“Young Women Like Me”
Teaching About Femicides and Reckless Capitalism on the Mexican Border
And if that line had fallen someplace closer to home
Someplace say between you and I
Who would I be?
What would my worth be then?
And, if silenced, who would speak
Tejana poet Amalia Ortiz’s words resonated in the guest room of my parents’ home in safe El Paso and I wiped away a tear. Having returned that afternoon after interviewing youth activists across the U.S.-Mexico border in Ciudad Juárez, I was acutely aware of the tragedy Ortiz described. A young woman I spoke to that morning asked me if I “knew about the dead women.” I nodded solemnly. “Good,” she said. “Tell everyone you can.” Along with the eight murders a day that year, hundreds — maybe thousands — of women in Ciudad Juárez have been murdered since 1993. Taken on their way home from work at the maquiladora factories that were exponentially increasing since the North American Free Trade Agreement, found in pieces in the desert or sometimes in the middle of the street. But these stories weren’t being told on mainstream media on my side of the line. —Camila Arze Torres Goitia
Since 1993, the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez has been shaken by disappearances of teenage girls and young women. Officials say they have few leads. The murders in Juárez have received some international attention, primarily due to government inaction. Yet little has been done by the government to prevent violence against women and girls, as officials neglect to bring their perpetrators to justice.
Residents do not let these deaths go unnoticed as hundreds of pink crosses — a symbol of these missing women — dot the border. An increase in these deaths coincided with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). A treaty between Mexico, the United States, and Canada, NAFTA sought to increase investment opportunities by eliminating tariffs and, like many other economic agreements, benefited the economic elites of the three countries while resulting in widespread unemployment, increased class stratification, and mass emigration. Most of the “disappeared” women work in assembly plants or maquiladoras, owned by the United States and transnational corporations that dashed to northern Mexico post-NAFTA to reap the benefits of lower wages and lax environmental regulation.
In our 9th-grade global studies class, we ask students to bring awareness to this haunting problem with their own voice. Our students bring the world into our classroom. Their cultures, colors, and languages live on our classroom walls and in the curriculum we write for them. Madison High School is a public school in northeast Portland, Oregon, of approximately 1,100 students. Students speak more than 50 languages in our hallways. Many are from immigrant families. Our students’ ability to recognize and talk back to injustice is a strength. Yet, many struggle with reading and writing. Some struggle with trauma outside of school or are in special education.
We created this lesson as part of our “Reckless Capitalism on La Frontera” unit that was developed at an Oregon Writing Project Curriculum Camp with Portland teachers Jason Miller and Blair Hennessey. This unit explores the avenues of violence on the border; the impact of neoliberal policies and NAFTA on ordinary citizens in Mexico; and how people have resisted through art, poetry, and organizing. Three years later, many students who wrote poems or created activist art about femicides and the treatment of women in maquiladora factories on the border remember and cite these assignments as their favorite part of global studies and as the spark that led to the formation of our Feminist Club and gender studies class at Madison.
After a few lessons on NAFTA, neoliberalism, and resistance to corporate environmental degradation through the film Maquilapolis, we turn to threats to women’s bodies and lives. To help our students witness and question the idea of femicides — the killing of women because of their sex — we set up a gallery walk with images of pink crosses in the desert, missing women signs on graffitied walls, and crime scenes. We play songs about femicides and post copies of lyrics around the room.
As students enter our classroom some are confused and others excited. “If you have any questions or ideas about what’s happening in the pictures, you can post them on the sticky notes next to the pictures or songs you will be looking at today.” Students walk around and respond to the mixed media posted around the classroom. “This seems scary,” Lin says. “What are these pink crosses?” Angie wonders. Students circulate the room with curiosity. “Whose was that?” Sophie asks as she looks at the image of a white dress stained in red paint hanging on a cross.
As students settle into their seats, we have them write a T-chart in their journals with one column for facts and one column for imagery. “Today we are going to attempt to solve a mystery. Use the information around the room to identify what is happening to women on the U.S.-Mexico border.” Students circulate in the room again to put together the pieces. “Gather as many facts as you can, like numbers, settings, names, places.” We also tell them to collect powerful images and draw or describe them in the imagery column of their chart.
“Not one more,” Alex translated to Gilbert as he responds to a Post-it note requesting a translation attached to a picture of a woman holding a pink cross with the words Ni Una Más painted across it. One photograph shows weathered pictures of missing women with police officers looking away. Anna writes, “I think the women are missing. Their families must be wondering where they are.” Another student writes, “Why aren’t the police doing anything?” Fareen announces, “This topic gives me so many feelings. Look at this, the women are being labeled,” pointing to a piece of artwork of paper chain women with blank name labels on their chests.
In the gallery walk, some students gravitate to images and others to song. As students listen to songs by Los Tigres del Norte and Misfits, they copy their favorite lines from the lyrics that were printed out. Some write them in the original Spanish, others the translated version. One student listens to one of Eve Ensler’s poem several times: “Bone she came back as bone” she writes in the imagery column and “300 women” written in the fact column.
Students congregate and put their facts together to paint a picture of this mysterious tragedy. We pull the class together to reveal what we will be exploring. We ask students to write our working definition of femicides in the context of this unit in their journal — Femicides: the killing of more than 300 women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, since 1993.
To give students background and tie this lesson to our understanding of neoliberalism, capitalism, and the maquiladora experience, we read “To Work and Die in Juárez” by Evelyn Nieves as a class. As we distribute the article, we ask students to add to their T-charts by highlighting facts and imagery in different colors. We ask students to write questions, connections, and thoughts in the margin to build on prior knowledge. Andy highlights “In the gray-brown factory city of Ciudad Juárez” and writes in the margin I think the missing women work in the factories we learned about last class.
Veronica circles “Women still wait for the rickety green factory buses well before the sun is up, on lonely, unlit corners where no one would see them if they were dragged into a car and driven away, never to be seen alive again.” And in the margin she writes this reminds me of posters of missing women. Abdi underlines “The owners of the more than 300 factories have flocked here in search of low tariffs and cheap labor have said little on the subject of the abductions, rapes, and murders.” In his margin he writes why aren’t the factory owners doing anything to stop the killings? On that same passage, Gideon writes: businesses only care about money not people. Lily highlights “scores of others have been raped, mutilated, and tossed like garbage throughout Ciudad Juárez” and writes women are not treated as humans at maquiladoras where they breathe in toxins or on streets where they are left in pieces, making a connection to what she saw in Maquilapolis.
The article ends: “Throughout Ciudad Juárez, fear is palpable. Crosses and messages of remembrance have been nailed to signposts all over town, a constant reminder of the dead. Billboards and bus advertisements warn: “Be careful — watch for your life.”
As we discuss the article as a class, Lin admits, “I still don’t get it, though. Who is killing them and why? It’s not cool but I understand why bosses would want to save money by not buying masks for their workers. But why kill workers?” This is a question that we continue to ask ourselves and we admit to our students that we are not sure ourselves but have theories.
To provide one “answer” to Lin’s question, we ask our students to recall the Transnational Capital Auction, from Rethinking Schools’ The Line Between Us by Bill Bigelow, that we did as a hook for the unit. In this simulation, students saw the race to the bottom illustrated as “third world” elites compete for foreign capital investment. “Remember how these countries lowered their minimum wage, child labor laws, and environmental protections to bring more corporations to their country? When leaders in countries do this, what are they showing that they value?” we ask. Students start to see the reflection of governments’ devaluing of women in the murders. “If everything around you is telling you that workers’ lives do not matter, I guess you start to believe it,” Sophia says.
We couple this with a few graphs showing the employment rates by gender in Juárez and share some theories about the emasculation of men in a town that hires mostly women for their small hands and perceived lack of resistance. Many students are able to see that the mistreatment of women in Ciudad Juárez extends outside the walls of the maquiladora factories and that witnesses prioritize money over justice for these women. We tell them, though, that perhaps the more important question is not who but why and how they are getting away with it and redirect the conversation to action: “Who can stand up for these women?” Students react:
“The bosses should, they don’t do anything.”
“The government could make laws to protect them.”
“The bus drivers are probably doing it. Hire better bus drivers!”
“Boycott!” one student exclaims, citing previous classwork done around resistance methods in South Africa.
“We’re the ones who buy the products made in maquiladoras.”
We ask our students, “Why don’t those people speak up?” Eager to share his margin note, Gilbert repeats what he wrote about businesses caring more about money. We ask students to connect these ideas back to neoliberalism and refer them back to posters hanging around the classroom of the rule of the market; cutting expenditures for social services; deregulation; privatization; and eliminating the concept of “the public good” or “community” and replacing it with “individual responsibility.” Each poster has quotes, images, and captions explaining a component of the system. We give students time to process their thoughts and share thinking at their tables, then we call on a few tables to share:
“It’s like eliminating ‘public good’ or ‘community’ because they care about individual businesses not citizens.”
“I think it’s deregulation because that’s when there are no rules. There are no laws punishing murderers or protecting women. Just laws helping businesses.”
We know it is important to point out that even though this tragedy on the border seems so far from us here in Portland, Oregon, these false notions of masculinity that led to the killing of women in Jurez are universal. “So does this just happen in Mexico or do other places put money over women?” Students answer:
“Some women don’t get paid as much as men here.”
“Girls are raped in college but college people want to keep it a secret so that people will go to their school.”
Sometimes it can be hard for us to unpack gender and gender violence in the classroom. There is not a ton of curriculum out there that asks students to do so. We try to unfold how patriarchy and capitalism interact.
Starting with the Feeling
Students still have many questions and were grappling with this violence so we begin our writing from a place of feeling. To engage students, we vary the types of writing in our social studies classrooms. We teach argument, but also teach citing evidence and building empathy through poetry. We model how songs and poems can transmit both facts and feelings throughout the lesson and have learned by experience that poetry is a great way to teach historical content.
Before we write our own poems, we turn to the mentor text that inspired this lesson: “The Women of Juárez” by Amalia Ortiz (p. 36). Ortiz is a Tejana poet and activist who lives in El Paso, Texas. In the poem, she describes how just across the border from her home, women like her are expendable. We play a video clip of her slam performance and ask students to “just listen.” Then we rewatch the poem to analyze and discuss Ortiz’s craft by collecting facts and imagery in our T-chart journals from the previous class. We identify sentence frames we can use in our own poems. Many students point out her use of repetition with the line “they all look like me.” We give students a transcription and analyze the poem further.
We ask, “What additional facts can we learn from the poem?” Students pull together new facts like how 300 might be underestimating the number of women killed and that women are sometimes found in pieces with “daughters’ clothes with mismatched bones.”
Next we ask, “What are your favorite imagery and lines?” Many students cite “Desert that keeps its secrets,” “Dumped like trash burnt to ash,” and “spared by a line in the sand.”
We use student experts in the room to help us understand the Spanish dialogue in the text. We ask Edie to read this stanza and help explain the meaning:
have you seen this girl?
she is my sister
la has visto?
es mi niña.
have you seen her?
this face? esta cara?
We prepare students for writing by confronting this injustice through a class found poem. We pass out strips of colored paper and ask students to revisit the facts and imagery we have been collecting: “Go back to your journal, write what stood out most to you on the strip of paper.” One by one, students tape their lines on the board:
Their bones grotesque
The capital of murdered women
And they all look like me
In the desert that keeps its secrets
Another slim, long-haired and pretty
Tan skin, long brown hair
300 girls have disappeared
In the factory city of Ciudad Juárez
We gather students in a circle. One by one students recite the lines. This gave many of our students who have a harder time with writing poetry an easy in.
As we wrap up the heavy first day of our lesson, students slowly filter out — still chatting about the secrets from the Chihuahuan Desert they had learned about, making connections with friends as they left.
“My mom makes less than other people at her job,” Melissa says.
First Drafts of Individual Poems
As students walk into our rooms, they glance at the found poem we created last class. We tell our students, “Today you will write your own two-voice or persona poem. You can use the ideas we brainstormed last class.” We take out a sharpie and ask the class, “What are the different viewpoints you can write from?” Camden says, “The desert that keeps the secrets.” On the board we write the ideas our students had: a worker in the maquiladora factory, a pink cross left as a memorial, a mother missing her child, a police officer, the lead-contaminated river.
The previous evening, Ricardo had interviewed his mother, who had worked in a maquiladora factory. In his poem he writes, “Yo quiero vivir una vida feliz. Yo quiero estar con mi familia y mi niños. Vamos comenzar el viaje de la mañana y empezar de nuevo. (I want to live a happy life. I want to be with my family and kids. I’ve decided to start the journey tomorrow and start anew.) Alan writes from the vantage of the river: “I slowly disintegrate a hand still at work. Push, remove, twist, assemble, repeat. Her work of making small electronics will be on display until my polluted waters eat away at her remaining bone and flesh.” Ruby writes from the perspective of the desert: “Their souls are leaking through my cracks leaving nothing but mismatched bones.” We encourage students to be creative and write from any perspective, but we ask them to include facts and imagery about femicides.
For those who are having more trouble getting started, we prompt them by asking: “What was your favorite line from the songs or poem we looked at last class?” We tell them to build a poem around that line. For others we prompt, “How can you help paint this picture?” and “What are the images that you associate with femicides in Juárez?” Lizzie is struggling, so we go back to the model poem. We ask, “What were some of the sentence frames you liked in Amalia Ortiz’s poem?” She answers: “young women like me.”
Students are deep in writing for most of the class but, occasionally, some ask for feedback on a line or stanza. Our native Spanish speakers are excited to write in English and in Spanish. River asks Alex how to say a couple of words in Spanish because she wants to bring the perspective she chose — a young maquiladora worker whose best friend went missing — to life.
After Ellie finishes her first draft, we ask her about the poem she wrote, “What are your favorite lines from your poem?” Ellie looks back at her poem. She begins reciting a stanza:
I fit the description but it’s not me
burnt to ash
No not me
The long black hair and tan skin
No not me.
They find girls that look like me
tossed like trash burnt to ash
We follow up and ask, “What do you like about that part of your poem?” Ellie quickly says, “If I didn’t know I had wrote this, I would literally see this. I would get an image in my head. Like, what they are trying to describe and what they are telling me. Especially about how women are being mistreated.” We ask Ellie: “What do you want people to learn from your poem?” She takes longer on this question. “I would want them to learn that . . . just that . . . women in Mexico, they work in these factories and their life is at risk every day.” Brenda has more to say on this subject. After asking what her best lines were and what she wanted her readers to learn, she says, “I want people to realize that the factories are a part of femicides. . . . If women are paid more and work in cleaner factories, people wouldn’t feel like they had the right to toss them like garbage.”
Many students are proud of the poems they created. It isn’t difficult to excite them about sharing their work in a read-around. As students listen to their classmates’ words, we ask them to write a positive note for each of their classmates about their poem or cite imagery lines that they like. Next, students complete a poetry revision checklist to show the different ways they brought evidence and content from our unit into their own poetry. By using a revision checklist, we expand our students’ thinking and capture reasons why they wrote the lines. The checklist challenges students to self-reflect and comment on their own imagery or craft choices. We ask:
“What is your favorite line from your poem?”
Melina answers: “smoke in the air with all the lies.”
“What did this line mean?”
Maria writes, “I want to expose the pollution and corruption of U.S.-owned maquiladoras. I want people to know about the polluted cities. I want people to know how bad things are.”
We ask: “What do you want people to learn from your poem?”
Maria answers: “I wrote this poem for my grandmother who is still living in Mexico, I want her to understand why our family crossed the border. My parents risked their life to come to the United States because there are better jobs, it is safer, and there are opportunities for a better life.”
Finally, we ask: “Do you have any last questions or comments?”
Maria writes, “I keep thinking about the women who work in the factories. Some work at Samsung. I wonder if they made my phone.”
Some of our bilingual students, like Mia, were most excited about the opportunity to write in their native language and have it be validated and recognized. She wrote about how this craft choice she made reflected the history of the border and cited Amalia Ortiz’s words:
Salvada por una línea en la arena
Entre sus abuelos y los míos
Spared by a line in the sand
between their grandparents and mine
On her revision form, Mia writes: “I could be a maquiladora worker. I could be them. I am them. So I chose to speak like them. Like me.”
Beyond Our Classroom Walls
When learning about brutality and injustice, especially an injustice that is ongoing, it can be difficult to find hope to dig yourself out. We don’t want to paint these strong working women as victims, even though young women’s remains can still be found on any given day in Juárez. We bring hope to our lesson by continuing our unit with the resistance of maquiladora workers. We zoom in on the ways women organize within their own communities. We return to the film Maquilapolis and celebrate how Carmen Durán and Lourdes Luján forced officials to clean up the messes left behind by factories and how they started a women’s collective to fight for safer working conditions and higher wages.
We revisit the pictures from the gallery walk that show women with faces painted a ghostly white holding pink crosses and link Zapatista resistance to workers’ marches. We explore how we can resist from thousands of miles away. “We need to tell more people about this. Girls who go to Madison look like the girls being killed, but no one knows about it,” a student says. Spreading awareness about these issues seems critical to so many of our students.
Because of this, our colleague, Jason Miller, created an assignment to help students capture this energy through resistance art or art activism. Through this project students write an artist’s statement where they explain their issue, their art piece, and why it was important to them. We make the requirements for the art broad: to work hard, to illustrate a fact about their issue, and to do their own original work. Some students paint beautiful canvases of women without faces. In her artist statement, Lilly writes: “This shows that women’s identities are taken from them and they are just machines.” Some students cut out paper chains of women or make coffins with origami flowers and pictures of missing women inside. One student woodworks a maquiladora bus and fills it with mini clay skulls and says: “I made a bus because I think the writer of the article we read was right. Bus drivers are killing maquiladora workers.” A few students make stencils and “tag” feminist symbols on whiteboards all over the school.
It’s rare that you can say that a single lesson changed the culture at your school, but our students are taking their work beyond our classroom walls. They performed their poems about femicides at our annual poetry slam and performed songs about femicides at open mics. Inspired by both our femicides unit and students’ personal experiences, a group of our students started a Feminist Club to address violence against women and sex trafficking in our neighborhood. Our Feminist Club (in conjunction with our Queer Straight Alliance) advocated for teaching gender studies at the high school level. They stand up against sexual harassment and bring the power of marginalized voices to the school community.
Ayanna, a Somali Muslim sophomore, walks into the first gender studies class at Madison High School the following year. The first thing she asks is: “Can we learn about femicides and the maquiladora women again?”
Camila Arze Torres Goitia (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Kim Kanof (email@example.com) teach at Madison High School in Portland, Oregon. Arze wrote “Colonizing Wild Tongues” in the Summer 2015 issue of Rethinking Schools.
Bigelow, Bill. 2006. The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration. Rethinking Schools.
Maquilapolis. Dir. Vicky Funari. 2006. California Newsreel.
Nieves, Evelyn. 2002. “To Work and Die in Juarez.” Mother Jones, May/June.