Translating Feminicide: Women of Sand and the Performance of Trauma

Nuala Theresa Finnegan


From the early 1990s onwards, stories about women who had been mutilated, raped, murdered and abandoned in the desert surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border town of Ciudad Juárez started to insinuate themselves into local, national, and international public consciousness. Since then, a light has been shone on the crime of femicide, or feminicidio as it is called in Latin America, and the murders of women from Ciudad Juárez have become something of a global cause célèbre. More than twenty-five years since the crimes were first reported, there have been numerous human rights reports, a well-documented media frenzy, and an outpouring of cultural responses that seek to remember and mourn the victims of violent death in the city at the same time as they interrogate the political, legal, and societal structures that produce the crimes. In this article, I examine one of those cultural responses, Mujeres de arena [Women of Sand], a multiple-award-winning piece of documentary theatre by acclaimed playwright Humberto Robles. Focusing on the testimonial sections of the play, I first draw out the ways in which the lament of Natalia’s mother (scene 2) synthesizes certain key motifs which are central to any understanding of the discourses on feminicidio in Juárez as well as the representation of the crimes. I argue that this foregrounding contributes to a particular way of framing the atrocities committed against women in Juárez. I then turn my attention to scene 6 and the femicide victim, Liliana, and her sister Malú’s testimony which relates in raw, powerful terms the extent of Liliana’s ordeal at the hands of her three attackers. Here, I reflect on my own experience of translating the passage, arguing that the cognitive, political and affective encounter with the words that name Lilia’s experience forces a recognition of the systems of violence foregrounded in scene 2. The play’s insistence on the connectedness of both subjects and systems then activates the potential for cross-cultural and transnational alliances that are pivotal in understanding and challenging these modes of violence. I close with an argument for an increased attentiveness to translation as an ethical mode of access or entry into unlocking the traumas of others.



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