Talking to Alice Driver About Violence Against Women in Juárez

Schoolgirls walk in front of a mural painted with the faces of disappeared girls. Local artists and families of the disappeared have been working together to raise awareness about disappearance in Juárez; they paint the faces of missing girls on the donated walls of schools, churches, and homes around the city. Photo: Alice Driver

Ciudad Juárez, Mexico was once known as the global murder capital. It’s no longer the world’s most dangerous city, but violence still haunts the town just over the border from El Paso, Texas. Alice Driver, a filmmaker, writer and photographer whose work focuses on human rights, feminism, and activism, has written extensively about Juárez.  Her searing 2015 book More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico deals specifically with the disappearance and murder of women in Juárez. The work, which grew out of her dissertation, blends theory with stories and interviews to explore not just the violence against women in Juárez, but also how that violence has been represented in media and culture. As Driver writes:

“To talk about feminicide is to talk about violence against women in all its manifestations, and in Juárez one of the most visible of those is disappearance. When women are murdered, their bodies don’t always appear. Often they disappear, and so the violence becomes unregistered, unrecorded, and seemingly invisible. This book is about the ways in which those bodies, whether identified or nameless, have been represented in literature, film, and art.”

More or Less Dead, which was published by University of Arizona Press, was recently named to Foreign Policy Interrupted’s Best Books of 2015, and I spoke with Driver about Juárez and her work. Driver was working on a PhD in Hispanic Studies at the University of Kentucky when she first saw Señorita Extraviata, the documentary that would eventually drive her to visit Juárez, and write her dissertation on its women.

So you were already writing your dissertation on Juárez when you went for the first time?

Yes, I was. I started writing in 2009, but when I started it was more the type of library research—you know, read some books about Juárez, think about critical theorists, like what would Foucault say about this, and for me, I realized that I had no interest in that. There’s a real obsession right now in PhD programs with literary theory, and I think it has some use, but I left academia in the end because I really was more interested in the reality of social movements and social justice than in what Foucault might think about Juárez.

There’s a powerful email exchange with Juárez-based photographer Jaime Bailleres in your book’s preface, where he seems to be almost warning you off from the project. You write that “Bailleres’s words spoke to all my doubts, both personal and professional, and to the mounting frustration about the way Ciudad Juárez had been represented.” Did you struggle with the question of who has the right to write about a place like Juárez?

I definitely struggled with that all the way through. When you’re writing about something as an outsider you get questioned a lot by locals, by all kinds of people, you know, ‘you’re not from here,’ or ‘why are you doing this?’ and in the case of Juárez, specifically with this topic of femicide, the government has created a whole discourse about how people are profiting from femicide, for example, I’ve been accused of profiting from this, which I find really unsettling, because first of all there’s no money in it, let me tell you, and second of all, it’s a weird thing to be writing about social justice and going somewhere that’s very dangerous and to have people tell you you’re only doing this for your self-promotion. If I wanted to promote myself, I’d take a bunch of selfies and post them on Instagram, I wouldn’t write about social justice in Juárez.

Doña Julia Caldera Chávez stands in her home in front of the only portrait of her daughter María Elena on the 15th anniversary of the discovery of María Elena's body. She disappeared from Juárez on June 20, 2000 and her body was discovered on October 24 of that same year. Her murder remains unresolved. Photo: Alice Driver

Doña Julia Caldera Chávez stands in her home in front of the only portrait of her daughter María Elena on the 15th anniversary of the discovery of María Elena’s body. She disappeared from Juárez on June 20, 2000 and her body was discovered on October 24 of that same year. Her murder remains unresolved. Photo: Alice Driver

Definitely, I questioned myself all the way through, but the realization I’ve come to, which was really confirmed when I was in Juárez to present my book [in October 2015 at an international book fair], and two professors from the University of Juárez were there with me. They’d been required by their faculty director to read my book and comment on it, and both of them began their talk by saying when “I got this book I said, ‘I refuse to read this because I’m tired of outsiders writing about my city,’” and they said they were kind of forced to read it, but they admitted that the view I bring to city has value, and that seeing things from the outside can bring a different perspective that you don’t have from the inside. I think people should be involved in what they’re passionate about. I think there’s a power in being from a certain place, but there’s also a power in doing research and looking at things critically, and that these two things don’t have to be opposed to each other. I guess I’d really encourage people to pursue projects regardless of the fact that you’re coming from the outside, because I think [an outside perspective] can highlight certain issues. That being said, I think it is necessary to do it in a way that’s very respectful of people who live there, and I really tried to do that in my book, to incorpate a lot of people who are from Juárez, who have been there their entire lives working with these issues, so that it’s not just me, talking about my thoughts on this issue, it’s me bringing together a lot of different viewpoints.

Let’s go back to that word, “femicide.” You have quite a bit in the book about the meaning of the word of “feminicide,” and your choose of using it. Can you tell me about the distinction between the two?

A few months ago, I published an article in the Texas Observer about femicide, or feminicide, and working with that editor confirmed something with I’ve been struggling with for a long time, which is that “feminicide” is a word that’s used in the academic community, in my small academic field I would say, to sort of argue about theory. And theorists believe that feminicide is a word that encompasses not just physical violence but also the economic, institutional, structural violence that contributes to extreme violence against women. So in the academic field, there are all these discussions and arguments about the term, and academics sort of reject “femicide,” because originally that term was just used to talk about the physical violence. In theoretical terms, I completely understand the debate, and at the time I was in academia, I felt that I had to use that term. But on a practical level, nobody outside of academia uses the term “feminicide,” and people find it confusing. My editor at the Texas Observer said “I’m absolutely not using that term [meaning ‘feminicide’], it’s irrelevant.” And so for me that kind of confirmed what I already thought. I think it’s great to have these kind of intellectual debates, but if no one uses the term in real life, then I don’t know that it makes sense to continue champion the term. So now when I’m publishing, I’m using word femicide, mainly because my editors have said we’re not going into this intellectual debate about terminology.

As a woman, writing about this terrible violence against women, was your personal safety something that you were concerned about when you were working in Juárez?

Initially I was very worried, and I think the thing that really changed everything was that Charles Bowden introduced me to Julián Cardona, who’s a local journalist—he’s from Juárez, he’s lived there forever, he knows everybody—and then through Julián I met all these photojournalists, local newspaper people, and editors. That community really took care of me, and basically everywhere I went I was with someone from that community, and people actually treated me really well. I think they were really surprised I was there, and that worked in my favor.

You raise the question of the power of artists, writers, and filmmakers to actually promote justice for femicide victims and their families a few times in the book. Do you ultimately think art can promote justice?

"Looking for Nancy Iveth Navarro, disappeared on July 13, 2011" reads one of several murals of disappeared girls painted in front of the train station that runs through the heart of Juárez. Photo: Alice Driver

“Looking for Nancy Iveth Navarro, disappeared on July 13, 2011” reads one of several murals of disappeared girls painted in front of the train station that runs through the heart of Juárez. Photo: Alice Driver

When I was back in Juárez in October, there was a new campaign, or rather an organic movement that was a collaboration between artists, graffiti writers, and activists. This time it was actually mothers of disappeared girls. They’re getting anybody who will donate a wall—it could be your home, a school, a church, and they’re painting the faces of these disappeared girls on the walls around the city. So I went around the city to see them, because they’re quite a few, and they’re large, there’s maybe eight of them in front of the train station, all of different girls, and it has their names and the date they disappeared. They’re on the walls of churches, and even schools, which is pretty haunting, because you see the mural and then walking in front of the mural are a bunch of school girls.

On a personal emotional level, I believe that those kind of projects do create some kind of change or awareness. It’s pretty hard to ignore those kinds of images, especially because they come out of the community, and as part of a movement from the families to make some change. I think it becomes harder for the government to ignore those kinds of issues when they’re so visually present in the city. On the other hand, I don’t know that I have proof of any direct link between the art project specifically and some change in law, for example. But I do think that awareness in the city has been increased, and that pressure for change has come out of those images, and some of these different movements.

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Further Reading

More of Alice Driver’s work on Juárez:

More on Juárez from the Longreads Archive: