LILIANA’S INVINCIBLE SUMMER: A Sister’s Search for Justice, by Cristina Rivera Garza
Every day in Mexico, 10 women die by femicide, a hate crime wherein a woman is murdered because she is a woman. You can be forgiven for not knowing this term. We almost never use it in the United States, though we should. The language Americans use for the murders of women by men leans heavily on aberrance and singularity — men who murder women have “snapped,” they are “evil,” they are “disaffected outsiders.” These qualities obscure what connects the crimes: not sex, as many assume, but power — more specifically, men’s assertion of power over women. These men haven’t snapped; in fact, they usually have long track records of domestic and other violence.
Using the correct language is key; we cannot eradicate what we don’t know exists.
Of this, the MacArthur “genius” grant-winning writer Cristina Rivera Garza is well aware. In 1990, before femicide was classified as a crime in her native Mexico, her 20-year-old sister, Liliana, was murdered. Her death is the subject of Rivera Garza’s new memoir, “Liliana’s Invincible Summer.”
Liliana was almost certainly killed by a man, Ángel González Ramos, whom she had been dating off and on since high school. But Ramos was never charged for her murder because he absconded during the investigation into Liliana’s death.
Liliana’s whole family knew, or knew of, Ramos, leaving them haunted: How could they have missed the signs that he was capable of violence? How could Liliana herself — a vibrant, intellectually curious architecture student — not have sensed the danger she was in? What they didn’t realize was that they were asking the wrong questions. Rivera Garza’s book is a journey toward the right ones.
Rivera Garza — a professor of Hispanic studies and the director of the creative writing program at the University of Houston, and a prolific author who has written more than a dozen books — begins “Liliana’s Invincible Summer” with a quest to locate her sister’s case file within the maze of Mexico’s criminal justice system. When the pursuit proves futile (the government was unable to locate the records of the crime), she sets it aside for a new one: defy the government and write Liliana back into existence.
To do this, Rivera Garza mines her memories of her childhood with Liliana, conducts interviews with those who knew her sister and excavates her sister’s effects, including a trove of musings and letters Liliana both penned and received. Through Rivera Garza’s research, the reader comes to know Liliana. This competitive swimmer and university student is cheeky. She’s a wearer of motorcycle jackets, a taker of lovers, a lover of cinema, a smoker of cigarettes. She is an outraged activist, a smart aleck, an angsty dreamer of a girl. This collaged portrait is one of the most effective resurrections of a murder victim I have ever read (and I have read many). Rivera Garza draws her sister, then complicates that drawing and then complicates the complication, creating layer upon layer of nuance.
That said, Rivera Garza’s choice to place so much of the narrative into the hands of others — running seemingly unedited interview and epistolary sections — while preserving Liliana’s voice, also occasionally makes for a challenging read. Liliana’s letters, for example, outline the ephemeral hopes and dreams of a teenage girl, her desires so capricious as to float away. The reader (for whom Liliana was not writing, of course) must grasp for threads in order to glean even a semblance of meaning.
During these parts I longed for Rivera Garza to interpret for me. She does this, movingly, elsewhere. She contextualizes the legacy of Mexican feminism with the story of the protesters who demonstrated for justice after a teenager was raped by police officers. “They stood up right here, exactly where we stand today. Our feet on their footprints. Their footprints enveloping our feet,” Rivera Garza writes. “We are others, and we are the same as we always have been. Women in search of justice.” Rivera Garza also frequently holds Liliana’s experience up next to the research in Rachel Louise Snyder’s groundbreaking book, “No Visible Bruises,” which exposes how intimate partner violence hides in plain sight. Through that lens, we see that Liliana’s relationship was undoubtedly high risk.
This modern contextualization is so much more pointed than the meditations and recollections exposed by Liliana’s own writing or the interviews Rivera Garza conducted with her peers, and yet I understand why Rivera Garza cedes the narrative to Liliana and her friends when she does: In this book, it’s the very lack of language that’s significant. By displaying the fragmented, liminal space in which Liliana and her friends discuss Liliana’s life, Rivera Garza is bearing witness to the dearth of ways they had to speak about violence that was right in front of them.
Indeed, what Rivera Garza uncovers about what was known of Liliana’s situation while Liliana was alive reveals enough to raise a modern eyebrow — according to Liliana’s friends, Ramos owned a gun; he’d threatened suicide; he’d been envious. Liliana herself once said Ramos “doesn’t take no for an answer,” and, in the middle of a pages-long stream-of-consciousness reverie, she wrote, hauntingly, “What if you knew what would become of me?” But in 1990, when the murders of women were called “crimes of passion,” those who loved Liliana couldn’t have identified that risk even if they’d tried. Rivera Garza realizes that none of them “had at our disposal the insight, the language, that would allow us to identify the signs of danger.”
As for how a woman as independent as Liliana could find herself in a relationship that would kill her, Liliana’s father shows why this question is the wrong one. Once when Liliana was home from college, her father had an altercation with Ramos over his shabby appearance, which her father saw as a sign of disrespect. But when Liliana asked him to trust her and stand down, he relented with this wisdom: “I have always believed in freedom because only in freedom can we know what we are made of. Freedom is not the problem. Men are the problem — violent, arrogant, murderous men.” It wasn’t Liliana’s responsibility to keep herself safe. It was Ángel González Ramos’s responsibility not to be violent. As Rivera Garza puts it with a gut punch: “The only difference between my sister and me is that I never came across a murderer.” That, Rivera Garza says, is also “the only difference between you and her.”
The right question — how could a man come to believe it’s acceptable to exert power over a woman through violence? — illustrates the importance of using the correct language. How can a man educate himself without it? After all, Rivera Garza’s book makes me certain, it shouldn’t be a woman’s responsibility to teach society about the dangers she faces.
Katherine Dykstra is the author of “What Happened to Paula: An Unsolved Death and the Danger of American Girlhood.”
LILIANA’S INVINCIBLE SUMMER: A Sister’s Search for Justice | By Cristina Rivera Garza | Illustrated | 305 pp. | Hogarth | $28