Politics at The Theater:

“Women of Juarez”
California Stage: Through March 21
1725 25th Street • 916 451 5822

A couple weeks ago, Mark Klaas was in the Capitol, urging lawmakers to streamline the death penalty process in California. It was 17 years ago that his daughter was abducted from a Petaluma home, raped and murdered. But we all still know her name, Polly Klaas, and most of us still know the name of her killer (Richard Allen Davis).

Imagine her case multiplied by hundreds, in a single city. Like me, you probably don’t know any of the names. That what’s been going on in Juarez, Mexico—starting about the time Klass was killed. There have been at least 600 women murdered in Juarez over that time. Probably far more. Three thousand women have gone missing during that time. And unlike Davis, who has been on California’s death row for nearly that long, there have been essentially no convictions, arrests or even investigations.

This cheery subject matter is the subject of “Women of Juarez” by the California Stage. I really wanted to like this play, mainly because the subject is so important. But it’s also a subject that is nearly impossible to dramatize, and the script here just doesn’t work. The plot seeks to tell the story of the killings through a single family, living in a cardboard shack in one of Juarez many shantytowns.

But the play is introduced as “agitprop,” and like a lot of agitprop, it gets overrun by its own subject. Too many of the scenes seem to be setups for political debates that seem to lose track of actual character and story. People wander on and make speeches, with the story of the family being both predictable and crowded out by all the other noise. In fairness, I will point out that in college I tried to write a play about the Spanish Civil War, with results that were far worse than “Women of Juarez.”  

Which is not to say there aren’t compelling moments here and there, which might suggest a better approach. The two best actors were women who came on and gave monologues not directly connected to the plot—a journalist and a prison rape survivor. This left me wondering if anyone had done an oral history of families and attack survivors in Juarez, and if these true stories might have been more immediate than this fictional version.

But I also left knowing far more about the murders in Juarez. While this doesn’t really work as a play, “Juarez” does give a compelling idea of a hellish experiment in deregulation, created by US politics. Juarez is a city of 1.5 million, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. It contains over 300 maquiladoras, factories owned mostly by U.S. companies, making it by some estimates the top industrial city in the world.

Many of these factories sprang up after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), most assemble finished goods for the U.S. market, and most of the employees are young women. These workers come from all over Mexico to work long hours, often on the night shift. They live in informal apartments and shantytowns in a city with no functioning police force, often travelling long distances by foot and bus at odd hours to get to and from their jobs. And the city is surrounded by endless miles of empty desert—where most of the bodies have been found.

If the logical result the government getting more involved in healthcare is that the country would move towards “European-style socialism,” as many have argued, one could make a corresponding argument that the logical result of policies of deregulation and cutting taxes is something like Juarez—a place where civil society has essentially shut down. What police there are make starvation salaries. The U.S. companies don’t provide private police. And, as “Women of Juarez” aptly notes, the city has become a haven for people who want to rape and murder women.

Which brings to mind another reason why these killings have gotten so little attention. The Klass case stuck in our minds not only because it was horrible but because it featured a single victim—a pretty, pre-teen one who had competed in beauty pageants—and a killer straight from central casting who relished his status as a predator.

The Juarez killings, with potentially thousands of victims, are too big to wrap our minds around. There are no known perpetrators. It could be rich kids and their bodyguards, one or more serial killers, drug gangs, the police themselves. The theories abound, and none have faces we can connect to the way we can with our anger when we see Richard Allen Davis flipping off the courtroom after being convicted.

But what is really to blame are U.S. policies—as the cast reminds you, when at the very end, they hand out sheets listing the contact information for Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, and U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. Free trade and the quest for cheap labor—not to mention the U.S. drug war, which added an addition 1,600 murders in Juarez last year alone—have created a war zone within sight of an American city of one million people. And if anything is going be done about it, it’s up to us.

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