Tactics of Luchadoras: The "Alma" [Soul] of Ciudad Juárez

 

All drawings by Peggy Adam from Luchadoras.

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

Not every character throws herself into the ring. The comic offers various sorts of contradictory women and characters. On one hand, Alma is a femme fatale from a noir novel, an empowered women who appears to offer hope or at the very least to legitimize a way out of a difficult situation. On the other, her sister Estela is sweet, understanding, and romantic - but very fearful. In appearance, she is innocent and she supports her sister as much as she possibly can, but we quickly learn that she is having an affair with Romel and that she is pregnant. Upon confronting each other, the women demonstrate two opposing views of femininity. Neither of them, however, is aware of the extent of her imperfections; one of them is strong, finding a solution for herself, but overly aggressive. The other is more peaceful, but defenseless. In this manner, the work demonstrates the normalization of the sort of violence that does not prevent Estela from having a relationship with Romel, even after seeing him beat her sister.

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.

Meanwhile, Laura (Alma’s daughter) watches and attempts to learn. She learns that she always comes second to those around her, even those who are only passing through and dispensable, like Jean (Fig. 1), who leaves shortly after beginning his romance with Alma. This indifference is expressed metaphorically in the form of the dead cat (Fig. 2). In this scene, Laura finds the gutted animal on the patio and begins to play with it, reinserting its guts so it can come back to life. She doesn’t care very much, because cats have nine lives anyway. When her mother calls her in to eat, she simply gets rid of the body by throwing it over the fence. In a very concise and impactful manner, the cat operates as a metaphor for the indifference that meets the femicides, the indifference toward the suffering of the most vulnerable communities, and the indifference that she - Laura - receives from her family, only to be reproduced upon the animal. The gutted cat that she plays with and throws into the gutter when it is time for dinner is, in fact, herself. She is forgotten by nearly everybody, except her mother. In an intradiagetic way, the cat is also a metaphor for Alma, who is resurrected several times, just like a cat with nine lives. She comes back again and again from her husband’s beatings, she survives the mortal wound that appeared to take her life, and she revives once more when Jean abandons her and she ends up alone with her daughter to start a new life. Perhaps Laura also learns that people can always start life anew, just like cats.

 

The “alma” [soul] of Juárez

In Luchadoras, Juárez is constantly present, and yet there is hardly any mention of it. The author comments that a city “is made by the people who live within it. So, I focused on the people and not so much on the setting - just enough so you can recognize you’re in Mexico.” The characters are always what jump out on the page because for Adam, Juárez is her people; it is what they live, express, enjoy, and fear.

A connection can be established between the main character and the place. Alma [soul] is the soul of Juárez, resurrected again and again like a cat with nine lives. She is just like the city that rebuilds itself without stopping the violence, systemic sexual femicide, and injustice. Thus, Alma’s wounded body, beaten and mistreated but strong, with death tattooed on its arm, serves as a metaphor for the bio-politics that operates exceptionally within Juárez. There, state-sponsored violence, present through the impunity of the aggressors, strikes at each and every one of its citizens, alongside every victim. The antithesis of Alma is the unnamed killer (Fig. 3). Adam draws him hooded, wearing black like a contemporary angel of death who has misplaced his scythe. He moves freely throughout the entire city; he knows no limits, he is omnipresent, and just like death itself, he does not make distinctions. Death circles about Juárez in the from of a hooded young man.

The comic creates a map of femicide in Juárez. Practically none of the represented locations (the bar, Alma’s house, the area surrounding Casa Amiga, the maquila…) is free of some sort of machista violence, authentic in its many hues. Parallelisms may be traced in small details that create an interesting tressage; that is to say, a relationship between vignettes on different pages that are woven throughout the work as leitmotifs. For example, in Figures 4 and 5, the vignettes establish a connection between the beginning and end of Estela’s kidnapping. The horizontal nature of the bus, of which we only see half, “finishes” three pages later in the pickup truck that picks up Estela to kidnap her. Together with the bus is the boy without a name, and together with the truck, Estela. The parallelism graphically demonstrates a direct connection between the daily routine of work and death within the web of human trafficking for the maquila and Estela’s disappearance. The elongated vignettes also impose a sort of calming rhythm upon the natural manner with which the victim trusts the people who are walking casually by, seeming to offer to take her home. The placidity of the description underscores the mundane nature of the murders, along with a life that does not pause for tragedy.

The desert, nature’s margin, becomes one of the central points on the map of femicide. Over the course of the work, it appears one brushstroke at a time, whenever a body is found. The exceptions are the famous murders of the Cerro del Cristo Negro [Hill of the Black Christ] (Fig. 6), one of the most imposing visual metaphors of the comic. In a single vignette that takes up two thirds of one page, the impunity with which the femicides are committed is expressed, the figure of Christ dominating the city but turning his back indifferently to the bodies at his feet. On the next page (Fig. 7), next to the figure of Christ, the vignettes “trim off” the dismembered bodies, cover the faces, and reify the cadavers, insisting upon their objectification as results of violence. The black and white drawing allows the red color of the blood to fuse with the black; it also seems to depict a mountain of bloodshed emanating from Christ. Taken another way, the tressage of the page facilitates a connection between the blood of the bodies and the salsa on Jean’s tamales (Fig. 8) a few pages earlier. This presents an interesting metaphor for the women devoured by the “femicide machine.” They become mass produced bodies, like fast food that can be consumed and tossed aside with ease.

 The work shows the difficult tension that exists between the “alma” [soul] of Juárez, with its characters so full of life, and the structural violence that overlaps with their routine. The desert ceases to be the marginal place that once occupied a privileged space in the social imagination, instead making death present in day-to-day life like the night owls and buzzards that circle in the comic.

 

Coda

Luchadoras presents the problem of femicides in Ciudad Juárez through two distinct cases: that of abuse, and that of “systemic sexual femicide.” The resolution of the conjugal conflict questions the marginal nature of organized crime, which is presented more as a strategy of power than as a tactic. This aspect of its character is highlighted through the connection with the disappearance and torture of the workers in the maquila, like Estela. Impunity and indifference serve to grease the femicide machine that works flawlessly throughout the city. The desert overtakes the city and fills the collective imagination with bodies, which fly over the characters' paths like the birds in the comic. In such conditions, it would appear that the city finds itself in a perpetual state of emergency. Nevertheless, Peggy Adam gives nuance to this deterministic speech with descriptiveness that privileges the lives of its inhabitants, a descriptiveness that gives them a voice in an everyday setting free of shrillness. The comic rejects their victimization and presents itself as an homage to the luchadoras who, like cats with nine lives, come back to life again and again, in spite of the obstacles in their path.

Esther Claudio
University of California, Los Angeles

Translated by Michael Redzich

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LALT No. 6
Number 6

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. 

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Autor destacado: Alberto Salcedo Ramos

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