Drawn and Written by Jon Sack
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a war going on down in Mexico. The American media doesn’t cover it much, unless something really drastic happens, like a whole busload of college kids being kidnapped by drug cartels/police/mexican army/all of the above. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in about twenty years (though you could argue it goes back farther) of violence, and especially violence against women. I learned a new word by reading this book: “femicide,” which is the killing of women because they are women, though there’s a deeper reason: “violence against women works to maintain unequal power relations, perpetuate privilege, and prevent or discourage the political participation of more than half of humanity” (quote from human rights group The Mesoamerican Initiative).
Although the title of this book is LA LUCHA: The Story of Lucha Castro and Human Rights in Mexico, it focuses mostly on the city of Juarez, right across the border from El Paso, Texas. And, although Lucha Castro (no relation to Fidel and Raúl, don’t worry) is kind of the hub of the book, and of the fight for human rights in Juarez, writer/artist Jon Sack gives voice not only to her, but to people around her, family and friends, who are all fighting for basic human rights, in the face of brutal violence. Parts of the book are semi-autographical, featuring Sack as he visits Mexico and follows Castro around. But mostly he steps back and lets Castro and the others tell their own stories, while he draws them and scenes from those stories.
‘LA LUCHA’ is the perfect title for this book, because it has a multiple meanings. First, putting a ‘la’ or ‘el’ in front of someone’s name is a common way for spanish-speaking people to refer to someone else in casual conversation. For example, if they were asking about me, they’d say, “¿Y el John?” And while Lucha is a nickname, to give her that name is significant ‘la lucha’ means ‘the struggle,’ and is a way of referring, somewhat jokingly though kind of not, to the struggle against all the things against us in life. An argentinian friend of mine who owned a bar used this term every time some little thing, be it a tax or an alcoholic employee, happened to him.
Thirdly, ‘la lucha’ refers here to the larger struggle for human rights going on in Mexico, and/or sometimes just the struggle to find out what has happened to ‘disappeared’ daughters and sons in the so-called war on drugs (the term is not just used in America) and the almost general free-for-all between and among drug cartels and the mexican army and the mexican police, who all seem to be preying on the poor (in both senses of that word) mexican people who just want to have decent peaceful lives.
LA LUCHA: The Story of Lucha Castro and Human Rights in Mexico, although published by British publisher Verso (and part of New Left Books) is part of a larger series by the human rights group Front Line Defenders. Writer and artist Jon Sack has done similar books about Gaza, Syria and Iraq, and that in itself should make American eyebrows raise a bit: because yeah, as Sack writes, Juarez, Mexico reminds him, and mexicans, a lot of Iraq. Iraq is an easy thing to ignore when it’s on the other side of the world. How about when it’s next door to America?
The most shocking accusation made in the book, not specifically by the authors but by one of the people they interview, is that the femicides, the mass kidnapping and killing of women in Juarez, but also the general uptick in violence came not from the cartels but from the mexican army when they moved in as part of the then-new mexican president Calderon made a pretense to do something about the cartels. Though that doesn’t quite jive with what I’ve read in other books about this situation, if only in the timeline: people feature in La Lucha more than once claim that violence, especially the femicides didn’t happen until after, say 2008, though Sack, or maybe editor and Front Line Defenders leader Adam Shapiro put the peak of violence back around 2005. From what I can tell, it began way back at the turn of the century, after NAFTA (The North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement) was passed under (the first?) President Clinton (best Republican president we’ve ever had), when one-time presidential candidate Ross Perot’s prediction came true: the “giant sucking sound” as American companies gleefully pulled up roots and moved their factories down to northern Mexico, and mexicans moved up to work in them (because, for example, NAFTA destroyed Mexico’s farming culture). And if that somehow still makes you angry at Mexicans for stealing our jobs, don’t worry: just about a decade later many of those same companies moved operations to China—because yeah, China pays such low wages that they can out-compete with fucking poor-ass Mexico.
In any case, strength of LA LUCHA is also its weakness. Hearing people’s stories is powerful, but sometimes, most of the time, those stories just kind of end abruptly, and incompletely. Which might be the point, I guess, though I feel like there’s more to their stories. I also do like Sack’s impressions, his story, but he drops himself out after the first pages. Really, this book feels like it could be twice as long, with more stories, more history, but there are other books out there like that (check out Murder City by Charles Bowden or, if you prefer fiction, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño) and this is perhaps more of an introduction, which the graphic novel format is good for, such that LA LUCHA could be read as a grisly ‘Introducing Juarez,’ or ‘Femicide for Beginners‘.
The artwork by Sack is another strength, all of it in stark black and white, some copied from photos taken by Sack himself, or from what looks like newspapers, others drawn more freely. And, again the power of comics, we get not just their voices, but their faces: we can see their suffering. It’s all in a realistic style, no caricatures or magic realism, except for a great one-page self-contained political cartoon of Mexico as pinball machine, with all the main historical facts and terms leading to that big hole at the bottom saying “Adios!”
Surprisingly, the interviewees in LA LUCHA leave the main culprit of this whole mess unnamed, which is the United States. Which is to say, us. Not to say that there aren’t some horrible people in Mexico right now, including the cartels, but also rich people and politicians who sold out their own country, but Mexico wouldn’t have 90% of its troubles if we Americans weren’t creating a demand for both drugs and cheap products. Which is why putting time and money, and even deploying American troops on American soil, is a mere bandaid. Building a wall along the border to stop illegal immigrants, as if they were a zombie horde, is not going to stop anything. Because yes, the mexican cartels are already here, doing business as far north as rural Washington state, and we’d do better to change the way our country treats its southern neighbor so that Mexico could have an actual economy and, like, jobs, so that people wouldn’t have to join gangs or immigrate to the U.S. to survive
Not that LA LUCHA goes that far. That’s just me on my soapbox. Jon Sack and editor Adam Shapiro are going for a more personal appeal, giving real live mexicans a chance to talk to us directly, about human rights abuses going on right next door. The mission of Front Line Defenders is not to assume that anyone should come in and do the job for Mexicans, but merely to give support to those on the front lines, like Lucha Castro, who is fighting/struggling for a better life for herself, her family and her fellow citizens.