Kathleen Stuadt and Zulma Y Méndez
Courage, Resistance, and Women in Ciudad Juarez: Challenges to Militarization
University of Texas Press, 2014
216 pages

Reviewed by Mariana Rivera

In the face of an egregious culture of violence and an apologetic state that both perpetuates and erases this violence, community resistance is often the only option. From the femicides that took place in the 90’s to the militarization under Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s “war on drugs”, such is the case in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Courage, Resistance and Women in Ciudad Juarez: Challenges to Militarization by Kathleen Staudt and Zulma Y. Méndez narrates this resistance and enriches scholarship on resistance by gendering it. Their examination of Juarense activism on a grassroot level spotlights the idea that gendering resistance sutures together “the private/public divide, corresponding to female and male space.” It is this private/public divide that Staudt and Méndez seek to mend. They argue that it is women activists in Juarez making the hidden (at the hands of state erasure) public that has “laid the groundwork for the collaboratives and networks of current anti-militarization.” Using anthropologist James Scott’s work on “‘hidden and official transcripts’ that shape people’s lives”, Staudt and Méndez spend seven chapters providing vignettes of women activism and leadership, thereby creating a third transcript: a gendered hidden transcript.

Staudt and Mendez begin their more-than-a-decade-long trek through Juarense community activism by “historicizing and contextualizing the place” – quite literally the title of Chapter Two. In 1960 both Mexican and US policies cleared the path for production in northern Mexico and in the two decades that followed, “young women – about 80 percent of the workforce – constituted the vast majority of globalized assembly-line workers.” In this chapter, Staudt and Mendez illustrate the industrialization and subsequent militarization along the border in Juarez by vacillating between state displays of misogyny and hypermasculinity. Industrial decline is examined relative to the “‘first stage’ of protests” that followed the atrocious 1993 femicides. Their assessment of the femicides genders Scott’s “hidden and official transcripts” by providing vignettes of women “[unearthing] the hidden and [making] violence visible along with demands for justice.” Staudt and Mendez operate in the same manner in 2001 and 2004 with vignettes of protesters – mainly mothers of victims being targeted for speaking up against impunity – police brutality and impunity, and the Mexican state’s official transcript. The Mexican state official transcripts treated the 1990’s femicides as isolated events, not as methodical misogyny; the official transcripts treated the murder victims as either being gang-affiliated or “related to drugs and addictions and women’s nightlife.” Protesters both in the 1990’s and 2000’s rejected this gaslighting by the state, and the mothers of the victims carried torches of justice for their daughters. With the subsequent military occupation of Juarez under then-president Felipe Calderon the militarization of Juarez performed the hypermasculine erasure of femicide. Here, Staudt and Mendez successfully challenge the official transcripts of the state and perform their own counternarratives. Their argument agilely corroborates that the hypermasculine solution of militarization is a strategy “that induced high levels of insecurity instead and resulted in horrific numbers of murdered men and women.”

In Chapter Three, Staudt and Mendez center the 2000’s mothers’ protests honoring the memory of their daughters who are no longer with us as the leaders of resistance in Juarez. Two vignettes–the Villas de Salvarcar protests and Marisela Escobedo Ortiz’s unrelenting demands of justice for her murdered daughter–offer the public hidden transcripts which the Mexican state suppressed indiscriminately. When fifteen people were gunned down at a birthday celebration, this prompted a state public transcript, or “discourse that casts light on subordinates’ formerly contained voices in the presence of authority or the dominant”. It claimed that the victims were gang-affiliated and the incident was a gang conflict. This transcript was bolstered by president Calderon himself in a visit to Juarez after the harrowing homicide. A mother of two of the victims, Luz Maria Davila, interjected at a public forum led by Calderon, resentful of her sons being portrayed as criminals, instead citing “dereliction of duty of local, state, and federal authorities” as both contributors and perpetrators, thus making the hidden transcript public. Marisela Escobedo Ortiz’s daughter, Rubi Frayre Escobedo, was murdered by her abusive husband. Ultimately, Sergio Barraza, the murderer, faced no criminal charges due to a supposed “lack of evidence.” Since this act of impunity, Marisela Escobedo wearing only a banner with Rubi’s face printed on it, protested every day outside of several government offices contesting the state’s official transcript and pressing that the case dismissal was actually a result of Barraza being affiliated with the powerful Zetas Cartel. These two protests sparked a wildfire of protests that even the Mexican government couldn’t stamp out. Both vignettes flipped the official transcripts that “this was a war where the casualties were drug lords or cartel members exclusively…[dismantling] the notion that militarization and maintenance of the police state in Juarez were occurring to safeguard the city.” Acts of heinous violence can easily desensitize an audience based on how the publication of these stories are framed, which is exactly what happened when Juarense media outlets would frame the news and the victims according to official transcripts. Instead, Staudt and Mendez also repudiate the official transcripts and properly honor the memories of murdered daughters and their mothers. Their documentation of the mothers’ protests once again genders hidden transcripts, thus centering women’s courage and making them the source of hegemonic contestation. The evidence Staudt and Mendez provide robustly supports their argument that “women in Mexico…break the façade established in hypermasculine regimes that pretend to protect people through militarization and what activists see as the criminalization of social life.”

Chapter Four introduces the internet and social media’s traction in contesting official transcripts throughout the 2000’s into the 2010’s. Facebook became a hub for community grassroot efforts, alerts, and discourse. Social media quite literally brought hidden transcripts to the public via grassroots efforts to inform community members. With each activist publishing new information on social media, another community member was informed. With each day, the official transcripts began to crack and to crumble. The fissures created by this active contestation guaranteed that hidden transcripts could no longer stay hidden. Staudt and Mendez’s documentation of social media organizing, and their discourse on the militarization of Juarez, are important contributions to scholarship on the relationship between resistance and agency. The government and Juarense gangs were silencing voices, but as the saying goes, “nothing ever goes away on the internet”.  As community members gained their agency back through social media discourse, their hidden transcripts could no longer be obscured.

Chapters Five and Six focus on national and transnational solidarity with Juarez. Both chapters reject rhetoric of the border as a place only of chaos and violence. Staudt and Mendez present events of cross-border solidarity as evidence that the resistance taking place was not consigned to women leaders and activists, but rather that many efforts were made on both sides of the border to facilitate the leadership of Juarense women. Staudt and Mendez reserve Chapter Seven as a space of reflection. They reflect on their findings and their goals for this ethnographic project. They wanted to comprehend the relationship between “violence against women, hyper-homicide, and militarization.” In a city in which violence seemed endemic on an official transcript, a community led by women found its voice and made the hidden public, “with their no-longer hidden transcripts, Juarenses creatively and persistently resisted official discourses, frequently with game-changing women leaders and/or the organization of activists around the deaths of women and children.” Courage, Resistance, and Women in Ciudad Juarez: Challenges to Militarization is an important contribution to a growing scholarship on resistance because its challenge to official transcripts displays communities as multidimensional, resilient, and lived experiences. Its dedication to gendering resistance holds space for readers to appreciate resilient agency in the midst of monolithic erasure. The recounting of the community organization that took place in Juarez is an invaluable example for grassroots resistance against a subversive state that relies on intimidation, subversion, and erasure to graft together an apparatus of hegemony.