Women, Justice, and Juárez: in English

I was interviewed last week by Jorge Flores for Milenio (Semanal) about the novel I’m currently working on, and why I’ve been going to Juárez for the past few years.  The day after we first communicated, I checked out the MSemanal website and on the front page was the article, “Mexico, where the gringos come to die” (México, donde los gringos vienen a morir). Coincidentally, I was about to leave for Ciudad Juarez…

This is the (unedited) English version of the conversation. Link to published article is in the previous post.

JF: What impulsed you to working on this specific subject? When did you find out about the feminicides in Juárez?

PG: Sometime in  2003, a few months after finishing a book (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), I was contacted by an actress who asked me to travel to Ciudad Juarez to get material for a story about the apparently large numbers of women murdered there. The story was for a book that was to benefit Amnesty International. I felt like I was an unlikely choice for a story about Mexico-I didn’t even speak Spanish, and at the time, I had been to Mexico only once-Tijuana for a couple hours with a group of American cartoonists (Tom Tomorrow, Paul Mavrides, and Caryn Leschen, I think….) as a distraction from the San Diego Comic Con.

That book (I Live Here, published by Pantheon, 2008) was a collection of pieces by many authors and artists about world issues affecting women and girls. The actress, who was also the editor of the book, had a rigid political agenda she hoped would be expressed and supported by the project. From the very beginning, this was a problem for me. I felt a real responsibility, as an artist, to explore the situation for myself before drawing any conclusions about what was happening in Juarez, and why. For the most part, my first trip to Juarez (in November of 2003, with the actress) was highly controlled. We interviewed subjects that met certain criteria (they were mothers of murdered daughters, AND were part of a wave of “economic immigrants” who had moved to Juarez from other parts of Mexico to get jobs in the American and Canadian maquiladoras). It seemed to be a “given” that the women had been murdered because of their connection to the foreign factories, and therefore, “Globalization” could be blamed for their deaths.

I immediately had to question this conclusion. Sexual murders are, I imagine, intimate actions that express intolerable disturbance in the inner life of the perpetrator. It was impossible for me to imagine that politics could be to blame, even though political and social factors could facilitate the behavior of the individual. As I looked through the lists of murdered women (which had been compiled from local papers-PM, El Diario, El Mexicano, etc), it seemed that most of the murders, although not solved, were assumed to have been committed by husbands, boyfriends, or other acquaintances— acts of domestic violence. And, in actuality, few of the victims were employed in maquiladoras. Additionally, taken as a proportion of all murders committed in a given year, the numbers of women murdered in Juarez seemed to be about equal to the same statistics in many large American cities.

So, not only did I question the conclusions I was being asked to support in my piece, I also returned to the US feeling stunned by the pain and the poverty I had witnessed.
It was a struggle to figure out how I could possibly tell stories about dead women who were never “like me” because I am a “gringa” from a more or less middle class family, because I don’t speak the same language, because my child hadn’t been murdered, because I am educated, I have a good job, because I can get people to listen to me, usually… I worried that I wouldn’t be able to write a story that was anything but shit, studded with clumps of guilt and fear and apology. I had empathy and compassion, but my point of view was disconnected from the experiences of the people I’d met in Juarez.
I needed to find a way to get inside these things, to understand the situation as it was experienced by the people I wrote about. I needed to get to a point where I could accept poverty as a normal state so any shock or queasiness I felt didn’t prevent me from seeing beyond that. I had to abandon the guilt I had for having more. It wasn’t helping anyone.

Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?

JF: Describe your project. Is it a comic?

PG: The idea in the beginning was to create a comics story of about 25 pages about the femicides in Juarez. But, as I said above, my experience and research didn’t seem to support what I was being encouraged to express in the piece. Consequently, I created a series of vignettes about murder, and women, and death. I combined newspaper reports (based loosely on Google translations of El Diario de Ciudad Juarez articles), mostly from with a few verses from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman, “Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born? I hasten to inform him or her that it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.”

I didn’t draw the images as I almost always had in my past work. I found that drawing death made me feel to much a perpetrator of the murders I was depicting. Instead, I re-constructed the places where the events occurred, and made dolls to represent the people. I felt that I could “kill” the dolls and not feel so bad about it, because after taking the pictures, I’d clean them off and resurrect them.

After finishing this piece (for I Live Here), I decided to continue working with the same subject on a long novel. I wasn’t sure exactly what form it would take, but I knew I’d focus on one family, and that my biggest challenge would be finding a way to “normalize” my presence as the author (implicitly and explicitly). In a sense, I felt I had no right to tell the story. I was clearly an outsider.  However, I believe (rather simplistically, I suppose) that we are all basically the same, more or less, and certainly “of equal value,” and I felt compelled to try to tell a story that would make this clear.

Neither the story nor the way I am putting the book together are “traditional.” I am working on two versions of the book, and the primary version is electronic. I am designing it to be seen on a device like an ipad. I’ve made animated and live-action sequences which will be intermingled with the text. I’m trying to do something that I’ve never seen done before, and it hasn’t been easy. But I’ve more or less settled on a format, which is a huge achievement in a world where technology is constantly changing and the possibilities seem limitless.

JF: How long has it taken you to do it?

PG: To know the situation as fully as I could, I started returning to Juárez a few times a year. It was difficult, because the people I was writing about had no phone. There was, at that time, no mail delivery to their neighborhood. When I wanted to talk to them, I simply had to go to Mexico.

I’ve been living with and working on this project for nearly eight years. It’s become a part of me, and I’ve become a part of the lives of the people I’m writing about. The passage of time was necessary, it was the only way I could come to understand the complexity of life at the border. I’m a different person.

JF: What phase are you on right now?

PG: I’m on the faculty at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In June, I start a year-long sabbatical and won’t be teaching. My goal is to come as close to completing the project as I can over that year.

I work on everything at once-it’s like a huge salad, violently tossed in a bowl that’s a few sizes too small. Lots of the pieces, tossed high, fall to the ground and are never used in the salad. I have drawings, movies, animations, writing, writing, writing, interviews, snapshots, sets, scenery, so much-now each part must relinquish its individuality to become part of the “whole.”

I haven’t signed the project with a publisher yet-I didn’t want to until I make most of the creative decisions regarding the way the book looks (and “acts”), finishing an electronic “prototype” first. Also, I want to produce a printed version (obviouly, many people don’t have ipads), which will have different qualities. It’s very important to me that the book is sold in Mexico (a Spanish version) as well as the United States. However, few of the publishers I’ve talked to are willing to publish and distribute books in Mexico. Apparently, there is a fear that books are easily pirated in Mexico, so it’s difficult to make a profit, or even re-coup one’s investment. Is this true?

JF: What have you discovered, during this time, regarding the feminicides and the people who have suffered it directly?

PG: (I started describing this in the first question or so…)
I’ve learned so much. I wouldn’t know where to begin. Ask me after I finish the book. It’s not just the femicides (feminicides), it’s the border, this semi-permeable membrane- it’s about class, about education, depression, benevolence, greed, narcissism, self-hatred, acquiescence… by investigating a single murder as fully as I could, I have an idea of the impact the event has on a family, a street, a neighborhood, a city…all this over time.

JF: Do you feel that the crimewave Mexico is undergoing currently has affected your work?

PG: Yes. In 2008, I got a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue working on this project. My intension was to live in Juarez for at least 3-4 months. I went to look for an apartment in May of 2008, and something felt different. People were moving more quickly, there were fewer tourists, the air was heavier, I don’t know. I read the internet version of El Diario every day and by the end of the summer it was clear that violence was escalating.
I have light eyes and light skin, and even if I kept my mouth shut, it would have been hard to become invisible in downtown Juárez, el centro. There were, by the Fall of 2008, so few American tourists in the city that I never could have just quietly lived and observed, which is what I wanted to do. So instead, I made short trips every few months.

JF: Do you feel any significant difference between the time when you started and now?

YES!—this would be a very long answer….but basically, the city seems much poorer, people seem resigned to life as it is–little sprouts of hope have been extinguished….in some neighborhoods, every fourth or fifth house has been abandoned and destroyed-shot up, looted, burned. People are used to the violence. They are tired to feeling afraid, so they party and have fun, but they avoid looking strangers in the eye. With the federales and the military, it looks and feels like a war zone. But you already know all this, Jorge. I’ve made good friends in Juarez, and they’re all still alive. I hope it stays that way. I worry about them all the time, and wonder how they feel. I got home from Juarez yesterday, and the trip made me happy. I love the city, I love my friends, I feel richer for knowing them and for knowing the city. Now I’m back at home, where I have scale models of Anapra and people’s houses, and I’m working on my book and hoping things get better. Simple right? Sure….If you need more answers, let me know. I’ve got a fever so my writing is probably incomprehensible…I’ll send pictures later tonight.


-pictures from I Live Here

PG: Each of these vignettes represents an actual murder, but I’ve taken some liberties with how they are described.

The language used is based off google translation syntax, which was my first and primary way of understanding the daily news in Juarez. Over time, I grew accustomed to the language patterns and strange verbiage of the translating engines, and began using similar patterns of word and phrase arrangement when I wrote. This way of writing seemed to reflect my experience as an artist trying to understand a situation-I was caught in-between, much like most people on the US-MX border, or really, in any active transitional space, geo-political or temporal.

The lines from the Walt Whitman poem, Song of Myself, begin on the first page and pick up again at the end. There is also a poem by Rilke on the page with the picture of the little girl on the ground with la cuerda.

This isn’t a story, but a set of images representing many larger histories, and on the surface, the pages aren’t pretty. In Mexico, pictures of the dead are frequently published, but the journalistic culture is different in the US, where we are much more “protected” from such images. Again, living on the Northern side of the border, I felt caught in-between. My first impulse was to “normalize” death by showing it. However, my purpose was not to report news, and my work wasn’t as intimately bound to factual details as a reporter’s would be. My second impulse was to try to find the beauty in death, which is, naturally, usually obscured by horror or grief. I tried to make the pictures “beautiful,” and I used the Whitman lines, “Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born…”

JF: The language made you understand the pain of the family better? Was learning Spanish crucial to it?

PG: I don’t quite understand this question- do you mean, did learning Spanish help me understand the pain of the family better?

I speak English, French, and some Czech. I still don’t speak Spanish well. The Spanish I know was learned mostly by reading El Diario de Juarez– first, as I said, in translation, and then gradually, I started using the translation less as I learned various words and phrases because I had reached the point where the original language was less confusing that the translation.

I was always fortunate to have great people as guides and translators. Several live in Juarez and have become close friends. They come from very different backgrounds-one, for example, has lived in Anapra for more than twenty years, and the other lives (at least some of the time) in a gated community with security cameras. When I’m with either one of them, I feel like our brains and our hearts are somehow floating above us, connected. It has to be this way. At certain moments, you need to be “one person,” sort of. In a situation where I want to communicate something that I couldn’t properly say myself in Spanish, the translator is me, or I am the translator, or both. And people get used to communicating with two of us, together. Really, they are much more than translators. I consider them collaborators. This will be clear, I think, in my book.

In someways, not fully understanding Spanish seems to have made me more hyper-sensitive to other details-the gestures and expressions of the people we talk to (almost as if I’m deaf!) as well as details of the environment. Nevertheless, my goal is to one day be semi-fluent in the language someday soon. Maybe next year. Maybe mañana. LOL. Soon.

JF: Who started calling you “La Gabacha Loca”?

PG: I’m not exactly sure… it has something to do with that Mexican television show that has a crazy toothless woman, I think her name is “Tencha.” I can resemble her at times, I’d say. For awhile, I was sometimes called “la Tencha Gabacha,” which evolved into “la Gabacha Loca.” Sometimes I call myself “PG 13,” an American film rating meaning a movie is safe for children under the age of 13 with parental guidance. I use the term, however, as my name (Phoebe Gloeckner=PG) + 13 (as in “trece” for LOCA).

JF: That seems like you really made bonds with the people you’re writing about.

PG: Yes. I have. Some of my best friends live in Juárez. And I worry about them. Last year, my family didn’t want me to cross the border, so instead, I invited people to visit me. Of course, not everyone I know in the city can get a visa to travel to the US, or even has a passport. But 6 Juarenses were able to come to Ann Arbor at different times over the summer. It was wonderful, and made me feel like my project was beginning to come full-circle, like the world was getting just a little smaller, in a good way. The next step is to figure out how to get visas for a few more.