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Isabel Cabanillas

Hijas de su Maquilera Madre are demanding justice for Isabel Cabanillas’ killing and reminding authorities that this crime cannot go unpunished.

This essay discusses gender violence, sexual violence, and the systematic murder of womxn

By Chantal Flores

The rage dissipates from their voices when they come to describe Isabel. “She was kind and always greeted you with a smile…” There is emotion when they speak about the artistic skills that distinguished ‘Isa’. Then, a pause, followed by a silence that brings them back to their new reality. A world without Isabel.

On January 18, artist and feminist activist Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre was found shot to death in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, in northern Mexico. The 26-year-old had been reported missing by her friends on social media hours earlier after failing to return home after a night out. 

“She was a person full of inspiration, art was her passion, her way of life,” says a spokesperson from Hijas de su Maquilera Madre who responded in the name of the collective. “She was a very caring and active person.”

A year ago, Isabel, mother of a 4-year-old son, joined the feminist initiative “Hijas de su Maquilera Madre” (Daughters of Maquila Worker Mothers), which since 2013 has been defending the rights of women. The collective accompanies the families of victims of femicide — the killing of women based on their gender— and the families of women who have been disappeared.

The use of Maquilera, a pejorative term to refer to maquila workers, was an initiative by the collective to honor the thousands of Mexican women who have joined the workforce from the maquila industry in Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border.  

Activists in Ciudad Juárez demanding justice after the murder of Isabel Cabanillas

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, a surge in the killing of women drew international attention and turned Juárez into the “capital of femicides.” Many of the victims were workers who were killed on their way to the maquiladoras — foreign assembly plants and factories — or after leaving them. Women’s bodies were dumped in a wasteland or along the side of a road. Many of them were tortured and sexually abused. 

Through her art and clothing design, Isabel focused on demanding justice in this border city. Her political work centered on the rights of women and immigrants, the non-militarization and land defense. Last year, she collaborated with the women’s network Mesa de Mujeres in the project Specialized Citizen Observatory on Gender, responsible for monitoring the performance of judges, prosecutors, and public defenders. 

“The Observatory also tracks homicides against women in Ciudad Juárez and during 2019 this instance accounted for 180 women,” Mesa de Mujeres said. Of those, the state only classified 14 cases as femicides. As of February 4, 11 women have been killed in Ciudad Juárez. “Isabel was the fifth victim, who has become part of this database,” Mesa de Mujeres added. 

The case is still under investigation, and a motive behind Isabel’s death is still unclear. However, the Mexican National Institute of Women (INMUJERES) and the Chihuahuan Women’s Institute describes it unequivocally as a femicide. 

Recommended: #SIMEMATAN DENOUNCES THE BLAMING OF FEMICIDE VICTIMS IN MEXICO

“Once again, the state of Chihuahua is mourning a new case of gender violence against women. The crime against Isabel represents an attack against activists, whom for months have been harassed and assaulted by those trying to silence the legitimate right of women to demonstrate, to demand a life free of violence,” an official statement read. 

Hijas de su Maquilera Madre and other feminist collectives have also denounced suspected political motives behind Isabel’s murder. Human rights defenders in Mexico are often subject to intimidation, harassment, and even death threats. 

“It’s political because you can’t separate what she did, her political and artistic work from the way she was killed,” explains a spokesperson from Hijas de su Maquilera Madre. “Femicide is the murder of women because of their gender status, but political femicide is also the murder of female dissidents who question the system, of those who defend their ideas, who put the body. It is necessary to take into account that they killed a woman who fought in every way against the patriarchal and capitalist system. The same system that killed her.”

A series of protests and cultural events have taken place in Ciudad Juárez since Isabel’s killing to demand justice and remind authorities that this crime, like the majority of cases, cannot go unpunished. Throughout the country, families of victims of femicide have been urging the Mexican state and local governments to implement measures to eradicate impunity. The majority of cases of violence against women remain unsolved.

Since 2019, feminist collectives, along with families, have led a series of massive protests throughout the country demanding an end to systemic gender-based violence in Mexico, where at least 10 women are killed daily. Hijas de su Maquilera Madre have been part of the protests, but are now also fighting for the “verdad histórica” (the historical truth) of what happened to their compañera. They refuse to let this case be shelved. 

Protesters gather on the Paso del Norte International Bridge in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on Saturday to demand justice for Cabanillas

“All these events, such as marches and cultural activities, involve organization. When working outside the State and NGOs, this is a big challenge because we do it with our own means in a self-managed way,” affirms the collective.

For the 18 members of Hijas de su Maquilera Madre, their lives have taken a turn they never expected. They all have regular jobs, school and other responsibilities beyond the collective. Their fierce refusal to allow Isabel’s case to be forgotten hasn’t given them the opportunity to face their own grieving process for her. During their meetings, they try to make time for their own self-care. As a collective, they support each other in their grieving and often turn to alternative therapies to find any sort of healing.  

Isabel had been working on the latest edition of the collective’s fanzine “La Hilacha”. The theme was body and identity, but since her murder, it has now been suspended. The collective plans to create a special edition dedicated to Isabel. 

“It’s hard to land, you think that this is not happening. There’s some denial,” explains the spokesperson from Hijas de su Maquilera Madre. “We are trying to give us, and our bodies, attention because of the physical and emotional wear…It hit us close to home. Too close.”

Chantal Flores is a freelance journalist covering enforced disappearance, women’s issues and mental health in Latin America and the Balkans. Follow her on Twitter @chantal_f

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