Planting Foucault in Juárez

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A film still from René Allio’s I, Pierre Rivière (1976).

A Translator’s Reflections on the Story of Two Teenage Murderers Separated by Almost Two Centuries by John Washington

“He donned his holiday clothes, had his sister sing a canticle beginning ‘O happy day! holy joy!” and, his mind wholly deranged, his weapon, an ax, in hand, he executed his mother, his sister, and his young brother.”

So one Dr. Vastel describes Pierre Rivière’s parricide-fratricide of June 3, 1835 in the rural French village of Faucterie. The description comes from the book, edited by Michel Foucault, I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother. The astonishing volume includes the seventy-page memoir (“of remarkable eloquence,” according to presiding judge M. Daigrement) written by the nineteen-year-old murderer, Pierre, in which he candidly describes the particulars of his difficult family life and the details before, during, and after he murders his mother, his sister, and his brother, in that order.

Pierre writes of his youth: “I crucified frogs and birds, I had also invented another torture to put them to death. It was to attach them to a tree with three sharp nails through the belly. I called that enceepherating them, I took the children with me to do it and sometimes I did it all by myself.”

Pierre writes of his crime: “I went into my mother’s house and I committed that fearful crime, beginning with my mother, then my sister and my little brother, after that I struck them again and again…” (The death certificate described his mother’s face as “so slashed that the cervical vertebrae were wholly severed from the trunk, the skin and the muscles on the left side still retaining the head.”)

Pierre writes of his judgment: “I know the article of the penal code concerning parricide, I accept it in expiation of my faults… so therefore I await the penalty I deserve.”

The book also contains a collection of coeval medical and legal opinions, newspaper articles, and seven essays written about the case by Foucault and other critical theorists in the 1970s.

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In November, Verso Books published The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister, by Sandra Rodríguez Nieto. The title for the Spanish edition of the book is La Fábrica del Crimen, or, literally translated The Crime Factory. (Along with Daniela Maria Ugaz, I am the co-translator of the book). Rodríguez, who spent ten years writing for the Juárez newspaper El Diario, tells the story of Vicente León Chavez, who, together with two friends, murder his mother, his father, and his little sister, then dump and burn their bodies in a desolated strip of Juárez within sight of the US-Mexico Border Wall. The English title, inspired by Foucault’s I, Pierre, may seem at first misleading in that the book is as much a portrait of Juárez as it is of Vicente. Similarly, however, I, Pierre is more a dissection of society’s (mis)understanding of madness in 1835 (as well as a display of 70s-style French critical-thinking prowess) as it is the story of Pierre.

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Translating is an act of decontextualization, of deracinating a work and attempting to replant it in foreign soil. The act leads to crossbreeding, to mutation, and to the exposure of unintended or unrecognized aspects of the original—to apriplums and other strange flowerings. A literal translation of Rodríguez’s title, The Crime Factory, might have functioned, but the nearly overwhelming presence of the maquila-economy (foreign corporations benefitting from cheap labor and exploitative free-trade agreements) wouldn’t have resonated with English readers in the same way it does with readers in Mexico. When you strip a book, through the act of translation, of its immediate context one of the tasks of the translator is to provide a lens—such as an indicative title—through which the new readers can experience the text.

The original title for El Salvadoran author Oscar Martinez’s non-fiction book, The Beast, also published by Verso, in 2013 (which I also co-translated with Daniela, who is my partner) was Los Migrantes que No Importan. The literal translation would have been The Migrants Who Don’t Matter, but the irony in the title, referencing Mariano Azuela’s novel about the Mexican Revolution, Los de Abajo (The Underdogs) might be easily mistaken in English as a sort of right-wing tract, Donald Trump’s or some other uber-nativist’s latest release, a declaratively titled: Migrants Do Not Matter. Rather, The Beast captures the intensity of the trans-Mexico migration experience and points directly to the nickname for the cargo trains, La Bestia, which many migrants ride on their northward journeys. In the two years since the publication of the translation of Martinez’s book into English—an uprooted text describing an uprooted people—images of migrants “clinging like ticks” onto The Beast, to use one of Martinez’s descriptions, has become something of an international symbol for Mexico’s gross mistreatment of migrants, which, unfortunately, may have partly inspired a brutal governmental crackdown as much as it has garnered increased sympathy.

Daniela and I went back and forth with the editor at Verso on potential titles for Rodriguez’s La Fábrica del Crimen. In the end, in an effort to plant the book in this foreign soil, we landed on something that both promises the prurient lure of a childhood murderer and references a French book about how societal conditions compel susceptible subjects towards violent murder.

In his own short essay, Foucault proclaims, “Murder is where history and crime intersect.” Rodríguez, in The Story of Vicente, Who Murders His Mother, His Father, and His Sister, shows that “intersect” might be a euphemism for head-on collision—history being the twenty-ton semi-truck trailer and crime being the charging pedestrian. Murder in modern Juárez is where history pulverizes the individual—much of the death in Juárez is made anonymous through disappearances or unsolved, or simply uninvestigated, homicide cases. Jean-Pierre Peter and Jeanne Favret similarly describe “the monotonous deaths” of the French countryside—“celebrated merely in silence.”

Though there are obvious stark differences in the conditions of the French countryside of the mid-19th century and urban Juárez of the early 21st century, looking at Juárez (and Vicente’s parricide) through the critical lens of the study of another parricide is illuminating. Peter and Favret describe French peasant life during the July Monarchy, a period of insurgency and Louis-Philippe’s fierce attempts at reconsolidating monarchical power: “a world now subject to the abstract violences of money.” Peter and Favret ask: “What would happen if they [the French peasantry] ceased to recognize the fundamentals of a society which had believed that it was founded by excluding them?” Juarenses deal with these abstract (as well as very real) “violences” of money as well, and many likely recognize their own exclusion from the relatively idyllic economy just over the border wall.

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In a recent essay on school shootings Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker, describes Stanford Sociologist Mark Granovetter’s explanation of how someone not disposed to violence will participate in a riot. Granovetter, Gladwell explains, built a theoretical model based on thresholds, in which the person who initially throws the brick through the window—the instigator of the riot—has a threshold of zero. The person who joins that instigator, who would not have thrown the first brick but is willing to throw the second, has a threshold of one. Next is the man who, originally hesitant, now stoops down, picks up a brick, and joins that first fomenter and his accomplice.

Gladwell proceeds explicating Granovetter’s model: “Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window if everyone around him were grabbing cameras from the electronics store.” In understanding criminal or violent activity, especially when acts are committed that are generally accepted to be abhorrent, Gladwell writes, “You can’t just look at an individual’s norms and motives. You need to look at the group.” This is what the French theorists did in I, Pierre, and this is what Rodríguez does in The Story of Vicente. And this expanded social lens is more than describing the context of a crime—standard fodder in the true-crime genre. Rather, Gladwell asks if the way to explain the school-shooting epidemic is “to think of it as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before?”

One of the factors Gladwell doesn’t mention about a person’s threshold for joining a riot is impunity. Despite near ubiquitous phone-cameras and surveillance technology, a crowd still offers some degree of anonymity. This blurring of the individual perpetrator seems to be, in part, not only why Vicente didn’t hesitate from murdering his family, but what sparked him to murder his family: “It was easy, actually,” Rodríguez describes Vicente’s thinking prior to the crime. “If he killed them, everyone would automatically think it was a narco crime. And nobody, he was sure, would bother to investigate.” Vicente thus shares more in common with the non-instigating (medium-threshold) rioter than either Pierre or Gladwell’s school shooters, who, with a sort of morbid braggadocio, expect to be at least caught, or more likely killed, or even kill themselves. (Pierre hanged himself in Beaulieu prison four years after his crime).

The shocking levels of violence that have beset Juarez for years, and still plague parts of Mexico and Central America, can perhaps be understood as one of Gladwell’s slow-motion riots—erratic geysers of bloodshed. Firsthand witnesses to a society crumbling around them, barraged by consistent headlines of corruption, violence, impunity, with few options for stability and no feasible safe-havens, a disturbing number of Central American and Mexican youth are joining gangs, getting lured into paramilitary groups, or joining the military itself (also excessively lethal and extra-legally violent). These are young men and boys surrounded by fire and tear gas who—perhaps at first hesitant—are now stooping down to pick up bricks of their own.

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Rodríguez, complicating our ideas of pat culpability, reveals that the motivation for Vicente’s parricide was endogenic, that is, his “criminal nature” was generated not only within his own psychology, but “most likely gestated in a wider social circle, in his school, or even in the city itself.” It is frightening to recognize the conditions ripening Juárez for brutal crime are still very much present today, and that the culpability, as Rodríguez convincingly demonstrates, does not only lie on the other side of the border, but also on US policies of exploitative free trade and border militarization. Vicente’s parricide effectively puts the intersection between history and the individual in Hi-Def, slow-motion display. In reading about the sordid details of his crime, you start to see contemporary society curling with Vicente’s fingers around the knife handle: Uninvestigated/unsolved murder after uninvestigated/unsolved murder ringing in his ears; abject poverty surrounding him; the state matching—and raising—the violence with further violence. Peter and Favret describe Pierre’s crime as “a frontier for the human nature in which we can recognize ourselves.”

The frontera of human nature is the Juárez in which Vicente came to consciousness. He lived through the beginning of the femicide epidemic. Down the street from his house many suspected a mass grave was hidden under a concrete slab. (In the same year as his parricide twelve bodies were discovered buried in the front lawn of a separate Juárez home). On the very morning after his murder, before he was discovered, El Diario ran the emblematic headline: “Still Unsolved: 23 Executions.”  

Living in Juárez in the early aughts was, Rodriguez describes, “like playing Russian roulette”:

violence and death tore through our neighborhoods with a surging intensity as if to prove that the spiking social and political inequalities—the $60-a-week poverty wages parceled out by transnational companies, the eye-glaring corruption of local politicians and the generalized marginalization of Juárez’s citizens—would be paid for in human lives.

None of these factors are justifications for parricide, but in this case it seems clear that they are at least partial explanations. Living in a riot is stochastic, and yet meaning can sometimes be found in a sailing brick.

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Despite authoritarians often dismissing rioters as mindless perpetrators of violence, riots can also be en contra to something, even if its actors don’t proclaim the same—or any—motivation. Helping us understand what some young Mexicans are rising up in violence against—flagrant corruption, near-total impunity, grotesque inequality—is what The Story of Vicente Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister does best.

Both books beg the question: in light of extreme violence, especially when perpetrated by our youth (as in cases of parricides or school shooters) should we be seeking a verdict or a diagnosis? The answer may not be clear, but in the case of both Pierre and Vicente, and in even glancing at the conditions in Juárez today or, more generally, the US-Mexico borderlands, there is at least one clear takeaway: the murderer is guilty and society is far from healthy.

John Washington is a writer and translator based in Arizona. Find more of his work at www.jblackburnwashington.com