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Juárez’s Dead Girls

This essay was written by Amy Littlefield at Gender Across Borders.  Expect more posts from this amazing blog.

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In the lead sentence of a 2009 article about the murders of hundreds of young women in the Mexican border city of Juárez, one Los Angeles Times reporter wrote: “The streets of Juarez are swallowing the young and pretty.”

This dramatic lead, like much of the writing done about the rapes and murders of women in Juárez, romanticizes the crime by drawing attention to the youth and beauty of the victims.

But there’s nothing pretty, romantic or even mysterious about the situation in Ciudad Juárez, where at least 464 women have been murdered since 1993, according to the Mexico City-based newspaper La Jornada.

Many of the women have been young workers in the border city’s maquiladoras, factories famous for their abusive working conditions. Many have been sexually assaulted before being murdered. A few arrests have been made, but at least one investigation has shown that police and government officials are involved in the violence. At the very least, the response of the authorities has been inadequate.

While news reports have often responded with superficial dramatizations, Caridad Svich’s 2004 play Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart (a rave fable) dramatizes sexual violence in order to make a point. The play is set in an unnamed Latin American city where a violent general is plotting to sacrifice his daughter (Iphigenia), believing her death will save his political career.

Iphigenia is a multimedia and multi-sensory experience replete with gender-bending, sexual imagery, absurdism, confusion, and Greek inevitability. It’s an acid trip, and it’s meant to saturate and provoke. But I’d like to highlight one aspect of the play that I found fascinating: the playwright’s decision to cast Juárez’s dead girls as men.

The imagery of pink crosses with women’s names written on them and references to the “dead factory girls” connect the play’s setting to Juárez. But the murdered women — who Svich calls fresa or “strawberry” girls, a term that can mean rich or snobby in Mexican slang — are cast as men in drag. The decision to cast the “dead girls” as men messes with the image of the young, beautiful, dead female body. In at least one version of the play, the fresa girls are cast in overdone doll makeup, wearing clothes that are too small. Such imagery satirizes the over-emphasis on female bodies in reports about sexual violence. Dressing male bodies up as “fresa girls” dramatizes the process of presenting death as beautiful or romantic.

But Svich takes it a step further, challenging the privileged tendency to romanticize feminicidio. At one point, the wealthy and privileged general’s daughter, who is dancing her way to a rave in order to escape her own inevitable murder, yearns to be a fresa girl — a victim of sexual violence and murder:

IPHIGENIA: I want to be just like you, girls.

FRESA GIRL 3: Like us?

IPHIGENIA: Names on a wall. Written by lovers who caress me.

FRESA GIRL 3: Caress us?

IPHIGENIA: You are beautiful girls.

Her naivete about the dead girls, murdered brutally by “lovers” outside dance clubs, indicts the naive reader or viewer. There is nothing beautiful about a dead body — even a young, female one — even one found outside a dance club.

Svich’s strategic casting decision messes with canonical conventions of victimhood and confronts the idea that beautiful women somehow deserve to be raped — or that raping or killing a beautiful woman is either more or less violent than killing a less attractive (or less feminine) victim. The casting of men in drag as “girls” also draws attention to violence against transgender and transsexual people and makes the point that sexual violence is not just a girl’s problem. Despite attempts by the play’s protagonist to dress up murder with drama, drugs and dancing, there is nothing romantic about this death — or its inescapability.

Amy Littlefield is Music Editor at Gender Across Borders.

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