The dump-desert city, the metropolis in ruins where human-machine-beasts, vacant lots, and junk survive as a generalized condemnation: the kingdom of rust that moves along a slithering plane, a pure materiality no longer thinkable now that norms and procedures of the city’s past tend to be nothing more than post-human information.
—Sergio González Rodríguez, The Femicide Machine
When we say women are worthless…this is femenicidio.
—Esther Chávez Cano
In 2016, the El Paso Times reported on a multi-million-dollar renovation to Ciudad Juárez’s historic red-light district and city center, La Mariscal (1). La Mariscal runs along Calle Igancio Mariscal from the entrance of the Paso del Norte International Bridge all the way to the city’s downtown. The new urban renewal program comes as a part of the Juárez Historic Downtown Urban Development Master Plan, which has overseen the demolition of many bars and clubs across La Mariscal for the past decade. It aims to transform the area into a “commercial and tourism engine” (1) for the international audience the district often attracts.
This government-sponsored program arises at the confluence of a number of circumstances the city has seen in the past 30 or so years. In addition to the untapped financial and real estate potential of the area, government officials see the renovation as a solution to feminicide.
The emergence of feminicide in Ciudad Juárez is difficult to accurately document. Melissa Wright links the phenomenon to the introduction of the maquila factories to the area. The maquila is an export-processing factory, often owned bi-nationally, that does not pay tariffs on exportable goods and is largely responsible for the surge in the trans-border flow of capital from the 1970s onward. Notorious for employing laborers at fractions of wages given to those in other industries, in the 1960s maquilas opened assembly positions to women in order to acquire a larger pool of cheap labor. Women now dominate the employee base for this industry, occupying around 80% of the positions. Wright links this development to a crucial city-wide transformation: these transnational firms brought thousands of women workers into the city, where they acquired a lifestyle characterized by an increase in personal autonomy—they stay out late at night and marry much later than was expected of them . The stereotypical cultural image of the domestic Mexican woman runs contrary to this new “public woman”—a discrepancy that, for the maschismo culture characteristic of Juárez, recreates “the old story of the whore—the consummate public woman—who contaminates the cultural space she inhabits.” Then, over 5 years during the early 1990s, over 200 murdered women’s bodies were found in the desert outside Juárez.
La Mariscal is the red-light district of Juárez, the Zona de Tolerencia where sex work is covertly permitted by the police and local government. This territory is also crossed daily by hundreds of female workers traveling to and from the maquila factories on the outer border of the city. La Mariscal is a space of public and private interaction that intertwines femininity and class politics with daily urban life. But this interaction is answered by a gruesome gendered violence—La Mariscal is a site of systematic kidnappings, killings, and assaults of women in Ciudad Juárez. It is not uncommon for residents to uncover abused bodies of women in garbage dumps, vacant parking lots, and even in the middle of city streets.
The urban renewal plan seeks to reconstruct La Mariscal under the watchword “beautification.” The removal of drug users and sex workers, which is enacted through a militarized occupation and city-wide demolition, is key to this project. City officials and planners see the next step as eliminating feminicide altogether. But the reorganization of the city in effect merely works in the interests of the business and governmental elite, and ignores the violent class relations. The urban reorganization plays directly into what Sergio González Rodríguez terms the “femicide machine”—a territorial and multifarious assemblage of power that not only ignores the real issues of gendered violence in Juárez, but maintains and perpetuates their conditions.
To suture La Mariscal around a hyper-consumerist urban future– where the local and state governments spend millions to raze properties that “shamed” the city to make way for an influx of “constant cultural and commercial activities”–is to further marginalize the experiences of hundreds of women. It papers over women’s disappearance with the flashy language of beautification and consumerism.
The law enforcement frames kidnappings and murders as isolated events where individual women are complicit in their own deaths. In the eyes of the state, it is much less a systemic problem than it is an abnormality. Rarely do cases of feminicide attract any governmental attention. Absolving themselves of the duty of proper investigation, legal officials scarcely preserve records. And without proper investigative material, the state maintains an image of Ciudad Juárez bereft of its feminicide reality.
The “public woman” in a common space destabilizes the social order. The death of these same women is of private rather than public concern. González Rodríguez explains,“messages, wounds, marks, mutilation, and torture [are] inscribed,” on the bodies of many feminicide victims. When the signature of the typical murderer is a removal of all bodily significations, an erasure of all trace of having been someone—politics and legality fall short.
Jacques Rancière identifies the political framework as the “distribution of the sensible.” This distribution “is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and stakes of politics as a form of experience.” This distribution of sensibility is mapped by: the social elite, who wall off their city at the encroachment of the poor; the capitalist class, who extract material labor and value from those who have the least alternative options; the bourgeois tourist, who advocates for the “transformation” of a downtown district for a more comfortable, less disturbing visit; or the common citizen, who turns their head in disgust and shame at the sight of a public woman going to work or a nightclub. The dominant group maintains power through the ability to distribute sensible recognition onto other members of society.
The “public woman” of Ciudad Juárez falls outside the boundaries of this sensible distribution and is pushed to the periphery and even into death. But as Melissa Wright has shown, this woman, “in contrast to the traditional Mexican woman, [is] easily found on the street, either as women walking the street for a living or as women who walk the street en route to their factory jobs.”. They are seen as a cultural contaminant who invades the sanctity of the city.
Interactions between citizens and residents occur daily in public spaces, where different forms of life and experience intersect to create a public sphere—the city of Ciudad Juárez. As suburban parks, vacant lots, street corners, and shopping malls become transformed into graveyards, it becomes increasingly difficult to extricate the violent order from its distinctly urban expressions.
Through the pervasive feminicide, the city is seen and sensibly experienced by all residents of Juárez in an entirely new way. “The cruelty and dehumanization with which thousands of bodies were thrown onto public streets,” writes Diana Alejandra Silva Londoño, “hung, wrapped in blankets, decapitated, placed in trunks, bound, and burned, among other things, unleashed a vocabulary of horror.” This “vocabulary of horror” that emerges from the endurance of feminicide (as well as the city-wide militarization, inter-cartel conflict, and U.S.-led anti-narcotraffic operations) transforms spaces and their interpretation: a market, for example, is no longer a gathering place of neighbors and friends; it is a site of risk, fear, and potential outbursts of extreme violence.
Salvador Salazar Gutiérrez defines this environment as a shared “subjectivity of risk,” where interactions between individuals in an urban space are preconditioned by a distrust and a desire for distance and reservation. Predicated on feminicide, the subjectivity of risk colors how space is viewed. It has “worsened the emptying of public life, expressed in self-imposed curfews, the abandonment of thousands of houses, and the disruption of the energetic nightlife that characterized the city.” This fragmentation occurs as the consequence of a refusal to adequately acknowledge the persistence of feminicide and the government’s own complicity in perpetuating these crimes.
We can understand La Mariscal’s recent urban renewal program as one of many state-sponsored projects in Juárez that aims to maintain the image of picturesque, city-wide peace and unity in the face of extreme violence. The project will remain a failure as long as a consideration of feminicide is left out of the equation. At its worst, this failure will perpetuate feminicide and transform the seemingly benign public space into a space hostile to those targeted by feminicide.
To assess the project, it is helpful to turn to the words of the program’s architect and overseer: Eleno Villalba, who is quoted in the El Paso Times article as aiming “to change downtown’s negative image, particularly the area of La Mariscal. We want to beautify it, to make it attractive enough so families from Juárez and tourists return to the area.” Not acknowledging the violence that will continue to affect the lives of women in the area, Villalba emphasizes rather that the district’s “negative image” should be re-signified through recourse to finance and real estate. He is therefore upholding the distribution of the sensible, which is enacted, as Rancière reminds us, through an “aesthetic register, as that which is seen, heard, and spoken, what is registered and recognized.” The renewal program caters to a specific population of individuals—the “family” and the “tourist”—by reconstructing the spatial and visible contours of the city to meet their needs and desires. What is more, the representation of these individuals as harbingers of positive social change is part of the distribution of the sensible. Recognition and value are placed upon these social actors on the basis that their existences in this space are 1) productive of consumer value (they shop at stores, attend events, sightsee); and 2) consumed in turn as something “typical,” unremarkable yet understandable.
But we learn from La Mariscal’s “beautification” program that art and aesthetics contain the potential to transform interpretative systems, and this can work against the grain of the dominant order. Art—and particularly public art—can be used as a tool to affirm the value of women in Ciudad Juárez. Rancière explicates the act of creating art as a medium which “[intervenes] in the general distribution of ways of doing and making as well as in the relationships they maintain to modes of being and forms of visibility.” Art is politics, for it is always concerned with the sensible manifestations of a particular power dynamic.
When art is situated in public space, or more particularly urban space, it can confront and subvert the dominant sensible distribution. As a consequence, more egalitarian and democratic political-public spaces are created, where solidarity comes not from the fear or risk of violence (although this is certainly still present), but from the realization that a community is possible between individuals affected by feminicide. This public art invites, even forces, all who engage with it to see that the dominant, violent power structure is not an immutability; it is always susceptible to reformation. Public art is an act of collective re-signification, a mode of free communication between individuals concerned with the establishment of new understandings of the spatial world.
Kolectiva Fronteriza, a group of revolutionary feminist activists, maintains this idea in their anonymous manifesto. They emphasize the distinct sensory and spatial realities which they and all the women of Ciudad Juárez must continue to live. The members of Kolectiva Fronteriza inhabit and work within the spaces of the city that officials like Eleno Villalba deem worthless, where only those who are equally worthless reside. From here, these activists seek to transform those spaces, bringing women into, as the Kolectiva states in their manifesto, “what we are and what we want to be.”
Kolectiva Fronteriza acknowledges that La Mariscal represents the experiences of women as well as the fragility of the social order. Through graffiti, this group of activists plasters La Mariscal’s walls and buildings’ exteriors with images demanding justice and recognition for the victims of feminicide. Pink crosses, desert flowers, angels, and wings affixed to the bodies of women, and quotes from prominent Mexican figures, such as Frida Kahlo, cover barren and abandoned walls, artistically transforming parts of the city with messages of solidarity, women’s empowerment, and justice. The artworks’ position amidst an array of missing person posters also indicates the urgency and power of art as a mechanism of social change. The work urges the inhabitants of La Mariscal to confront their urban existence and their sensory interpretations of the city in a radically different and ultimately more democratic way.
La Mariscal is just one of many urban locations where activists and artists intwine their practice with the sites of feminicide. Beginning in the early 1990s, makeshift memorials to victims of feminicide sprang up around the city at the initiative of another activist collective called Ni Una Más (Not One More). These initially took the form of painted black and pink crosses on street signs and telephone poles, symbolizing the stolen life of an anonymous daughter in forms that serve as “silent witnesses to the symbolic and experiential instances of violence.” Then, as murders and kidnappings accelerated in the next two decades, Ni Una Más began to construct large physical pink crosses around many of the most gruesome sites, in particular: Lomas de Poleo, Lote Bravo, and Campo Algodonero.
Lomas de Poleo: an informal housing settlement at the edge of Juárez where many low wage workers—particularly maquila factory workers—traverse a stretch of lengthy dirt roads connecting their homes to the factories spreading across the desert outskirts. Eight bodies of girls, ranging in ages from fifteen to twenty years old, were found here in the late 90s. This number has only increased, and the search for more continues to this day . Julian Cardona describes the terrain as “surrealist” ; among trash, dirt, and the remains of temporary homes, families search the roadsides for the bodies of their missing children.
Lote Bravo: a dump on the southern edge of Juárez near Abraham González International airport, cut through by the Pan-American Highway and lined with mountainous junkyards. Like Lomas de Poleo, Lote Bravo is a site of dozens of new maquiladoras as a result of frantic land speculation and international corporate competition. The rise of the maquiladoras coincides with the discovery of dozens of unmarked graves for murdered young women in the early 2000s.  Nearly 15 minutes away from the Paso del Norte Bridge connecting Juárez to El Paso, Lote Bravo is the location of unidentified murders of at least 42 women and 70 men. 
Campo Algodonero: a cotton field surrounded by bars, clubs, and hotels in eastern Juárez. In 2001, eight bodies were discovered on this parcel of land. The field is located on the corner of a populated intersection and across the street from the Association of Maquiladoras, along with a “new housing development for low-to middle-income families, by the former Jaime Bermudez Ranch and by the exclusive Mision de Los Lagos country club development.” An ideal urbanism clashes with the realities of exploited, working class women.
But at these three sites, Ni Una Más, in coordination with the mothers of the victims of feminicide, rejects that these are places of waste. Each location now bears numerous pink crosses each erected as an informal and symbolic memorial for each murdered woman found in the area. The members of the surrounding communities have created a space of memory that explicitly includes the unidentified. Flowers, photos, candles, and other memorabilia decorate each cross, which together give color and identity to the barren gravesite. Many crosses also bear the collective’s phrase, “¡Ni Una Mas!,” reflecting the long line of women’s activism, solidarity, and continuous struggle for justice in Juárez.
These sites of public art, where positive symbolic representations present the murdered women as more than just a bodycount, create public spheres that define belonging by the shared experience of grief, loss, and the struggle for justice. All are invited to participate and meditate on the message which, in opposition to the ongoing acts of violence against women, asserts that these women deserve recognition as humans before and after death through the ritualistic attendance of these memorial sites. Not only are these memorial sites placed in locations excluded from the normal operations of the city, they are located in public space occupied by numerous residents of the city.
The Mujeres de Negro (women in black), another organization of activists made up of mostly middle class women with backgrounds in activism, incorporate ideas of cultural production in public space into dramatic gestures rather than fixed installations. Their Éxodo por la Vida (Exodus for Life) led hundreds of women across the expansive desert from Chihuaha City to Ciudad Juárez. Participants were handed black tunics and pink hats, at which point they would enter a larger black cloth worn by 20 or so people, their heads poking out of holes cut into the fabric. They marched together, unified in an intimate and physical connection, the black cloth representing a single dress where the experience of a woman in the streets of Juárez can be felt. Other participants carried a large pink cross decorated with ripped clothing, photographs, and 268 nails, representing each woman murdered in Juárez since 1993 until 2009–the year of the march. The march culminated at the entrance to the Paso del Norte Bridge, where participants affixed the cross to the median of the highway connecting Mexico and the United States.
The procession of the marchers could be analogized to Christ’s procession to Calvary, where he is forced to carry the burden of humanity, symbolized in the cross, to the location of his own crucifixion.
Here, the activists carry their own burden of memory, of victimization, of justice and of reclamation of public space. Their procession notably concludes not at a site of holy and transcendent sacrifice, but rather at one of international relations, capitalism, and trade. The cross is affixed with multiple symbols of feminicide, memory, and grief. Each hang from a number of nails, which simultaneously represent the functional underpinnings of a coffin, a crucifixion, and a physical construction. The cross emphatically proclaims: Ciudad Juárez is founded upon the unjust death and sacrifice of these murdered women.
The Mujeres de Negro subvert feminicide by creating a new image of inclusivity and political solidarity. Their use of black and pink clothing signifies their feminist agenda—they are creating a “public identity that does not exist privately.” By taking to the streets and making their message both audible and visible, they insert symbols and bodies in places they are not meant to be visible and create a new public sphere through public art.
Systematic and symbolic violence in Juarez reduces this city to a seemingly unresolvable tension between the interests of a capitalist, masculine ruling class and the struggle for the ordinary citizen’s humanity and safety. When one is forcibly relegated to an existence of constant pain, grief, worthlessness, exploitation, abuse, waste, and suffering, it becomes necessary to reconfigure and resignify the world around them to reflect their humanity as absolute.
Public art functions as an alternative yet radical interpretive framework that opposes the oppressive and artificial social order. The activists described above are effective because they are asserting their lived reality through the medium of publicly visible and participatory artistic practices.
Even if only the memory that remains after their artworks are destroyed, the potential for change does not diminish. On the contrary, citizens creating and participating in public art define the horizons of radical politics and change. Through public art, they disclose the fissures, contradictions, disparities in the dominant order that cannot account for the reality of feminicide. They create the public sphere anew in their reinterpretation of the city as a space of equality and democracy.
In the end, this city “moves along a slithering plane” (González Rodríguez 2012, 22). Its spaces “slither” out of our collective consciousness. But this does not mean the city is condemned. It is rather this “slithering” that opens Ciudad Juárez to the potential of alteration, to radical change and democracy, themselves in constant flux. In this sense, Ciudad Juárez is not defined by its segments of sprawling industry and empty real estate, its abandoned graveyards for cars and women alike, its vacant lots and towering dumps, its militarization and webs of surveillance systems; but rather the city becomes its innumerable and endlessly-appearing enactments of public art, where a shared sense of solidarity, memorial, change, and hope pervade the political atmosphere.
 Often, the terms femicide and feminicide are used interchangeably in the literature on this subject. However, the usage of these terms have been subject to an ongoing debate. I am using in this essay, when possible, feminicide. Cynthia L. Bejarano and Rosa-Linda Fregoso say in Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Américas: “In arguing for the use of the term feminicide over femicide, we draw from a feminist analytical perspective that interrupts essentialist notions of female identity that equate gender and biological sex and looks instead to the gendered nature of practices and behaviors, along with the performance of gender norms…Instead of a scenario in which gender and sex necessarily concur, the concept of feminicide allows us to map the power dynamics and relations of gender, sexuality, race, and class underlying violence and, in so doing, shift the analytic focus to how gender norms, inequities, and power relationships increase women’s vulnerabilities to violence” (3-4).
 Melissa Wright, “A Manifesto Against Femicide,” Antipode (2001)
 Melissa Wright, “Paradoxes, Protests and the Mujeres de Negro of Northern Mexico,” in Gender, Place, and Culture (2005)
 Sergio González Rodríguez, The Femicide Machine (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012)
 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Bloomsbury, 2004): 8
 Melissa Wright, “Paradoxes, Protests and the Mujeres de Negro of Northern Mexico,” in Gender, Place, and Culture (2005): 281
 Diana Alejandra Silva Londoño, “Street Art at the Border: Representations of Violence and Death in Ciudad Juárez,” in Frontera Norte 28, no. 55 (2016): 35.
 Salvador Salazar Gutiérrez, “Systemic Violence, Subjectivity of Risk, and Protective Sociality in the Context of a Border City: Ciudad Juárez, Mexico,” in Frontera Norte 26, no. 51 (2014): 142
 Diana Alejandra Silva Londoño, “Street Art at the Border: Representations of Violence and Death in Ciudad Juárez,” in Frontera Norte 28, no. 55 (2016): 38.
 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Bloomsbury, 2004): 8
 “Given the reality, which no one can negate, because we live here and we see it, smell it, and feel it daily in the streets, we believe that young women are a revolutionary force and that our distinct experiences, outlooks, and our forms of organization and political expression, both artistic and cultural, will transform and revindicate what we are and what we want to be.” Cited in Alice Driver, More or Less Dead: Femicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2015)
 Alice Driver, More or Less Dead: Femicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2015)
 Alice Driver, “Cultural Production and Ephemeral Art: Feminicide and the Geography of Memory in Ciudad Juárez, 1998-2008,” in Theses and Dissertations—Hispanic Studies (2011): 179
 Rosa Linda Fregoso, “Toward a planetary civil society,” In Women and Migration in the US-Mexico Borderlands: A Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2007): 35-66.
 Diana Washington Valdez, The Killing Fields: The Harvest of Women (El Paso: Peace at the Border Press, 2006): 23
 Cited in Alice Driver, More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2015)
 ibid., 33
 Diana Washington Valdez, The Killing Fields: The Harvest of Women (El Paso: Peace at the Border Press, 2006): 16
 ibid., 64
 Alice Driver, “Cultural Production and Ephemeral Art: Feminicide and the Geography of Memory in Ciudad Juárez, 1998-2008,” in Theses and Dissertations—Hispanic Studies (2011): 67
 Melissa Wright, “Paradoxes, Protests and the Mujeres de Negro of Northern Mexico,” in Gender, Place, and Culture (2005): 280
 ibid., 284
Cameron Moreno is a sophomore at Columbia University studying Political Theory and Anthropology. He would like to express deep gratitude to his mother.