- WHO SHE IS: The “Bravest Woman in Mexico” was a twenty-year-old new mother and college student named Marisol Valles Garcia. In 2010, her actions made headlines and inspired people around the world and set the stage for several new plays, including Matthew Paul Olmos’s so go the ghosts of méxico, part one: a brave woman in méxico which opened in 2013 at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in Manhattan.
- WHAT THE “BRAVEST WOMAN IN MÉXICO” DID: After the previous police chief of Valles Garcia’s hometown was tortured and beheaded a year earlier, nineteen people passed up the dangerous job before Marisol Valles Garcia was sworn in as police chief on March 1, 2010. In the years after Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, declared war on the cartels in 2006, police officers and political officials have been targeted in drastic numbers and in horrifying ways. (Upon election, one mayor said that though “the fear is always there… if you have courage and the desire to make a contribution, that outweighs the fear.” Nine months later, that brave and optimistic voice was silenced when the mayor was found beaten to death with his hands tied behind his back.)
- WHERE SHE’S FROM: Valles Garcia’s hometown of Praxedis Guadalupe Guerrero (or Guadalupe Districto Bravo) is a small town on the Mexico-Texas border near Ciudad Juarez in the Northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. Valles Garcia’s memory of Praxedis as a place where people were “able to go out without fear” began to fade when her hometown found itself smack dab in the middle of a turf war between Juarez and Sinoloa, two rival cartels fighting for control of the main highway in the region.
- WHEN SHE SOUGHT ASYLUM: After four months of menacing phone calls, intimidation, and threats, the bravest woman in Mexico received a call from a familiar voice telling her that “some people” wanted to meet her. Someone was on the way to pick her up. Without hesitating, or even packing a suitcase, she fled across a footbridge with her family (her husband, mother, sisters, and one year old son) to seek asylum in the United States. In an interview given once she was safely in El Paso, Valles Garcia explained, ”I came here for the security my country cannot provide for me. The fear will never go away. What I experienced is a fear that will last a lifetime.” The intense fear she described has become an assumed part of the job. Cartels often offer police officers and public officials “plata o plomo” (“silver or lead”); The understanding being that when bribes fall short or fail to impress, bullets are the assured plan B. Through corruption and intimidation, many police and military officers have become part of the armed wings of the cartels.
- WHY SHE BECAME POLICE CHIEF IN THE FIRST PLACE: To use Valles Garcia’s own words, she “took the risk” because she wanted her son “to live in a different community than the one we have today.” She had a vision to keep children in schools and to provide steady jobs to widows of the drug war. She planned to leave fighting the cartels to the state and federal police, focusing her efforts on “preventative programs for schools and neighborhoods, rehabilitating public spaces and fostering better relationships between neighborhoods in order to improve general security.” She hired a police force that was mostly female (nine out of her 13 officers were women) and mostly unarmed (there would be only one patrol car and four guns between all the officers). Because she felt it was more important that her officers have the few guns available, Valles Garcia insisted on working unarmed herself. In response to some merited incredulity at her decision to work without a gun, she simply responded, “The weapons we have are principles and values, which are the best weapons for prevention.” Though she acknowledged that “there [would] always be fear,” she was determined to achieve for her municipality a future of peace and safety in the face of danger and horrific violence.
- HOW CLOSE TO HOME HER STORY HITS: Stories like Marisol’s are not far off in some distant land – especially for those of us in Texas and the rest of the American Southwest. In the estimation of the U.S. Department of Justice states, the “greatest organized crime threat to the United States” is that of the Mexican drug cartels, which are currently estimated to have a strong presence in over 200 U.S. cities, stretching from L.A. to Chicago. In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that because the United States’ “insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,” the U.S. “bears shared responsibility for [the] drug-fueled violence sweeping Mexico.” The drug war and everything that comes with it is happening on and just across our border and in our major cities; It’s right in our backyard.
THE CHANGE SHE WANTED TO BE IN THE WORLD: Why did the cartels see Valles Garcia and her mostly unarmed police force of thirteen officers as a problem? For Valles Garcia, the answer is the positive change that was starting to unfold in their community: “We were helping the people they were recruiting from. I don’t think they liked that. We were trying to help them make a better life.” Hearing Valles Garcia’s story, it is easy to get disheartened (to put it mildly). In the midst of extreme violence and ongoing tragedy, one bright, hopeful message flickered for its brief moment, then was extinguished again- just as quickly- into darkness. But Valles Garcia does not believe that the work she and her officers did was in vain. She believes that they “at least made a difference, gave people a little hope.” In the words of our playwright, Matthew Paul Olmos, “The significance of her ideas that we could solve these conflicts by community improvements instead of armed conflict – are still being felt.” In her determined optimism when she first accepted the job, Valles Garcia reminded her community that “we’re all afraid in Mexico right now, but we can’t let fear beat us.” This rallying cry that inspired the world earned her the nickname “La Adelita” with Juarez locals. “La Adelita” is a folk song born of the Mexican Revolution whose heroine has become the archetype of the female warrior in Mexico, a symbol of power and bravery. Symbols tend to outlive soldiers, and as the waves of Valles Garcia’s story continue to resonate, ripple, and resound, there is at least some small hope that maybe we haven’t seen Mexico’s last Adelita.
~ Abigail Birkett