“Femicide was not officially recognised in Mexico until 14 June, 2012,” says Cristina Rivera Garza, “when Article 325 of the federal penal code defined it as a ‘crime committed by someone who deprives a woman of her life because of her gender.’ Before that date, femicides were called crimes of passion. The victims were assumed to be loose women, wayward girls, women without fear of God.”
Twelve years before this date, on 16 July, 1990, Rivera Garza’s twenty-year-old sister, Liliana, was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in Mexico City. It’s a crime the award-winning Mexican author unpacks with great care in Liliana’s Invincible Summer, a book that combines crisp cultural analysis with memoir, detective work and many letters, poems and journal entries written by Liliana herself. Rivera Garza wants to ensure her sister’s own complex humanity is not forgotten.
Speaking via Zoom from her home in Texas, where she is Professor of Hispanic Studies and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Houston University, Rivera Garza tells me this is the book she has been trying to write for 30 years, “and it has taken all the strength and all the knowledge that I’ve acquired in that time to do it.”
Her patient face framed by steely clouds of silver hair, she explains that: “Writing about gender violence, intimate partner violence, that is sometimes called ‘intimate partner terrorism’, is so hard because of the prevalence of patriarchal narratives. So it’s really hard to talk about this subject in a way that is neither triggering nor silencing. As a writer I had to really struggle to subvert the ways in which we discuss the subject which traditionally has involved blaming the victims and exonerating the perpetrators. We are still struggling to find a language for these femicides.”
She’s right. Even as I type up her comments, my iMac underlines each mention of “femicide” in red (alarmingly suggesting I replace the word with “germicide”) exposing the patriarchal programming that denies the crime even exists. Perhaps my American software assumes that first-world women are less at risk.
Rivera Garza sighs. “Yes, there is an assumption that some communities are less at risk, but femicide is a worldwide problem. Obviously, the data coming from my birth country of Mexico is horrific. But in 2018, in the US, three women were killed every day by their partners. I think the numbers in the UK are not good either?” She’s right. In the UK 65 women were killed by their partners in 2019, around one every five days. Data compiled by Britain’s Femicide Census shows that between 2009 and 2018, 43 per cent of all women killed by current or former partners had left or were in the process of leaving. In 2020, evidence of separation was reported in 37 per cent of intimate partner femicides.
As Rivera Garza knows: “These are not extraordinary eruptions of violence. We are talking of normal men, sons of the patriarchy, raised to believe women are their possessions, so that any kind of violence is allowed to prevent them from exercising their independence.”
Liliana was attempting to break away from her on-off boyfriend when he killed her. An architecture student at the time of her death, Liliana had met Ángel González Ramos six years previously, while a high school student. In the journals which had lain in unopened boxes in their parents’ house for three decades, Rivera Garza found sweet early references to a boy, two years older, whom Liliana had met at a gym. He bought her smoothies, she loaned him her pen. But between 1984 and 1985 something clearly happened between them to cause Liliana to retreat, firmly. In her diary she wrote: “He is to blame for loving me the way he loves me… I hate when they love me like this.”
Yet over the next six years, while Liliana had other boyfriends, Ángel remained in her life. Rivera Garza writes that he “would show up over and over again, telling her that he loved her, apologising, assuring her that he was going to change. Ángel wasn’t just asking, however. He was demanding a response, and if it wasn’t what he wanted to hear, he would unleash a fury of jealousy, beatings, constant harassment, suicide threats, and, perhaps, threats against Liliana’s own family.”
Free-spirited Liliana had no interest in being owned by any man. Her journals and letters – punctuated by wave after wave of question marks – reveal her as a clever, playful, questing woman. She was also a competitive swimmer. Rivera Garza notes the “powerful bodily autonomy” that swimming offers women. It was while swimming herself, years later, that the author first found herself saying her sister’s name aloud after many years of silence. “That floating sensation you get when swimming is a very special, very freeing thing,” she says. “You become stronger with time spent in the water, that’s for sure. You breathe more deeply, perfect your strokes, unlock thoughts.”
Reading Liliana’s journals made Rivera Garza feel her little sister was back in the room with her. “When I say Liliana is with us, I’m not using metaphor,” she explains. “It’s not some magical realism thing. This claim is based on the experience of opening the boxes. All those papers had been untouched for 30 years – the last hand on those pages was my sister’s. Our touch leaves traces.” She closes her eyes and smiles, pearl earrings swinging like pendulums. “There is something geologists call ‘residence time’” she tells me. “It describes the time it takes for a substance to dissolve or disappear from this earth. Whatever Liliana left of her body on those papers was still there. So that connection is a material contact. I want this book to convey that sensation to readers, I want them to feel they could touch her.”
Through this book we can and we can’t. And that’s both heart-warming and heart-breaking. Because in the end, Ángel found his way into her student accommodation and strangled her. Refusing to play into the “pornification” of femicide, Rivera Garza gives us only the sad detail of the urine stain on her sister’s trousers, the fact of a broken window and a presumed flight across the rooftops by a killer who was never brought to justice. The family were left wondering if Ángel could have been caught if they’d had more money for police bribes.
“We need to separate our ideas of romantic love from violence, Because violence is NOT LOVE”
While holding a violent man and a misogynistic society to account, Rivera Garza also holds up a good man up for praise. One male journalist who covered the case at the time unusually did so with clear commitment to facts and without victim blaming. She brightens, birdlike as she tells me: “I was surprised and impressed by that. I met him and was very taken by what he wrote. He described [Liliana’s murder] as ‘a hate crime’. He had special intuition of what this case was about and calling it a hate crime in 1990 was actually advanced and very important.”
For her own part, Rivera Garza says she “knew very quickly that this was an injustice. I very quickly connected the dots. I knew who was responsible. But it was framed in this ‘crime of passion’ narrative by some people: [the idea that] she must have done something [to deserve it]. He loved her. He didn’t want to let her go. This language was silencing other perspectives. We need to separate our ideas of romantic love from violence. I remember this whenever I discuss books like Wuthering Heights with my students. We need to reinvestigate these texts always. Because violence is NOT LOVE.”
Rivera Garza’s book finds her wading through the bureaucratic treacle of the Mexican justice system, in which her sister’s case file proves elusive. She describes sitting on sidewalks, watching her friend smoke, watching insects slowly corrode the concrete. “The state has something to show about slow time, a lack of curiosity,” she says. Eventually, Rivera Garza found out her sister’s killer had died in 2020. It was too late for the sluggish wheels of justice to catch up with him.
But although Rivera Garza was wary of releasing her sister’s story into a world which – as recent reporting of lost women in the UK has shown us – is quick to condemn “dead girls”, she has been “delighted with the response of the Spanish-speaking world. I wanted to protect Liliana and keep her alive and I’m so grateful for the way that a new generation of young men and woman has embraced her. I feel she is, at last, in safe hands.” The writer’s shoulders slope in relief. “I hope the world learns from her story.”
“Liliana’s Invincible Summer” by Cristina Rivera Garza is published on 16 March (320pp, Bloomsbury, £17.99, hb)
Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail