PORTLAND, OREGON — Since 1993, hundreds, if not thousands, of women living Ciudad Juárez, Mexico have been reported missing or found violently murdered. The majority of the victims are young factory workers, coming from underprivileged families. Pink crosses, raised in their memories, line the sandy hills surrounding the city, which is located on the Rio Grande just across the U.S. border from El Paso, Texas.
Playwright and El Paso/Juárez native Isaac Gomez wrote the play, La Ruta, to bring attention to the plight of these women — and to honour them. Named for the bus route that many take home following a long nightshift, the show provides a devastating and deeply personal look into the femicides that still continue to pervade the northern Mexican city. Its second-ever run is presented by Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, with heart-wrenching performances from an all-Latinx cast.
The story opens with best friends Yolanda (Cristi Miles) and Marisela (Diana Burbano) waiting for Brenda, Yolanda’s daughter, to return from work. When Brenda doesn’t get off the bus, Yoli panics. Marisela’s daughter, Rubi, has already been missing for two years and, later, is found mutilated in pieces. The story moves back and forth in time, from weeks and days before Brenda’s disappearance to nearly three years afterwards. Brenda (Marissa Sanchez) is innocent, sweet, and trusting, excited about her new job at the factory (the maquila) and a burgeoning friendship with the tough-as-nails Ivonne (Naiya Amilcar). As things unfold, it is implied that Brenda’s disappearance has something to do with sex trafficking and trading, but what happened is never made exactly clear — or just how closely Ivonne, whose guilt and own trauma begins to consume her, is involved. The audience doesn’t get answers; the families don’t, either.
Significant is the grief-induced dynamic shift between Yolanda and Marisela. The once jovial friends gradually become bristled and distant, as a result of Marisela’s horrific loss and Yolanda’s harrowing journey as she refuses to come to terms with her daughter being, in all likelihood, dead too. “I held my baby’s teeth in my hands!” Marisela bellows, tears in her eyes, at an insolent Yolanda, who mocks her friend for wanting to join other mothers in protest.
Music plays an essential role in La Ruta, present in nearly every scene. Mexican folk songs like “Cielito Lindo” (Lovely Sweet One) and “La Bruja” (The Witch) provide both poeticism and added emotional weight, performed beautifully by Fabi Reyna, a prolific figure in Portland’s music community.
Nobody, in the play nor real life, has been implicated in the femicides. There has been no punishment, no consequence for the murderers. It’s a truly reprehensible fact that Marisela references after it’s revealed Rubi was murdered by her own boyfriend and he was allowed to walk freely from the courts. “Unbelievable,” Yoli says. “Is it?” Marisela retorts.
But, with La Ruta, Gomez has created a powerful call to action. Storytelling creates awareness — a small, yet important, step towards one day finding justice for the lost daughters of Juárez.
La Ruta runs until December 1 at Portland Opera in Portland, OR. Tickets available online here.