Rosa-Linda Fregoso

The Force of Witness: Contra Feminicide

Duke University Press, 2023

248 pages


Reviewed by Nathalia P. Hernández Ochoa

In The Force of Witness, Rosa-Linda Fregoso provides a compelling account on the power of witnessing human suffering in the world based on her extensive research of feminicides at the U.S.-Mexico border, which originated the 1990s Ciudad Juárez cases. The author advocates for the force of witness by highlighting the spirited resistance led by activists, NGOs, scholars, artists, and the overall feminist movement in Mexico and the United States. Feminicide is a global issue and can be broadly defined as the killing of female and feminized bodies. Feminicide is part of a spectrum of gender-based violence, and it is the most extreme form of cruelty that marks certain bodies as disposable and killable. Fregoso provides a thorough historical context of the efforts taken by Mexican activists, especially the mothers and family members who continue to seek justice for the fallen victims of feminicide at the U.S.-Mexico border. The author highlights the strength of the contra-feminicide movement through an intimate narrative of her experience as a feminist and socially engaged researcher. Fregoso includes a broad range of rich research methods, such as discourse analysis of newspapers and police reports, and her own experience as an expert witness of gender asylum cases from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras). In addition, Fregoso includes data from her interviews with activists, reporters, and non-governmental organizations. The Force of Witness at times reads like an ethnography, highlighting Fregoso’s deep connection to her research subjects and sites.

This book is a profound conceptualization of witnessing not only as an individual action but also as “a constellation of multiple social locations and practices.” The author refers to it as a form of “social relatedness.” In this sense, witnessing moves beyond the traditional legal and judicial traditions as proof and incorporates evidence of that which cannot be seen: collective agency, resistance, solidarity, and memories against necropolitical policies, the power of human life force. “Bearing witness in this sense means more than what the eyes can see, beyond an image-based process but is grounded in a communality of kinship and care.” Within this concept of bearing witness, social actors can build solidarity, practice reciprocity, and participate in social transformation to reclaim our own humanity. The book is divided into six main chapters with an interlude that creatively divides the book into three main parts thematically in dialogue with artivist (art and activism) pieces, such as The Wall of Memories: Las Desaparecidas, ReDressing Injustice, and Flor de Arena, which beautifully illustrates the political and transformational power of art.

The first chapter, “Chronicles of Witness,”provides an intimate reflection on the author’s positionality as a researcher and her overall academic and activist journey in the contra-feminicide movement within the U.S.-Mexico border. She describes how her initial research on the Ciudad Juárez feminicides between 1993 and 1998 and later involvement in the 1999 documentary Señorita Extraviada by Lourdes Portillo informed her academic searches and activism. Fregoso brings her personal experience with gender-based violence and her deep commitment to contra-feminicide activism through her writing and scholarship, which exemplifies true feminist vulnerability and a deep sense of solidarity. It is worth highlighting the author’s contributions to socially engaged, activist, and feminist methodologies by politicizing violence against women, trans people, and all feminized bodies, as well as in her concept of solidarity as a self-care practice, which is especially relevant to researchers who work on gender-based and sexual violence. In addition, Fregoso provides a detailed historical context on the term feminicide, violence against women’s laws and policies, and activist efforts in the contra-feminicide movement.

Chapter Two, “Mexico’s Longest War,” and Chapter Three, “The Artist and Witness,”outline the historical context and development of the term feminicide and the role of artists in witnessing the pain, sorrow, and search for justice in Mexico. According to the author, Mexico’s longest war has been violence against women and feminized bodies that continues to adapt to different social, political, economic, and cultural contexts. Understanding gender-based violence as social and criminal violence is limiting because: “[it] depoliticizes their killing and obscures its colonialist, heteropatriarchal, and capitalist foundations.” Feminicide is part of a long tradition of a necropolitical order established from the colonial period to the present. Within this order, conditions of neoliberal reforms, militarization and policing of territories, corrupt governments, and the drug cartels; poor Mestiza, Indigenous and Afro-descendant women are at a higher risk of experiencing gender-based violence and feminicide. Denouncing the complicity of the state in the systematic killing of women and feminized bodies contributes to the well-established context of the legal, social, cultural, and political impunity of these crimes. Chapter Three discusses the artist’s role as a witness through a practice of poetic politics and ethics to transform people’s minds and hearts towards social action. Fergoso delivers a compelling analysis of this dynamic through a dialogue with film director Lourdes Portillo and her documentary Señorita Extraviada.

Chapter Four, “The Art of Witness,”and Chapter Five, “Witnesses to Mexico’s ‘Living Dead’” discuss the role of civil society and domestic and international institutions in practicing critical accompaniment to “the living dead” who are the loved ones of victims of feminicide and disappearances in Mexico in their searches for justice and healing. “Acompañenos” is a crucial word for the art of witness, and it can be mediated through art. For example, in Ciudad Juárez, the use of pink crosses, altar making, prayer circles, protest chants, and large-scale memorials are used as a form of accompaniment for the mothers and activists in the mourning process and demands for justice. Accompaniment as a “disposition, a sensibility, and pattern of behavior that involves listening rather than speaking prematurely, and encouraging and respecting the leadership of others, rather than always presuming that role for the self.” This type of accompaniment can take place at the domestic level through community-led initiatives and social mobilizations, as well as through international organizations, such as the Permanent People’s Tribunal [PPT], to establish legal and cultural precedents for future actions to confront Human Rights abuses, such as feminicides and forced disappearances by state agents and other influential groups.

Finally, Chapter Six, “Stolen Lives and Fugitivity,” emerges from Fregoso’s work as a gender asylum witness expert. In this chapter, the author develops a profoundly theoretical and practical discussion around racist and xenophobic refugee policies and protection practices in the United States and their precarious humanity under the condition of enslavement. Her framing of refugees, especially those escaping gender-based violence around fugitivity—as a form of epistemic disobedience and a refusal to social death/bare life is inspiring and empowering.

Rosa-Linda Fregoso gives us a well-executed example of academic and artivist scholarship, even as the book could use an explicit discussion on art and activism as a tool for social transformation. This book would be of great benefit to scholars interested in having a deep understanding of feminicide, violence against women, and activist resistance movements in Mexico and beyond. In addition, Fregoso’s scholarship is an exceptional contribution to Latin American Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies, and Art and Performance Studies. Undergraduate and graduate students can use this text in courses centered on Human Rights, social justice, and anti-violence advocacy courses. Overall, The Force of Witness is a spirited offering to honor the dead and disappeared and all the fugitives who choose to leave and live.