Death by Culture and Waste in "Desert Blood: The Juarez Murders"
Copyright (c) 2018 by Michael Rickard II
Editor's Note:The U.S./Mexico border is a hot topic right now but there are many issues besides illegal crossings, with economic factors impacting both sides in minor and major ways. One of the most overlooked horrors is the Juarez murders, a shocking phenomenon that is still largely unknown. with hundreds if not thousands of unsolved murders occurring on both sides of the border. Here is an essay I wrote on Alicia Gaspar De Alba's Desert Blood: The Juarez Murders. Spoilers abound:
Alicia Gaspar De Alba’s Desert Blood: The Juarez Murders is rich with the elements of borderland literature and uses the hard-boiled mystery genre to explore these elements such as hybrid identities, the clash between cultures, and the marginalization of both ethnic groups and women. Melissa W. Wright’s “The Dialectics of Still Life: Murder, Women, and Maquiladoras” provides context for De Alba’s exploration of death by culture and waste in the Juarez murders, as depicted in Desert Blood.
De Alba uses Desert Blood to craft a tale about the Juarez murders and in doing so, she explores many recurring themes in borderland literature. However, I will focus on the theme of marginalization of persons in terms of ethnicity and gender (in this case, women living on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border but primarily those on the Mexican side). This marginalization ties in with Wright’s discussion of death by culture and waste.
Desert Blood abounds with examples of how women are seen as expendable commodities, ranging from women as laborers to women as breeders, to women as sex objects, and women as the ultimate expendable commodity—women to be used in snuff films and executed. Even worse, the reasons that create and sustain this quandary are ignored, with the women themselves blamed for their exploitation through “death by culture.”
As Ivon Villa uncovers the many layers of conspiracy surrounding the Juarez murders, she finds a society largely indifferent to the deaths of hundreds of women. Women (particularly young Mexican women) are seen as expendable commodities not only for labor, but for their bodies. Their deaths are often brushed off as the results of the victims’ own perceived bad choices, creating a culture of blaming the victim. Ironically, Ivon is oblivious to that she is exploiting women as commodities too.
The concept of waste is related to how victims are blamed for their deaths. Melissa Wright addresses the concept of waste, including female workers on the borderland. “In a tale of turnover that is told by maquila administrators, the Mexican woman takes shape in the model of variable capital whose worth fluctuates from a status of value to one of waste” (454). As Wright notes, women are looked upon as having less value than men because it is claimed they have no loyalty to the company and they are not as trainable as men (thus lacking the capacity to become skilled, and more productive, laborers. While women do have value, it is of a limited duration thus they must be used up and replaced. Wright notes how, “Turnover refers to the coming and going of workers into and out of jobs, and it often comes up during interviews in relation to the problem of worker unreliability” (455). The concept of waste in workers relates to the marginalization of workers, primarily female workers. Wright notes how the Maquiladora owners and management see female workers as incapable of the same work as male workers. They also see women as carrying potential liabilities such as getting pregnant, regulating their fertility through means such as pregnancy testing and birth control, regardless of this being illegal. Not only are these women treated unequally, but the industry exploits them paying them far less than their American counterparts (this applies to men as well) Women who seek better wages or treatment are repeatedly told there are many women waiting to take their jobs.
The concept of women as commodities is also seen with Ivon and Bridget’s desire to adopt a baby. This leads Ivon back to El Paso, Texas where she will pay Cecilia for her baby. Cecilia, a terminally ill former maquiladora who cannot afford to care for herself, much less a baby, is a human commodity because her pregnancy will pay for the value she has lost as a maquiladora (due to prohibitions on employees becoming pregnant). When Cecilia and her baby are murdered, Ivon goes to “Plan B,” seeking to adopt a young boy. Ivon’s marginalization as a lesbian (which would make it more difficult to adopt, particularly in the late 1990’s) should make her more sensitive to Cecilia’s plight, but it’s arguable Ivon sees Cecilia as a commodity, rather than a person.
The ultimate representation of women as commodities is their use in snuff films. While searching for her sister, Ivon uncovers a far-reaching conspiracy where young women are abducted for use in snuff films. The violence towards women and their brutal murders is an example of how women are treated as the ultimate commodities—here to be used as human sacrifices to monetize a streaming site. The women are abducted and killed on camera, epitomizing human capital.
The concept of death by culture abounds in Desert Blood. Death by culture, “…points to forces internal to a cultural system that are driving the deviant behavior” (Wright, 458). Wright notes how authorities often blame female murder victims for their own deaths, claiming they are places they shouldn’t be and/or they are engaged in immoral behaviors that contribute to their deaths such as going to bars and seeking freedom from restrictive homes. De Alba shows this in Desert Blood when female victims are seen as being in areas they shouldn’t be. For example, when Irene goes missing, her presence in the colonia is questioned. This idea of cultural boundaries is seen when Irene and Ivon’s mother Lydia question what Irene was doing at a borderland fair. Even the people at the fair question Irene’s presence, seeing her as an outsider. When Ivon travels to Mexico to investigate her sister’s disappearance, she is repeatedly questioned what she is doing there, implying her presence is an invitation for trouble. Blaming the victim is a convenient way of ignoring more plausible reasons for the victims’ deaths. For example, the fact that women’s desperate economic plight force them to seek employment (and travel to and from work in dangerous areas) is generally ignored.
There are many borderland literature issues addressed in Desert Blood, but De Alba’s exploration on the theme of the marginalization of women dominates the work. This marginalization reduces women to objects whether it be workers, breeders, or human sacrifices, human capital to be used until they are treated as disposal waste. This is disturbing in a fictional realm and horrifying when one realizes its strong basis in reality.
De Alba, Alicia Gaspar. Desert Blood: The Juarez Murders. Arte Publico, 2007.
Wright, Melissa W. "The Dialectics of Still Life: Murder, Women, and Maquiladoras." Public
Culture : Bulletin of the Project for Transnational Cultural Studies, vol. 11, no. 3, 1999, pp. 453-473.