Review of Not One More! Feminicidio on the Border

Review of Not One More! Feminicidio on the Border

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 3 Spring 2020

Author(s): Catherine Chaput and Alison Moore

Catherine Chaput is an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she teaches courses in rhetorical theory and criticism, argumentation, and core humanities. Her research focuses on the relationships among rhetoric, affect, and political economy as they manifest within particular social, cultural, and political sites. She is the author of two monographs and multiple articles and book chapters.

Alison Moore is a PhD candidate in rhetoric and composition at the University of Nevada, Reno. She studies writing pedagogies through intersectional, embodied, and affective methodologies.

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Lozano, Nina Maria. Not One More! Feminicidio on the Border. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2019. 188 pages.

Not One More! Feminicidio on the Border, by Nina Maria Lozano, exemplifies the kind of scholarship that can emerge from in-depth, participatory field work. The book provides several site-based cases that engage a variety of materialisms—assemblages of things and their vitalities, but also the place-based materialisms of monuments and visual rhetorics employed by counterpublics and social movements—all couched within an historical materialist critique of neoliberalism. Lozano interanimates these different materialisms and, in so doing, adds much to our understanding of the ongoing feminicidios as complexly situated in the political, cultural, and economic intersections that frame agentive possibilities in border towns reinvented by neoliberalism. It is neither a coincidence nor a simple calculation that these feminicidios emerged in the 1990s at the dawn of NAFTA and its promotion of foreign factories—maquiladoras—along the Mexican border. Such free-trade zones have been disruptive politically, economically, and culturally as cities like Juárez were not infrastructurally designed to support large numbers of factory workers, the female labor force predominantly employed by these factories lefts gaps in the traditional family structures, powerful drug cartels already predominate these border sites, and the Mexican government appears compromised by both cartels and corporate power. Lozano captures this on-the-ground reality and its role in the ongoing feminicidios through a lens she calls border materialism, a theoretical framework that intersects new materialism with historical materialism. As she defines it, border materialism “retains the element of human agency, attunes carefully to the role of economic and cultural forces, and yet focuses on the importance of physical matter and the assemblages of things in relation to cultural phenomena” (8). Using this theoretical approach, the study grounds itself within neoliberal political economic structures and their assemblages in the border town of Juárez, Mexico.

In addition to this theoretical contribution, the book provides an important model for rhetorical field work. Rather than exploring advocacy efforts from a purportedly neutral, outside perspective, this method encourages “participatory rhetorical advocacy where the scholar-activist engages with community members” (11). Lozano has been actively engaged with local activists in both Juárez (the site of her case studies) and Chihuahua for over 15 years. During this time, she has participated first-hand in movement actions (protests and rastreos or searches), interviewed participants for a total of 423 transcript pages, organized and conducted an “alternative break trip” for students to visit these cities and learn from local activists, sponsored trips for the victims’ Mothers (a label she capitalizes to stress their centrality to the movement) to speak at her campus, and documented her experiences through photographs and video-recordings. This rich field documentation undergirds her case studies (selected to illuminate both the possibilities and limitations of using new materialist theory to study the complex relations that contribute to feminicidios) and enables her to “privilege the testimony from the Juárez families and activists” (11). Lozano avoids appropriation and misrepresentation by affording these numerous voices the same authority as any other primary text. Indeed, the detailed first-person accounts that anchor the case studies position this book differently than so many of its predecessors.

The staggering number of feminicidios along the Mexican border—nearly 2400 women have been killed and countless others are officially missing—has garnered significant attention. Overwhelmingly, however, these responses have faltered because they have not centered the Mothers and their organically produced groups such as Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas (Justice for our Daughters), Voces sin Echo (Voices without Echo), Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (Bring our Daughters Home), and Mujeres de Negro (Women in Black). Without a strong, historical, and contextualized, local perspective, responses tend to view the feminicidios through a singular, and frequently narrow, lens that distorts the intersectional complexities contributing to the ongoing violence against women in this specific neoliberal location. This book, which has been in the making since Lozano began her activist work in 2003, does not fall into that trap as it both privileges local participants and analyzes their movement rhetorics through interlaced materialist theories that account for the many cultural, historical, political, and economic contingencies contributing to the feminicidios.

Lozano begins with an overview of the feminicidios that have been making news for nearly thirty years by sketching four historical waves. During the first wave, 1993-1998, activists, scholars, and family members became cognizant of and began to organize themselves in response to the surging violence against women. During the second wave, 1998-2010, these groups started “connecting the feminicidios to the larger neoliberal economic structures of Juárez” (21). This understanding pitted the Mothers (who opposed the changing neoliberal landscape) against a government that welcomed it. Fearing bad publicity for the burgeoning maquiladora industry, the government began to work against the activists. They falsified evidence, harassed protestors, and divided the Mothers by representing them as hysterical and the victims as promiscuous. These tactics, along with straightforward corruption, prevented investigations as well as interventions. Nevertheless, the movement pushed forward. Three cases were brought before the International Court of Human Rights on November 6, 2009, and the court ruled in their favor. Dubbed the “Cotton Field” ruling to denote the location where eight victims’ bodies were found, the decision mandated, among other things, that the government build a monument to memorialize the victims and assist in further investigations. After this landmark victory, the movement stalled for a short period. The activist efforts of wave three (2010-2014), identified as the lost years, were overshadowed by the face-off between an increasingly militarized government and the drug cartels. With government efforts targeting the so-called “narco war,” feminicidios continued virtually unnoticed. Explicitly designed to counter this invisibility, the fourth wave (2015-present) demonstrated a resurgence of feminist activism that, importantly, included a more visible role for men. The activist work of this wave, explored through a new materialist lens, provides the material for Lozano’s subsequent case studies.

As a challenge to new materialism’s emphasis on enchantment, chapter two examines the assemblage of things in border cities—including transnational products, maquiladora workers, a municipal infrastructure that privileges tourism over local workers, and female bodies both living and dead. As women have become the major workforce in maquiladora factories, there have been significant ruptures to the social and cultural fabric of Mexican families. Children are left without childcare, teenage girls travel unaccompanied to work (often in the middle of the night because of continuous shift production), and men feel emasculated without sufficient opportunities to provide for their families. Given this context, Lozano concludes that “the feminicidios in Juárez are structural, not individual crimes,” inasmuch as “women’s bodies are vulnerable precisely because of their relationship to the objects and things both within and outside the maquiladora sector’s free-trade zones” (60). This assemblage of things is “never neutral” and “cannot be isolated in its properties and impacts” (67). Whereas new materialism ignores historical, cultural, and economic contexts in its myopic focus on things, border materialisms, as Lozano envisions it, examines the conditions that enable things like dark roads, female bodies, and exported consumer items to form a particular assemblage. Moreover, she highlights the power of human agency in the neoliberal assemblage of things by studying the ecological toilets produced through the Las Hormigas project. Living in the outskirts of Juárez, far from the factories and the wealthier communities that surround them, workers have only intermittent access to running water; consequently, they use outhouses for toilets that, with reoccurring floods, send raw sewage into the streets. The interaction among this flooding landscape, the tipping toilets, and these female agents, combined to produce a new thing: ecological toilets for use and for sale. For Lozano, such contextualized analysis is imperative to border materialism, but frequently absent in new materialism.

Chapter three furthers this critique and extension of new materialism by focusing on thing power. Lozano compares the government monument (mandated by the Cotton Field decision) with the impromptu monuments produced by family members of the victims. Walled off from public view, the state monument contains misspelled, missing, or repeated names, suggesting that the victims are “not worthy of public remembrance” and that the feminicidios are part of the past rather than a contemporary urgency (73). Alternatively, the activist-produced memorials, located at strategic sites such as the state attorney’s office, shopping centers, bus stops, and border crossings are designed to garner attention for the ongoing importance of anti-feminicidio efforts. By continuing to place pink and black crosses (symbolizing women and loss) at the places where feminicidios occur as well as in areas where tourists frequent, activists construct memory by reshaping matter. This chapter accepts the thesis that things have power, but insists on human agency as a key factor that “affords matter and objects their ability to ‘kick back’ against neoliberal hegemonic logics” (86).  The power enacted by these different memorials derives simultaneously from their producers, locations, and symbolic features.

Perhaps the most intriguing of such oppositional assemblages, the “Faces of Feminicidio,” as chapter four details, serve vital affective and rhetorical ends. These murals represent individual identities whose faces “haunt, protect, and comfort vis-à-vis the public’s tactile interaction with the objects’ location” (102). The project organizers, graffiti artist Maclovio and Lluvia Rocho, interview the Mothers and family members to determine the design and site for each mural and work with the community to raise money for materials. Located in neighborhoods, on school grounds, and, in one case, on the side a family home, these murals contain identifying features like characteristic poses, jewelry, and musical instruments that stand in stark contrast to standardized government images “produced in assembly-line fashion—a face and a rose” that reveal nothing “of the face’s life—the face’s corporeal history” (104). Here and elsewhere, Lozano emphasizes the human mediated interactions among objects, bodies, and publics, arguing that “the affect emitted from the murals’ properties is deeply foregrounded in the ‘behind the scenes’ work that Maclovio and Lluvia painstakingly accomplish” and not from the inherent power of things themselves (105).

The final case study examines the new materialist concept of vibrant matter or the vitality to nonhuman things. This chapter explains how a main sense of justice for the victims’ families comes from retrieving their loved ones remains—clothing, bags, and especially bones. The case study focuses on remains from the Arroyo Del Navajo just outside of Juárez, considered the “dumping grounds” for many feminicidios. To date, the remains of 19 victims have been unearthed from this dried river bed. Endowed with DNA, skeletal remains identify themselves with specific victims and thus lend credence to the notion of vibrant matter. However, these remains must be collected and often that task falls to community groups rather than government officials. If these groups find anything, they hold press conferences and pressure the government to run DNA testing. Without such activist work, these bones would remain silent in the Arroyo where they were dumped, suggesting that the vibrancy within things “is always influenced by larger structural forces” (119). Because community-led restreos and state-sponsored forensic specialists form part of the human apparatus that determines whether or not human remains are worthy of speech, new materialist accounts should not, she argues, jettison human agency in their analysis of vibrant matter.

Through extensive primary data and carefully chosen case studies, Not One More! illustrates how neoliberalism structures gendered violence as well as the resistant practices pursued by Mothers and other family members against past and current feminicidios. Lozano’s conclusion reiterates her main critique: “new materialism’s decontextualization of matter, through its disavowal of the mediated properties of rhetoric and human agency, in conjunction with its lack of attention to the hegemonic and neoliberal forces” results in a theoretical approach in danger of slipping from posthumanism into antihumanism (134). Although the many new materialist proponents she cites might quibble with her reading of their work, it would be difficult to find a rhetorical theorist or critic willing to dismiss the asymmetrical power relations between the government, organized drug traffickers, and U.S. corporations on the one hand and poor, young, female workers on the other. Such power struggles call out for dynamic rhetorical solutions and the activist politics that have emerged in the face of this locally situated but globally structured feminicidio have much to teach us about the work of producing economic, political, and cultural justice.