When writing about the contemporary US-Mexico border, many describe it as a space in flux—a place that is neither here nor there, a porous in-between zone created by the exchange of people, goods, and ideas that flow across it. It is a place that defies neat categorization, in part because of the many people who occupy the same lands their ancestors once did, long before our nations drew their current bounds. People whose lineages criss-cross and contradict this area’s divisions, whose languages are mixed and multiple, who embody a place that is always in between.
It is also a place that is written about in relation to violence. Over the past few decades, the US- Mexico border has been awash in a particular kind of militarized violence carried out by both national governments, along with private interests, such as cartels and militias. It is often the bodies of ordinary people, whether migrants crossing the scorching Sonoran Desert in Arizona or women hanging from overpasses in Ciudad Juárez, that become the targets of cruel government policies, cartel violence, and cartel-government corruption.
Inherent in this violence are questions about language—how to define the violence and how to write and speak against it. “Mexicans have been forced to witness the reduction of the body to its most basic form: as a producer of capital through both the maquilas and other transnational companies,” writes Cristina Rivera Garza in the introduction to Grieving, translated by Sarah Booker, one of two nonfiction books by Rivera Garza published in English translation late last year. The reduction of the body to a tool of the neoliberal state has led to mass suffering that, she tells us, must be addressed through language. In Grieving and The Restless Dead (translated by Robin Myers), Rivera Garza examines these connections between violence and language through a blend of journalistic, academic, and memoiristic accounts.
Rivera Garza is perhaps best known to Anglo-American readers for her recently translated novels The Iliac Crest (2017) and The Taiga Syndrome (2018). Each uses unreliable first-person narrators to tell the stories of women who are in the act of disappearing: one erased from the historical record, the other lost in a mysterious tundra. The narratives are purposefully opaque, preoccupied with memory and language and the ways that harm can reside in the heart of both. Even the landscapes—foggy coastal towns and desolate tundras—appear primed to swallow her characters whole.
In these two books of nonfiction, Rivera Garza’s aim is to shine a light directly into the uncertain circumstances that her fiction blurs. Instead of creating the hazy space in which a fictional woman vanishes, she writes about facts that can clarify the cruelty of the world around us—such as how, since the beginning of 2020, an average of 11 women have been killed in Mexico every day. She attempts to wrest open this violence, to make as clear as possible the relationships between brutalized bodies and the state, between physical violence and how we talk and write about it.
“It isn’t that after horror we should not write or cannot write poetry,” River Garza writes in Grieving. “It’s that, while we are integral witnesses to horror, we must write poetry differently.” Grieving and The Restless Dead are two attempts to answer how to write from the midst of witnessed brutality, and why writing perhaps matters most in the face of horror.
Rivera Garza was born in Matamoros, Mexico, in 1964. She has spent much of her life traversing the arid border region and can trace a similar pattern of movement back to her ancestors, such as her grandparents, who lived and worked in the United States until they were deported after the 1929 economic crash.
In Mexico she is one of the best-known writers of her generation. She has won many of the country’s top awards, and is the only author to have won the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize for fiction twice. In 2020 she was the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant. She has taught at universities in San Diego, Tijuana, Toluca, and Mexico City and is the director of creative writing at the University of Houston, where she founded the first PhD program in creative writing in Spanish in the United States. In addition to her work as a novelist and essayist, she has been a columnist for the newspaper Milenio and Literal magazine.
As an academic, Rivera Garza with a particular interest in popular conceptions of insanity and the history of psychiatry in Mexico. The topic of her doctoral thesis, “the subordination of bodies to the state apparatus of power in Mexico early insane asylums,” could be seen as sowing the seeds of her later books. The tension between institutions and individuals is central to her writing, particularly how state power is used to subordinate, tranquilize, and render inoperable any who defy it.
The Iliac Crest is a fictional retelling of these themes. A ghostlike avatar of the real-life Mexican writer Amparo Dávila arrives unannounced at the house of the narrator, a male doctor, in a coastal town. She is soon joined there by the narrator’s ex-lover, who faints on arrival. Dávila cares for the sick woman, and within days, they begin to speak to each other in their own secret language. They claim to know the narrator’s most deeply held secret: that he is actually a woman. As the narrator’s house and then his mind are invaded by these unwanted guests, he begins to lose his grip on reality. By the end of the novel, he is committed to an asylum.
Rivera Garza said she cast Dávila, who died in April 2020 at age 92, as a central character because “in her time her work did not receive the attention that, fortunately, it receives now, so to me her case appeared perfect for a plot in which cultural disappearance is linked to physical violence.” Dávila was known for her dark stories centered on female protagonists that deal with mental illness, violence, and death. She was widely admired by literary peers but was never able to advance her career in the way that the men around her were. Central to the book’s plot is a cohort of young feminists who have taken on the task of ensuring Dávila’s words are not erased, that her work and she herself are not disappeared.
“When women disappear from our factories and our history—from our lives—we have to reexamine what is normal,” Rivera Garza writes in the introduction to The Iliac Crest. “Reality may have become inexplicable or impenetrable, and therefore maddening, but questioning such circumstances lies at the core of this novel.” To fight against the normalization of misogyny, we must, she argues, write about it.
What Rivera Garza does not write about in The Iliac Crest is how acutely this violence has reached into her own life. In 1990 her younger sister was killed by an ex-boyfriend when she was just 20 years old. In Grieving, Rivera Garza writes about the friends—poets, journalists, professors, and writers—who have been killed in the 30 years since her sister’s death. Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist; four journalists were murdered there in 2020, one more killed on assignment, and four additional deaths are still under investigation. It is not hard to imagine, given this history, how the dark and fragmented nature of Rivera Garza’s fiction came to be.
Behind every case that makes up the statistic of 11 women killed per day in Mexico is someone like her sister. Behind every one of the stories of women who have been killed or disappeared, there is the story of a particular woman and the specific violence enacted on her body. In Grieving and The Restless Dead, Rivera Garza aims to put words to exactly how the state is responsible for this atrocity.
In the essay “The Visceraless State,” she traces the evolution of the Mexican government’s relationship to the safety of its citizens. It begins with letters from a woman who in 1939 wrote to the then-governor of her home state of Baja California from various hospitals and sanatoriums where she was being held and includes responses from the governor’s office. The woman describes in detail the state of her body and the medical procedures she has undergone. She asks the governor to notify state agencies on her behalf, to intervene if an autopsy is requested, and to make it clear that she wishes to be buried instead of cremated. Her letters not only receive responses but are also forwarded to other state and federal agencies—which, Rivera Garza concludes, shows how both parties recognized that “the care and fate of her body was, effectively, a question of the state.”
In the late 1800s through the early 1900s, medical professionals in Mexico, Rivera Garza writes, “not only examined the social body but also ushered citizens’ bodies toward the stretcher of the state, figuratively as much as literally.” After the 1910 revolution, the system of public hospitals that formed as an arm of the new government further solidified the bond between the individual’s body and the state’s responsibility for its well-being.
That changed, however, with the Mexican government’s shift toward globalized neoliberalism in the latter half of the 20th century. “The neoliberal state…has not established bad-faith relationships with its citizens but something even worse and more chilling,” Rivera Garza writes. She coins the term “visceraless state” to describe the current relationship, as she sees it, in which the Mexican government has “fully submitted to the economic interests of globalization and colonialism,” become “infected or tainted…by suppressing any trace of the bloody secret wars that married counterinsurgency and drug trafficking,” and “rescinded its responsibility for the care of its constituents’ bodies.”
Women and nonbinary people are particularly vulnerable to the state’s renunciation of responsibility. In addition to higher murder rates, these groups experience domestic abuse and sexual harassment in greater numbers. Rivera Garza has cited a recent official statistic that an average of 4,320 women are raped in Mexico every day. In March of 2019, Mexico’s analog to the Me Too movement took off on Twitter in response to this violence. First a writer was accused of sexual abuse by one woman, then others came forward to add their stories. In the style of other Me Too movements around the world, women began to tweet about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment, and they were unafraid to name people. Some posted on their personal accounts, and many turned to accounts that sprang up to gather accusations against people in certain fields—academia, journalism, art, publishing—and where women could send their stories and have them shared publicly without attaching their name.
Rivera Garza writes about how the campaign’s momentum was cut short by the suicide of a famous musician, Armando Vega Gil, accused of child molestation. On April 1, 2019, a note he tweeted before his death began to circulate that stated that because of the accusation, which he denied, he felt “my life is stopped, there is no way out.” People then began to blame his suicide on the movement. Its organizers and women who had come forward began to disengage from their online platforms as threats against them mounted. As a result, Rivera Garza writes:
feminist collectives materialized across the country, creating discussion cells on issues ranging from public policy to self-defense. As their exchanges remained concealed from public view, it all seemed quiet on the surface. Beneath it all, boiling with fury and tenacity, women were more determined than ever to achieve justice.
As I began writing this, a group of women had taken over the National Human Rights Commission in the historic downtown of Mexico City, where they occupied the building, spray-painted the walls with feminist slogans, and painted over portraits of Mexico’s past presidents. Groups of activist women around the country then occupied and in some cases burned Human Rights Commission buildings in other states. Their principal demand was that the government investigate the thousands of open cases of disappearance, rape, and violence against women that have been held up in government offices without proper investigations, sometimes for decades. In addition to incredibly high rates of violence against women, Mexico has one of the highest rates of impunity every year, according to the Global Impunity Index—meaning that the vast majority of crimes, particularly crimes against women, are never investigated or tried.
As the feminist Mexican lawyer Andrea Medina Rosas once told me in an interview, “Silence is the social and state mechanism that is most effective and tied to sustaining impunity. Silence and impunity go hand in hand.” By silencing the women who came forward in the Me Too movement on Twitter, attempting to silence them by ignoring or belittling their cause, and allowing the silencing of women by murder, the state denies any responsibility for the bodies of its female citizens.
Rivera Garza cites mostly women throughout her essays, including scholars like Sara Ahmed, Angela Davis, and Raquel Gutiérrez; writers Lina Meruane, Gabriela Weiner, and Gabriela Juaregui; and activists like Elvira Arellano, who runs a shelter for women in Tijuana. Border towns like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez have been hit particularly hard by narco violence, which often affects women. Included are a fateful conversation with a cab driver who dropped off a young woman at a hotel where she was later killed, and an essay about buchonas (the girlfriends, wives, and other women who surround narco men) and the few women, like Sandra Ávila Beltran, La Reina del Pacífico, who made a name for themselves in the drug trade.
In The Restless Dead, the border becomes an active character in the telling of these women’s stories. The landscape is both a physical place and a mythicized being, one that becomes endowed with meaning through the people who occupy it and, by extension, the stories that are told about it. Rivera Garza writes:
We describe our relationship with a place as landscape. Because it’s human, this relationship is material: it’s a connection to body and sweat and sex and class and race and poverty and inner thigh and saliva and fingernails and even fingernail-grime. The farther we go, the denser it is, which means the more opaque it gets. The deeper, in fact, the more adjectival. The more here. Therefore, in being human (and nonhuman), the relationship that constitutes every place is also––perhaps on principle, but perhaps also in the end––an imaginary relationship. A place is pure writing.
If the geography of a place is partly defined by what is written, writing can change the relationship we have with it. Writing could break the cycle of violence. In the final essay of Grieving, “Keep Writing,” Rivera Garza collects what could be proclamations or perhaps radical realizations about the reasons she or one might find worth in the act of writing.
Because writing, by nature, invites us to consider the possibility that the world can, in fact, be different….
Because this is the most definitive form of the collective….
Because using language, or letting yourself be used by it, is a daily political practice. Disrupting the limits of the intelligible or the real, writing’s very purpose, is to be political. Independent of the subject addressed or the anecdote told or the stylistic challenge proposed, the written text is a concrete exercise in politics.
If the continuation of violence depends on silence and impunity, Rivera Garza believes that writing can throw a wrench in that machine. Like the young feminists who commit themselves to ensuring Dávila’s words are not erased, these essays are acts of resistance. They recognize that speaking out against violence often provokes more violence, as seen by the number of journalists killed in Mexico every year and the threats leveled at women who came forward in the Mexican Me Too movement. However, to remain silent means submitting to the status quo. Rather than capitulate, Rivera Garza’s work demands that we see this violence for what it is. Use language to name it, to see it, to speak to it, and then to do something about it.