevertheless, there are several examples in the documentary that counter this statement, as they show mothers founding their own organizations or working to provide childcare or electricity to their impoverished colonia. These instances, while limited, support the idea that the moral discourse of grief, in order to be effective, must be attached to claims for socio-economic justice and for the most basic human rights (Fregoso, “We Want Them Alive!” 131). Nonetheless, the prevailing impunity of feminicide makes the situation of the activists in Juárez much more complicated, as at times it appears that since none of their grievances are being properly addressed, the mothers of the murdered women understandably tend to refocus exclusively on their original demands for justice for their daughters.
And yet, according to Julia Monárrez in “El Sufrimiento de las Otras,” this position of the activist mothers, derived solely from their sorrow, is liable to being manipulated by opposing factions. On the one hand, their particular entitlement to pain is used by hegemonic groups (such as the local authorities and media) to pit them against other organizations that fight against gender violence but whose members are not necessarily relatives of the murdered women (Monárrez, “El Sufrimiento de las Otras” 123). In La Batalla de las Cruces, the issue of who has the right to speak for the victims of feminicide is noticeably tilted towards the mothers due to their emotional legitimacy. When the voice-over in the film states that “activism centered on the families’ pain has resulted in mistrust and bad feelings”, the message implied is that the relatives have felt “taken advantage of” by organizations that do not have a personal relationship to this social tragedy. On the other hand, the authorities and the local media have often interpreted the advocacy of the victims’ family members as an example of the politicization of motherhood, a stance that ―in this patriarchal environment― has negative connotations of personal profit. Thus, the juarense mothers, much like the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo before them, have shared the affront of having been ostracized, misrepresented and insulted by regional elite groups. In Bonilla’s film, for instance, Héctor Domínguez maintains that it is the politicians who routinely ―and paradoxically― demand “that the case of the murdered women shouldn’t be politicized.” The truth behind such a statement though, is that it plainly shows the disposition of the political establishment to deny the right of participation in politics to all women activists ―mothers and non-mothers alike― effectively stripping them of one of the most basic citizen rights.
Nevertheless, from the point of view of La Batalla de las Cruces, there are many other outrages to be accounted for in Juárez before even considering the questions of full political involvement. Once more, the issue of a damaging representation comes to the fore. From an academic and feminist perspective, the sections “Maquilocas” y “Noche” [“Maquila maddies crazies” and “Night”] are the ones that explain more thoroughly the sexualized, adverse portrayals of the victims by a considerable sector of the juarense society. To begin with, these segments comment more explicitly on the cultural association of maquiladora workers and “women of easy virtue” in relation with the feminicides. Here, Héctor Domínguez notes that with a new economic strength, “The Juárez night has been invaded by women, this clearly represents a serious threat to the patriarchal system” because of the implications of “allowing” unsupervised spaces for female sexuality in what used to be a purely masculine turf. An additional insight on this matter has been proposed by Socorro Tabuenca Córdoba in her article “Baile de Fantasmas,” where she comments on how the narrative of power constructed by local and state authorities depicts the victims of feminicide as stereotyped social and moral transgressors (417). Within this misogynist perspective, it follows ―as the documentary suggests― that the real or imagined sexual freedom of these “morally insubordinate” working-class women is being punished with death, particularly in the atmosphere of illegality that prevails in Juárez.
The ending sections of La Batalla de las Cruces take a head-on stance against this overarching state of unlawfulness. Thus, the segments “Sanción,” “Reparación,” “Prevención” e “Investigación” [“Sanction,” “Reparation,” “Prevention” and “Investigation”] specifically detail the activists’ demands in a variety of fronts. Firstly, the film echoes the NGO’s appeals for “efficient services for the provision of justice and a political trial for the government officials […] who did nothing.” This urgent request of the juarense activists has been widely documented by social science researchers from both sides of the border, who have recorded the advocates’ attempts to embarrass the federal, state and local governments internationally for their ineptitude in the investigation, prevention and resolution of the crimes (Fregoso, “We Want Them Alive!” 118). (10) Bonilla’s documentary, in fact, specifies that one of the activists’ ultimate goals is to press for the intervention of international organizations in the matter of the juarense feminicide, going as far as intending to take their case to the International Criminal Court. And yet, the women interviewed in the film have an even larger ambition in mind: “to change the misogynistic attitudes that predominate in the institutions and the legal system.” Considering the multifaceted juarense misogyny that La Batalla de las Cruces works so painstakingly to expose, this may well be their most grueling struggle, for it involves matters of cultural representation that are very much embedded in the discourse of all kinds of hegemonic groups, such as the media and the state authorities who have managed to heavily influence the local perception concerning the victims of feminicide.
This is arguably the strongest denunciation that Bonilla’s film makes, and it is directly connected to the notorious representation of the “public woman” previously discussed: that as long as societal attitudes do not change to be respectful of the human rights of all juarense women, there will be no solution to this gendered brand of border violence. In other words, “any legalistic response to the violence will remain inadequate if […] the culture of male dominance [is allowed to] remain intact in the border” (Schmidt, “Ciudadana X” 281). For it is precisely the misogynist characterizations derived from masculine power in Juárez that have ultimately lead to the society’s implicit condoning of the murders of what are perceived as “public women.” Thus, for the activist organizations featured in La Batalla de las Cruces, the battle is, fundamentally, one of representation. To its credit, the film does not overemphasize what could be termed as “patriarchally-appropriate” depictions of victims and activists who are compliant with traditional gendered behaviors. This is accomplished through the feminist perspective of the documentary, extensive to all the different juarense activists who, in some way or another, are working to promote a change in the cultural discourse and imaginary in such a way that it may include the so-called “public woman” (Wright, “Public Women” 696). Nevertheless, Bonilla’s documentary, with its characteristically “homegrown” perspective which highlights the role of the mothers and their “genuine leadership,” still has to resort to the strategy of having to portray activists preferentially as mothers, and murder victims as daughters, an approach that still abides by the paradox of the “public woman” (Wright, “Paradoxes” 290).
Taking into account the manner in which La Batalla de las Cruces persistently calls the viewers’ attention to the diverse figure of the juarense activists, it may seem somewhat surprising that the conclusion of the documentary, “Epílogo” [“Epilogue”], goes full-circle to the image of the victim of feminicide. This return of the film’s gaze exclusively towards the murdered young women is significantly positioned to create an emotional impact through the use of a dramatic opera score (Norma), as well as the ending images that revisit the barren scenario of the desert. Rather ominously, the voice-over adds an important piece of information that had not been previously mentioned: that the murder victims have included women from other nationalities, such as women from the United States and Europe. This allows the documentary to subsequently hint at the possibility that this gruesome phenomenon might overflow past the state of Chihuahua, thus working as the film’s last attempt to convey a sense of urgency regarding the feminicides. In fact, the most recent data from Juárez suggests that the number of murdered women in this border city is on the rise and that the vision stemming from Bonilla’s documentary might have been regrettably prophetic. Additionally, the reference to non-Mexican victims of feminicide is also one of the few exceptions to the film’s mostly regional overall approach to this matter.
With such a grim scenario and outlook, the closing take of La Batalla de las Cruces actually reflects on the multiple paradoxes that so intrinsically grip the representation of las mujeres de Juárez. In the end, the film’s final and critical call to action is likely to remind the observant viewer that the fact “that people throughout the world know about the murders of Ciudad Juárez, that films, and plays, and articles are written about these murders owes everything to the women activists” (Wright, “Paradoxes” 289). And yet, these activists continue to be paradoxically effaced in favor of the victims of feminicide. In other words, Bonilla’s film can only go halfway in the portrayal of activists as independent entities, inexorably positioning them almost entirely as representatives or mediums of the victims, merely channeling the voices of the dead. Now, while the “inconspicuousness” of the activists ―in contrast with the prominence of the victims― is certain to continue as long as the demand to solve the murders exists, it must still be noted that the figure of the activist-as-spokesperson has the potential of becoming a vital and radical female construction, particularly vis-à-vis the misogynist border setting that La Batalla de las Cruces describes. Indeed, the documentary offers a glimpse into what could become a reappropriation of the maligned “public woman”: provided that the activists keep on developing their ability to “speak for” others, they may truly have a chance of overcoming their quasi-voiceless, subaltern status.
However, the film never claims that positive, empowered representations of juarense women are close at hand. For starters, as long as impunity and misogyny remain entrenched in Juárez, the murdered women will still be protagonists and the activists will maintain their roles as “supporting characters” in the numerous narratives that the feminicides have generated. Furthermore, even if female activists in Juárez may indeed attain a wider representation in film documentaries, it will be difficult that their voices reverberate effectively into a greater variety of cultural products ―including fictional texts and more widely consumed films― as long as the figure of the victim is still the most prevalent one in this border context.
Nonetheless, La Batalla de las Cruces must be credited with avoiding, for the most part, the excessive dramatization and widespread emphasis on the victimization of the women in Juárez that can be observed in other texts. But this is not the only feature of this documentary that gives it a distinctive character in comparison with other works. By centering on the diversity of the activists who work against the feminicide, the film opens a rare space for all sorts of juarense women to discuss this issue and to have their voices heard. Therefore, Bonilla’s film constitutes a clear example of a nuanced narrative that provides a sufficiently meaningful analysis of a situation that urgently needs to be exposed as widely as possible. At a time when extraordinary violence, even directed towards activists, has become a commonplace occurrence in Mexico, the emergence of portrayals of strong women that stand out and speak out against paralyzing fear, prevalent passivity, apathy and lack of solidarity could very well spell out the beginning of hope for the future of all juarenses and indeed, all Mexicans.
(1) The expression feminicide, which refers to murders of women specifically motivated by gender (Monárrez, “Feminicidio” 15), appears alternatively as ‘feminicide’ and ‘femicides’ in English. I have chosen to use the former throughout this text, partly because “feminicide” has also been linked with the term genocide (Schmidt Camacho, “Ciudadana X” 275).
(2) In 2003, Amnesty International published a report titled “Intolerable Killings ―Mexico: 10 Years of Abductions and Murders of Women in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua,” where the exact number of murdered women was placed at 370, and of these, at least 137 exhibited signs of sexual violence. More recent data, from the National Commission for Human Rights (Criterios), increases these figures by 79 more murders from January 2004 to July 2007. El Universal has reported 89 murders of women in 2008, 163 in 2009, 303 in 2010 and 188 in 2011.
(3) This research project has been conducted by academics Patricia Ravelo Blancas and Héctor Domínguez Ruvalcaba and supported by Conacyt and CIESAS. In Spanish the project is called “Protesta Social y Acciones Colectivas en torno de la Violencia Sexual en Ciudad Juárez.” [“Social Protest and Collective Actions surrounding Sexual Violence in Ciudad Juárez.”]
(4) Colonia, the traditional name for “neighborhood,” has a different connotation in Juárez as it refers to the shantytowns of the city’s periphery. “Casa Amiga”, founded by Esther Chávez Cano, is the only rape and abuse crisis center in Ciudad Juárez but it was originally set up in response to the feminicides. “Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa” is arguably the prime local organization still working to pressure the authorities to solve the feminicides and it is mainly composed of family members and friends of murdered victims.
(5) Rosa Linda Fregoso goes as far as to imply that the Mexican state in fact wages a war against these marginalized women with its failure to protect them and its inability to prevent a climate of fear in the border (“Voices without Echo” 144).
(6) Looking at recent news reports, it is quite clear that the situation for activists in Juárez has become much more dire than what was exposed in La Batalla de las Cruces in 2005, being that the murder of activists has been on the rise (Villalpando).
(7) Rosa Linda Fregoso and other feminist academics from both sides from the border, have noted the evolution of local groups to include transnational advocacy partnerships (“We Want Them Alive!” 116).
(8) Some local activists have been acerbic in their criticism of what they view as a cooptation of a cause by groups like Casa Amiga (Rojas 220), which shifted its attention in its mission from the quest for justice for the murder victims, to the treatment and prevention of gender violence from a mainly domestic perspective.
(9) According to Melissa Wright, matters in this area have been aggravated by the accusation of the regional political elites that certain activist groups such as the now non-existent “Ni Una Más” were profiting by publicizing the pain of victims’ families to international organizations like the press, academics and artists (“Public Women” 683).
(10) Rosa Linda Fregoso has argued that the local groups’ pressure that resulted in the Amnesty International report in 2003 was the prime factor that finally propitiated the intervention of the federal government in the case of the Juárez feminicide (“We Want Them Alive!” 120). Apart from this, I believe that the works of Mexican journalist Sergio González Rodríguez ―the groundbreaking journalistic chronicle Huesos en el Desierto (2002) and the special edition of the periodical Metapolítica, “Las Muertas de Juárez” (2003) ― were instrumental to bringing the case of the Juárez feminicide to the consciousness of Mexico City’s denizens, who would also become pivotal in demanding the federal government’s involvement in this issue.
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