Friday, May 24, 2013

A graphic novel for the Spanish Class: Vivir la vida: los sueños de Ciudad Juarez

An event that I have tried to follow in the last years is the situation in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Every now and then, perhaps too often, we read about the increasing number of women who have been murdered in this city. There are around 500 unsolved, serial murders from 1993 to 2010, mostly of young working-class women. There are another 600 cases of missing young women whose bodies have not been found (the numbers are provided by the novel writers).

Ciudad Juárez became one of the manufacturer centres of North America and it has attracted a large population of young people, mostly women to work in the factories. They are referred to as "las maquiladoras" who are there in search of a brighter future. The city became one of the crime capitals of North America and the situation is aggravated by its close proximity to the U.S. border. The fourth bridges in the city that lead to El Paso in Texas are some of the busiest ports of entry in USA. Drug and arm dealers set their headquarters in the city. The city also attracted thousands of illegal immigrants who are trying to escape poverty back home. The scale of the issue is so large that it seems very little attention has been paid to the fate of so many young women.

When I accidentally came upon the graphic novel Vivir la vida: los sueños de Ciudad Juarez I did not have enough time to read it and I did not think much of it until now. The story is simple: the French graphic novel writer, Edmond Badoin, proposes to his friend, artist Jean-MarcTroubet, to travel to Ciudad Juarez. Their idea is to understand the situation in the city and as they state in their graphic novel: "encontrar lugares en los que podamos dibujar. Hacer un retrato a los que quieran y preguntarles: ¿Cuál es su sueño? Contar la vida en esa ciudad en la que se muere." They want to paint the people in Ciudad Juárez, ask them what their dreams are and portray the life in a city famous for death.

The authors were inspired by their previous personal experience in Africa where they learnt first hand about the situation of the refugees and the immigrants who tried to illegally  cross  the strait of Gibraltar. Both writers describe their experiences at the beginning of the novel. The writers also acknowledge the impact of the novel 2666 by Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño on this project. 2666 was published posthumously in 2004.  It depicts the murders  and the situation in Santa Teresa, a transit of Ciudad Juárez, as a metaphor of life and alienation in our 21st century 

Both French authors spent a month in 2010 in Ciudad Juárez. During that time they exchanged drawings with citizens who, in return, told them what their dreams were. As the authors mention, the interviewees' dreams are not too different from the rest of the world: "peace for the world", "a better life for my children" or "be able to help my community" are wishes that most of us would subscribe. During the month in Ciudad Juárez, the writers met with numerous people who were doing their best to improve the city life and give citizens hope: artists, teachers and anonymous people working hard to improve the working conditions at las maquiladoras. We can feel this hope in the drawings and texts in the novel.


Naturally, the references to the northern neighbour are constant. We experience the nightmare of trying to cross one of the 4 bridges to get to El Paso. We also learn that some American companies built their factories in the border because the environment legislation was not implemented or are non-existent. We feel that poverty, lack of a future push and will push thousands of people to go across the Rio Grande bridges to pursue their dreams.

Topics appear in the graphic novel, which we can use to work with our students are:
  • Human rights
  • Globalisation and International relations
  • How ideologies (liberalism, mercantilism) affect people's lives 
  • The role of culture an education
  • Social classes
  • Our dreams, our hopes 
I would only recommend this novel for grade 12 due to the harshness of the topics in it. However, despite the situation, we still find many positive things in the story, especially the people from Ciudad Juárez and their dreams.

There is a number of articles and videos about the novel available on the Internet. I think this interview in which Badoin answers 10 questions asked by a journalist, gives us the author's insight, of how he sees Ciudad Juarez,  a city that despite all the violence, has much room for the dreams of its citizens. It is a city to which the authors promise to go back.