Embodied (in)justice: A Review of Maria Muro's and Marta Aura's Mujer on the Border

A dark stage. The first sound is that of a clock ticking incessantly, accompanied by a rooster crow. Projected onto a sheet upstage, we see the deserted streets of Zacatecas. A woman in black walks towards us from the distance and disappears before we can clearly see her. Still the clock ticks. Church bells ring and we see the inside of a deserted church. Again the phantasmagoric woman walks towards us from a distance and fades as she approaches, reappearing on a deserted country road. Still the clock ticks. Still the wind howls. An unseen dog barks as we see the Zacatecan countryside, a corn field, this same woman sitting alone and we see her face for the first time. Still the clock ticks and the wind howls. She appears and disappears in each scene, a ghost in a ghost town. She materializes once again on the deserted streets of a small town. As she walks, a window light draws our attention stage right and a woman, this same woman, enters the stage and meets her own image on the screen. As the video ends, having set the tone of solitude, having emphasized the importance of time passing, the monolog, Mujer on the Border, begins...

Through this monolog, adapted from Antonio Malpica's original play El llanto del verdugo by María Muro[2] and Marta Aura,[3] we are witnesses to Aurora Hernández's solitary stream-of-consciousness memories and emotions during the countdown to midnight, the hour of her son Rodrigo's execution by lethal injection in California's San Quentin State Prison. The text explores the inner workings of a woman on several borders: between Mexico and the United States; between life and death; between justice and injustice. The bodies of Aurora, Rodrigo and El Rojo the Gringo serve as the media for these themes to play out.

Though not physically present, two male characters emerge as central to the plot from the opening of the monolog: Rodrigo, Aurora's son, and El Rojo, Aurora's "gringo" employer and lover. Reminiscent of Tennessee Williams's use of the framed photo of the absent father in The Glass Menagerie, Rodrigo's framed photo ensures that the absent son is constantly present as one of the few props on the minimalist set. We first notice the image lying face-up on the coffee table along with files, notes, and books such as Law, Culture and Society, and later placed on an altar decorated with candles, Catholic icons, tequila and a bottle of sleeping pills. Pictured at age 17 in a red- and white-striped Chivas uniform that represents his "Mexican Dream" of playing soccer professionally, Rodrigo's photo is a symbol both of his rejection of the family tradition of making piñatas and of the debilitating injury that changed his fate. Rodrigo's body provides the catalyst for his Mexican Dream shifting to the "American Dream" when a broken leg ends his nascent soccer career. Instead of joining the family business and working with his hands to make piñatas, which he considered "women's work" (my translation, 3)4, he preferred to enter the United States illegally as a "bracero" (3), a choice traditionally taken by males. Here the emphasis on his body shifts from legs to arms with the term "bracero",5 derived from "brazo" (arm) to indicate the manual labor so often performed by Mexicans (and other immigrants) both legally and illegally in the United States.

Through Aurora, the text explores a mother's reactions to the way in which U.S. law is enacted upon the body of her son. Violence to a body is repaid in kind once and again as a series of acts of revenge are set in motion following a street altercation where "güerito" Henry Spencer was killed, and Rodrigo, "moreno, sin hablar ni pizca de ingles" (14), was found unconscious, then tried and convicted for murder based on questionable evidence. Here the play questions the U.S. justice system, not just along race and language lines as it may first seem, but within a bigger questioning of the faults in the system:

Bueno pues este Profesor, este Mister, aseguró que como en veinte años casi cuatro mil personas fueron enviadas a la muerte, sólo porque el sistema de justicia gringo no es perfecto. Ni siquiera es culpa de los Spencer, o de las leyes de los Estados Unidos. Ni siquiera es culpa del color de la piel de Rodrigo. Es un problema tan viejo como el mundo... Si tienes para comprar tu vida... te salvas; si no, pues te mueres.... (16)

Aurora suggests that justice is available to those who can buy it and that the 4000 erroneous death penalty executions were due to economic status, questioning the overall "justice" of capital punishment.

She considers Rodrigo's case to be one of these errors, largely due to her inability to hire a lawyer who could represent Rodrigo adequately, resulting in his death sentence. As the clock strikes midnight, voices in off narrate Rodrigo's execution while Aurora paces the nearly empty stage. In spite of the faults of the recording—principally, accented English and difficulty distinguishing between the three speakers, even for this native speaker of English—the voices in off serve to (over)emphasize the way in which U.S. law manifests (in)justice on the body of Rodrigo:

OFFICER: (Ruidos en que se aprecia cómo atan a Rodrigo).

Mr. Hernández, lay down here, please. Okay... put your head right here. And now, your arms, okay... here we go. Okay... Please raise up your right leg. Now your left one. Okay... Yes, your arm, sir... okay... okay. We are done. Thank you. [...]Okay...Mr. Hernandez. Is just a needle... thank you. Your other arm.... (11).

The repetition of specific body parts renders the absent body corporeal in the minds of the spectators as Aurora's physical presence takes backstage to Rodrigo's imagined body. Originally a more linear narration in Malpica's version, Muro and Aura moved the execution from the final scene to the middle of the play, creating a more circular narrative style.

The change in narration style allows an interweaving of Rodrigo's death by lethal injection at the hands of the U.S. government with that of El Rojo at the hands of Aurora. As Aurora describes the process of lethal injection, presumably referring to Rodrigo's execution, we begin to realize that she is not only referring to Rodrigo's death, but also to El Rojo's. Taking justice in her own hands, Aurora also sentences El Rojo to death by lethal injection. She kills the man who gave her employment for twenty years in his pharmacy, for whom she cared (injecting him with insulin in exchange for English lessons), and whom she loved, but who eventually came to be associated with abandonment and whom she came to see, as a representative of the United States, as her enemy. Through his body she claims revenge upon the United States, its laws and its justice system.

Again the theme of the body as vehicle for (in)justice emerges as Aurora reflects upon her actions:

¿Hice bien? ¿Hice mal? No dice la Biblia, "¿Ojo por ojo, diente por diente?" Yo no inicié el juego de las venganzas... De verás, yo no lo inicié... ¿Dónde está el problema...? ¿En mí, en ellos, en nuestro gobierno, en el sistema gringo...? Es cierto el Rojo no debió morir. Al menos no así. Pero tampoco mi Rodrigo. Y aquí estamos... ¿Quién decide si continúa la cadena de venganzas...? ¿Quién...? (20)

Basing her justification on the Bible's teaching of "an eye for an eye," Aurora contemplates the cycle of bodily violence and vengeance. This leads to consideration of suicide, another type of revenge; however, she breaks the chain when she decides not to take her own life.

Both Muro and Aura emphasized in interviews that they did not want to portray Aurora as a melodramatic, suffering victim. Whereas in the original version the ending suggests that she commits suicide, they present a woman with agency who, due to circumstances, sees herself obligated to defend herself, to learn English and to travel to the United States, when normally a woman in her position would never have traveled as far as Mexico City (Aura, Muro interview). This determined woman refuses victimization, as reflected in the revised ending, which concludes with an affirmation of life and determination to continue fighting. As she opens the bottle of sleeping pills in her hand and regards them pensively, Aurora contemplates suicide, "Con una, te quedas dormida, ¿con todo el frasco?" Immediately she rejects the idea, exclaiming, "¡No! No me rendiré, qué este silencio sea fértil. No en balde aprendí de leyes, de juicios, de tanta cosa" (21).7 This reaffirmation of life is immediately followed by Aurora imagining Rodrigo's last desire being to return to his homeland:

Sí, de seguro mi hijo sólo pidió regresar a su tierra, seguro que esas fueron sus últimas palabras. Habrá que esperar su cuerpo... Ungirlo... Enterrarlo... Habrá que prepararle un funeral... Darle sepultura... Tendrá su funeral m'hijo... Como el del gringo... Sí... Un gran funeral... (21)

The juxtaposition of the two texts suggests that the "silence" to which she refers is Rodrigo's death and that "fertility" will come from it—that he will not have died in vain. The concepts of law and justice again manifest themselves through the body with the return of Rodrigo's corpse to Mexico, and literally to the land, through a proper burial. This grieving mother expresses her mourning with an Antigonesque determination to bury her son.8 The monolog that began with a narration of El Rojo's funeral ends with projected images of Rodrigo's funeral—two unjust deaths, each in the other's homeland.

Aurora's desire to bury Rodrigo in their native soil also serves to emphasize the "mexicanidad" of the text, an aspect emphasized by the authors in our interview. The videos that begin and end the performance place the setting clearly in Zacatecas, as does the funereal banda music that pervades the piece, the colloquial speech, clothing, references to food, the altar, and the ever-present piñata, a prop to which Aurora returns throughout the performance. Through the piñata, Muro proposes to rescue the history of an artisanship that is representative of Mexico, that like many crafts and family traditions is being lost by successive generations who do not follow the family trade because it does not offer economic stability. Instead they look to the "American Dream" to lift them from poverty at the cost of their cultural heritage and at the risk of their lives.

So many men have followed this dream north that Mexico is spattered with ghost towns. Aurora represents the wives and mothers left behind. Her loneliness, solitude and abandonment by all the men in her life (Rodrigo, Rodrigo's father and El Rojo)9 takes center stage; hers is the only body materially on the set. For audience members in Chicago,10 this solitude superseded the theme of justice. In the public debate that followed the performance, multiple members of the exclusively Latino audience expressed that they identified with Aurora—they saw in her a mother or grandmother that they themselves had left behind and cannot return to visit due to their status as illegal immigrants in the U.S. (Muro interview).

With the goal of reaching as many audiences as possible, each performance brings new insights to the ever evolving text that presents the complicated issue of the impact of Mexican immigration to the United States, including themes such as the disintegration of the family, loss of tradition, and questions of justice and revenge. As both Aura and Muro expressed in interviews, the controversy surrounding Mexico/U.S. immigration is not new, nor is this play the only text that raises such issues—questions posed in Alejandro Galindo's 1953 film Espaldas mojadas are as current today as fifty years ago, as are the issues of justice for Chicano immigrants in Los Angeles raised in Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit in the 1980s. Within the past few years there has been an explosion of texts that treat issues of Mexico/U.S. immigration in theater, music, film and art.11 According to Marta Aura, the theater can do its "little part" to add to the public discourse surrounding these issues—they can expose what is happening:

Me parece que es importante hablar de lo que está sucediendo. Por supuesto que yo no estoy proponiendo nada. Nuestro proyecto como tal no está proponiendo nada, está exponiendo que es lo que sucede. Porque yo creo que las respuestas no las tenemos nosotros. Nosotros podemos darte a ti o al publico en general el asunto, mostrar lo que está pensando y que la gente lo entiende [...] Los gobiernos son los que tendrían que hacer algo. Son los que tienen las respuestas. Pero a nivel pequeño, los seres humanos podemos poner nuestro granito de arena.(Aura, Muro interview)

In the current context of border debates, ranging from temporary work programs to constructing a wall along the entire border, Mujer on the Border attempts to raise consciousness and question the so-called "American Dream." Though they claim not to offer solutions, the authors do suggest that the answer lies with both countries:

¡Claro que todavía hay algo que hacer! Que se preocupen por nuestros paisanos presos en los Estados Unidos antes de que les caiga la condena encima; que vean por ellos antes de que caigan tras las rejas, cuando todavía son libres y están haciendo esa chamba esclavizante, que ningún güero quiere hacer. O lo que es más, que se preocupen por ellos antes de que se echen al río, o antes de que crucen el desierto, o antes de que se metan al vagón ese, asfixiante... o, antes de que se les antoje el "american dream"; para que no tengan que preocuparse más tarde cuando los pongan en la maldita lista de la muerte. Eso es lo que se podría hacer... (19)

Will Aurora's call to action be heard beyond theater walls? Will the performed embodied (in)justice of Mujer on the Border create an impact in the audience and prevent the realization of similar experiences? How many more mothers will mourn their children and fight to have their bodies returned to Mexican soil? Will a wall prevent additions to the numerous graves in the Arizona desert where anonymous bodies of illegal immigrants lie buried? Will this election year bring changes to immigration policies? Solutions to the controversial immigration issues raised in the play are not simple. They lie, as Aurora suggests, with political bodies on both sides of the border.

Works cited:

Aura, Marta and María Muro. Interview with the author. 3 September, 2005.

Malpica, Antonio. El llanto del verdugo. Unpublished manuscript.

Mujer on the Border. Adapted by María Muro and Marta Aura. Directed by María Muro. Performed by Marta Aura. Foro Shakespeare, Mexico City, 28 August, 2005.

Muro, Maria and Marta Aura. Mujer on the Border. Unpublished manuscript.

Muro, María. Interview with the author. 26 January, 2006.

End Notes

1. Photo for publicity poster taken by Michelle Mazy. Permission to use the poster in this review given by María Muro in an interview (January 26, 2006) and an email (January 30, 2006).

2. María Muro is an actress, playwright and director whose recent interests have been in exploring the themes of immigration and women, especially related to her home state of Zacatecas, Mexico, for which she was recently honored in October of 2005. Works related to these themes include Mujer on the Border, Días de Guardar, Retorno Herencia, Antonieta en la ausencia, and Mujeres al calor de Lorca. Although she started her career as an actress, in the last ten years she has been drawn to theories of directing and has been interested in writing texts to later direct them herself, interests she has been sharing with students in Mexico City.

3. Marta Aura's distinguished acting career includes over forty years of performances in Mexican television, theater and cinema, including over fifty film and television credits. She drew on her twelve-year experience with Simone de Beauvoir's monolog La mujer rota and her previous experience working with María Muro in Medea in 2000 to develop the character of Aurora. Her most recent film is El Carnaval de Sodoma, directed by Arturo Ripstien, which is scheduled for release later this year.

4. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from the play come from the unpublished manuscript by María Muro and Marta Aura.

5. The "Bracero" program was once an official U.S. immigration program in the 1940s during World War II, to recruit the Mexican labor force to temporarily replace the U.S. soldiers fighting overseas. For a parody of this program which emphasizes the U.S.'s desire for the labor without concern for the human aspect of the workers, see Alex Rivera's mocumentary, "Cybraceros" (http://www.invisibleamerica.com/whycybraceros.shtml).

6. Aurora touches the absent body of El Rojo as she describes his death.

7. In the version I saw and recorded she also rejected suicide, but the text was less forceful. Instead of the above quote, she said "¡No! No dejaré que se me agrie el alma". María Muro expressed that they had continued to rework the text of the ending to show "más coraje, como la madre coraje de Brecht. Más de mujer más decidida a vivir" (interview, January 26, 2006).

8. In a personal interview, María Muro compared Aurora's determination to bury her son with Antigone's to bury her brother.

9. Rodrigo abandoned her when he went illegally to the U.S., following in the footsteps of his father, who left her before Rodrigo was born (2). El Rojo psychologically abandoned her by leaving her to take care of Rodrigo's legal issues: "Y el Rojo nunca me quiso acompañar... No sé por qué. Pero no quería regresar al Norte. Que yo me las arreglara sola, que después de todo era m'hijo... ¡Caray, como me vino a fallar! Siempre justificando sus ingratas leyes. Al fin y al cabo gringo de corazón..." (15).

10. Like the characters in the play, Mujer on the Border has been migrating: from the Museo Universitario del Chopo in Mexico City (January through April 2005) to the Foro Shakespeare in Mexico City (July-October 2005), then to Zacatecas, Mexico (October 2005), to Chicago, Illinois (October 2005), to Dallas, Texas (January 2006), and with plans to return to Zacatecas, Texas, and later to Spain in April of this year.

11. The number of recent works related to the topic of immigration is too great to name here. For a sampling of a few of the productions that consider different manifestations of (in)justice and the border, see for example the works of performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña; cabaretistas Las Reinas Chulas; music by groups such as Molotov and Los Tigres del Norte; short films Victoria para Chino (dir. Cary Fukunaga, 2005) and El otro sueño Americano (dir. Enrique Arroyo, 2004); documentaries such as Al otro lado (Natalia Almada, 2005) and El Inmigrante (David and John Eckenrode and John Sheedy, 2005); and feature film The Three Burials of Melquíades Estrada (dir. Tommy Lee Jones, script by Guillermo Arriaga, 2005).



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