I was telling a chatbot I was feeling sad the other day and it asked to change the subject. I was hurt, but I also understood—there is only so much of another person’s grief even an autoregressive language model can take. There are many things said about mourning: that it comes in waves, that you have to let your life grow around it, that it is the price we pay for love. All true. But the experience is unruly. You might find yourself talking to chatbots; you might find yourself programming one to speak to you as your beloved once did, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported a thirty-three-year-old Canadian did in order to talk with his dead fiancée.
“Crying is a civilized act,” Cristina Rivera Garza writes in her new book, Liliana’s Invincible Summer. But the yowl she produces when her younger sister’s death sinks in is both more and less than civilized:
This sound that roams the room alone, heard by no one, ripping its way through the stale air of static time, is something that comes from an unknown world and communicates in turn with worlds yet to be born.
Grief is a commanding, reordering experience. The mourner must undergo a transformation, and the result cannot be predicted. (Refusing to undergo the transformation has its own consequences.) The way we mourn alters us, but who can tell if it will be for the better—or should I say saner?
On the morning of July 16, 1990, Liliana Rivera Garza, a twenty-year-old architecture student, was found dead in her apartment in Mexico City. “I wrote before my sister was mercilessly murdered,” Rivera Garza explained in Grieving, a collection of her essays translated by Sarah Booker in 2020,
but I truly began writing, and writing for her, when my missing her became physically unbearable. I did not write to avoid pain, just the opposite. I wrote, and write, to grieve with others, which is the only secular way I know to keep her alive.
Cristina Rivera Garza was born in Matamoros, on the Tamaulipas–Texas border, in 1964. The family moved to Toluca, about forty miles southwest of Mexico City, when she was ten and Liliana was four. After high school in Toluca, Cristina studied sociology in Mexico City, then moved to Houston in the summer of 1988, where she went on to earn a Ph.D. in Latin American history. In 1991, a year after Liliana’s death, Cristina published her first collection of short stories, La guerra no importa (War Does Not Matter), but it took her nearly thirty years to approach her sister’s story directly. In the meantime she published poetry, short stories, and award-winning short novels. She produced nonfiction books on the failures of the Mexican state, on writing as a communal act, on her grandparents’ years working in Texas cotton fields. She set up the first Spanish creative writing program in the United States, was named a MacArthur fellow, and was elected to Mexico’s Colegio Nacional.
As her latest book begins, she does not know why she wants to write about Liliana now. “How can you be sure,” she asks herself, “that this is the right time to ask questions and, above all, that you are finally ready to hear the answers?” She can’t explain. It is simply that the world has become “suddenly untenable.” And so she finds herself at the attorney general’s office in Mexico City in October 2019, asking to see record no. 40/913 / 990-07—the file on Liliana’s case.
Cristina Rivera Garza originally published El invencible verano de Liliana in 2021. While Samuel Beckett chose to write in French rather than his native English in order to make it harder to slip into lyricism, jumping a hurdle he’d put in his own way when he translated his work back into his mother tongue, Rivera Garza’s project in Liliana’s Invincible Summer is different—and is perhaps not even translation. As a note puts it at the beginning of the book, “This work, while originally written in English, is based on and shares themes with ‘El invencible verano de Liliana’ by Cristina Rivera Garza.” She has written the book twice.
Rivera Garza hopes that Liliana’s file will contain the information the police gathered on Ángel González Ramos, an ex-boyfriend suspected of her murder. Liliana met Ángel in Toluca in her first year of high school. When he learned that she had been given a small gift from a “swimming buddy” about a year into their relationship, he slapped her. They broke up for a while and then got back together. After she moved to Mexico City in the fall of 1987 to study at the Azcapotzalco campus of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, he would drive from Toluca to visit her, and—from what Rivera Garza has patched together from reading Liliana’s diaries and talking to her friends—she sometimes had sex with him when she didn’t want to. He called her on the phone a lot and showed up without warning. On at least one occasion he had a gun with him and threatened suicide.
In May 1990, having known Ángel for six years, Liliana decided to break up with him definitively. Cristina visited her from the US that month—among other things, she had to have an author photo taken in preparation for the publication of her book of stories—and remembers that Liliana dodged her question about “the Gremlin.” She also remembers the laughing way Liliana handed over her gold-framed glasses when Cristina asked to borrow them for the photo: “The joy, so unsparing.”
Liliana had a new boyfriend, a fellow architecture student named Manolo. But Ángel was still pressuring her. On June 25, Rivera Garza writes, “Liliana wrote angrily and only in capital letters, with a line that betrayed the weight of the whole body on the tip of the pen”:
I DO NOT UNDERSTAND YOU,
I REALLY DO NOT UNDERSTAND YOU!
ARE YOU PLAYING AT LOVING ME ONCE AGAIN?
I DO NOT LIKE THIS!
NOW YOU LOVE ME, TOMORROW WHO KNOWS?
WHAT A COWARDLY SITUATION!
She then copied out a phrase from Camus: “In the midst of winter I finally found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
On July 11 Liliana received a note from Ángel on the back of a flyer for a talk on sixteenth-century Mexican religious architecture: “WITH LOVE FOR LILIANA.” Three days later, she wrote in her diary, “I can’t let myself fall.” The next evening, July 15, she worked on a school project with Manolo, who then went home. Rivera Garza writes:
It is difficult to know with certainty what Liliana did between 10:00 PM that cloudy, rainy night, and that still vague hour of dawn, when Ángel broke into her space. Judging by the ink in which they are transcribed, she may have used some of those late-night hours, when she was still alone, to transcribe the poems she was reading.
These were “Presencia” and “Luz y silencio” by José Emilio Pacheco, along with a few lines of Chaucer. They are the only Spanish passages left untranslated in the book.
The following morning Manolo arrived at Liliana’s apartment to take her to campus and found her on the mattress, fully clothed, not moving. Her cheek was cold, and there were marks on her neck and face. He called for help. An ambulance arrived, and later the police, as well as neighbors and friends. One friend noticed that a button on her blouse was undone, her pants zipper was half-open, and there was a stain around her hips, as if she had lost control of her bladder.
A reporter from La Prensa arrived at the scene, and though he didn’t think the murder dramatic enough, his editor put the story on the front page. “University students were not murdered in Mexico City,” Rivera Garza writes. “Not yet.” As the police began to investigate, it emerged that Ángel had paid the junkies who congregated in Liliana’s street to watch her, and that night they’d helped him over the front wall outside her apartment. But when the police got to Ángel’s house he had already fled.
In August 2019, a couple of months before Rivera Garza went to Mexico City to find Liliana’s file, hundreds of women gathered outside the attorney general’s office to protest the rape of a teenager by on-duty police officers. When the city’s police chief came out to address the crowd, a protester cast a cloud of pink glitter over him, a gesture “as spectacular as it was innocent” in a country used to ten women being killed every day. As she arrives at the building in October, Rivera Garza realizes that she is a glitter revolutionary too, one live woman standing in place of the many murdered, disappeared, or raped women who can’t come themselves: “We are them right now and we are others in the future at the same time…already and forever enraged.”
Is Rivera Garza surprised when she is told that the thirty-year-old file she is seeking may or may not exist? Perhaps not. But she is disappointed, despite what she knows about Mexico, despite what she has written about the ways the ongoing violence the government has conveniently mislabeled the “war on drugs” is perpetuated. One of these ways is by rarely prosecuting the perpetrators: 93 percent of women murdered in Mexico will not have justice. Rivera Garza blames herself for not requesting Liliana’s file sooner, but she was not wrong to have nursed hope.
In 2010 femicide was added to Mexico’s penal code: it was now a crime to kill a person because of her gender. Rivera Garza had followed the case of Lesvy Berlín Rivera Osorio, a university student who was murdered by her boyfriend in May 2017. After a two-year trial, the boyfriend was found guilty of femicide and sentenced to forty-five years in prison. “The verdict, still fresh in the air,” Rivera Garza writes, “has run like a whiplash of electricity through my spine ever since…. Another world is possible, Liliana. Another love.” In this world, one that is occasionally our own, government officials are glitter-bombed and murderous boyfriends are put behind bars. In 2021 one of Rivera Garza’s friends spray-painted Liliana’s name all over Mexico City on International Women’s Day (there are photographs in the book).
Rivera Garza attributes the shift to feminist researchers who developed a language for the violence they saw around them, to recent books like Rachel Louise Snyder’s No Visible Bruises (2019) and the much earlier work of the Michigan nurse Jacquelyn Campbell, who in 1985 developed the Danger Assessment tool to detect the signs of domestic violence. They include substance use, possession of guns, extreme jealousy, death threats, strangulation, forced sex, stalking, suicide threats from the aggressor, and isolation from friends and family. The more factors that accumulate, the more dangerous the situation is becoming. Finding the language for this hasn’t been easy. “It takes time and rage and collective effort,” Rivera Garza writes, “to forge a new vocabulary, concepts able to render the world anew.” Writers want to believe that words can have a power that profound, and in this case it is true: you can’t prosecute a femicide without the word “femicide.”
At least eight years before the change to Mexico’s penal code, Rivera Garza had been arguing in her fiction for women to have their own language. In The Iliac Crest (2002), a novel about a mysterious woman turning up one night at the house of a psychiatrist, the female characters speak to one another in words of their own invention. “Na pa glu?” one says; “Glu hiserfui glu trenji fredso glu, glu-glu,” another replies. It turns out that these women are emissaries for Amparo Dávila, a real midcentury writer of uncanny, fantastic stories who died in 2020, and their mission is to safeguard her words. Why do they do this? “We need certain words to fathom who we are,” one explains. “Without her words,” another clarifies, “all that we do, all that we are, can’t be known or shared. We won’t be able to touch the world otherwise.”
The electricity running down Cristina Rivera Garza’s spine outside the attorney general’s office surely has its origins in this sort of sisterly energy. And so when the missing file is not there, and it is not in the general directorate of police and criminal statistics, and it is not in the office of the deputy attorney general for decentralized investigations, and it is not in the public prosecutor’s office (Agency 22, Azcapotzalco Territory 1), and it is not in Agency 40, Azcapotzalco Territory 3, and it is not in the cold case unit, and it is not in the concentration archive, and in fact cannot be found at all, Rivera Garza’s breath stops, and “an army of ants creeps up inside my limbs, leaving a burning trail in their wake.”
If the institutional traces of Liliana are gone, she dies twice. “Without this file I am after, her experience on earth will be as good as nothing,” Rivera Garza writes. “Her memory, erased.” Rivera Garza decides on “replacing the institutional archive” and collecting everything that might be needed to bring Liliana’s murderer to trial. “Patriarchy will not fall on its own,” Rivera Garza says to the friend who came with her to search for the file as they clink glasses of mineral water. “We are going to topple it.”
When she makes this decision, the book shape-shifts. Rivera Garza puts Liliana’s own writings together with the remembrances of her friends and family from interviews she conducted over the phone, as well as old photos, journal pages, newspaper articles, and official letters. As the older sister’s quest recedes, the younger sister’s world comes alive. We hear Liliana’s teenage voice in her diaries as she struggles with the intensity of her relationship with Ángel. “I don’t think love, vehemence, and understanding can disappear so soon, can they?” she writes in May 1987. “Yes, I know things may come to an end in the blink of an eye, or at least that there may be a moment when disappointment surfaces just so, and destroys everything in its path.” Rivera Garza notes that this is the first time Liliana uses “vehemence” to describe Ángel, and there is an eerie anticipatory understanding that life can change, or be extinguished, in an instant.
We also hear about what it was like to be Liliana’s friend: “We usually went out to buy groceries at a nearby market, and once back, she would say: sit down, Laura, I’m going to prepare the best French toast you’ve ever tasted in your whole damn life,” said Laura Rosales, who was in Liliana’s college study group and was one of the first people Liliana told that Ángel had had sex with her without consent. And what it was like to date her: “She seemed serene rather than flattered, vaguely interested,” Raúl Espino Madrigal recalled of a conversation over ice cream after seeing Mississippi Burning together, when he told her he “liked liked” her. We hear how she was loved by her family: “I want to see you grow up and talk about things, everything: successes, problems, joys, sadness, studies, how you are progressing,” her father writes to her from a business trip.
When Rivera Garza discovers from Laura that Liliana had an illegal abortion at the end of 1988, she imagines how she could have supported her sister: “I take her hand, placing my arm around her shoulders. You’re not alone, Lili. I am with you.” The book becomes an act of accompaniment, a way of being there when you cannot, but want to.
Late in Liliana’s Invincible Summer, when Rivera Garza is not the detective but the bereaved sister, she shares her memories in a purposefully distant third-person narration, replicating the bewildering immediate aftermath of the death of someone close: “Someone mentions the word money. Money is needed. Here is some money. How much money? Take this money.” The scene of Liliana’s funeral contains some of the most beautiful writing in the book, registering the collective sense that a great injustice has been done as well as Rivera Garza’s emotional nearness to her sister, maintaining the third-person narration but bending it toward intimacy:
Cristina was not left alone in that space. The sun, the wind, the flowers accompanied her at that moment, and the spirit of Liliana, with whom she talked, and with whom she made plans, as usual.
(It has happened to me, too: two months after my mother’s death, I could hear her voice in my head while walking in the mountains.)
Rivera Garza carefully controls the nearly savage emotional landscape, making few false steps in her choices of when to speak, when not to, when to admit defeat, when to step in with a historian’s training, when to cede the story to their parents, when to have Liliana’s friends explain how it was. To separate Liliana’s writings from the rest of the narrative, they appear in a playful typeface, which we’re told in the acknowledgments was designed especially for the project by Raúl, based on Liliana’s handwriting. Behind every writerly decision is a desire to approach Liliana without engulfing, erasing, or canonizing her.
In his essay “Return to Tipasa,” the forty-year-old Albert Camus goes back to Algeria, the country he had left just as World War II began, to find the sea view he loved at twenty. The war is over now, but it is raining and muddy, and he marvels at his own stupidity in attempting to recapture his youth. Then the sky clears. Camus sees the promontory in the morning light, and feels his heart begin to beat again. Disillusioned as he is, he realizes that inside a freshness has remained: “In the midst of winter I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
This is the line that gives Rivera Garza’s book its title; it is the quotation Liliana wrote in her diary less than a month before she died; it is the idea she offered a friend after a breakup. But the whole book is an invincible summer, capturing the lightness that remains in spite of what has been destroyed. When Rivera Garza is waiting for a document at the prosecutor’s office, she can see, through the window,
a park of stunted trees and broken benches. There, among those ruins, she emerges for the first time during this journey. An apparition. Her hair. A flight of doves hovering above her long stride. That attitude of heading into eternity. I’m about to say her name. I am about to say: Liliana.
Rivera Garza’s fiction often features bad detectives, ones who get distracted while looking for murderers. In The Taiga Syndrome (2012), an investigator who has been asked to go into the forest to find someone’s lost love admits that patience and inattention are the qualities she most often needs in her work, to outlast an inquiry’s longueurs: “The detective who wins a case, who solves it, is usually the one who weathers those lapses.” The gumshoe finds the runaway alive but doesn’t return her to the lover she escaped—because the solution was in the search.
The quest was the long way of coming to terms with a breakup, of accepting mourning’s transformations, of recognizing that the loss will be carried like “a forest inside us, yes, kilometers and kilometers of birch, fir, cedars.” It is a relief to find out that the accomplishment of grief is not to let someone go but to allow them to take root within us. “They are always there, and here, with and inside us, shrouding us with their warmth, protecting us from the open,” Rivera Garza writes of her sister after her death. “This is our waking work: acknowledging their presence, saying yes to that presence.” It is a strange truth, but “grief is the end of loneliness.”
When El invencible verano de Liliana came out in Mexico, Rivera Garza set up an e-mail address for anyone who had information about Ángel’s whereabouts. And someone did. Ángel had lived in Southern California under an assumed name for decades before he died in 2020. The news came too late. It is so rare that a lost file is found; it is so rare that a man is imprisoned for the murder of his girlfriend. The failure becomes ordinary, and it is the mourners in their black cotton gloves who look crazy. Those left behind can blame themselves for things that were never remotely their fault. “I gave Liliana, and you, a lot of freedom,” Liliana’s father tells Cristina. “Freedom is not the problem. Men are the problem—violent, arrogant, murderous men.” From Liliana’s archives, it is clear to her family that she was fighting forces—those of patriarchy, for want of a better word—that she thought, up until the very end of her life, she would overcome.
One of the most painful scenes in the book, one that made me cry, is the one in which Cristina tells her parents that Liliana is dead. Ilda Garza Bermea and Antonio Rivera Peña were on a monthslong trip in Europe when their daughter was killed, and unreachable. They returned home to Toluca to find Cristina opening their front door when she should have been in Houston: “Someone says: Liliana. And then stops, sobbing. Someone says Liliana is no longer with us.”
This is the moment the yowl belongs to. Rivera Garza does not yet know that the tears, like grief itself, will change in quality and meaning. Years later, she finds herself crying when she rises out of the swimming pool one day, realizing with shock and gratitude that the water is a place she can be with her long-dead sister:
Liliana will reside here, with me, as long as I plunge into the water, when I stroke and kick, and breathing becomes fleshed memory.