On July 16, 1990, Liliana Rivera Garza, my younger sister, was murdered in Mexico City. In the legal language of the time, which was used in the arrest warrant against Ángel González Ramos, my sister's ex-boyfriend, the crime was initially described as first-degree murder, which carries a twenty-year prison term. Later, it was classified as third-degree murder, with a corresponding sentence of one to six years in prison. Rumors circulating at the time spread the well-known story of a man in love: obsessed; incapable of tolerating his girlfriend's growing freedom, especially her refusal to continue the relationship; he “went off his rockers” and thus committed an act of violence of which few believed him capable. Romantic ballads at the end of the twentieth century legitimated him: jealousy, possessiveness, even control of one's partner's behavior, were seen as unavoidable components of everyday life, when not celebrated as proof of love.
It was not until 2012, when the term femicide was introduced into the Mexican Penal Code, that that act could finally be formally declared as a femicide: the crime committed when a woman is murdered for being a woman. The term, already being used in the streets, where women held marches crying out for justice, or in after-dinner conversations of the bereaved, since at least the 1990s, points to the systematic murder of women that demonstrates the deadly potential of structural gender inequalities. From that summer of 1990, when my sister was violently torn from our side, until this summer of 2022, the conversation about the violence afflicting women has taken a radical turn, becoming one of the most urgent issues of our times. But, what do we talk about when we talk about femicide? And, even more importantly, how can we speak about femicide without falling into the traps of patriarchal narratives and, instead, multiply alternative social grammars to its domination?
We talk among one another because, from the outset, we are then allowed to escape the bewilderment of our individual selves and to find others. We speak because a common language makes us intelligible to one another, that is, because we understand one another, which does not necessarily mean that we are in agreement. In fact, although it seems fixed and sometimes gives the appearance of being neutral, language is a field of action that is not immune from unequal relations of force, conflict, dissension, and shouting over one another.
Karl Krauss said that we don't speak in order to be understood, but because we are understood, which suggests that any conversation is already the consequence, and not the cause, of a mutual understanding. We talk among one another because, from the outset, we are then allowed to escape the bewilderment of our individual selves and to find others. We speak because a common language makes us intelligible to one another, that is, because we understand one another, which does not necessarily mean that we are in agreement. In fact, although it seems fixed and sometimes gives the appearance of being neutral, language is a field of action that is not immune from unequal relations of force, conflict, dissension, and shouting over one another. There are, despite everything, names that carry greater weight than others: forms of enunciating that are more or less widespread according to a social grammar that traverses and are traversed by strict hierarchies of class, race, and gender, and formulas that call into question what otherwise passes as normalcy. Questioning what seems given, the very territory that makes conversation possible in the first place, not only means running the risk of becoming unintelligible to others, but also, and perhaps most importantly, it carries with it the possibility of inaugurating a new “we.” Perhaps that is why it has been so arduous and, at the same time, a defining feature of the here and now, to carry out a broad and precise, complex and dignified, conversation about femicide.
It is very difficult to tell stories of femicide in the patriarchal language that not only distorts or obliterates gender-based violence, but also produces it in the first place. Modern Mexican literature includes a plethora of references to violence against women. This specialized critique, nonetheless, has ignored in its eagerness to remain in the strictly literary field the breadth of the problem, acting similarly to the state, which, for a long time, relegated violence to the private sphere. In the most widely read story by Amparo Dávila, “El huésped,” a manipulative husband, expert in what is now called gaslighting, torments his wife, imposing a strange visitor in her own home. Oblique (or not) references to aggression against women are abundant in Elena Garro's work, including “En la culpa es de los tlaxcaltecas,” in which frequent offenses, both psychological and physical, exerted against Laura by her controlling husband suffice as an example. Many of the most disconcerting scenes in Inés Arredondo's literature start from the structural inequality between genders, which give rise, as in the story “La sunamita,” to imposed marriages and abusive relationships that manifest a macabre eroticism.
But perhaps the most explicit literary statement against gender-based violence is by the Chilean Inés Echeverría, who, in 1934, published Por él, the novel that describes the murder of her daughter, Rebeca Larraín Echeverría, at the hands of her son-in-law, Roberto Barceló Lira. Based on her personal experience, but also the victim's texts, memories of witnesses, and legal documents, Echeverría composed a book that is both exceptional literature of the era as well as a denunciation, an explicit accusation against the predator and an allegation in search of justice. The story revealed in the book painfully resonates with stories from today: courtship that turns into marriage, in which the bride silently suffers increasingly varied forms of psychological abuse that soon give rise to physical aggression. Isolation from her family, economic harassment, and infidelities gradually decimate the will of the victim who, unable to tell her story as it unfolds, writes it in a fragmentary but constant manner in her diary. Domestic violence increases, multiplying like a virus throughout the house, until the moment when, faced with the victim's sudden resistance to a new form of humiliation, the husband kills her with a shot in the back. What happens next must be familiar to the family members of victims of femicide in contemporary times: the murderer's family closes ranks around and protects him, denying or downplaying the facts, subsuming them into the preserve of the private, or categorizing them as extraordinary acts, a sudden loss of control, as unfortunate as inexplicable, which deserve comprehension and not punishment. The attention generated around that case, as well as the connections of Echeverría's family members, made the exemplary sentence, the execution, of the murderer possible. But the narrative of a crime of passion, which has served the patriarchy to legitimize feminicidal violence, implicitly blaming the victim and exonerating the perpetrator, has been uniquely effective in justifying and then later protecting the criminal, mitigating punishments, or even helping the guilty evade the reach of law.
These are called crimes of passion primarily because there is a romantic relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. The official narrative, which can be found in legal language at least since the nineteenth century, is fully fulfilled when the murderer “leaves himself” or ceases to be the “owner of his actions” to find himself under the influence of an uncontrolled passion that is related, as cause and effect, to the victim's behaviors. Lisette Rivera, researching the history of crimes of passion in Mexico, has confirmed that, at the turn of the twentieth century, “judges and lawyers tended to justify the use of violence exercised by men against women within the family, especially if it was argued that he had appealed to his right to correction to reprimand any defiant or mistaken behavior of their wife or lover.” It is also a verifiable fact that: “the extreme exercise of violence was allowed when the element of honor was added.” Saydi Nuñez, who has researched the history of crimes of passion in Mexico between 1929 and 1971, has also found that criminal punishments against men who killed women have historically been less severe when there are reasons of honor and/or passion involved, thus contributing to justifying and legitimizing the mistreatment of women.
...the incorporation of women’s voice and experience is no minor issue, nor merely a thematic question, but rather one that requires a radical revision of legal and social, as well as literary, patriarchal narratives.
Those who tell stories of femicide without questioning the trope of the crime of passion tend to focus their plots on the perpetrator's actions, believing that they will find the root of the crime in his complex psychology or in the obscure individual motivations of his “outburst.” These narratives, which have equally dominated Hollywood movies, novels about women being murdered, and public conversation through rumor, dismiss the victim's voice or experience out of hand, and, when they do reference it, they do so as a sort of scandalous leitmotif that quickly makes victims' stories disappear. In the rare cases in which the plot welcomes them, on the other hand, there are abundant stereotypes of the bad woman, the woman with a past, who by escaping her gender obligations, incites or provokes her own murder. Thus, women become invisible as they are stereotyped, eliminating them from the stories just as they have been eliminated from life, which contributes to justifying and legitimizing the climate of unceasing violence that scholars such as Rita Segato do not hesitate to define as a war against women. Therefore, the incorporation of women's voice and experience is no minor issue, nor merely a thematic question, but rather one that requires a radical revision of legal and social, as well as literary, patriarchal narratives.
...it is up to us to formulate another starting point, another way of speaking, that is, of making ourselves intelligible to one another.
While narratives that still believe that violence against women is an extraordinary matter, governed by outbursts of jealousy or various passions that otherwise do not characterize the personality of the man in question, feminist texts have highlighted the structural and systematic character of this violence, making it clear that the murders of women can first appear as crimes of passion or emotion, but, in fact, they are tied to structural power relations. Therefore, we must stop focusing attention on the predator's motivations, and cover the vectors of power that emerge and grow in everyday life, which place women in positions of vulnerability, exposing them to danger. The stories by Dávila, Arredondo, and Garro, among many others, account for the myriad acts that make up masculine pacts, corroding family relations from within, in a continuous crescendo. The “violence meter,” a tool to measure domestic violence developed by experts at the National Polytechnic Institute, corroborates that femicide is the most lethal and extreme form of a series of everyday acts of violence that grow little by little, in front of the indifferent, or fully indolent, view of everyone. Turning our attention to the victim's experience means incorporating into our stories that plethora of minimal and terrifying scenes through which patriarchal law is enforced—a maximum that has not ceased to dictate structurally different places for women and men in society. Patriarchal language clearly covers and conceals both femicide and its perpetrators; therefore it is up to us to formulate another starting point, another way of speaking, that is, of making ourselves intelligible to one another. In other words, in order to talk about femicide, it must be addressed with that other language that describes the modes of violence and reclaims for itself, for all of us, the full enactment of justice and the radical transformation of what surrounds and constitutes us. Nothing more, but also nothing less.