Credit: Michael Brosilow

The rampant murders of women and girls in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez have been the subject of global attention since the mid 1990s, when the phenomenon first began drawing international headlines. Journalists, activists, musicians, novelists, television producers, and filmmakers (for starters) have used the city’s serial sexual assassinations to call for sweeping judicial reform as well as create danceable pop tunes (Tori Amos’s “Juárez”).

Perhaps most strikingly, academics have poured over the disappearances—as many as 1,500 women and girls abducted, sexually assaulted, murdered, and dumped in the street or in the desert—with a bracing clinical remove. Sarah Schatz in her indispensable Sexual Homicide of Women on the U.S./Mexican Border coolly informs us, “Theorists argued that female maquila workers were killed in a disposable human resource of labor,” a contention that “sparked empirical debate over the occupations of murdered women in Juárez.” Such rhetoric may sound inhumane, but researchers have shed valuable light on the underlying causes of the targeted sexual violence—everything from NAFTA to drug trafficking to machismo to poor urban planning—while at the same time demonstrating that structural, gender-based extreme violence is hardly unique to one Mexican border town.

But no amount of academic prose captures the nuanced, lived reality that Chicago playwright Isaac Gomez injects into his program note for Steppenwolf Theatre’s premiere of La Ruta, his 90-minute drama centered on a handful of Juárez women in the late 1990s. Gomez, who grew up across the border in El Paso, writes about visiting family regularly in Juárez, where he felt as free and self-reliant as he did at home. “But,” he writes, “any time any of the young women in my family wanted to or needed to do anything, like throw away the trash or go to the corner store down the street, the men would have to accompany them—myself included.” This tiny reminiscence reifies a pervasive terror more successfully than any empirical argument I can fathom.

That sort of idiosyncratic specificity comes and goes in Gomez’s play, making for an evening that ultimately packs half the wallop that it might. Gomez focuses on Marisela (Charín Alvarez) and Yolanda (Sandra Delgado), two 40-something women who’ve been recently let go from factory jobs in town. As the play opens, they’re at the bus stop waiting for Yolanda’s teenage daughter Brenda (Cher Álvarez), who’s taken her mother’s place on the factory floor. When Brenda doesn’t get off her usual bus, Marisela works hard to reassure Yolanda that nothing is wrong—a difficult sell, considering that Marisela’s own daughter went missing not long ago. But when Brenda fails to get off the last bus of the evening, Marisela calmly announces she’s calling the police. It seems she’s done this a thousand times before.

As he does throughout the play, Gomez adeptly captures subtle efforts to forge a sense of normalcy amid horror, as the women refuse to break from their comfortable routines until a miserable truth becomes inescapable. But as he also does throughout the play, Gomez interjects a fair amount of inorganic, expositional dialogue. Yolanda, for example, explains at length what Marisela surely already knows: with the passage of NAFTA, factories popped up in Juárez, and now, “We finally have a shot [to] support our own families.”

From the opening scene, Gomez jumps back and forth in time, tracking (and sometimes failing to track) the relationship between Brenda and her factory coworker Ivonne (Karen Rodriguez), who takes Brenda under her wing. Ivonne’s sister has been abducted, so in Brenda Ivonne may be seeking a kind of replacement sibling—or she may be seeking something far more sinister. The fact that Ivonne has been tied to several factory women who have gone missing gives Brenda’s mother little comfort.

It’s a potent setup, but in scrambling the chronology of the scenes, Gomez struggles to maintain forward momentum. Rather than dramatizing the cumulative effects of pervasive violence in the women’s lives, he presents a series of extended snapshots, often placed just before or just after consequential moments. More problematically, the larger social forces in Juárez remain frustratingly indistinct, for the most part reported rather than lived. This world rarely feels like a place where women need a male escort to take out the trash.

But Gomez, aided by director Sandra Marquez’s careful eye, excels at depicting small domestic moments that convey disarming gravitas. For these women, perpetually potential targets of male violence, domesticity may be life-saving. The snapshots Gomez creates, enlivened by occasional choral songs, may not progress very far, but they hold enough intrigue, horror, and fortitude to make for a memorable evening.   v