Is it “femicide” or “feminicide”? I’ve been asked when referring, in English, to the murder of my younger sister, Liliana Rivera Garza, at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, Angel González Ramos, which occurred in Mexico City on July 16, 1990, and which I explore in Liliana´s Invincible Summer (Hogarth Press, 2023). In Spanish, the word feminicidio became common currency as society strove to describe the gruesome, seemingly uncontainable, murdering of women first apparent in the border city of Ciudad Juárez—on the other side of El Paso, Texas—during the last decade of the twentieth century. On June 14, 2012, feminicidio entered the Mexican Federal Penal Code as Article 325, which succinctly defined it as a crime committed against women “for reasons of gender.” Today, few in Mexico, or in the Spanish-speaking world for that matter, are unfamiliar with the word. Few would ask, is it femicidio or feminicidio—the stability of the term sadly indicative of the continuity of the crime. While the expression has existed in English since at least the early nineteenth century, and likewise indicates the killing of women, many seem to struggle with its nomenclature even today. The term, however, became somewhat widespread during the 1970s, echoing assertions against female oppression. Proceedings of the International Tribunal on Crimes against Women indicate that feminist author Diana Russell first employed the term femicide in Belgium in 1976. And yet, femicide remains largely invisible in both academic literature and popular narratives in the United States. Why?
I settled for the term femicide in English after the publication of Sergio González Rodríguez´s The Femicide Machine in 2012. Translated by Michael Parker-Stainback and published by Semiotext(e), this book made González Rodríguez’s investigative work on the horrific reality of systematic murders of women in Mexico available to English-speaking audiences. Also known for his cameo appearances in Roberto Bolaño´s masterful 2666, González Rodríguez devoted much of his late work to disentangling the web of international accumulation, displaced labor, and local corruption that “created the conditions for the murders of dozens of women and little girls, but developed the institutions that guarantee impunity for those crimes and even legalized them.” His was a complex vision that veered away from easy generalizations, eschewing official narratives that either minimized the crimes or blamed the victims for their own deaths. González Rodríguez, who died prematurely, at sixty-seven, in 2017, had been kidnapped and received death threats from organized crime after publishing works such as Huesos en el desierto (2002), El hombre sin cabeza (2010), and Campo de Guerra (2015), all of them about the surge of violence that took so many women´s lives, and all of them yet to be translated into English.
The femicide machine works, and it works around the globe. Relentlessly. Because they are appalling, statistics from countries like Mexico or Honduras remain well known: every single day in these countries, ten women are killed because they are women. But according to data from the Violence Policy Center, femicide rates have also risen dramatically in the United States, enough for some to call it a “silent epidemic.” And the numbers are higher for African American and Latinx communities. Several factors contribute to the continuous invisibility of violence against women worldwide: structural gender inequality that places women in greater labor and educational vulnerability; naturalization of, and high social tolerance for, women´s suffering; suppression of reproductive rights; rampant impunity for offenders; as well as the prevalence of patriarchal accounts that both trigger and forcibly silence gender violence. In No Visible Bruises: What We Don´t Know about Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, a splendid investigative work that provides a frame for the domestic abuse that, while “as common as rain,” often, and dangerously, goes unnoticed, Rachel Louise Snyder argues that victims of domestic violence are all too often placed in an impossible position, forced to conceive the inconceivable: that love can actually be deadly. This cognitive quandary stems from weaving the language of romantic love and the language of violence tightly enough to make them indistinguishable in songs, movies, Hallmark cards, and the law. Producing a precise enough terminology to render violence against women visible and clearly identifiable has been the purpose of public health professionals and women’s movements, feminist and otherwise, around the globe. Sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, and intimate partner terrorism belong to the growing vocabulary able to identify and hopefully protect women from violence in the future.
On January 10, 2023, the Spanish newspaper El País published “¿De qué se ríe el feminicida?,” an article I wrote about the supposed death, on May 2, 2020, of the man who killed my sister. In that piece, I interrogated the true nature of the smile he wore in the many pictures of him featured as part of his virtual funeral. About a month later, on February 5, the newspaper ran an English translation by Max Granger, titled “What is the Killer Laughing At?,” which is a reasonable if not completely word-by-word accurate translation of the title. I was, in any case, elated by his work. On February 6, however, as Granger posted a tweet announcing the publication, he employed a conspicuous term that, although a bit unwieldy, depicted the nature of the crime with chilling truthfulness. “Perhaps,” Granger quoted in his post, “the femicider was laughing so much—with such hideous confidence and discipline—because he knew that Liliana had never left. And that she never would.” I paused. And then, without further hesitation, shot him a direct message. I thanked him for the translation and went on to convey how brave and admirable his selection of terminology seemed to me. Femicider is not a word commonly used in English, yet it fits the crime like a glove. Had he come across this word in other English translations? Was he coining the term? I asked.
The conversation that ensued further magnified the weight of language and translation in the pursuit of justice in cases of gender-based violence on a global scale. Granger told me that he had in fact used the word femicider in his original translation, even though he feared it might strike readers and editors as “awkward or wrong.” His instincts were right: editors at El País promptly substituted “killer” for “femicider,” both in the title and the body of the text, without consulting him. He had wanted to be faithful to a term he knew was politically charged: a femicider, after all, is not just any kind of killer, but one who targets and kills women because they are women. As with all words, this one came with baggage. This one alerts us to the structural nature of this crime, forcing accountability on both patriarchy and its players. “On the one hand, translation can erase the more radical meanings of words in service of readability and the rules of a given language” he continued. “On the other, it can work to faithfully represent those meanings when we find creative ways to allow the source language to influence and change the target language, and thus, perhaps, to change how we think and act in that language.”
I agree with Granger: languages can learn from each other, contributing to transnational critical thinking and cross-cultural critical practice. A translation embracing the radical meanings of a word, carrying with it the wound and the rage and the hope, all combined, will be able to advance, for example, networks of solidarity across borders. Such translation may well teach us to see violence—specifically gender violence and femicide—not as an essentialist trait belonging, and limited to, certain countries or communities, but as a structural wound stemming from inequalities we can rally against as we amplify calls for gender justice worldwide. He is a femicider, not a killer, and he is no longer laughing, I will say, without vacillation, next time I am asked, hoping, with Max Granger, “to play a small role in ushering the term into the English language and normalizing its usage.”
We can only fight against what we can name.
Copyright © 2023 by Cristina Rivera Garza. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.