Woman as Reason: Language and death in Juárez

February 12, 2014

From the January-February 2014 issue of News & Letters:

by Yeyetzi Cardiel

According to Walter Benjamin, philosophy is made in language and, as long as language is one of the mediations of the experience, critique is also a way of experience. Language is not a neutral instrument for expressing ideas or facts, it is a medium in which the meaning depends in part on the words selected and the way we articulate them. The way we construct experience with language has effects on its transmission and on the configuration of subjectivity, not only in aesthetics and ethics, but also in understanding politics.


The effects of language acquire more relevance when what we are trying to make visible and criticize is of concern to civil society. That is the case in the crimes committed against women in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua and other states in Mexico. A critical approach to visualizing these crimes is hampered by at least two problems: First, there are no testimonies. As long as the women are dead, the closest we can get to their experiences is from their mothers, relatives and friends. Second, most of the news media “agreed” to talk about them as “the dead women of Juarez.” This euphemistic phrase suggests that women just died, and hides the fact that they were sexually tortured and murdered. Speaking of these women as if they simply died makes it impossible to continue the critique.

One of Elina Chauvet's installations titled "Zapatos Rojos," at Castle Square, Turin, Italy. Each pair of red shoes represents a woman brutally murdered in Mexico whose killer has never been brought to justice. Photo by Franco Baldan, http://www.naturadigit.com/2013/03/scusa.html

One of Elina Chauvet’s installations titled “Zapatos Rojos,” at Castle Square, Turin, Italy. Each pair of red shoes represents a woman brutally murdered in Mexico whose killer has never been brought to justice. Photo by Franco Baldan, http://www.naturadigit.com/2013/03/scusa.html

Some vocabulary has been proposed to make the violence visible, that the language used by the mass media hides. Marcela Lagarde, an anthropologist and former deputy of the Federal Congress of Mexico from 2003-2006, [1] insists that the word “femicide,” first translated into Spanish as “femicidio,” is understood only as the feminization of the word homicide. But these are hate crimes based in misogyny, so Lagarde proposed the word “feminicidio.” She wants to make explicit the gender violence of these crimes. [2]

Martínez de la Escalera, a philosopher and academic, states that the term femicide (even translated as “feminicidio,” which is defined as the killing of women just because they are women) has no transparent social reference as long as it “is defined by institutions that decide the meaning and value of the word and its use…”. [3] She emphasizes that the word “femicide” does not help us think properly about violence against women.

Gender violence, which “divides civil society between two heterosexual and hierarchical genders,” [4] reproduces two exclusively different ways for the construction of subjectivity as if the only option was for one gender to dominate. As long as gender is assumed as natural, then violence is presented as if it were also natural and not constructed. Escalera believes that assumptions about the term gender must be questioned if we want to denaturalize the crimes.


Another way of making femicide visible is how relatives, mainly mothers and friends of the dead women of Juárez, are becoming activist—making big wooden crosses painted pink, each one with the name of a murdered woman. They place them in the fields where the bodies were found. They formed an organization: Nuestras hijas de regreso a casa (Our Daughters Back Home) [5] as a way to claim justice.

They have faced not only injustice but also threats, intimidation and even death. Marisela Escobedo was killed on Dec. 6, 2010, demanding justice for her daughter Rubí, who was murdered in 2008. Nuestras hijas de regreso a casa’s blog states that Marisela was “murdered twice: by her murderer and by the State who betrayed her in her search for justice.”

Protesters bring other crosses, also in pink, with the legend “Ni una más” (Not one more). Some bring silhouettes of the murdered and tortured women painted in pink with a black cross on their chest, along with posters, flyers and so on. Mexican artist Elina Chauvet and the Spanish journalist Javier Juárez created an installation which covers public squares with hundreds of red shoes.


Despite the fact that mothers, relatives and friends, regular citizens, artists, academics, journalists, feminists, and national and international organizations have organized and demanded justice, the crimes have not been solved, and the femicides continue.

The structural hierarchical and normalized violence against women and the naturalization of these crimes is not only a problem that concerns the whole society, but a problem created by the State as long as its institutions reproduce violence against women, and the authorities are negligent and partially or totally in collusion with the murderers.

It is the responsibility of the State not only to clarify and punish these crimes, but to stop those responsible for the monopolization of violence. The birth of a new vocabulary to describe and criticize these crimes against women must also consider the collective memory built by the solidarity the activists created.


[1] Lagarde took this opportunity to promote a law against gender violence against women, which was approved in 2006 and took effect in 2007. She also helped on the modification of the Penal Code so femicide could be classified as a crime. She keeps working to impose the classification on Penal Codes in other Mexican states. She states that these crimes are crimes of the State as long as the state hasn’t done much stopping them.

[2] Cf. Lagarde, Marcela, “Antropología, feminismo y política: Violencia feminicida y derechos humanos de las mujeres,” Bullen, Margaret and Diez Mintegui, Carmen (coord.), Retos teóricos y nuevas prácticas, Donostia, Ankulegi Antropologia Elkartea, 2008; pp. 209-239.

[3] Martínez de la Escalera, Ana María, “Transcripción de la participación de Ana María Martínez de la Escalera en la presentación del libro Feminicidio: actas de denuncia y controversia“, México, UNAM, 2010, p. 2. Translated for this article by Yeyetzi Cardiel.

[4] Ibid., p. 3.

[5] The blog of this civil association is at: http://nuestrashijasderegresoacasa.blogspot.mx

0 thoughts on “Woman as Reason: Language and death in Juárez

  1. Thanks to all doing a good work in bringing justice to my paisanas in Chihuahua Mexico.

    Keep up the good job.

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