Maquilápolis (City of factories). Directed by Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2006. 68 minutes.
Señorita Extraviada, Missing Young Woman. Directed by Lourdes Portillo. New York: Women Make Movies, 2001. 74 minutes.
Bajo Juárez, la Ciudad Devorando a Sus Hijas (Bajo Juárez, the city devouring its daughters). Directed by Alejandra Sánchez and José Antonio Cordero. Mexico City: Mexican Film Institute, 2006. 96 minutes.
Violent and oppressive, the situation at the Mexico-United States border illustrates some effects of “gore capitalism.” This concept has been coined by Sayak Valencia as a theoretical tool to reinterpret the economics of globalization in areas where predatory exploitation is erected as part of the logic of the market.1 Valencia explains how the brutality of crime in Mexico responds to the need to make profit at all costs: the gradual destruction of the human body by the structural violence of neoliberalism now completed by the action of bullets.
Moreover, gore capitalism is sustained by a rigid construction of gender and, especially, by the association of masculinity with violence. In a feminist revision of Johan Galtung’s theory of violence, Catia Confortini asserts that a gendered perspective can indicate how the three components of the violence triangle (direct, structural, and cultural violence) are interrelated: “the different levels of violence cannot be viewed in isolation from each other, and they cannot be viewed as independent from the social construction of hegemonic identities, be it hegemonic masculinities or hegemonic races.”2
Taking these ideas as starting point, I propose some reflections on three documentaries that show how the violence triangle operates against women in Ciudad Juárez, a city located in the Mexican border state of Chihuahua. Femicides occupy the tip of the iceberg of direct violence, but there’s also a pervasive culture that praises the violent character of the Mexican macho and that divides women into whores and saints. And as a backdrop, there’s ruthless structural violence that condemns millions of people to a slow death, invisible and exploited. Still, the three films manage to show how, even under terrible circumstances, there is agency and strength to look for a change.
The product of a collective work, in which much of the material was shot and edited by the film subjects themselves, Maquilápolis tells the story of various maquila workers that, facing unbearable exploitation, become courageous activists.3 Maquiladoras are factories of transnational assembly that have been installed in various third world countries since the 1960s. Women under 35 years compose most of this workforce and their circumstances reflect the structural violence that “shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances.”4
One of the main characters, Carmen Durán, does not have the support of another wage earner: she alone takes care of herself and her three children. She talks about the damage to her health due to contact with chemicals at the maquiladora (“I would get nosebleeds”) or the discipline to which she was subjected in her working hours (“I got a kidney disease because they don’t let you drink water, nor go to the bathroom”). She was fired but, along with other workmates, managed to win a lawsuit against a company that had denied them their fair liquidation under federal labor laws.
Another struggle portrayed in Maquilápolis is the one carried out by Lourdes Luján, a retired maquila worker. She is active in a local environmental justice collective demanding the cleaning of an area located in an industrial park, just upstream of the neighborhood where she lives with her family. A maquiladora that recycled batteries once occupied the site but was closed in 1994 for violating national environmental laws. The owner then fled to San Diego, leaving thousands of tons of garbage in the open air, including 7,000 tons of lead.
The maquiladora industry’s indirect violence serves as an ideal field for direct violence to flourish, which has its clearest manifestation in the kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of hundreds of women that have occurred in Ciudad Juárez since 1993. As Melissa Wright explains, the practices of the maquilas reveal a system that supports itself in the reproduction of disposable women: young, working-class immigrants who are murdered with total impunity.5 The stories behind these femicides are told in Señorita Extraviada and Bajo Juárez, la Ciudad Devorando a Sus Hijas.6
"I came to Juarez to witness the silence and the mystery surrounding the death of hundreds of women": the voice of Señorita Extraviada’s director, Lourdes Portillo, introduces the viewer to this city where violence against women is deployed in concentric circles, including prejudices and stereotypes and the punishment of those who transgress the rules or find themselves in a vulnerable situation, being poor, disabled, lesbian, and/or a migrant. When women's bodies began to appear in the desert of Chihuahua, the authorities said that they were prostitutes—implying that somehow the women were at fault for this outcome—even going so far as to propose a curfew for “decent” women not to leave their homes at “improper” hours. By distinguishing between “good and bad” women, these statements legitimize the murders.
Furthermore, interviewed in 2005 for the documentary Bajo Juárez, the head of the Special Prosecutor for Attention to the Murders of Women in Ciudad Juárez, María Lopez Urbina, says that the solution to stop crimes is that each father resumes his authority, not allowing his daughters to return home at six o'clock in the morning. Ironically, in the following sequence, we see a young woman saying that her shift in the maquiladora is precisely from 11:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. While most of the victims are particularly vulnerable women, the impact of femicide is extended to all women: limited mobility, perennial fear, restricted use of public spaces, and the omnipresent potential of threat represent part of the price to pay for their gender condition.
It should be noted that both documentaries do not only denounce the system’s corruption, gender bias, and negligence; they also show the struggle for justice carried out by the families of the victims. In Bajo Juárez, for example, we follow the mother of a murdered girl, Norma Garcia Andrade, who tries to turn grief into strength and demands justice through the civil association Our Daughters Back Home.
Consciousness can be born out of mourning. As Judith Butler states: “Many people think that grief is privatizing, that it returns us to a solitary situation and is, in that sense, depoliticizing. But I think it furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order, and it does this first of all by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility.”7 The pain of such an extreme exposure to violence reveals the innate vulnerability of human bodies. But beyond a violent response or passive resignation, understanding this basic interdependence can lead to other possibilities of agency, those capable of balancing autonomy and solidarity.
To sum up, Maquilápolis, Señorita Extraviada and Bajo Juárez are well-crafted documentaries that can be used in the classroom to discuss structural, cultural, and direct violence against women in the context of capitalism. Besides, instead of giving a portrait of women as passive victims, they manage to show them as agents of change.
1 Sayak Valencia, Capitalismo Gore (Madrid: Melusina, 2010), 15.
2 Catia C. Confortini, “Galtung, Violence, and Gender: The Case for a Peace Studies/Feminism Alliance,” Peace & Change 31, no. 3 (2006): 357.
3 A discussion guide and other downloadable resources about Maquilápolis.
4 Johan Galtung cited by Confortini, “Galtung, Violence, and Gender,” 336.
5 Melissa W. Wright, Disposable Women and Other Myths of Global Capitalism (New York: Routledge, 2006), 87-89.
6 A femicide is defined as “the misogynist killing of women by men and is a form of a continuum of sexual violence. . . . All the factors and all the policies that end the lives of women are tolerated by the state and other institutions" (Julia Monárrez Fragoso, “Feminicidio Sexual Serial en Ciudad Juárez 1993-2001,” Debate Feminista 13, no. 25 : 283; my translation).
7 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004), 22.