Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country
(The Feminist Press, 2020)
In this collection of journalistic and personal essays, Cristina Rivera Garza (The Iliac Crest), documents violence in Mexico, in the contested area of Mexico’s border with the United States, and the many violences enacted by global capitalism. Opening with a powerful introduction, “Taking Shelter: Horror, the State, and Social Suffering in Twenty-First Century Mexico,” the collection is split into four sections: “The Sufferers,” “What Countries Are These, Agripina?,” “Under the Narco Sky,” and “Writing as We Grieve, Grieving as We Write.” Across some 200 pages, Garza applies a lingual scalpel to the narrative of systemic violence: a narrative enacted on both sides of the border by governments, law enforcement, drug cartels, and the media who sensationalize, erase, or ignore the violence. She continually repeats the names of the dead and the question: What can writing do in the face of all of this? Although Garza’s writing style is easy to enter into and become subsumed by, this collection should be read slowly in parts or sections and not devoured in one sitting (as I did). It is not just that the language, the images, the power of the narrative is overwhelming at times, it is that the stories she tells are often simply too painful to read: there needs to be time to stop, to read, to grieve, to repeat, to remember, to move on.
As Garza says, “It is difficult, of course, to write about these things.” At the heart of extreme violence lies the work of the powerful to silence: “Their ultimate objective is to use horror to paralyze completely,” to freeze the populace into a state of immobility. But, she stresses, for those who have faced horror and survived, “there is suffering, there is voice.” The language of suffering is a shared experience that articulates pain as an “intrinsic criticism” against those who create horror and are the source of the suffering, whether narcos or police or soldiers or the “Visceraless State” as exemplified by Mexico’s government. The state becomes “visceraless” in its indolence and neglect of its people, a lack of action that produces “the eviscerated body,” an endless series of murdered citizens whose bodies are left in full view as exhibits of the power of the cartels. For Garza, suffering is not simply a shared experience but linked to grief, “the deep sorrow that binds us within emotional communities willing and able to face life anew.” Grief becomes not merely the expression of sorrow but a collective mourning as political impetus, an imperative to remake society. In these essays, Garza returns again and again to central themes of horror enacted by those in power and the resistance that can come out of shared suffering. Garza is, she tells us, grieving herself: her younger sister was murdered in 1990 by an ex-boyfriend. Only 20 years old, Liliana Rivera Garza was stalked and threatened, but, like so many women, was eventually murdered because the police failed to act. In the wake of her sister’s death, Garza turned to language, to writing, not “to avoid pain” but “just the opposite.” In organizing this collection, she gathered a selection of articles, poems, essays and crónicas (chronicles) not presented in a specific chronological order but around an “internal dialogue.” It is a dialogue that shouts to be heard.
The first section, “The Sufferers,” starts with “The Claimant,” a presentation of dialogue by the mother of two murdered boys; dialogue that appears throughout the collection as Garza positions these two murders as representatives of the thousands. It is a short piece but brutally powerful in its language: “for two years they have been committing murders.”Garza flexes her language here: “to commit is a shining verb, a radiant vertigo, a lethargic tremor,” all meanings contrasting with the bereaved mother’s simple statement, “I only want there to be justice.” But justice does not exist in the world Garza shows us, a world abandoned by “the Visceraless State.” In Part II of “The Sufferers,” Garza contrasts an archival correspondence between a woman in a hospital in 1939 and a Mexican government official with present day indolence “a militant form of indifference.” In a country where a former president is famous for saying, “Why should I care?” Garza presents Mexican political history as a move from post-revolutionary Mexico as a benefactor state into a neoliberal state powered by businessmen who run a government that no longer cares for its citizens. In league with the cartels, financially and ethically, if a choice is to be made between “profits and the body,” the neoliberal state will always choose profit. But, Garza stresses, “executive power” derives from “execute” which derives from the Latin exsecutus which means “to consummate, to fulfill. Execute does not mean to kill.” To be human is to be embodied, to forget the body (as does the neoliberal state) “opens the door to violence.” To walk through that door is to be “no longer human.”
In “I Won’t Let Anyone Say Those Are the Best Years of Your Life,” Garza writes about a collection of witness testimonies of the violence in late twentieth-century Ciudad Juárez, a violence that nearly destroyed the city and left horrific scars on its people. The “war allegedly against drugs” brought unspeakable violence to border cities, recreating city streets, the dunes of the border desert, and private homes as theaters of terror. Those who speak up risk death: “Poet Susana Chávez, who refused to live as a prisoner in Ciudad Juárez, was murdered in 2011, her right hand amputated.” But this work is not about repeating the violence done against bodies by exhibiting victims for our examination, instead, this is about bearing witness, ensuring that we say their names. In “What Country Is This, Agripina?” Garza claims she does not write as a “political analyst” but instead “from further within.” In writing about the violent history of Mexico in the twentieth century, a history that is deeply personal for Garza (“I was there, in every meaning of the word”) but also one rife with silence, Garza distributes blame, “What country is this…you ask me from so far away. It is the country we became…Perhaps by staying silent. Perhaps by not listening to the dead. Perhaps by looking away. Perhaps our name is indolence.”
Garza also expounds on the history of femicide in Mexico, most notably in “On Our Toes: Women against the Mexican Femicide Machine” citing statistics that are shocking and that should be impetus for activism: official statistics state that every day in Mexico 10 women are killed and 4,320 raped. As an aside, according to World Population Review, Mexico is not even in the top 10 and the yearly estimated average in the US is 433,648 rapes, three murders per day by an intimate partner (not including random violence). But, in August of 2019, a group of Mexican women refused to be silent, descending on a prosecutor’s office demanding justice for a teenage girl raped by police officers. These women “glitter bombed” the security officer who attempted to fob them off: images of his head covered in pink glitter went viral and became part of a larger protest movement. Garza shows how, in Mexico (and I suggest—other countries), a culture of machismo combined with silence allows the continuation—even acceptance—of violence against women. Activism including #RopaSucia (#DirtyLaundry) and #MiPrimerAcoso (#MyFirstAssault) helps to break the silence and, in many ways, empower the powerless. In this linking of violence against women to machismo Garza also creates a link to the more general violence permeating Mexico at the end of the 20th century: a violence enacted by the narco who embodies a mythologized formation of masculinity that is not only false but deadly. Garza insists, just as the voices of victims and witnesses must be heard, so too, any glamorizing of the narco must be critiqued and discarded in order to move beyond a culture “founded on women’s silence … that required the most intimate silence from women—their demise—to keep functioning.”
There are a few off notes, for instance when Garza states that May Day protests came to the US with Mexican immigrants (effectively erasing women Labor leaders, East Coast socialism, and the IWW). And when she writes from Houston about the COVID-19 pandemic it is hard not to contrast her focus on the domestic calm of preparing fresh produce and walking in her neighborhood with the horror of morgue tents and police barricades in New York, not to mention the erasure of African-American essential workers in her comment that “those who produce the basic goods, those who keep us alive, are immigrants” (of course, many essential workers are immigrants and many are from Mexico). But hers is a different view of the pandemic: a narrative from a neighborhood in Houston, a narrative that also includes her mother who lacks health insurance in this country and so must return to Mexico.
The final piece in the collection, “Keep Writing,” is a powerful call to action: structured as a series of statements beginning with “Because” and reading like a manifesto for writing-as-activism. It is a manifesto we should all speak aloud daily until things get better for all of us, or as Garza states so clearly, “Because using language, or letting yourself be used by it, is a daily political practice. … Because I do not forget. Because I will not forget. Because we will never forget.”