Women, justice, and Juárez

An interview with Phoebe Gloeckner

Phoebe Gloeckner is a medical illustrator, comics artist and art professor at the University of Mic,higan at Ann Arbor. Two of her better known works are her illustrations for J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, which were published by the seminal alternative publishing house RE/SEARCH in 1990, and her semi-autobiographical comics The Diary of a Teenage Girl: an Account in Words and Pictures (Frog Press, 2002). Recently, besides her teaching work, she has been working on an artistic project on the subject of the muertas de Juárez.

[Lea la versión en español]

Surprisingly —or not?—, the Mexican media knows close to nothing about this project, despite the so-called interest on it.

Phoebe Gloeckner

I contacted her requesting an interview for M Semanal, Milenio Diario newspaper’s weekly magazine. After I first communicated with her, she let me know she had checked M Semanal’s online version “and on the front page is the article, ‘Mexico, where the gringos come to die’ (México, donde los gringos vienen a morir). Coincidentally, I was about to leave for Ciudad Juarez… so the title of the article seemed funny at the time… I guess”.

During the interview, Phoebe, who happened to be a really nice, accessible person, elaborated on the subjects I asked her about. The final version —which made it to the cover of the magazine as the week’s subject— is shorter than the original one. We present it to the readers of Replicante in both, the English and Spanish forms.

The muertas de Juárez

—What impulsed you to working on this specific subject? When did you find out about the feminicides in Juárez?
—Sometime in 2003, a few months after finishing a book (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), I was contacted by an actress who asked me to travel to Ciudad Juarez to get material for a story about the apparently large numbers of women murdered there. The story was for a book that was to benefit Amnesty International. I felt like I was an unlikely choice for a story about Mexico —I didn’t even speak Spanish, and at the time, I had been to Mexico only once— Tijuana for a couple hours with a group of American cartoonists (Tom Tomorrow, Paul Mavrides, and Caryn Leschen, I think…) as a distraction from the San Diego Comic Con.
The book (I Live Here, published by Pantheon, 2008) was a collection of pieces by many authors and artists about world issues affecting women and girls. The actress, who was also the editor of the book, had a rigid political agenda she hoped would be expressed and supported by the project. From the very beginning, this was a problem for me. I felt a real responsibility, as an artist, to explore the situation for myself before drawing any conclusions about what was happening in Juarez, and why. For the most part, my first trip to Juarez (in November of 2003, with the actress) was highly controlled. We interviewed subjects that met certain criteria (they were mothers of murdered daughters, AND were part of a wave of “economic immigrants” who had moved to Juarez from other parts of Mexico to get jobs in the American and Canadian maquiladoras). It seemed to be a “given” that the women had been murdered because of their connection to the foreign factories, and therefore, “Globalization” could be blamed for their deaths.
I immediately had to question this conclusion. Sexual murders are, I imagine, intimate actions that express intolerable disturbance in the inner life of the perpetrator. It was impossible for me to imagine that politics could be to blame, even though political and social factors could facilitate the behavior of the individual. As I looked through the lists of murdered women (which had been compiled from local papers PM, El Diario, El Mexicano, and others), it seemed that most of the murders, although not solved, were assumed to have been committed by husbands, boyfriends, or other acquaintances, acts of domestic violence. And, in actuality, few of the victims were employed in maquiladoras. Additionally, taken as a proportion of all murders committed in a given year, the numbers of women murdered in Juarez seemed to be about equal to the same statistics in many large American cities.
So, not only did I question the conclusions I was being asked to support in my piece, I also returned to the US feeling stunned by the pain and the poverty I had witnessed.

I felt a real responsibility, as an artist, to explore the situation for myself before drawing any conclusions about what was happening in Juarez, and why. For the most part, my first trip to Juarez (in November of 2003, with the actress) was highly controlled.

It was a struggle to figure out how I could possibly tell stories about dead women who were never “like me” because I am a “gringa” from a more or less middle class family, because I don’t speak the same language, because my child hadn’t been murdered, because I am educated, I have a good job, because I can get people to listen to me, usually… I worried that I wouldn’t be able to write a story that was anything but shit, studded with clumps of guilt and fear and apology. I had empathy and compassion, but my point of view was disconnected from the experiences of the people I’d met in Juarez.
I needed to find a way to get inside these things, to understand the situation as it was experienced by the people I wrote about. I needed to get to a point where I could accept poverty as a normal state so any shock or queasiness I felt didn’t prevent me from seeing beyond that. I had to abandon the guilt I had for having more. It wasn’t helping anyone.
—Describe your project. Is it a comic?

—The idea in the beginning was to create a comics story of about 25 pages about the femicides in Juarez. But, as I said above, my experience and research didn’t seem to support what I was being encouraged to express in the piece. Consequently, I created a series of vignettes about murder, and women, and death. I combined newspaper reports (based loosely on Google translations of El Diario de Ciudad Juárez articles), mostly from with a few verses from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman, “Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born? I hasten to inform him or her that it is just as lucky to die, and I know it”.

I didn’t draw the images as I almost always had in my past work. I found that drawing death made me feel to much a perpetrator of the murders I was depicting. Instead, I re-constructed the places where the events occurred, and made dolls to represent the people. I felt that I could “kill” the dolls and not feel so bad about it, because after taking the pictures, I’d clean them off and resurrect them.

After finishing this piece (for I Live Here), I decided to continue working with the same subject on a long novel. I wasn’t sure exactly what form it would take, but I knew I’d focus on one family, and that my biggest challenge would be finding a way to “normalize” my presence as the author (implicitly and explicitly). In a sense, I felt I had no right to tell the story. I was clearly an outsider. However, I believe (rather simplistically, I suppose) that we are all basically the same, more or less, and certainly “of equal value”, and I felt compelled to try to tell a story that would make this clear.
Neither the story nor the way I am putting the book together are “traditional”. I am working on two versions of the book, and the primary version is electronic. I am designing it to be seen on a device like an iPad. I’ve made animated and live-action sequences which will be intermingled with the text. I’m trying to do something that I’ve never seen done before, and it hasn’t been easy. But I’ve more or less settled on a format, which is a huge achievement in a world where technology is constantly changing and the possibilities seem limitless.

Each of these vignettes represents an actual murder, but I’ve taken some liberties with how they are described. The language used is based off Google translation syntax, which was my first and primary way of understanding the daily news in Juárez. Over time, I grew accustomed to the language patterns and strange verbiage of the translating engines, and began using similar patterns of word and phrase arrangement when I wrote. This way of writing seemed to reflect my experience as an artist trying to understand a situation-I was caught in-between, much like most people on the US-MX border, or really, in any active transitional space, geo-political or temporal.

The lines from the Walt Whitman poem, Song of Myself, begins on the first page and picks up again at the end. There is also a poem by Rilke on the page with the picture of the little girl on the ground with la cuerda.

This isn’t a story, but a set of images representing many larger histories, and on the surface, the pages aren’t pretty. In Mexico, pictures of the dead are frequently published, but the journalistic culture is different in the US, where we are much more “protected” from such images. Again, living on the Northern side of the border, I felt caught in-between. My first impulse was to “normalize” death by showing it. However, my purpose was not to report news, and my work wasn’t as intimately bound to factual details as a reporter’s would be. My second impulse was to try to find the beauty in death, which is, naturally, usually obscured by horror or grief. I tried to make the pictures “beautiful”, and I used the Whitman lines, “Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born…”

—How long has it taken you to do it?
To know the situation as fully as I could, I started returning to Juarez a few times a year. It was difficult, because the people I was writing about had no phone. There was, at that time, no mail delivery to their neighborhood. When I wanted to talk to them, I simply had to go to Mexico.
I’ve been living with and working on this project for nearly eight years. It’s become a part of me, and I’ve become a part of the lives of the people I’m writing about. The passage of time was necessary, it was the only way I could come to understand the complexity of life at the border. I’m a different person.

—What phase are you on right now?
I’m on the faculty at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In June, I start a year-long sabbatical and won’t be teaching. My goal is to come as close to completing the project as I can over that year.
I work on everything at once-it’s like a huge salad, violently tossed in a bowl that’s a few sizes too small. Lots of the pieces, tossed high, fall to the ground and are never used in the salad. I have drawings, movies, animations, writing, writing, writing, interviews, snapshots, sets, scenery, so much-now each part must relinquish its individuality to become part of the “whole”.
I haven’t signed the project with a publisher yet-I didn’t want to until I make most of the creative decisions regarding the way the book looks (and “acts”), finishing an electronic “prototype” first. Also, I want to produce a printed version (obviouly, many people don’t have iPads), which will have different qualities. It’s very important to me that the book is sold in Mexico (a Spanish version) as well as the United States. However, few of the publishers I’ve talked to are willing to publish and distribute books in Mexico. Apparently, there is a fear that books are easily pirated in Mexico, so it’s difficult to make a profit, or even re-coup one’s investment.

—What have you discovered, during this time, regarding the feminicides and the people who have suffered it directly?
(I started describing this in the first question or so…)
I’ve learned so much. I wouldn’t know where to begin. Ask me after I finish the book. It’s not just the femicides (feminicides), it’s the border, this semi-permeable membrane- it’s about class, about education, depression, benevolence, greed, narcissism, self-hatred, acquiescence… by investigating a single murder as fully as I could, I have an idea of the impact the event has on a family, a street, a neighborhood, a city… all this over time.

—Do you feel that the crimewave Mexico is undergoing currently has affected your work?
—Yes. In 2008, I got a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue working on this project. My intension was to live in Juárez for at least 3-4 months. I went to look for an apartment in May of 2008, and something felt different. People were moving more quickly, there were fewer tourists, the air was heavier, I don’t know. I read the internet version of El Diario every day and by the end of the summer it was clear that violence was escalating.
I have light eyes and light skin, and even if I kept my mouth shut, it would have been hard to become invisible in downtown Juarez, el centro. There were, by the Fall of 2008, so few American tourists in the city that I never could have just quietly lived and observed, which is what I wanted to do. So instead, I made short trips every few months.
—Do you feel any significant difference between the time when you started and now?

—Yes! This would be a very long answer… but, basically, the city seems much poorer, people seem resigned to life as it is —little sprouts of hope have been extinguished… in some neighborhoods, every fourth or fifth house has been abandoned and destroyed-shot up, looted, burned. People are used to the violence. They are tired to feeling afraid, so they party and have fun, but they avoid looking strangers in the eye. With the federales and the military, it looks and feels like a war zone.
But you already know all this, Jorge.
I’ve made good friends in Juarez, and they’re all still alive. I hope it stays that way. I worry about them all the time, and wonder how they feel.
I got home from Juárez yesterday, and the trip made me happy. I love the city, I love my friends, I feel richer for knowing them and for knowing the city. Now I’m back at home, where I have scale models of Anapra and people’s houses, and I’m working on my book and hoping things get better. Simple right? Sure…

—The language made you understand the pain of the family better? Was learning Spanish crucial to it?

—I don’t quite understand this question, do you mean, did learning Spanish help me understand the pain of the family better? I speak English, French, and some Czech. I still don’t speak Spanish well. The Spanish I know was learned mostly by reading El Diario de Juárez, first, as I said, in translation, and then gradually I started using the translation less as I learned various words and phrases because I had reached the point where the original language was less confusing that the translation.

I went to look for an apartment in May of 2008, and something felt different. People were moving more quickly, there were fewer tourists, the air was heavier, I don’t know. I read the internet version of El Diario every day and by the end of the summer it was clear that violence was escalating.

I was always fortunate to have great people as guides and translators. Several live in Juárez and have become close friends. They come from very different backgrounds-one, for example, has lived in Anapra for more than twenty years, and the other lives in a gated community with security cameras. When I’m with either one of them, I feel like our brains and our hearts are somehow floating above us, connected. It has to be this way. At certain moments, you need to be “one person”, sort of. In a situation where I want to communicate something that I couldn’t properly say myself in Spanish, the translator is me, or I am the translator, or both. And people get used to communicating with two of us, together. Really, they are much more than translators. I consider them collaborators. This will be clear, I think, in my book.

In someways, not fully understanding Spanish seems to have made me more hyper-sensitive to other details-the gestures and expressions of the people we talk to (almost as if I’m deaf!) as well as details of the environment. Nevertheless, my goal is to one day be semi-fluent in the language someday soon. Maybe next year. Maybe mañana. LOL. Soon.

—Who started calling you “la Gabacha Loca”?

—I’m not exactly sure… it has something to do with that Mexican television show that has a crazy toothless woman, I think her name is “Tencha”. I can resemble her at times, I’d say. For awhile, I was sometimes called “la Tencha Gabacha”, which evolved into“la Gabacha Loca”. Sometimes I call myself “PG 13”, an American film rating meaning a movie is safe for children under the age of 13 with parental guidance. I use the term, however, as my name (Phoebe Gloeckner=PG) + 13 (as in “trece” for LOCA).

—That seems like you really made bonds with the people you’re writing about.

—Yes. I have. Some of my best friends live in Juárez. And I worry about them. Last year, my family didn’t want me to cross the border, so instead, I invited people to visit me. Of course, not everyone I know in the city can get a visa to travel to the US, or even has a passport. But six of my friends were able to come to Ann Arbor at different times over the summer. It was wonderful, and made me feel like my project was beginning to come full-circle, like the world was getting just a little smaller, in a good way. The next step is to figure out how to get visas for a few more.

—I want to know how mothers —and families in general— deal with the death of their daughters, sisters, etc. Did being a woman make it a little easier to make them feel comfortable talking about their experience? Did you find the people open to talk about their situation?

—People are open to talk once they get to know you pretty well. I don’t think the fact that I was a woman made it easier to make people feel comfortable, after all, I’ve never been a man. But in general, from experience and observation, at the point one leaves the house, most things are easier if you are a man. What do you think?

—I think being a man makes things easier in general terms, but also men react more in front of women because of a sexual, machista thing.

I asked you that because I don’t know if I would have have the stomach to live after such a horrible thing happened to me. But I feel comfortable among women, so probably I would have opened myself up in front of a woman.

Then, again, probably all those people need to open up is someone external, in general, be it a woman, someone from another place, I don’t know.

Last night my wife saw the last panel in the PDF doc and got shocked. She said her stomach ached. Not because of your art, but because the story is real. That’s what I mean: that reality is so overwhelming, stupid and sad, that I don’t know if us (I mean my wife and I) would be able to talk to someone if something like that happened to our daughter.

Well, I’ll tell you a few things that happened while I was working on this project. My nephew, who was 16, died of brain cancer. He was a brilliant kid, an only child. He had headaches, thought they were migranes, he died about seven months after the diagnosis. I believe that to the very end he thought he’d get better. When this happened, I was so sad, the fragility of what we love the most was made so clear…

And then, last summer, another young nephew committed suicide.

I told the family in Mexico, pain understands pain…. maybe being a woman made me seem safer, but at times, you know, there are experiences that bond people to each other over time

They trusted me also I think because I always had a genuine desire to help them somehow, beyond any project, I helped one aughter go to beauty school, and I tried to help a son through high school. He got through the first grade of prepa, but the academics were hard for him, and he had no support when he was doing homework, since he was expected to help care for ten little kids at home… anyway, a combination of things lead him to drop out of school, but I’d help him again if he decided to give it another try.

Did I say I have two daughters? So I understand the reaction of you and your wife. When I started investigating the murders, I felt sick. It was overwhelming. ®

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Publicado en: Abril 2011, Arte


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