Feminicidio Close to Home: Remembering Dr. Raquel Padilla Ramos

Dr. Raquel Padilla Ramos Presente. (Tahila Corwin Mintz)
Dr. Raquel Padilla Ramos Presente. (Tahila Corwin Mintz)

My friend and colleague Dr. Raquel Padilla Ramos was murdered on November 7 in Ures Sonora by her partner. Her violent death has been labeled a feminicidio—the normalized murder of women with impunity and without government accountability.

An official Instituto National de Antropología y Historia ethnohistorian of the Yaqui peoples, I was a distant admirer of Padilla Ramos’ work while writing my dissertation in the early 2000s. When I went to Sonora in 2003, I met with her for the first time. She was skeptical: As an activist academic, she had been burned many, many times. People stole her research, and she personally had experienced abuse. She was, like many women academics, exhausted by others taking credit for her work.

When I met her, the scars of multiple traumas were palpable. When I assured her that I wanted to collaborate and bring her to the U.S. on a fellowship, her body language changed. Our discussion was personal and political in the sense that we were both survivors; we implicitly understood one another. We became fast friends, because I valued everything she had done. I was not trying to steal from her, but to learn from her and respect her—the very things she had earned by fighting, constantly fighting.

That’s what she was: a fighter. I believe this is why she was such a fierce defender of Indigenous rights, or those of the 49 children who were burned alive in 2009 at the state-run ABC daycare in Hermosillo. She, too, had suffered injustice as a survivor, twice over. She defended Yaqui water rights; wrote numerous books and articles about the mission period in Sonora, about Indigenous women’s rights, about state sponsored violence against Indigenous people; and was a single mother of three children.

Because Padilla Ramos was a woman anthropologist who defended indigenous ways of life unapologetically and fiercely, she was constantly in receipt of death threats via Facebook, Messenger and Twitter, and publicly humiliated and defamed by some colleagues. She regularly posted these threats publicly as acts of denunciation, and a way to make visible how private acts were disrupting her research and her life. Her most recent posts and tweets were about the grave injustices of feminicidio and cartel violence, especially the nine Mormon women and their children who were killed by the cartels in eastern Sonora on the border with Chihuahua just last week.

Padilla Ramos loved Sonora with her soul. Her family had deep roots in the region—a portrait of her great grandparents hangs in the Museo de Costumbre in Alamos, Sonora—and just moments before her murder, she posted about the founding of the Bavispe mission and the 1887 earthquake that almost destroyed it. She was indeed committed to public history and exposing injustice, no matter what the cost.

She found solace and a passion for running in her late forties, making time to run around Ures when most were afraid to do so because of the increased feminicidios in the region. I still remember the passion in her tone of voice about how free she felt when she ran. She ran 5k the morning of her death.

Fiercely dedicated to everything she did, Padilla Ramos’ children were nurtured and protected, deeply loved and well-educated. Over dinner at my house  in 2014, she recounted how she was going to get her daughters to Florida to go to Harry Potter Land at Universal Studios, because that was their passion: She let the teens drive her car to Florida, meeting them there with her son, Emiliano, who she fondly called “mi general.” I chuckled when she told me, for it was a level of trust and love for the girls that demonstrated just how much she believed in their capacity to negotiate difficult situations given their life experiences and rearing. It was as much an investment in their happiness as it was a demonstration of how much faith she had in them as independent young women.

This notion in believing in oppressed people’s capacity to contest their subjugation was the thread uniting her scholarly writing. In Yucatán, El Fin Del Sueño Yaqui, she wrote “the Yaqui woman served as a fundamental structure to how genocide was enacted.” By deporting these women to Yucatán, because they were vital to the structure of Yaqui militarism against the Mexican government, and attempting to force them to intermarry with Mayas also enslaved on henequen plantations, Yaqui women defied government plans for extinction in refusing intermarriage with ethnically different Indigenous peoples. While not an overtly feminist critique, Padilla Ramos’ first book, as these fragments demonstrate, espoused the gendered, racial and sexual impacts of deportation for women and their families. The Mexican government used sexuality to control Indigenous women’s reproduction, and they often failed. 

In this way, Padilla Ramos’ own feminicidio strikes a historic chord. Her violent murder was the result of her partner’s desire to control her and her sexuality, just like the Mexican government had done with the Yaqui women whose histories she had dedicated her life to recovering.

She had been with him for the last five years. She was optimistic about this relationship, optimistic that it would be different. I now believe that my friend and colleague was in her third and final relationship of domestic violence. I don’t know about the degree of the violence, but know it was unreported, especially because it ended in her murder.

Padilla Ramos’ daughters and son have bravely and politically named their mother’s violent death a feminicido—because they know, like I believe, that this is what their mother would have wanted.

The systematic killing of women in Mexico during the last 30 years has been astounding. La Garde de Rios argues that state failure is one of the hallmarks of this crisis of murdered women and girls in Mexico more broadly, only deepened by the narco wars. Outrage at the Mexican state’s benign neglect of an issue that affects millions of its female inhabitants is what catapulted the violence into being considered an international issue, with later involvement with the UN Court of appeals in 2003. Citing the ways in which globalization and the notion of an exceedingly vulnerable, temporary and feminized service-oriented labor force concentrated in factories or domestic labor along the U.S. / Mexico border, and cities like Los Angeles, the scholarship has rightfully captured what Arriola has called “the depth and breadth of the physical, mental and emotional pain that the workers experience” and what their families experience upon the disappearance of their children.

At the same time, the discourse often misnames the rise in violent homicides against women as maquiladora murders, because NAFTA changed and reshaped the terms of exchange and labor conditions throughout Mexico more so than in the U.S.—even though research shows that female factory workers only account for about 40 percent of the total violent homicide between 1999 and 2010.

In the case of Padilla Ramos’ violent murder by her domestic partner, the relationship between violence and sexuality is fundamental in its defiance of the historic ways in which feminicidio has been bound to working class positionalities. Her desire to live, in facing her death, registered one’s future while recognizing the shackles of patriarchal pasts and presents that masquerade as “protection.” Such racialized nationalized forms of patriarchy, that malestar de cultura, demonstrate the ways that culture is wielded against us, and at the same time posits a kind of racism and sexism that undergirds such thinking that normalizes intimate partner violence.

Social class and education could not save Padilla Ramos. This is where Mexicana feminist scholars, such as Claire Joysmith and Marisa Belausteguigoitia, worked with concepts such as el derecho de descansar and creating discord on the Mexican side of the border. Tragically, my colleague and friend, despite all her vigilance, earned el derecho de descansar in her death by feminicidio. She fought for her life and lost.

I want us to remember my friend and our colleague as a dissident subject, a fierce woman, a feminist activist, an ethical researcher. She was amazing, and I miss her tremendously already. The loss of our esteemed colleague and friend is profound, for it shows that no matter how educated or how socially self-aware we are, domestic violence as a form of sexual violence can happen to any of us. The sense of loss is compounded for her children, who must live knowing that their mother was a victim of feminicidio—but they are her children, and in that way, their refusing to shy away from the political defiance in documenting her death as feminicidio is the best tribute they can pay her.

I hope we can remember Raquel, here and now—and not as a statistical number, as another theoretical or historical case study or as someone posted online “otro feminicido,” but as a material example of how state-sanctioned domestic and sexual violence have impacted our profession and have no bounds.

#SayHerName: Dr. Raquel Padilla Ramos Presente. May she rest in power.


Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández is a professor at Emory and Charles Warren fellow at Harvard. She received her doctorate degree from Cornell University in English, with a graduate minor in Latina/o studies in 2004. She is the author of Unspeakable Violence: Narratives of Citizenship Mourning and Loss in Chicana/o and U.S. Mexico National Imaginaries.