Tactics of Luchadoras: The "Alma" [Soul] of Ciudad Juárez
The femicides of Juárez are a popular theme, as attractive for the sake of literature as they are to the international press for the simple reason that they are a tragedy: they are an unresolved crime. Unlike other border cities like Tijuana, where there is only a single canonical work of local production, Ciudad Juárez figures as a protagonist in no fewer than three graphic novels by foreign authors and another three about the maquilas and the period of militarization by local authors. French graphic novelist Peggy Adam’s Luchadoras [Fighters] is probably the the least deterministic and most nuanced. It focuses on the problem of femicides, but it paints a picture of a city where the people are always in the foreground. Luchadoras presents Juárez as a lucha libre ring in which good tactics can result in victory in the face of strategies of domination. It also establishes platforms of simulation that question the limits between tactics and strategy. Luchadoras was on the “essential” comics list of 2007, according to the grand jury of the Angouleme Festival, one of the most prestigious recognitions alongside the Eisner prizes. Adam’s foremost work is Plus ou moin… a combination of four graphic novels that narrate the day-to-day lives of three cisgender women and one transgender person confronted with the judgmental looks that others cast upon their sexuality and lifestyle. The comic delights in the ordinary, in monotony, in the extremes between depressing loneliness and the difficulties posed by interpersonal relationships. Adam’s style is intimate with her urban characters, as they argue between loneliness and the difficulties of being a couple, the vital weariness and the drama of interpersonal relationships, all wrapped up in a reflection about the passage of time, the construct of gender, and immigration.
Luchadoras begins when the protagonist, Alma, goes to Casa Amiga to search out help to combat the abuse of her husband, Romel. When she leaves, he stabs her. The comic flashes back to explain the circumstances that have brought about the situation. Alma lives in a poor corner of Juárez. She has a daughter, Laura, and she works in a bar where her husband’s gangster friends hang out. Her sister, Estela, lives with her and works in the maquila. Over the course of the comic, news crops up about girls who have disappeared, some of whom are family or friends; their bodies later show up abandoned in the desert - sometimes tortured. One night, Alma goes to lucha libre, where she meets Jean, a French tourist who is just passing through. He offers to accompany her home. Romel sees her arrive with him and he beats her badly. Alma can’t take it anymore, and she asks Jean to help her hide. He takes her to his motel room and, when they can, they return stealthily to the house to retrieve Alma’s daughter. One day, Estela visits her and asks her to return, because now Romel is beating her. In the conversation, she learns that Estela has been sleeping with Romel. Alma becomes furious and throws her out. Estela falls and loses her baby. A few days later, the comic goes back to where it began, with the stabbing. Alma has bandages and it is difficult for her to move, but she has survived. She decides to hire a contract killer so that someone from a rival gang will kill Romel. The plan works, but tragically, a few weeks later, her sister Estela shows up raped, tortured and murdered, just like the rest of the disappeared girls of Juárez. In the end, Alma returns home with her daughter and Jean goes back to France.
The principle theme of Luchadoras is the problem of femicides in Ciudad Juárez, presenting two distinct cases. The first is femicide through domestic violence. The second is what Julia Monárrez Fragosa terms “feminicidio sexual sistémico” [systemic sexual femicide]. That is to say, it includes cases of women who are raped, tortured, and murdered, and whose bodies are later found in the desert. My reading of Luchadoras returns to the difference between tactics and strategy as established by Michel de Certeau to suggest that Juárez is presented as a lucha ring in which good tactics can result in a victory in the face of domination strategies. It also establishes simulation platforms that question the limits between tactics and strategy. Faced with systemic sexual femicide, the comic enters the neo-crime genre to expose and denounce the apparatus that makes mass murder possible. Juárez is presented, not just as the city of femicides where death cuts a wide swath, but also as a place where the alma - the soul - of the people, life, and social relationships are of the utmost importance.
Alma, luchadora libre [wrestler]
The comic walks through the varying tactics that Alma, the protagonist, uses to confront the problem of femicide. The story begins in media res in order to establish the principal conflict, when Romel stabs Alma. It is very significant that this takes place immediately after she leaves the Casa Amiga, the go-to organization for abused women in Juárez. The “failure” of that organization to protect Alma illustrates the difficult work that this sort of association carries out. The comic does not undervalue such work, but it is clearly a drop in the ocean, or a David before the Goliath-like machinery of femicide. Once this panorama of insecurity and institutional vulnerability is established, the comic runs through the various tactics that Alma employs to stay alive.
She relies on many tactics which we will cover, owing to their impact on the aforementioned events. The first is taking refuge in Jean’s room after her husband’s attack. She does not go to the police, a lawyer, or to Casa Amiga; rather, she flees and confides in another person. This action reveals the absence not only of a structure that can protect the physical integrity of a victim of domestic violence, but also the lack thereof for citizens in general. The second tactic is contracting a hitman from the underworld. It is a polemic solution owing to its effectiveness, because it is the only option that saves Alma’s life with the urgency that the situation calls for. The comic does not propose this sort of primal action as a form of justice; while its brutal efficacy does result in Alma’s survival, it also shows how the same murder is a likely cause of the torture and murder of her sister. Alma’s solution is contradictory because it demonstrates the perfect efficiency of the criminal framework of Juárez. Is Alma using a tactic or a strategy? Her decision forms a simulation that reflects upon the use of tactics and strategies, asking whether it is possible to shift from one to the other. Given that the police, associations, institutions, and judicial system are useless, what are the established sources of power? As a crime novel, Luchadoras reveals, criticizes, and denounces the uselessness of the Mexican state’s organs. At the same time, it is an homage to the indefatigable struggle of its inhabitants, the local response, and the resistance of the victims.
This struggle is represented metaphorically in the form of lucha libre, a spectacle that is characterized by broken rules and the use of tactics (not strategies) to win. The lucha libre spectacle of “Bestia salvaje” [wild beast] versus “Diablo” [devil] is the catalyst for numerous plot lines and a symbolic space for the main conflict. On one hand, it is a meeting place for Jean and Alma. When they lock eyes, the moment signals a mutual attraction that crashes up against Alma’s marital reality. After the event, Jean insists upon accompanying Alma for her safety, but she ends up threatening him with a knife, reproducing an incipient lucha libre outside of the ring. The misunderstanding is clarified and Alma explains her lack of trust as a product of the femicides. Thus, the city’s conflict is dramatized, with the dead women and their murderers. Lastly, a definitive shock emerges that transforms the second half of the comic–Romel sees Jean accompanying Alma home and automatically assumes that she is unfaithful. When he hits her, we are reminded of the fight that they just saw between “Bestia salvaje” and “El diablo”, and it seems as though that night, Alma decides to confront the beast by escaping from the house and searching for a way to “defeat” her husband. The night of lucha libre is the inflection point that marks a before-and-after in Alma’s life. In a general sense, if the rules of lucha libre were made to be broken, the comic appears to describe Juárez as a giant ring where every adversary wrestles simultaneously and where the protagonist, like the wrestlers, acts through tactics - be that by walking armed through the streets or by hiring killers.
Estela, the systemic sexual femicide
Furthermore, Estela is a narrative element that opens the door of the maquila for us. In it, we see the framework of human trafficking in which bus drivers, the supervisor, and agents from outside the sweatshop work together in order to kidnap workers. Estela ends up being a victim of this slave trade, and her remains appear in a vacant lot at the end of the comic. There are no witnesses, and no one has any idea who might has wanted to torture this girl. What tactics can be used against the strategy of organized crime, against such a well-oiled machine? The reader must answer that question.
The “alma” [soul] of Juárez
University of California, Los Angeles
Translated by Michael Redzich
Esther Claudio is a PhD student at the Spanish and Portuguese department of UCLA. She organized the International Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels in Madrid (November 9-12, 2011) and is co-editor of On the Edge of the Panel: Essays on Comics Criticism (2015). She was founder and editor for the comicsgrid.com and she is now editor of the academic journal Mester. She is interested in experimental graphic novels, specifically in interactive and non-linear reading, fragmentariness, urban narratives, and borders. Some of the artists she includes in her research are Chris Ware, David Mazzuchelli, and Brecht Evens, as well as Spanish artists Paco Roca and Miguelanxo Prado.
Michael Redzich is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He earned degrees in Spanish and Letters, and intends to pursue a legal education upon graduation. Michael came to OU in 2013 from Jackson, Wyoming, where he grew up with his parents and one brother. He spent the past two years living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and looks forward to seeing more of Latin America: the places, the people, the literature, and more.
LALT No. 6 goes from the gripping true stories of literary journalism to the strange worlds of fantastic short stories and graphic literature. We highlight chronicles by Colombian journalist Alberto Salcedo Ramos, speculative fiction in a dossier curated by Mexican writer Alberto Chimal, and Yucatec Maya poetry and prose in our ongoing Indigenous Literature series.