In Mexico, a New Vocabulary for Grief and Justice

Most Murders in the Country Go Uninvestigated. Activists and Writers Are Coming Together to Demand Accountability

In Mexico, a New Vocabulary for Grief and Justice | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

In Mexico, where most murders go uninvestigated, families bind together to mourn, investigate, and seek justice. Scholar Natalia Villanueva-Nieves writes about the ways their activism and collective mourning are shaping literature. MediaReduy CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

“Almost everyone lost someone during the war,” writes Cristina Rivera Garza in The Restless Dead: Necrowriting and Disappropriation.  

In 2006, Mexican president Felipe Calderón initiated the country’s War on Drugs, which she describes as “a military crackdown on the brutal narcotrafficking gangs that had presumably maintained pacts of stability with previous regimes.” Its toll is estimated to be 360,000 homicides and more than 60,000 disappeared. Rivera Garza refers to it not as the drug war but the guerra calderonista—the Calderón war.

Violence has changed not only life in Mexico, Rivera Garza argues in The Restless Dead, but also how authors write and understand themselves as creators. In recent years, the country has seen the emergence of a writing style that foregrounds the ways that a community has collectively produced a text—a literary transition from the individual to the collective that, she observes, mirrors how Mexican society is resisting violence through community-based activism. Together, in a context of profound loss, these new literary devices and activist approaches are creating new vocabularies and practices that help victims’ families both grieve and claim justice for their loved ones.

Today, most murders in Mexico go uninvestigated, creating an ambiance of impunity that has increased violent crime, including feminicides, and that has left victims’ families to investigate their own cases. Cristina Rivera Garza’s family is one of these searching families, though their loss occurred before the war began. Rivera Garza’s most recent book, Liliana’s Invincible Summer, which was released in Mexico in 2021 and appeared in English—rewritten by Rivera Garza herself—from Hogarth Press in 2023, is her personal contribution to the body of literature and activism of Mexico’s unresolved murders.

Liliana’s Invincible Summer details the story of Liliana Rivera Garza, the author’s sister, who was a 20-year-old college student when she was murdered on July 16th, 1990, by her ex-boyfriend, Ángel González Ramos. In a way, it’s a detective story. But it’s one in which the process of discovery is imperfect and only possible through collective storytelling.

At the opening of the text, Rivera Garza tries and fails to locate her sister’s case file. Like many other cases in Mexico, it turns out that her sister’s murder has no official record. She has to find other ways to piece the story together.

She begins with Liliana’s numerous letters and the notes she wrote throughout her brief life on notebooks, diaries, and loose papers. But even with that source material, Rivera Garza soon realizes that she cannot make sense of Liliana’s papers alone. She needs the help of people close to her sister—especially those who were close to her in the months before her murder.

The text transforms into a collective endeavor—a community archive documenting Liliana’s life. Alongside Liliana’s letters and diary entries, Rivera Garza brings together news clips from tabloids about Liliana’s murder, testimonies from Liliana’s friends and family, and her own reflections and memories of her sister. The community effort is also present in the graphic design of the book: The front cover of the Spanish-language edition of the book bears a photograph of Liliana taken by her friend Othón Santos Álvarez, while Liliana’s college friend Raúl Espino Madrigal designed the font used for Liliana’s notes based on her real handwriting.

Violence has changed not only life in Mexico, Rivera Garza argues in The Restless Dead, but also how authors write and understand themselves as creators.

Liliana Rivera Garza’s murder took place before homicide and feminicide had become an epidemic in Mexico. At the time, there were few outlets for support to which Rivera Garza could turn. For almost 30 years, she and her parents grieved Liliana alone and in silence, lacking the words to name what happened to Liliana or the tools to demand justice. “Faced with the unimaginable, we did not know what to do. So we shut up … resigned to impunity, to corruption, to the lack of justice.”

In the decades following Liliana’s murder, feminicides multiplied. “Dead women multiplied in our midst,” Rivera Garza writes. “The blood of so many rained all over Mexico as a misnamed war, the so-called War on Drugs, devastated entire villages and cities, clearing the path for … more death.” As deaths increased, so did the number of families grieving murdered loved ones.

Gradually, the mourners organized to grieve together and seek justice. In Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, for instance, mothers of victims of feminicide formed grassroots organizations, including Justicia para Nuestras Hijas (Justice for our Daughters) and Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (Bring our Daughters Home), to take on the work neglected by corrupt and indifferent authorities, such as conducting investigations and searches and even developing their own forensic methods.

Like Rivera Garza’s family, these families faced the challenge of lacking the words to name what happened to their daughters. So, as scholar Tricia Serviss argues, they created a novel vocabulary to denounce misogynist violence, express their pain and anger, claim justice for the victims, and support their public protests.

One of the most basic words the families lacked was a term for the crime that had taken place. Together with scholars such as María Marcela Lagarde y de Los Ríos, the collectives organized for Mexico to adopt feminicidio (feminicide) as a crime classification. According to Lagarde y de Los Ríos, femicidio (femicide, lacking the middle syllable) means solely “the homicide of women.” The families of murdered Mexican women needed a term for the systemic nature of the murders—“the ensemble of violations of women’s human rights, which contains the crimes against and the disappearances of women.” In 2012, feminicidio was added to the Ley General de Acceso de las Mujeres a una Vida Libre de Violencia (General Act on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence), defined as a form of “extreme gender violence.”

The family activists also brought a term for their own work into the public sphere: coadyuvante, a family member of a victim of a crime who actively participates in the crime investigation. Naming their key role enabled them to further their searches for justice: In 2008, Article 20 of the Mexican Constitution was amended to give coadyuvantes the right to participate in official investigations.

Rivera Garza and her family watched the grieving of other families of victims of feminicide in silence, until one day the others’ activism gave them the strength to break the silence and seek justice for Liliana. She writes: “The day finally arrived and, together with others, thanks to the strength of others, we were able to conceive, even fathom, that we too deserve justice … That we could fight, aloud and with others, to bring you here, to the language of justice.” The collective activism of other families provided her the vocabulary to claim justice for her sister, and taught her that grief is not an individual and shameful issue but a collective process of healing.

Since Rivera Garza published her sister’s story, Liliana Rivera Garza has become a symbol of collective activism against feminicide. The English version of the book includes photographs documenting the book’s presence in activism throughout Mexico and Latin America. One woman, dressed in white, raises a placard that reads, “Liliana Rivera Garza, murdered 1990, JUSTICE.” Another shows a group of women in a protest in Mexico City, with Liliana’s name graffitied behind them on the metal security shutter of a jewelry store. Readers have also organized collective readings of the book honoring Liliana’s memory.

While writing about Rivera Garza’s book in the U.S., I can’t avoid thinking that Liliana’s Invincible Summer offers a powerful message about collective organizing that transcends borders and applies to different national contexts. Here, homicide and feminicide aren’t often named as social crises. Yet the frequency of mass shootings and hate crimes attests to the ways that violence is also integral to U.S. society. Liliana’s Invincible Summer offers an example of how to start imagining ways to name collectively the forms of extreme violence our society suffers and to use the vocabulary of justice coined at the grassroots to grieve and claim justice for the victims of genocidal, gun, racial, and gender violence in the United States, too.

Natalia Villanueva-Nieves is a professor of Latinx literature and culture at Sonoma State University.
PRIMARY EDITOR: Caroline Tracey | SECONDARY EDITOR: Jackie Mansky
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