- Writing on the Walls: Deciphering Violence and Industrialization in Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s Desert Blood
Since 1994 hundreds of women have been murdered and countless remain missing in Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua, Mexico, across the border from El Paso, Texas. The number of women murdered varies depending on the source, but is estimated to be between four hundred and eight hundred.1 In recent years various cultural productions have emerged that attempt to make sense of the violence being perpetrated on the women of Ciudad Juárez. Writers and directors have focused on the “maquiladora murders,” representing the violence through multiple forms and genres. Among these are fictionalized accounts such as the English-language films Gregory Nava’s Bordertown (2008) and Kevin James Dobson’s The Virgin of Juárez (2006) and independently produced documentaries such as Lourdes Portillo’s Señorita Extraviada (2001), Bruno Sorrentino’s City of Dreams (2001), and Ursula Biemann’s Performing the Border (1999). Some of these productions sensationalize the violence, while others raise public awareness without over-dramatizing the carnage. One of the best-received of these productions is Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s novel Desert Blood (2005), which combines research and conjecture in a mystery story that illustrates the complex web of networks at play in the violence occurring in the border city.2
Gaspar de Alba’s novel is distinguished from other fictionalized accounts, because it goes further than simply addressing the violence of the border. This text moves beyond the quest for answers and provides an oppositional narrative that demonstrates the opportunities divergent thinking offers in the analysis of transnational systems of power. This essay argues that Desert Blood’s protagonist, Ivon Villa, embodies the strategy of reading signs and symbols that Chela Sandoval identifies as a “methodology of the oppressed” by employing a transnationalist feminist analysis of global networks of oppression. Read through an analytical framework that privileges a differential mode of consciousness, the novel becomes an example of the power of writing in creating alternative paradigms for challenging the social inequality of globalization processes. [End Page 15]
Stories of Femicide: Fictionalizing the Violence
Many scholars and activists have critiqued the tendency of US cultural productions to perpetuate the ideology of the “savior from the North” that reinforces the racist portrayal of the Mexican people as inept. The notion that the community needs to be “rescued” is one that infantilizes Mexico and places the US in the continual role of guardian. For example, Bordertown and The Virgin of Juárez position their US protagonists as agents of change who bring with them the necessary knowledge for finding answers in Juárez. The Virgin of Juárez stars Minnie Driver as Karina Danes, a Los Angeles-based reporter assigned to write a story on the Juárez murders. Bordertown stars Jennifer Lopez as the investigative reporter Lauren Adrian. In both films, the protagonists find themselves embroiled in the chaos of the city as they attempt to solve the murders.
Both films sensationalize the violence in order to advance their plot lines. In The Virgin of Juárez, the story of the femicides takes an unreal turn as a young survivor, Mariela, begins to experience the symptoms of stigmata. With this twist in the narrative, the film falls into the practice of reinscribing the stereotype of Mexicans as both extremely religious and superstitious. Members of the community, among which are the women identified as the “Mothers of the Disappeared,” are represented as illogical and fanatical in their positioning of Mariela as “The Virgin”—an embodiment of the Virgen de Guadalupe. The only reasonable one in the mix is Karina, who is more interested in the practical concern of keeping Mariela safe. Bordertown does not incorporate mysticism into the narrative but instead weaves multiple theories of the murders; however, this film also takes creative license in the story, including an absurd plot twist that has Lauren, who speaks very little Spanish, going undercover as a maquila worker.
Beyond the films’ portrayals of the ease with which their female protagonists insert themselves into the investigation of the femicides, they show these women as more capable of solving the murders...