The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Desert Blood: A Powerful Synthesis of Narrative Strategies

Desert Blood: A Powerful Synthesis of Narrative
Erica Haggerty

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The following paper is a discussion of Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s novel,  Desert Blood: the Juárez Murders, and her creative and purposeful use of narrative strategy to bring out particular aesthetic and social  features regarding the very real feminicides in Juárez that have and  continue to occur since 1993. I argue that her employment of the detective narrative with the use of subjective vocalization and the unity and tension between form and content in her work not only humanizes the Mexican women who have been made expendable commodities within their social milieu, but more importantly, it exerts a cogent shove toward working to end these acts of violence.

Heavily breathing, the sweat dripping down her neck, Ivon treads on the sandy ground of Juárez, Mexico, past the Kentucky Club, the penetrating stares and haggard faces, the bars, brothels, and ominous black crosses. Swiveling her head left and right, she looks for a sign, a hint, any indication that would give her hope that her sister, Irene, is alive. A desperate scrawl on the wall, a mischievous look, an anonymous phone call, and the plot thickens. The suspense is suffocating as one is sent reeling, struggling to piece together the mystery of Irene’s disappearance and the disappearances, rapes, and mutilations of the women in Juárez. Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s use of the detective narrative in Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders functions in this way; the reader is put on the edge of his seat as he is inundated with a succession of suspenseful moments and the accumulation of unearthed clues. Almost every chapter ends with a cliff hanger in which a moment of high tension occurs, similar to the ending of a CSI episode or a dramatic telenovela. Yet the kidnappings and grotesque murders in Juárez, Mexico are far from fictional. Over the past ten years, there have been hundreds of feminicides, and the cases have yet to be resolved. “According to non-governmental organizations working along Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, more than 500 women have been killed in Juárez since 1993, and between 164,000 and 220,000 migrant women and underage girls are sexually assaulted with impunity each year, with absolutely no Mexican law enforcement response whatsoever” (Goolsby). It is the failure to accurately address the murders and the more problematic silence surrounding them that Gaspar de Alba seeks to expose in her work, Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders. Through Ivon’s gripping search for her kidnapped sister, Gaspar de Alba informs her readers of the very real feminicides and the social structures and ideologies perpetuating them. Specifically, she provides a critique of the press and scholarly research for either sensationalizing, exploiting, or inaccurately reporting these acts of cruelty. Yet her thrilling and action-saturated use of the detective genre compels one to ask the questions: Does Gaspar de Alba’s employment of the detective narrative contradict the critique she makes? Is the detective novel in itself sensationalizing and cheapening the murders, making the situation into “a big telenovela to everyone?” (Gaspar de Alba 239).  While inherent in the “whodunit” is the heart-pounding suspense and the entertaining literary game of sifting through clues and new leads, there is something more significant going on within Gaspar de Alba’s narrative. Cementing the detective genre is Gaspar de Alba’s method of subjective focalization in which the story hones in on specific characters, isolating their perspectives within the work, and allowing for the reader to place himself within the shoes of the protagonist Ivon, the investigator Pete McCuts, and even the victims themselves. I argue that, rather than devaluing her work, the employment of the detective narrative with the use of subjective vocalization in Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders makes a compelling amalgamation. Through the detective narrative, the reader is familiarized with information regarding the murders and is able to experience the opaqueness of the context surrounding them. At the same time, subjective focalization empowers the presented information and context with emotion and perspective, allowing for the humanization of the silenced women of Juárez and a powerful critique against the inadequate forms of news coverage. I conclude that the work exerts a cogent shove toward working to end these acts of violence.

Gaspar de Alba’s employment of the detective narrative structure functions as more than a way in which she provides excitement and amusement; it is a medium through which the reader is given access to the truths surrounding the Juárez murders. In Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders, the plot is constructed in the conventional murder mystery style. The protagonist and investigator, Ivon, seeks to solve the mystery of her sister’s disappearance and that surrounding the killings of the women in Juárez. Moments of revelation, leads, and the disclosing of secrets propel the narrative forward, and the reader is inclined to put the clues and observations together.  Yet, more salient is the way in which Gaspar de Alba is able to weave in facts and truths surrounding the feminicides within the detective narrative. In the first pages of the work, the reader is already exposed to sprinkles of facts in the Ms. magazine that Ivon reads such as, “A dead woman’s body. 106 dead brown women,” (3) a quote from an actual article written in 1998 by Sam Quinones titled, “The Maquiladora Murders.” “It was the first comprehensive article in the mainstream U.S. press to draw attention to the Juárez murders” (Ballesteros 118). As the mystery slowly unfolds, the reader is presented with news bites describing a new body or measures taken in addressing the murders, as in the article Ivon reads, “The body of another young woman was discovered on the Mexican side of the Anapra hills near Mount Cristo Rey late Monday night…The mounting body count has prompted Mexican law enforcement officials to seek the assistance of the FBI in profiling the victims” (Gaspar de Alba 28).  There is a channeling of facts through which [the] reader becomes more familiar with the situation in Juárez.

Much of the information within the narrative is relayed through the characters, truths that have been hushed by the government, the press, and the police. While Gaspar de Alba’s characters are fictional, the serial crimes and the context surrounding them are true and are revealed to the reader. As Ivon’s cousin, Ximena states, “And that doesn’t even include the ones who’ve gone missing. We’re talking hundreds more. And some of them – I bet you this wasn’t in the article you read, since it’s a big secret – are American girls from El Paso and Las Cruces” (23). The reader is presented with information that has been hushed regarding the missing or the murdered girls, so that he would not have access to the common sources on which he relies, particularly news articles that fail to provide extensive or accurate coverage. One scene that is particularly poignant is that of the autopsy in which Ivon views the body of Cecelia, the woman whose child she is supposed to adopt:

Her head was turned sideways, facing Ivon, the eyes a milky red, the mouth wide open. The body was marbled green and yellow, the skin loose, the hands curled inward, toes pointed. Dark rope    burns on her neck. The thick flaps of the torso were folded back, but it was easy to make out the puncture wounds, one, two, three… Ivon counted seventeen black gashes – vertical, horizontal, perpendicular, diagonal, she’d been stabbed by more than one person, clearly- between the pink and yellow tissue on the inside. (50)

Here, a physical manifestation of the violent raping and murders with which the reader has slowly become familiar with is presented. More powerful than the distant death counts and the scattering of facts, the Juárez murders are made real at the discovery of the body. The reader is positioned in the autopsy room, where he sees the colors of the body, the “milky red,” “marbled green and yellow,” and “pink and yellow tissue.” He, too, can count the number of slashes. What the newspapers and other sources fail to relay is conveyed here and in similar situations within the detective narrative as clues, and bodies are slowly uncovered. Through Ivon’s investigation and sifting through facts, the reader is familiarized with the real situation and the context surrounding the violence. As the narrator describes Juárez,  “People like to pretend they can cover the sun with one finger, while the truth is shining all over the place,” (31) here the rays of evidence are made accessible to the reader through the detective narrative structure.

It is fair, then, to question why Gaspar de Alba chose to construct her work as a detective novel as opposed to other forms, such as a dissertation or essay, with which she could have also shed light to the truths surrounding the feminicides. The detective narrative is able to function in a way that other modes cannot: through the mystery and the slow disclosing of information, the exciting moments of suspense, and the frustrating twists and turns, the reader is drawn into the experience of those affected by the murders. The tumultuous moments of the novel convey to the reader what the families in search for their own daughters lived, and continue to live, through. Feelings of fear, stress, frustration, confusion, and powerlessness that those experiencing the very real killings – mothers, siblings, and friends – feel, are, to a degree, experienced by the readers as they become attached to the characters, befuddled by clues, and are made powerless by the fact that they themselves cannot access the truth readily, but have to wait for more information, if any, to come their way. For example, upon discovering Irene’s disappearance after giving the context of the murder with Ivon’s mother’s statement, “Santo Dios de mi vida, Ivon. Something’s happened to your sister” (121), the feelings of dread and anxiety in what is unknown is made tangible. The reader is disposed to feel anger and fear when Ivon is confronted with J.W. and the other INS officers. With J.W.’s statement, “Better do as I say, Ms. Butch. We got ourselves a reasonable suspicion,” (277) the reader, already invested in Ivon and aware that she is not guilty, is made to feel indignation regarding the injustices of the system that is working against the victimized women and their families as well as the constant anxiety and confusion regarding who to trust. Furthermore, upon seeing the body of a worker at one of the maquiladoras, Mireya Beltran, the reader is compelled to feel trepidation and disgust, “The eyes were gone. The face was completely bloated and purple, facial features erased, blistered skin crusted with sand and blood and maggots” (246). The horrors of the violence are clear and made powerful to the reader; with the pointed star carved into the flesh, there is a sense of foreboding and impotency at the idea that the devil is still in the present, in real life, and on the loose. Different from reading a scholarly article or journal, the detective novel’s withholding and slow revealing of facts conveys both how difficult it is to obtain the truth in a situation where women are silenced and the emotions surrounding this nightmarish predicament. Just as those directly affected by the murders are taken through a horrific mystery experience in which they are trying to piece together a puzzle, so too is the reader carried along through this disturbing story. Through the detective narrative, Gaspar de Alba is able to convey the clouded and anxiety-ridden experiences of those effected by the murders and draw her audience toward a real life, problematic mystery.

Yet employing the detective narrative poses the risk of passive observation; interest and the emotions experienced while reading the book do not guarantee their persistence once the book is putdown. As one reader posed a critique, “By presenting the story of these murders in this familiar trope,…Gaspar de Alba may unintentionally herd her readers into passive spectatorship; many readers may unconsciously take in the events of the novel in the same way they might consume an episode of CSI – detached and inactive” (Cohen). By employing the narrative mode of subjective focalization, however, Gaspar de Alba gives life and poignancy to the information and context that the detective narrative presents. Each chapter of Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders is narrated in the third person, yet focalizes or hones in on a character’s individual perspective so what they individually see and feel is relayed as if it was narrated in the first person. The reader is prompted to feel what it is like to have a family member kidnapped and to be kidnapped, violated, and slaughtered.  Gaspar de Alba’s inclusion of multiple perspectives, particularly the perspectives of the victims, provides the reader with a sense of the powerful reality of the physical and emotional strife caused by these acts of violence and establishes a connection between reader and character that may not be obtained through other modes of writing or forms of entertainment.

In particular, by isolating and presenting the perspectives of the victims, Gaspar de Alba humanizes the women of Juárez who have been exploited both commercially and sexually. They become more than a character in a drama, detached and consumable for entertainment or thrill. One of the things Gaspar de Alba seeks to accomplish in Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders is to provide an identity for the Mexican women who are considered disposable by not only the murders, but also by the government and those within their social milieu. In need of a way to support themselves and their families, many of the women work in maquiladoras or factories and are paid meager wages, are exposed to the dangers of traveling from work to the dilapidated colonias where many of them live, and are denied  governmental protection. “The pervasive representation of poor Mexican women as female bodies readily available for appropriation reinforces other cultural narratives that convert poor women into sources of value that can easily be discarded as they are consumed” (Schmidt Camacho 265). In Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders, the chapters that focus on the victims elucidate the fact that these women are inherently human and are more than a mere set of consumable body parts. In the first chapter of the novel, the reader is exposed to not simply the butchering of a young woman, but he experiences the murder through her eyes. Gaspar de Alba subjects the reader to a sensory experience in which the thoughts, sights, sounds, smells, and fears of the nameless young woman are made palpable. This is seen in the following lines describing the anonymous girl’s experience of being tied to a car and dragged, “Her tongue tasted of metal. All she could do was blink her eyes. The stars looked like city lights, and for a moment she felt like she was hanging upside-down, all the blood rushing to her ears, making her face hot” (Gaspar de Alba 1). The reader is subjected to the taste of the metal of the bra stuffed in her mouth and the suffocating feeling of “hanging upside-down” caused by the smell of the car fumes and the tightness of the rope around her neck. He can see the stars in the night sky as the girl gazes upward with feelings of impotency and hopelessness. As the reader proceeds through the scene, there is a sense of being inside of the girl’s head as he is able to follow her train of thought. This is seen in the following lines, “She remembered the ride at the fair. The Hammer, it was called, and the other girls had warned her not to get on, said she would throw up, but didn’t. She’d fainted, instead, and woke up in the back of this car with a man hitting her face” (1). The reader is led through her stream of consciousness as she tries to recall where she was before she found herself in this horrific situation. There is an intimate connection being established here, even when the reader does not know her name. Most powerful and disturbing is the moment where the girl’s body is being cut open:

She saw blood splashing, heard the tearing sound, like the time she’d had a tooth pulled at the dentist’s office, something torn out by the roots, deeper than the drug. Felt a current of night air deep inside her, belly hanging open. She tried to scream, but someone hit her on the mouth again, and someone else stabbed into the bag of water and bones – that’s all it is, the nurse at the factory once told her, a bag of water and bones. (2)

The reader is there with her as she defenselessly watches her body being torn to shreds. The sensations and feelings she experiences, such as the “current of the night air” are so concrete in this scene. Gaspar de Alba makes it clear that she is more than “a bag of water and bones,” more than a penny or a nickel to be spent. Through subjective vocalization, she makes a direct critique of the social conditions that dehumanize these women and allow for the continuation of the feminicides.  She makes real to the reader what is beyond hard fact: the women’s own experiences.

In addition, by using subjective focalization, Gaspar de Alba creates a safe and secure arena where the women of Juárez and their families are able to speak out. In an environment where Mexican women are silenced not just literally through homicide, but also through their lack of entitlement, it is extremely difficult for the victims and their families to find a place where their concerns can be heard. Although these murders have been going on since 1993, very little action has been taken by the government and the police force in Chihuahua, Mexico to stop the violence. In her essay, Alicia Schmidt Camacho attributes this not only to denationalization and the repercussions of this on the women who work across boarder spaces, but also to a pervading patriarchal sense of authority. Due to their more mobile lifestyle, “The government in Chihuahua has cannily seized on this image of women workers as prostitutes as a means to control women’s expression of labor power and political interests. Charges of immorality reinstate the patriarchal prohibition of women’s membership to the public spheres of commerce and political discourse” (Shmidt Camacho 266). As family members and friends try to find their missing mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends, as well as the perpetrators behind the brutal murders, the women’s so-called “lascivious” habits prevent anyone from viewing them as consequential. In Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders, Gaspar de Alba’s employment of subjective focalization provides these women and their families with a space where their voices are made clear. For example, through the chapters that focalize on Ivon’s perspective, the standpoints of all those who are in search of someone missing in Juárez are conveyed, “Ivon looked at the Polaroid again. It should have been me, she thought, standing next to you in this picture, Lucha. Without thinking, she smashed her fist into the steering wheel” (Gaspar de Alba 140). The concern and anger of those who are missing loved ones are expressed in these lines. By focusing on the perspective of Irene, the invisible women of Juárez are able to justify themselves as more than commodities, more than promiscuous “maqui-locas,” as they are labeled. She is an innocent young girl, an athlete, and valedictorian of her class, with a family, friends, and a future. In the following lines, the true characteristics of the innocence of many of these women are conveyed: “When she first realized the woman had changed the words to the song, she cried. Her mom used to sing her that lullaby when she got hurt as a kid: heal little frog tail, heal, if you’re not well today, you’ll be well tomorrow. That’s how the song goes. The woman had changed it to something ugly, to a song about dying rather than heeling” (174).  Here, Irene is being held captive and is listening to a woman who has changed the words of her childhood lullaby into one filled with darkness and death.  Irene represents the other kidnapped and voiceless women who have childhood memories, who are real people trying to make ends meet, trying to live their lives. Her perspective is the voice of all of the women who are silenced. In this way, Gaspar de Alba seeks to end the suffocation and muting of the victims of the Juárez murders. Her use of subjective focalization allows for the women to be heard.

Gaspar de Alba’s effort in providing these silenced women with a voice is also seen in her slips into free indirect discourse. Not only does she focalize and convey particular characters’ perspectives, but she also breaks the distinction between narrator and character so that the characters, at times, become the narrator of the story themselves. This is seen in the following passage where Ivon’s ex-girlfriend, Raquel, who was with Irene the night she disappeared, is thinking to herself:

If only Raquel had kept her mouth shut when she saw Ariel tromping around in the girl’s blue suede shoes, maybe Ivon wouldn’t have gone off like she did. Ivon was already mad at Raquel when she heard about the drug thing. She didn’t need to know the shoes Ariel was wearing were   her sister’s shoes. Why did I say anything? How could I be so stupid? (191).

Here, Gaspar de Alba focalizes on Raquel’s perspective in the context of Irene’s disappearance. Yet in the following lines “Why did I say anything? How could I be so stupid?” the narrative shifts from the third person to the first person perspective of Raquel. The story seems to be handed over to her so that she may interject, add onto, and express her own feelings and thoughts. This is also seen in chapters focalized on other characters, such as in the following lines, “Ivon walked into the bathroom and felt a moment of deja vu. Just a couple of nights ago, she’d been sitting here reading graffiti and planning out a new chapter of her dissertation. Fucking unbelievable how quickly things can change” (186).  Here, Ivon returns to the same bathroom stall she had been to, this time after her sister has been kidnapped. Although the passage is written in the third person, focalizing on Ivon’s perspective, the statement “Fucking unbelievable how quickly things change” seems to be in the voice of Ivon herself, full of anger, guilt, and anxiety regarding her sister’s disappearance. She is given a moment to direct the narrative, to say in her own words how horrifying the brutal kidnappings and murders in Juárez are and how heartrending it is to have one’s sister taken away. It is as if the narrator’s descriptions are, by themselves, not enough to convey the emotions and experiences surrounding the murders. Gaspar de Alba’s use of subjective focalization is further seen in the following lines describing Irene’s experience of being held captive, “Caner, that’s the one who wants to chop her up. Armando, the one who wants to take a dump on her. The one who wants to stick a knife into her behind is called Turi. I have to remember their names. Memorize their names” (172). Here, the narrator describes Irene’s experience as she struggles to remember her captives’ names. At the same time, Irene is able to exclaim in her own voice, “I have to remember their names.” Gaspar de Alba’s vacillation between the third person and first person, suggest her desire to hand over her narrative to the figures directly experiencing the feminicides. While deprived of the opportunity to tell their stories due to patriarchal oppression and violence, in Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders, the women are given the opportunity to narrate a story that has been so adamantly ignored.

Furthermore, in Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders, Gaspar de Alba’s use of subjective focalization serves as a strong critique of the sensationalist journalistic practices, unfeeling academic dissertations, and other modes of narration that have been inadequate in covering the feminicides.  Whereas coverage regarding the Juárez murders provides a distanced overview of facts and figures, such sources are unable to powerfully relay the perspectives of those who directly feel the consequences of the murders. Gaspar de Alba’s playing with perspectives and the melting of the focalized character’s voice with the narrative voice allow for this. What is inaccessible through a newspaper article lacking in adequate details is relayed through the concerns and fears of Gaspar de Alba’s characters. For example, the following statement describing Irene’s experiences conveys a perspective of what is not adequately told from other sources, “Irene is naked, so it’s easier for the woman to wipe up the piss and the shit that flow out of her. At first she tried to hold it, embarrassed by the smell and the feel of feces on her skin” (172). Such a graphic and horrific description of Irene being held captive here is one that Gaspar de Alba discloses to the reader, engraining this image into the reader’s minds, and making what has often been characterized as another sensational story, real. Profound feelings that cannot be accessed through very calculated descriptions from other sources are made tangible and poignant.  In addition, Gaspar de Alba’s use of subjective focalization provides her readers with a story that has not been censored or tainted by ulterior motives and ideological influences.  Within a patriarchal society, where women are dubbed unimportant and expendable, it is of no surprise that the effort to report and solve these murders by the Chihuahua government has been minimal. “The evident refusal of the Mexican state and federal governments and much of civil society to provide even the most minimal protection to victims signifies a collapse of law or its replacement with new forms of social control that render racialized migrant women vulnerable to torture, sexual abuse, murder, and disappearance” (Shmidt Camacho 259). While Gaspar de Alba’s Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders is fictional, her narrative provides both concrete facts and the emotions and perspectives behind them. She seeks to make real and urgent the murders that have been deemed inconsequential.  The unity and tension between form and content provides a strong critique of what sensational journalism and other modes of narration fail to do.

Gaspar de Alba’s, Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders is thus not a work to be typecast with CSI and other sensational works.  While the employment of the detective narrative creates moments of thrill and suspense, it is through this mode of narration that Gaspar de Alba is able to relay information about killings and make tangible the cloudy and perplexing situation many of those experiencing the Juárez murders first hand. At the same time, the use of subjective focalization in which the reader can experience the perspectives of certain characters, empowers the situation posed through the detective narrative with a tangible poignancy. The reality of these women’s experiences as human beings is made clear; they have voices that need to be heard. It is this synthesis of two narrative strategies that I argue makes the novel particularly moving and effective in establishing the murder of Juárez as a harsh and unacceptable reality. While each reader may receive the work in different ways, the novel’s structure makes a powerful push toward addressing these murders; both information and feelings are relayed so that the reality of the feminicides is something the reader finds hard to forget even after the book is put down. Awareness is, after all, the first step that precedes action. Gaspar de Alba states in her epilogue “I hope this book inspires its readers to join the friends and families of the dead and disappeared women of Juárez” (346). I believe that her book makes this a very real possibility.

Erica Haggerty is currently a senior at the University of California Berkeley majoring in both English and Media Studies. She enjoys reading and writing, particularly creative writing.

Works Cited

Ballesteros, Tara Fitzpatrick. The Legacy of Cultural Violence on the United States-Mexico Border: A         Study of Ciudad Juárez and El Paso. University of Kansas. 2006. Print.

Cohen, Alexandra. Class forum. 14 November 2011.

Gaspar de Alba, Alicia. Desert Blood: the Juárez Murders. Houston, TX: Arte Publico, 2005. Print.

Goolsby, Charles M. LibertadLatina. Libertad Latina. 2001.Web. 24 November 2011.>.

Schmidt Camacho, Alicia. Ciudadana X: Gender Violence and the Denationalization of Women’s Rights in Ciudad Juárez.  Print.

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