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Edgar Mendoza

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Themes in Alicia Gaspar de Albas Desert Blood

La frontera, the borderlands. Its intrinsically divisive nature makes this
region the perfect setting for a crime novel. The metaphorical line between
despair and promise, heaven and hell, entice writers and readers alike. What
sets Desert Blood apart from other novels is that it blurs the line between
fiction and non-fiction and forces its audience to think about a variety of
social issues. The main focus of the novel is to draw attention to a series of
murders in Ciudad Juarez that target young women. Gaspar de Albas use of
realism allows to see the true reality of these murders and compels us to
attempt to do something about them. She uses femicide as a launching point
to discuss a host of other issues affecting her native Juarez/El Paso area. In
the tapestry of this thrilling novel she weaves in themes of poverty,
corruption, religion, human sexuality, as well as femicide and feminism.
The plot of the novel focuses on Ivons search for Irene. This search
explores the femicide in Juarez and attempts to give a voice to some of the
100+ young women that have been murdered in the city. The author admits
to taking some liberties with the descriptions of the cases but this doesnt
take away from the fact that these were in fact real women and these
murders happened. The use of pennies to depreciate women is one example
that does not come from a real life case but it does play a central role in
showing the disregard that society holds for these women.

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Gaspar de Alba does not shy away from crude language and vivid
imagery when describing these murders. By painting this grotesque picture
she hopes to inspire action in the reader. Towards the end of the novel she
blames the murders on a culture of silence, her graphic descriptions of these
events is her attempt to get us to think about femicide and to have those
awkward conversations that gender issues bring.
Desert Blood is a feminist novel through and through. The protagonist
and most of the supporting characters are mostly women. Gaspar de Alba
challenges gender roles by empowering the female characters and giving
them independent qualities. Ivon challenges the traditional idea of what a
Latina growing up in El Paso should be. She faces many hardships because
she chooses to break away from these roles but ultimately they give her the
experience that she needed to rescue her sister. The challenge of traditional
roles is taken a step further by the inclusion of lesbianism.
Lets make one thing clear, lesbianism isnt just a supporting theme in
the novel that is included in order to support a wider platform of feminism.
Lesbianism is a fundamental part of the novel. Much like Gaspar de Alba
challenges gender roles, she also attempts to break some of the nuances
associated with human sexuality, lesbianism in particular. The humanization,
not the glorification, of lesbian characters is what led to this book being
recognized with a Lambda Literary Award. Her realistic approach towards

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describing the protagonists sexuality displays lesbianism as a norm rather

than an outlier.
The novel blames the murders of the young women on a group of
individuals that produces pornographic material. This explanation for the
murders is a key element of the story because it introduces a completely
different narrative to both the events happening in the story and in the real
world. By blaming pornography, the blame is shared not only by the
producers of these films but by the consumers as well. This invites us to
participate in a very powerful dialogue about our own sexual culture,
hundreds or perhaps thousands of miles away from the border. The
exploitation of sex workers, porn actors included, was/is a problem in Juarez,
something this novel remind us.
Many of the problems in Juarez; poverty, crime, and corruption are
often blamed to its proximity to the United States. There is a famous line,
coined by a Monterrey journalist and popularized by Porfirio Diaz, Pobre
Mxico, tan lejos de Dios. Tan cercas de Estados Unidos. So far from God, so
close to the United States. No doubt that the citys location has made it a
target for international traffickers and cartels looking to control lucrative
drug routes. As Ivon points out, the problem isnt always criminal. NAFTA, the
North-American Free Trade Agreement, is one of the main reasons why
factories such as the ones were many of these girls worked moved to the
area. These maquiladoras offer a competitive wage and some sort of self3

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dependence to these young ladies but at the cost of exploitation and

submissive labor conditions.
The exploitation of the border doesnt just stop with the private sector,
the power placed on border agencies tends to be abused and exploited.
Mexicos long history of corruption stems from the one party dictatorship of
the PRI and has bequeathed a legacy of bribes or mordidas to practically
every position in the hierarchy of power. We see this multiple times in Ivons
and Williams fact finding mission to Juarez, they have to pay off several
people just to get directions.
Corruption doesnt just stop at the Rio Grande. The antagonist of the
novel, the Lone Ranger, is a border patrol agent! This comes as a shock to us
because we have internalized that our system is not corrupt when compared
to Mexicos. When one analyzes this situation with a post-colonial lens we
can see that the culture of bribery in Juarez is directly tied to what happens
in El Paso, at least in the fictional setting of the novel

At a glance this is a good murder mystery novel, at its core it is a good

Chicano murder mystery novel. Throughout the novel there is a fluidity that
connects us to the narrative. Perhaps this is due to the contemporary setting
of the novel and Gaspar de Albas attention to minute details that help her
engage the Chicano audience. One particular passage that I will always

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remember is one in which Ivon is making quesadillas. The way she describes
the slightly burned cheese as it hits the hot pan is surely something every
young Chicano could relate to.
The novel also integrates another important part of Chicano culture
into the plot, religion. Throughout Ivons search for her sister she receives
help from faith (in the form of Father Frank) but she never fully shakes off her
skepticism. As a Chicano, I feel as though there is a permanent struggle
between the culture of our parents and their religious beliefs that conflicts
with the search for our own culture and identity in an increasingly
secularized society. The novel feeds us an endless array of horrid, violent
images and juxtaposes them with the image Jesus watching over from the
mountain top. Ivons inner struggle with religion, and perhaps the authors, is
given light through this imagery.

Desert Blood is a page turning mystery novel that manages to

incorporate very important and very valid social critiques into its
composition. While entertaining the reader it manages to introduce themes
of femicide, feminism, lesbianism, religion, poverty and corruption. More
important, Gaspar de Alba encourages the discussion of these themes in
hopes of raising awareness, not just for the Juarez Murders but for a wide
assortment of issues.