It took the award-winning author Cristina Rivera Garza decades to be able to tell the story of her sister Liliana, who was strangled on July 16, 1990, in Mexico City.
For years, Liliana had been trying to end a relationship with her boyfriend, who was possessive and violent, according to notes and writings she left behind and subsequent interviews with Liliana's friends, Rivera Garza writes in her new book, “El invencible verano de Liliana,” which translates to “Liliana’s Invincible Summer.”
“A few weeks before the tragedy, Liliana finally made a final decision. ... She would leave him behind. She would start a new life. She would do a master’s degree and then a doctorate; she would travel to London. His decision was that she would not have a life without him,” Rivera Garza, who's a professor at the University of Houston, writes.
Liliana's case has not been solved, though Rivera Garza's research and book has led to important information on the case.
In a country like Mexico, where an estimated 10 women are murdered daily, the book has managed to transcend the literary sphere to join the intense social debate over the uncontrollable rise in femicides and abuses against women. According to the World Health Organization, "femicide is generally understood to involve intentional murder of women because they are women, but broader definitions include any killings of women or girls."
In 2021, 1,004 femicides were registered in Mexico, a number that has gone every year since 2015, when the authorities began to register such cases.
Rivera Garza's work has been widely translated and praised by critics and the public in novels such as "No One Will See Me Cry" and "The Iliac Crest." Her talent for creating stories with careful atmospheres and a masterful handling of rawness have earned her multiple awards, such as the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Award, the Anna Seghers International Award and the Roger Caillois Award, among others.
The boxes with notes and other papers written by her sister Liliana — an architecture student who also liked to write — sat in silence for years, waiting for someone to revive her words and thoughts.
After intense archival work, interviews with family, friends and authorities, in addition to undertaking an honest exercise of memory, Rivera Garza published a volume that takes readers into the life of the young student as well as her desires and dreams.
“While she was in this world, she took the trouble to put together her own file and I took it very seriously, as if it were her instructions to tell about her life, and I respected what she said a lot, without trying to interpret from the present but leave her voice,” Rivera Garza said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo.
The book also elicits a deep reflection on mourning. "Although it is a wound that won't heal, what we live now as a family is a mourning that is full of hugs and connection due to the sympathy of the readers," the author said.
Though Liliana's case has not been resolved, there's been recent progress.
“We made an email available to the public so that they could send us information about the case. The readers have been very generous and we received all kinds of tips, but one piece of information led us to a clue that the investigation teams, both from Mexico and the U.S., are following right now,” Rivera Garza said.
Below is an edited and condensed version of the interview with Rivera Garza.
What was the clue about Liliana’s case that readers emailed?
The case was bogged down, it had not been paid attention to for a long time and we discovered that there was a valid arrest warrant. That made me think that the book could summon other forces, from the bottom up, with the readers, and we were very lucky.
The data we received is that my sister's suspected killer, who in Mexico was known as Ángel González Ramos, could have changed his name to Mitchell Angelo Giovanni in the United States, in Southern California, and who died on May 2, 2020.
One success of the book is the use of language as a tool to introduce us to Liliana. ... Was it difficult to achieve that tone?
This story had to be told from the point of view of the victim, with a new language. In cases of extreme violence, the stories are reduced to figures, a lost file or crime.
That’s why I wanted to use Liliana’s language in the most authentic way possible to review her life, and without her archives I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
The rise of femicides in Mexico seems uncontrolled. How can culture and media contribute to combating this tragic trend?
I think it's important to keep our eyes wide open and to be very alert against these narratives that translate the acts of violence against women with the language of crimes of passion. Patriarchy says that women are always to blame; that’s why we have to fight it, because that's the dominant language of the society in which we live.
Every day we have to remind the authorities of their responsibilities. These crimes continue to happen because there is impunity, because a perpetrator of femicide knows that he can get away with it with very little chance of facing justice.
What are the changes, at a societal level, that could help eradicate this epidemic?
Apart from demanding that the state fulfill its functions, in our daily lives we have to criticize ourselves and reflect when silence can make us complicit ... in this violence.
Those who commit femicide don't act in isolation, they're not monsters who we'll be able to recognize because they have distinctive characteristics. They're men who seem normal, but they're part of a system that favors them and turns a blind eye in cases of violence, so I think we all have a great social responsibility.
After the process of writing this book, do you feel that you know Liliana better?
I always had doubts about the healing capacity of literature ... but in the book I wrote that one is never more defenseless than when one has no language, and this process allowed me to develop one to identify, describe and position myself against acts of extreme violence. ... I think that all the Lilianas are still here with us, because when we discover that through language we have the ability to invoke our loved ones, we can speak to them and keep them present.
When does the English edition of this book come out?
It will be out in early 2023 at Hogarth Press, but I also wrote it in English because I wanted to be responsible for all the decisions in both languages. It will be a different version, it is not just a literal translation. There are things that English allows me to do that Spanish doesn’t and vice versa, so I wanted to explore that.
Are there any special memories that you've relived in the course of your investigation?
I knew that Liliana had a very good sense of humor because she and I would do entire sessions to make fun of anything, but when I talked to her friends I found out that they also enjoyed her irony, her sarcasm and her critical capacity.
One of the things that broke my heart was that at the recent International Women’s Day march someone passed me a picture of a jewelry store in Mexico City called Liliana and someone walked by and added the words "Rivera Garza." At that moment I realized that the book works as an artifact and it's on the streets. It is no longer just me who remembers my sister’s name, but many other women who also celebrate her life.