Open season on women
The Women of Juarez
Sacramento, CA 95816
Once upon a time, the carnival attractions that were likely to scare kids had signs posted that said: “This is a dark ride.”
That’s true of The Women of Juarez, a joint production of California Stage and Teatro Espejo, the collaboration that brought us last season’s bilingual production of Frida, a biography of the great Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. The Women of Juarez is also a sort of biography; it’s the life story of a single vicious murder, contextualized by the reality of the large number of unsolved murders of women in Ciudad Juárez. The metropolis that borders El Paso, Texas, has been the site of more than 400 femicides in the last two decades. “Femicide”—the murder of a woman simply because she is a woman—is the term that activists prefer to use for the killings, because it highlights that there is nothing natural at all about these deaths and makes clear, as one character in the play puts it, that it is open season on women in Juárez.
Under the direction of Manuel Josè Pickett, the play intersperses scenes of life in a crowded, poverty-stricken neighborhood in Juárez. A mother (Diana Mandujano) and father (Joaquin Michael Murrieta) have brought their daughters, Maritza (Angela T. Lopez) and Chayo (Layla Oghabian) to Juárez from their village, where they hope to be able to make enough money in the maquiladoras—the factories of large American corporations, located over the Mexican border to take advantage of cheap labor and nonexistent taxes—to better their lives. Maritza is the “good” girl; she goes to school in the day and works the night shift at the factory so she can become a nurse. Chayo works, too, but she resents her overachieving sister (a line that invokes the sibling resentment of television’s The Brady Bunch got early laughs).
And the family believes that the women who are being murdered are, as the authorities say, “prostitutes, drug addicts and strippers.”
That’s patently untrue. The victims of femicide in Juárez are women in their teens and 20s, most of them students or employees of the maquiladoras, usually abducted while on their way home. But that information comes too late.
The Women of Juarez includes a graphic, onstage depiction of a rape-murder, as well as some emotionally raw portrayals of grief and police abuse. It is agitprop, but it is well-done agitprop; the pseudo-documentary style of some scenes fills in the facts, while the narrative portion of the play produces all the emotional response one can imagine—when a little girl describes the day her mother was murdered, there’s not a dry eye in the house.
Particularly good work is done by Mandujano as the mother and Oghabian as the sister of the victim. Both offer a wide range of emotions as they work through their grief, and Oghabian is responsible for whatever bits of humor manage to cut through the depths of the pain in this play. The set is simple and functional, and also makes use of a series of projections that help tell the complicated and overwhelming story.
But this play is also designed to elicit action; the impoverished and exploited working people need the clout provided by outsiders to battle the entrenched corruption of the state and local authorities. One suggestion is to bring pressure to bear on the U.S. companies who operate the maquiladoras to provide security and escorts for their employees; another involves bringing political pressure to bear on the government of Cuidad Juárez and the state of Chihuahua to clean up their act and prosecute crimes against women.