This modern contextualization is so much more pointed than the meditations and recollections exposed by Liliana’s own writing or the interviews Rivera Garza conducted with her peers, and yet I understand why Rivera Garza cedes the narrative to Liliana and her friends when she does: In this book, it’s the very lack of language that’s significant. By displaying the fragmented, liminal space in which Liliana and her friends discuss Liliana’s life, Rivera Garza is bearing witness to the dearth of ways they had to speak about violence that was right in front of them.
Indeed, what Rivera Garza uncovers about what was known of Liliana’s situation while Liliana was alive reveals enough to raise a modern eyebrow — according to Liliana’s friends, Ramos owned a gun; he’d threatened suicide; he’d been envious. Liliana herself once said Ramos “doesn’t take no for an answer,” and, in the middle of a pages-long stream-of-consciousness reverie, she wrote, hauntingly, “What if you knew what would become of me?” But in 1990, when the murders of women were called “crimes of passion,” those who loved Liliana couldn’t have identified that risk even if they’d tried. Rivera Garza realizes that none of them “had at our disposal the insight, the language, that would allow us to identify the signs of danger.”
As for how a woman as independent as Liliana could find herself in a relationship that would kill her, Liliana’s father shows why this question is the wrong one. Once when Liliana was home from college, her father had an altercation with Ramos over his shabby appearance, which her father saw as a sign of disrespect. But when Liliana asked him to trust her and stand down, he relented with this wisdom: “I have always believed in freedom because only in freedom can we know what we are made of. Freedom is not the problem. Men are the problem — violent, arrogant, murderous men.” It wasn’t Liliana’s responsibility to keep herself safe. It was Ángel González Ramos’s responsibility not to be violent. As Rivera Garza puts it with a gut punch: “The only difference between my sister and me is that I never came across a murderer.” That, Rivera Garza says, is also “the only difference between you and her.”
The right question — how could a man come to believe it’s acceptable to exert power over a woman through violence? — illustrates the importance of using the correct language. How can a man educate himself without it? After all, Rivera Garza’s book makes me certain, it shouldn’t be a woman’s responsibility to teach society about the dangers she faces.
Katherine Dykstra is the author of “What Happened to Paula: An Unsolved Death and the Danger of American Girlhood.”
LILIANA’S INVINCIBLE SUMMER: A Sister’s Search for Justice | By Cristina Rivera Garza | Illustrated | 305 pp. | Hogarth | $28