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BOOK REVIEW | summer 2008

If I Die in JuarezButterflies are Free
Michele Serros

If I Die in Juárez
By Stella Pope Duarte
University of Arizona Press

Stella Pope Duarte's novel begins in a classroom in the border town of Juárez, where neglected gradeschooler Evita Reynosa yearns to be a butterfly with wings so immense they would grant the neglected little girl escape into the sky, “until the colors of the Mexican flag waving listlessly on a wooden pole…would fade away.”

Evita’s life in Juárez warrants the risk of flight. The city’s troubles are mostly inspired by NAFTA— young women are hired to work as maquiladoras in U.S.-owned factories, upending economic and cultural traditions—and its relentless injustices include rampant domestic abuse and the violent rapes and murders of young maquiladoras. The story is set in 1995, two years after the actual murders of Juárez’s maquiladoras began, and is based on Duarte’s interviews with the relatives of slain women.

In the novel, las muertas de Juárez (the dead women of Juárez) haunt three destitute girls: Evita, who searches aimlessly for familial love and security in la Zona del Canal, the infamous red-light district; the beautiful Petra, 18, who, along with her family, has made the daunting trek from the village of Montenegro for work on the assembly lines; and 12- year-old budding artist Mayela Sabina, a Tarahumara Indian, also from Montenegro, who finds herself in a garbage-strewn colonia on the city’s outskirts. They keep their hopes alive with unfulfilled promises: Evita is offered a home by the madam Isadora; Petra’s family asserts that the factory work is temporary and that they’ll return soon to Montenegro; Mayela’s mother and aunt vow to send her to school. The girls dream about life in the United States, but without wings they’re trapped. Eventually Isadora coaxes Evita into learning the “businesswoman” trade. Petra finds that her beauty can be lethal. And Mayela’s talent inspires jealousy and greed in those who exploit her.

Duarte has a heavy hand with symbolism— her villain, a Juárez factory owner and drug lord with a thirst for blood and conquest, maintains direct lineage to none other than 16thcentury conquistador Hernán Cortés, and the resurrection of a barely breathing rape victim commences on Easter Sunday—but she also has a keen eye for detail. So vividly does she detail survival within the grimy confines of la Zona del Canal that readers may be prompted to take a long, hot bath.

The reality is less neatly resolved. Nearly 400 young women and girls have been murdered in Juárez, hundreds are still missing and the vast majority of the crimes remain unsolved. Still, it’s comforting to believe in the strength of community and family as depicted by Duarte and to trust that the real-life citizens of Juárez will continue their protests against the corruption that suffocates their city.

MICHELE SERROS’ latest young adult novel, ¡Scandalosa! A Honey Blonde Chica Novel (Simon Pulse, 2007), takes place in her hometown of Oxnard, Calif.

 

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