If I Die in Juarez

Stella Pope Duarte
The University of Arizona Press, 2008

The lives of three young women, Petra, Evita and Mayela converge in a messy convolution of family, countryside, the neighborhood and city life in the hell named Juárez, Mexico. It is not an easy read full of romance, intrigue and the magical traditions of Mexico, though it has all that. It’s informative, entertaining and heartbreaking as it balances hardship and poverty in Petra’s loving family with the desperate miseries of Evita and Mayela. It’s enlightening, sad and frustrating as the equally impoverished and often mistreated men in their lives use their macho charisma and pecking order strength to squeeze life and self-respect out of the women who could be their best allay in the work they must do to feed their families.That’s the sad price of machismo and chauvinism.

All of the above happens and that alone could make this book an introduction to Mexican family life among the poor. But the story is more. From the beginning Duarte drops hints of the looming shadow that grows ever darker and seductive until the reader meets her fictional description of what happens to the many young women who truly have died mysteriously and brutally in Juárez. It is not pretty. Her description of work in the maquiladora is vivid and difficult to read. U.S. corporate involvement and profit that offers the consumer north of the border better prices separates this story from what happens “over there.” Beauty can buy time away, but the price is high and the end no better.

The story moves at an entertaining good clip and it nears a small miracle that Duarte handles the large cast as well as she does. It is surprising when it took an occasional sudden drop into mind-numbing minutiae like the two and a half pages for everyone to greet each other. I think something between that and, “They said hello all around,” would have done it. Style is straightforward and is sometimes chunky, but the characters are drawn well. Though it may be heartless, I thought they stayed drawn rather than loved by the author, though she made me care well enough that I wanted things to turn out well for the women. They deserved better treatment at home, on the streets and in the workplace. Duarte made her case and described her cause in excruciating drama at the end, so I will end writing that the subject gives allowances to minor flaws as Duarte makes her case.

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