Cross-border storytelling project aims to put women’s memories on the map
The tiny store on Calle Ecuador in Ciudad Juárez reminds Sylvia Fernández-Quintanilla of her grandparents, who she would stay with after school while her parents worked.
Writing about her trips to the store, she was surprised at the details that returned to her: the chips and the candies she would buy with the 5 pesos her grandfather gave her. It was the way he showed his love, she wrote, and the happiest part of her day.
Meanwhile, the Bassett Place Costco in Central El Paso reminds Gris Muñoz of her mother, whose eyes, Muñoz wrote in an autobiographical short story, “widen and get giddy once she’s there.”
Soon, Muñoz and Fernández-Quintanilla will put these memories on the map. The tiny Juárez corner store and the giant national chain store in El Paso will join dozens of points scattered across a digital map of the two cities — part of GeoTestimonios Transfronterizxs, a storytelling project that aims to chart the diverse and sometimes hidden terrain of women’s memories throughout the region. Click on any point on that map, and a written, recorded or illustrated memory will appear.
GeoTestimonios invites people who identify as women and “were born, grew up, are living or have traveled to El Paso-Cd. Juárez border region” to help create that map by submitting the location of their own stories and experiences — either before or after the website’s October launch. With each new submission, a new point will appear on the map, resulting in an evolving, user-created landscape.
“Writers always talk about how memory is actually formed through place. Driving by your old elementary school or the house you grew up in, there’s just a lot of meaning there,” said Muñoz, an El Paso poet and writer who has called “Coatlicue Girl,” her debut short story and poetry collection, “a cartography of my life.”
Fernández-Quintanilla grew up in Juárez and is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Kansas, where she researches public and digital humanities.
The two formed their cross-border collaboration in the spirit of the El Paso-Juárez artwork Border Tuner, a 2019 project that beamed searchlights from the two cities at night. As the lights crossed paths, they created an audio channel allowing people from opposite sides of the border to speak with each other.
With GeoTestimonios, Muñoz and Fernández-Quintanilla want to foster the same sense of connection between the two cities. Women on the border “have so many of the same stories,” Muñoz said. “These stories, they unite us.”
Muñoz wants the map to serve as a public repository of memories — especially those of marginalized women, whose stories are too easily forgotten, she said. “So many women on the border are working class, were first generation or second generation (immigrants), or domestic workers. Those are the stories that are not usually celebrated or remembered. Most of the time people are too tired to write down their stories. We lose a lot of stories.”
The project also emerged from a shared anger over outsiders’ depiction of the border, Fernández-Quintanilla said. In the public eye, the predominant story of Borderland women is one of victimization. They hope to complicate that narrative.
While GeoTestimonios will plot the sites of femicides, it will also include sites of joy — women’s memories of a great date with a boyfriend, or the scent of yerba buena in a grandmother’s garden. Women’s experience of the border “involves a lot of stories of resistance, a lot of stories of gentrification, a lot of stories of policies that have impacted women’s lives,” Fernández-Quintanilla said.
“We wanted to show a different side of the border that isn’t just trauma-based,” Muñoz added.
As she charted the map, Fernández-Quintanilla saw just how closely the sites of some women’s joy existed alongside other women’s trauma. Near the clubs she’d spent the nights out dancing were streets where working class women had been murdered. The project has involved “a lot of emotional labor,” she said.
After writing of the corner store she’d visited as a child, she returned to her grandparent’s neighborhood. Both had long since passed away. The neighborhood was in decline, she said, littered with abandoned buildings. The corner store, once the site of so much happiness, was now closed.
Fernández-Quintanilla took a picture of the store, then left, weighed down with sadness. But that is another point of the project — to give women a way to reappropriate their painful memories, Muñoz said. Both hope GeoTestimonios will help women heal.
“Say you have a trauma there, based on that place. You could actually pinpoint that place. Say, ‘I was raped here.’ And maybe in some way, you’re taking back your voice. Maybe in some way, you’re taking back your power — by naming it, by putting it there,” Muñoz said.
Cover image: Illustration by Los Dos, courtesy GeoTestimonios.