Blood betrayal

Las hijas de Juan breaks the silence about incest and the abuse of women in a Mexican-American immigrant household


Las Hijas De Juan: Daughters Betrayed
Josie Méndez-Negrete
2006, Duke University Press
204 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

MANY BOOKS have been written about the lives and strifes en el otro lado of the Bravo, however, Las hijas de Juan: Daughters Betrayed is a tale of real survival in which the heavy burden of work is seen as a relief to the deep pain of domestic life endured by three young sisters at the hands of an evil father.

Juan Méndez, a well-off inhabitant of a small village in northern México, decides that his comfortable life as a peasant is too small for his ambitions and jets off to the United States to sweat it out as a bracero. His beautiful, patient, enamoured and loyal wife, meanwhile, awaits his return or a permanent reunion in that distant land. There are several attempts to join him, and Josie Méndez is conceived during one of her mother’s visits. After numerous attempts to conceive a boy – in Juan’s own words “the only one other thing worth having in a marriage apart from the wife’s servitude” – Juan can only sire a female.

Little Josie is born in Mexico, and later nearly drowns as her mother crosses the border by river, lovingly clutching hold of her and sealing the baby’s fate as a mojado. Her father, by contrast, despises Josie since birth and rejects her as “that fucking girl!” for not fullfilling his macho dreams of dynasty. Two other daughters follow, one born in the US and the other in Mexico. Juan’s mood swings and womanising, however, force his wife to return to a happy life in Mexico where the girls, safe in the company of women, enjoy sweet food and the freedom of childhood. But after some time the mother’s yearning for her husband finally ends their temporary joy and the father decides to take the whole family to the US.

Sexual abuse

Lacking money to gain legal status for the girls, the parents opt to smuggle two of the children into America. There follows an itinerant life of fruit-picking and seasonal labour. Struggling to put down roots up in an alien society, the girls find themselves unable to keep friends or attend school.

Their father also despises them – simply for being females. The true colour of Juan’s hatred tinge the atmosphere black and blue when boys are born to the family, and the daily beatings and humiliation of the daughters evolves into a qualitatively different level of abuse.

Once the sisters discover what Juan is really up to, each tries to protect the others’ virtue with the result that none of them is spared his bestiality. Their mother suspects sexual abuse but alone, unable to speak English, unskilled and lacking security, she finds herself with nowhere to turn and remains silent.

However, despite the grim theme and the sadness of the recollections which, at times, makes this book hard to stomach, Las Hijas de Juan is a tale of female triumph, justice and hope. Its conclusion is that the American dream can be found not in changing countries but in facing facts. Despite their physical fragility, Josie and her sisters overcome their father’s domination by sticking together until their fate is changed.

To its great merit this true story, written in the tone of a novel, exposes unflinchingly some of the tragic realities faced by many children worldwide who end up living as illegal immigrants and unaccounted for. It breaks the silence about incest within a poor Mexican-American family with such brutal candour that it has been hailed as a feminist survival story. By depicting the deep prejudices that persist in so many Mexican males, it candidly lays bare the cruelty and discrimination faced by their women, especially those who remain in limbo on both sides of the border picking up the pieces for their errant men.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican journalist