“A woman kept alive by the sound of her voice”

The Femicides of Juárez in Isaac Gómez’s La Ruta

Near the end of La Ruta, Isaac Gómez’s new play that opened in December at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, teenagers Brenda (Cher Álvarez) and Ivonne (Karen Rodriguez) lie on the floor in Brenda’s bedroom discussing their favorite music. While this setup may appear familiar, Gómez has placed these girls in the slums of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where their lives are at risk simply by being young women. Their conversation on music turns to tragedy when Ivonne learns that her favorite singer, Desmaya, has just been murdered. Brenda tells her that is why the radio has been playing Desmaya’s songs so much recently. Ivonne responds: “A woman kept alive by the sound of her voice.”

Therein lies the energy of La Ruta. As a play with music, Gomez’s piece uses the sonic landscape of the women of Juárez to recall these mujeres’ legacies and present a nuanced depiction of how the murder of young women along the United States/Mexico border continues to haunt the region. Under the masterful direction of Sandra Marquez, the dreamlike quality of the production soon becomes a nightmare in which no one can escape. 

Women gathered together on stage

Pictured (Front, Left to Right) Isabella Gerasole (Women of Juarez), Sandra Delgado (Yoli) and Alice da Cunha (Women of Juarez); Pictured (Rear, L to R) Mari Marroquin (Zaide), Cher Álvarez (Brenda), Charín Alvarez (Marisela), ensemble member Karen Rodriguez (Ivonne) and Laura Crotte (Desamaya) in Steppenwolf’s world premiere production of La Ruta by Isaac Gomez. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Since the early 1990s, the continued murder of young women in the Ciudad Juárez metropolitan area has been a mainstay of the political reality in Mexico. At the onset, these femicides—defined as “the killing of females by males because they are females”—were largely unknown to the public; they weren’t investigated by the police nor were they discussed in the press. As such, the term femicide implies a certain level of inaction by the State. In nearly every way, these crimes have become institutionalized. In 1993, the femicides became the subject of international headlines when the mutilated bodies of women were found, adding to the legacy of violence plaguing the borderlands region. Now, nearly three decades later, the crimes not only continue to happen (between 1993 and 2010 there were around 878 femicides in the region), but Juárez is the only city in Mexico that has seen an increase in crimes against women. At the same time, the city has been the site of significant demographic and economic growth. In nearly every aspect of this endemic, Ciudad Juárez is distinct.

Given this tumultuous history, the femicides of Juárez have become the subject of an increasingly extensive body of scholarship and artistic production, particularly within the Latinx community. In literature, notable examples include Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s Blood Desert and Stella Pope Duarte’s If I Die in Juárez. Latin American writers have also fictionalized the femicides with representative examples being Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and Sergio González Rodríguez’s Huesos en el desierto. This violence has been the subject of the films Bordertown and Señorita Extraviada and in the songs “Juárez” by Tori Amos and “Mujeres de Juárez” by Los Tigres del Norte.

As expected, Latinx playwrights and theatremakers have also used the stage as a space to not only dramatize, but, more importantly, theorize the gendered violence that seemingly has no answer. La Ruta joins a growing canon of Latinx plays such as When Nature Calls by Josefina López, Monument to Ciudad Juarez by Claudia Bernal, Don Quixote: Homeless in Seattle by Rose Cano, The Dead Women of J-Town and Smiley by Victor Cazares, Mujeres de Arena: Testimonios de las Mujeres de Juarez by Humberto Robles, Braided Sorrow by Marisela Treviño Orta, The Incredible Disappearing Woman by Coco Fusco, and Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart by Caridad Svich. Mexican playwrights have tackled the subject with notable plays featured in the anthology Hotel Juárez: Dramaturgía de feminicidios. In addition, Jimmy Noriega’s production of Mexican playwright Cristina Michaus’s Women of Ciudad Juárez garnered much attention during an extensive tour in 2014–17.

Actor lying on stage, with another actor playing a guitar

Pictured (Left to Right) Sandra Delgado (Yoli) and Laura Crotte (Desamaya) in Steppenwolf’s world premiere production of La Ruta by Isaac Gomez. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Steppenwolf’s world premiere production of La Ruta brings this conversation to Chicago audiences. Inspired by testimonies of Mexican women who live, work, and disappear along a bus route in Ciudad Juarez, La Ruta uses live music to evoke work in the factories and protest marches. The result is a play that celebrates the Mexican women who remain resilient in the aftermath of loss.

The femicides of Juárez have become the subject of an increasingly extensive body of scholarship and artistic production, particularly within the Latinx community.

Despite Gómez’s meteoric rise onto the national theatre scene in the last few years, La Ruta remains close to home for him, both literally and figuratively. As he explains in the playwright’s note in the program, despite growing up in the very space where these atrocities took place, it wasn’t until he was in college at the University of Texas at Austin that he became aware of the femicides. Acknowledging how being male altered the lens through which he experienced his youth, as a college student he began the process of excavating stories from the border and educating himself on what was happening. Through fieldwork, Gómez collected the stories that create the backbone of the play.

As with most cultural production about the femicides, the lines between fact and fiction are blurred. While based on fact, depictions are fictionalized for several reasons. According to Gómez,

Every single woman in this play is based on a real person. And although some names have been changed for their protection, the violence they face and their resilience have not. I made a promise to these women that their stories would be heard by as many people as humanly possible, and through this world premiere at Steppenwolf, we are one step closer to keeping that promise—to bear witness and carry their stories forward. As a queer Mexicano from the border, I owe my entire existence to Mexican women. This play is for them. Para todas. Para siempre.

The fact that everything in the play is real is, perhaps, the play’s greatest strength. The audience can’t escape from this world, primarily because we live in it, even if we don’t think we do. Even so, Gómez does not steer into docudrama territory. Instead, he builds a “creative re-imagining” that ultimately leaves the audience fully part of the system that created this problem. As the audience left the theatre tweeting and calling Lyfts on our smartphones, we all must consider that the very devices we seemingly can’t live without are precisely the things that factory workers make in the maquiladoras along the border as they face exploitation and, in many cases, death.

Three women huddled on stage

Pictured (Left to Right) Isabella Gerasole (Women of Juarez), Mari Marroquin (Zaide) and Alice da Cunha (Women of Juarez) in Steppenwolf’s world premiere production of La Ruta by Isaac Gomez. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

While the reasons behind feminicides are numerous, these violent crimes often emerge from a source of long-standing gender inequities, which have been thoroughly ingrained in Mexican culture for centuries. Following the emergence of NAFTA in 1994, Juárez became a site to amplify these issues. Seemingly overnight, globalization enabled the city to become a trans-border economic hub. As the local economy grew, so too did its migratory population, which the city was not able to manage. In areas of the city with little-to-no basic services, maquiladoras proliferated. By and large, they use low-cost labor, many of them women. And not only do female workers encounter discrimination at work, but they are faced with long commutes through unsafe neighborhoods. On these desolate bus routes is precisely where La Ruta finds its story.

The thesis of the play emerges just past the halfway mark. As mothers Marisela (Charín Alvarez) and Yolanda (Sandra Delgado) are discussing how the man who murdered Marisela’s daughter admitted to the crime and was acquitted, the women have the following exchange:

            MARISELA: They let him go.

            YOLANDA: Unbelievable.

            MARISELA: Is it?

Perhaps this exchange was amplified by Alvarez’ masterful delivery of the final line, but here is the crux of La Ruta: while these happenings may appear to be out of a horror film, they are, in fact, taking place daily in and around Juarez. This unbelievable world in which men can admit to killing women and not face any backlash or repercussions for their actions is indeed reality.

As previously mentioned, Gomez’s use of music drives the story forward and adds emotional weight to the piece. Led by Desmaya (Laura Crotte) playing the guitar and filling the theatre with unmatched vocals, the music soundscape exists in a dreamlike world in which we are removed from reality. Sound designer Mikhail Fiksel both amplifies Crotte’s voice while at the same time removing it from her body. In fact, in one moment, Crotte’s mouth stops moving as her voice continues to carry through the theatre. The result is haunting and parallels how this woman—and others like her—lives in the shadows. Moreover, Gomez textures the play with traditional songs such as “La Bruja,” “Cielito Lindo,” and “Son Del Obrero”—but whereas these songs are typically sung by men, here women (re)appropriate them—and the stories they tell—as their own, effectively reminding audiences that while men may have written these songs and created the living hell in which the play takes place, ultimately women’s voices are the ones at the center and will be the ones to truly enact change.

Not only do female workers encounter discrimination at work, but they are faced with long commutes through unsafe neighborhoods. On these desolate bus routes is precisely where La Ruta finds its story.

The machista culture that Gomez’s critiques in his playwright’s note is fully disrupted in these moments. As the play progresses and more women join las desaparecidas, the songs are filled with a plurality of voices in addition to Crotte. This ghostly multitude follows characters through the desert as they pay homage to the fallen at the pink crosses representing Campo Algodonero, smartly designed by Regina García. While they have disappeared, these women are ever-present. This is further evidenced, again by García, through a faded desert landscape complete with missing person flyers with women’s faces pasted onto sandy concrete walls. At strategic moments, Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projections add weight to the production. The joy that projections of Fourth of July fireworks in El Paso bring to the young women turns tragic as projections of the disappeareds’ faces fill the stage once it is revealed that both Brenda and Ivonne have been murdered.

Women on stage in aprons

La Ruta. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Like much cultural production about Juárez’s femicides, the play doesn’t give us any clear answers. While Marisela’s protest speech mentions the varied responsible parties—the factories, the police, the government, toxic masculinity—the play ultimately reveals that everyone is implicated, including the women themselves. The neoliberal ecosystem doesn’t even allow female factory workers the opportunity to escape the troubles plaguing the border. By choosing to work at a maquiladora—a choice many of them don’t truly have—they put themselves at risk; what is supposed to help them hurts them the most. Shortly after Zaide (Mari Marroquin) pleads to her boss for the bus to drop them off closer to home because it is safer, she goes missing. And, perhaps, in a twist that most diverges from other plays about the women of Juárez, it is revealed that Brenda’s best friend Ivonne is the one that hands her over to her murderers. As she tells Yolanda in one of the most gripping moments:

            IVONNE: It was my family or yours.

            YOLANDA: No—

            IVONNE: And if it were you, you would have done the same / thing.

            YOLANDA: No. You’re lying.

            IVONNE: You know how this works, Yolanda, you know how they / work—

Despite her efforts to save her family and herself, Ivonne is still forced to watch the brutal rape of her sister and is murdered in the end. Put simply, no one is safe in this system.

In the end, I was left to wonder what role theatre can play in addressing these femicides. Nearly three decades removed from the moment these crimes became systemic, we are not any closer to fixing the problem as we were then. Women continue to be murdered in Juárez at an alarming rate. So, what can we do, if anything? Steppenwolf and Gómez point us in the right direction, educating audiences about these atrocities. By not giving us a cut-and-dry answer—by not placing the blame on a single entity—La Ruta demonstrates how this needs to be an ongoing conversation if we are ever going to reach a moment of genuine change. Gómez’s play isn’t the end of the road, but it certainly is a good place to start.

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