Susana Vargas Cervantes — 13.3.2020

Susana Vargas Cervantes, “Conclusion to The Little Old Lady Killer: The Sensationalized Crimes of Mexico’s First Female Serial Killer,” 2019
13.3 – 29.4.2020

I started this project stating that I was interested not in Juana Barraza’s culpability but rather in what the figure of a female wrestler serial killer said about constructions of criminality and mexicanidad in a pigmentocratic culture. In the course of writing this book, however, I realized that there is an aspect in which I feel I do want to defend Barraza. More than wanting to defend her as a victim of her circumstances, a victim of a patriarchal and machista society, I want to defend her right to transgress the normative roles established for women through notions of mexicanidad. I want to defend Barraza’s right to not look “feminine,” her right to look (as she has been described) “masculine,” her right to be a masculine woman—and to a certain extent, her right to be held responsible for her crimes, as opposed to being criminalized for the way she looks, in both her appearance and her gaze. I want to emphasize the difference between what Barraza does and who she is. Barraza most definitely should be held responsible for her actions. But through the scientific language of criminality and the expertise of neuropsychologists like Feggy Ostrosky and criminalists like Martín Barrón, Barraza has been criminalized for what she is, not for her alleged crimes. Responsibility lies in distinguishing what Barraza is and what Barraza has done.

Also, more than wanting to figure out whether Barraza committed sixteen or all forty-nine murders of elderly women, I have been interested in why the killing of elderly women brought the nation into crisis, in contrast to the hundreds of murders of young, marginalized, brown women in Estado de México and Ciudad Juárez.

Barraza most certainly had a horrible childhood. Her mother, Justa Samperio, an alcoholic who constantly beat her, sold Juana to an older man named José Lugo in exchange for three beers when the girl was just thirteen years old. Barraza related this story to Barrón, who interviewed her twelve hours after she was arrested. Barraza recalled that at the beginning she thought it was not real—she believed that her mother would come to pick her up, or maybe her stepfather would come and get her. This did not happen, and Barraza was tied to a bed that first night and raped. She was never allowed to leave Lugo’s house; she had to do all the domestic chores in the house and was raped repeatedly. She became pregnant and had an abortion; she became pregnant again and had a son. Five years passed before her uncles found her. Apparently, her mother had insisted that Barraza had left with Lugo on her own. Barraza believes her stepfather did not trust her mother and continued to look for her [1]. Her stepfather had shown her love and compassion and, unlike her mother, did not beat her. After Barraza was found, her stepfather helped raise her son.

[1] According to criminologist Carlos Manuel Cruz Meza, author of the blog Escritos con Sangre. El website de los Asesinos, it wasn’t until Lugo died of alcoholism that Barraza came back to her mother’s house and developed a relationship with her stepfather, who showed her love and compassion. “Juana Barraza Samperio, ‘La Mataviejitas’ (entrevista completa),” YouTube video, 40:38, posted by “Carlos Manuel Cruz Meza,” July 3, 2013.

When I learned this story, I was shocked by the tragic similarities between Barraza’s life and that of Malinalli, the mother of the mestizo nation. Malinalli—La Malintzin, La Malinche—is the embodiment of betrayal, betrayal that is always feminine. To this day, the adjective malinchista in Spanish describes a Mexican who seems to prefer foreign cultures, denying their own heritage and ancestry. La Malinche later became the archetypical figure of La Chingada, the raped woman, the symbol of the raped nation by the Spanish colonization. Five hundred years later, it is as if Malinaili existed not in flesh and bone but only as a mythical figure.

But she did exist, and her life story is very similar to that of Barraza and to those of many other young women and girls in Mexico, especially in Tenancingo, Tlaxcala, “the capital of women’s trafficking.” [2] At an early age, no more than thirteen years old, Malinalli was also sold by her mother. Malinalli’s father was an important prince, tecuhtli, named Topicazpe or Teotzingo. After he died, Malinalli’s mother remarried. Malinalli had no place in this new marriage. In their hometown, a young girl died and Malinalli’s mother pretended the girl was her own daughter. In the market of Xicalanco, she then sold Malinalli as a slave to Mayan merchants. They in turn sold Malinalli to the Señor de Potochán.

[2] I thank Linda Palacios very much for bringing Malinalli’s life story to my attention. For the devastating stories of young women sexually trafficked from Tlaxcala to New York, see María Luisa Vivas, “Es Tenancingo, Tlaxcala la capital de la trata de personas,” Proceso, May 6, 2013; Nathaniel Janowitz, “Así es como los padrotes de Tlaxcala atraen niñas al mundo de la trata,” Vice News, July 9, 2015. For an excellent historical analysis of the trafficking of young women in Oaxaca during the legalization of prostitution in Mexico, see Fabiola Bailón Vásquez, Mujeres en el servicio doméstico y la prostitución: sobrevivencia, control y vida cotidiana en la Oaxaca Porfiriana (Mexico, D.F.: El Colegio de México), 2014.

When Hernán Cortés landed in the state of Tabasco in 1519, the Aztecs welcomed him and his fellow Spanish travelers. As it was an Aztec tradition to travel with women, Malinalli was presented to Cortés along with nineteen other young nahua girls. According to Spanish law, marriage could take place only between single, Christian people, so Malinalli was baptized. Cortés was, in fact, already married in Spain, but he took on Malinalli as a mistress. She was renamed, Castilian-style, Marina. Already conversant in both Mayan and Náhuatl, Malinalli soon learned Spanish, and her translation skills became key to the conquest. [3]

When I learned this story, it was appalling to me that as a Mexican, I had based my national identity on the actions of a fourteen-year-old girl. I had grown up with this tension: not wanting to be malinchista and betray my heritage, yet presented with the notion that all things foreign are better. I was shocked that I had based my idea of mexicanidad on what a nahua girl, regardless of her terrible childhood, had done in her betrayal of the nation, even though there was no nation yet, even though three centuries would pass before there was a Mexico. Malinalli did exactly what the Tlaxclatecas, Texcocanos, Totonacos, Cempoaltecas, and Xochimilcas did—ally against the Aztecs: [4] “for Malitzin, as for the groups subjected to the Aztec empire over them, Moctezuma was as much as a foreigner as Hernan Cortés and, consequently, Malitzin owed no loyalty to any group; if they joined the Spanish, it was due to circumstances and encouraged by their internal desire for revenge.” [5] Yet Malinalli is the only one held responsible for selling us out—yes, five hundred years later there is an “us” that feels betrayed by her.

[3] Agustin Palacios, “El problema de La Malintzin como expresión concreta del encuentro,” in El mexicano: educación, historia y personalidad (Mexico City: Ediciones Oasis, S.A., 1966), 55.
[4] Ibid., 60.
[5] Ibid.

Barraza and Malinalli were both sold by their mothers when they were only teenagers. Neither had as a mother a guardian angel of the home, a self-sacrificing Mexican mother always giving unconditional love. Neither had a mother like La Virgen de Guadalupe, or a grandmother like Sara García. On the contrary, both Barraza and Malinalli found in the figure of the father a nurturing parent. It was Barraza’s stepfather who showed her love and helped her raise her child. It was Malinalli’s dad who protected her, even from her own mother; when he died, she was left to her own devices.

The story of Malinalli that circulates is that of the betrayer, the treacherous woman, establishing an idea of mexicanidad in which women who decide for themselves what is best are selfish, betraying their families and their nation. These women are also sexualized, rendering them easy and disposable, not counting as victims.

Barraza was, and continues to be, punished for her betrayal of the ideal for Mexican women. She is constructed as the worse type of criminal, for she killed the most vulnerable of Mexicans, elderly women, the grandmothers of the nation. Barraza became La Malintzin, betraying the nation by killing the ideal Mexican women, the virgins, the desexualized abuelitas. And unlike Mario Tablas or Aracelí Vásquez, who also killed elderly women, Barraza looked like a “man” and thus further betrayed the female ideal, the image of the feminine Virgen de Guadalupe. Barraza was killing La Virgen de Guadalupe, the representation of the ideal, self-sacrificing, self-abnegating woman.

La Malintzin was killing La Virgen de Guadalupe.

La Malintzin (Barraza) was killing La Virgen de Guadalupe over and over.

Who counts as a victim in Mexico?

Women who represent the ideal of woman/mother as established through notions of mexicanidad. Women who are desexualized like La Virgen de Guadalupe. Women who seem to not have agency, but are the idealized guardian angels of their homes.

Who does not count as victim in Mexico? Which bodies are not deemed grievable by the state?

The bodies of women who, like La Malintzin, are sexualized. The bodies of women who have agency. The bodies of women who transgress normative roles defined for women/mothers in Mexico. The bodies of victims of feminicides do not count and continue to be raped by the state. When young, poor, and brown women are killed or sold, their bodies are reinscribed into that of Malinalli.

As I was writing this manuscript and sharing these ideas with Mexican academics, it made sense that the killing of abuelitas is what brought the nation into crisis. Elderly women had a face, they were familiar to the nation. They were Sara García, our grandmother. The symbolic killing of Sara García shocked the nation. But that is not what shocked me. What shocked me was learning that García was a lesbian who had spent the last sixty years of her life in the company of Rosarito, her “companion,” to whom she left everything she owned. I ascribe, however, to Eve Sedgwick’s notion that it constitutes epistemological violence to “out” or to ascribe a gender-sex identity to any individual contrary to the one the subject ascribes to, [6] or even to assume a gender identity before asking, and I have opposed publicly the idea that a public figure must and should “openly” disclose their sexuality. Carlos Monsiváis (1938–2010), for example, never publicly came out, although most of his writings and activism were on behalf of civil rights for the LGBT community in Mexico. Monsiváis did not wanted to be pigeonholed as a “gay” writer. When he died in 2010 many activists wanted to have a rainbow flag on his casket, sparking a heated debate between those who defended his right to keep his sexuality private and those who felt he had shirked what they saw as his duty to the gay community by not coming out.

[6] Sedgwick considers that the most intimate violence possible, central to the modern history of homophobic oppression, is to “alienate conclusively, definitionally, from anyone on any theoretical ground the authority to describe and name their own sexual desire.” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 26.

I do not want to say merely that Rosarito was Sara García’s “companion.” [7] I want to describe Rosarito as Sara García’s lover or romantic partner. It is not that I think visibility translates into power and that in claiming García as a lesbian, the LGBTQ movement in Mexico will be empowered. No. I want to say that García was lesbian because I want to explore how notions of mexicanidad that have determined who is an ideal woman/mother shift when we consider that García, the grandmother of the nation, was a closeted lesbian. How does our conception of mexicanidad change when we recognize that it is based in part on an idealized version of a woman who decided to not openly own her sexuality? How does our conception of mexicanidad change when we recognize that mothers can be killers, can sell their own daughters, when fathers and father figures can be less macho, not macho at all, but rather nurturing and loving, when fathers are La Virgen de Guadalupe?

[7] Susana Vargas, “The Crónica We Will Never Read,” Macha Mexico (blog), June 23, 2013, (Unfortunately, this blog is no longer online.) In this post, I argued that there was really no way of measuring the power of saying or not saying when it comes to public figures coming out of the closet and I side with Monsiváis’s right to never openly come out.

What shocked me again—even more—when I shared with colleagues and friends that I had learned García was a lesbian, was to learn of rumors, among those who already knew she was a lesbian, that she was very “macho.” I had naively assumed that all lesbians were politically aware of oppression, were feminist, would not reproduce the power structures that oppress them, but instead would want to occupy a position of power to make a change. [8] When I say “macho,” I am not identifying lesbians with a masculine gender expression, but rather the total opposite—I am moving away from equating masculinity with machismo. I am equating macho with a position of power, a position that both men and women can occupy independently if there is an embodiment of femininity or masculinity.

[8] For a history of lesbian and feminist organization in Mexico and Latin America, see Norma Mongrovejo, Un amor que se atrevió a decir su nombre: la lucha de las lesbianas y su relación con los movimientos homosexual y feminista en América Latina (Mexico City: Plaza y Valdes, 2000).

Some actors who knew both women referred to Rosarito as the “victim,” because García apparently was known for her “machoness.” This machoness refers to possessiveness, control, and domination. It is said that García, while filming a telenovela, constantly teased the women actors on the set with double entendres. I imagine that García was a Pedro Infante, a Jorge Negrete, that is, a seducer, a womanizer, the ideal mestizo macho. The ideal Mexican.

Rosarito was the victim of Sara García.

Victims are those victimized by those in macho positions of power, be it a man or a woman, a heterosexual, a homosexual.

How does our conception of mexicanidad change when we recognize that lesbians and homosexuals also reproduced the ideal of toxic masculinity promoted in film and popular culture and equated with machismo? [9]

[9] For more on the “culturally institutionalized machismo” visible among “lesbians who imitate the masculinist ideal produced in film,” see Michael K. Shuessler, “Vestidas, locas, mayates y machos. Historia y homosexualidad en el cine,” in México se escribe con J, ed. Michael K. Shuessler and Miguel Capistrán (Mexico City: Editorial Planeta Mexico, S.A. de C.V., 2010), 150–66.

In earlier work, during my doctorate, I analyzed photographs of mujercitos, travestis who were photographed for the front pages of Alarma! I looked at all the issues of Alarma! from the first, in 1963, to 1986, when the periodical shut down, censored by the government. I wanted to investigate why mujercitos were shown posing for the camera of Alarma! while the text condemned them as degenerate and how these photographs circulated. These individuals appeared, posing, while detained in police stations, during a raid of a private party, and, on many occasions, while celebrating a “wedding.” I concluded that mujercitos were being criminalized not for their homosexuality, which is not illegal, or for wearing makeup, dresses, and wigs. In fact, they were allowed in the photographs the feminine subjectivity that society at large denies them. Their adoption of women’s names such as Claudia and Lorena and their appearances in the photographs were encouraged, celebrated; Lorena, for example, was said to be the most gorgeous women the photographer, the police officers, and even sometimes the judge had ever seen—but Alejandro, Lorena’s legal name, Alejandro was a degenerate. I suggest that it was the failure of masculinity that was most punished. In the case of hombrecitas, it was the embodiment of masculinity that was punished, in the most violent of ways; hombrecitas were not allowed any space of masculinity, were always called by their legal names, and no photos of them posing for the camera were shown. For hombrecitas, occupying the “privileged” position of masculinity was the worst of crimes.

As I have discussed, the idealized Mexican, through mexicanidad discourses, is the intertwined figure of the mestizo macho, the heterosexual male, embodying a toxic masculinity, one that is controlling, possessive, and territorial to the point of erasing the other. I am interested in seeing the position of macho not as a subject position essentialized through biology and reserved for cis-men, but as another space of privilege, a space in which you are not killed but you kill. Macho as a space of power that grants the privilege of not being killed. It is further interesting to note how paradoxical this position of privilege works, since many men have to prove their machoness by actively having sex with another man, occupying the “active” role, that of the macho probado. Although having sex with mujercitos, for instance, might appear to fulfill this fantasy, since they are travestis and assumed to be in the passive position, it is they who actually tend to play the active role in intimate relations.

Mujercitos were criminalized for their failure of masculinity. Juana Barraza was criminalized for the gender transgression she exercised.

Barraza has a very bad back, the result of a wrestling injury, and she can barely walk. She has been in poor health, and I was not able to meet with her again. During our one meeting, though, I learned a lot. When I tell colleagues and friends that I met with Barraza, I am often asked, Why did she do it?

I did not have a chance to ask Barraza if she actually killed elderly women, if she had killed one, sixteen, or forty-nine of them, or if she had strangled Ana María Reyes Alfaro, the elderly women asphyxiated in the house she was caught fleeing. At the same time, I am not convinced there are satisfying answers to these questions. When we met, Barraza talked a lot, close to two hours, but the conversation centered on her kids; she did mention the killings of elderly women. She told me she had never killed anyone, that she would never dare to take someone’s life because “that would be mediocre.” As I understood it, she denied over and over “taking someone’s life” not because she was not capable of it, but because doing it was not in her character. In excerpts of an interview available on YouTube through Azteca Noticias, published on November 1, 2016, [10] Barraza speaks to the camera in a white office, presumably in police custody, still dressed in red, weeping and saying: “Odiaba a las señoras porque mi mamá me maltrataba. Siempre me maldecía. Me re- galó con un señor grande y yo fui abusada” (I hated old women because my mom mistreated me. She always cursed me. She gave me away to an old man and I was abused). The crying intensifies as she says, “Por eso odiaba a las señoras. Se que no es excusa, que no merezco perdón ni de dios, ni de nadie” (That is why I hated older woman. I know it is not an excuse, that I do not deserve forgiveness from God or from anyone). As she talks, people pass back and forth behind her, going about their administrative business.

[10] “Juana Barraza, la mataviejitas—Asesinos Seriales.” YouTube video, 2:30, posted by “Azteca Noticias,” November 1, 2006.

Barraza’s narrative is overwhelmed by incongruities and contradictions, but so are news, criminologists, and police narratives on the investigation, capture, and criminalization of the Mataviejitas. According to Renato Sales Heredia, El Mataviejitas “had an accomplice.” [11] According to Bernardo Bátiz, the killer “acted alone.” [12] That belief was shared by neuropsychologist Feggy Ostrosky, who concluded after the “results of laboratory analysis” (it is not clear what kind) that the “serial killer acted alone.” [13] The Mexico City Justice Department created a three-dimensional bust of the Mataviejitas accomplice. [14] It was later believed with certainty that El Mataviejitas had committed suicide. [15]

[11] Agustín Salgado, “Del Mataviejitas, 24 de 32 asesinatos: Renato Sales,” La Jornada, November 17, 2005.
[12] Leticia Fernández, “Es ‘Mataviejitas’ brillante: Bátiz,” Reforma, October 11, 2005.
[13] Feggy Ostrosky, Mentes asesinas: la violencia en tu cerebro (Mexico City: Hachette Filipacchi Expansión de R.L. de C.V., 2008), 186.
[14] Leticia Fernández and Manuel Durán, “Avala encinas a Bátiz en el caso ‘mataviejitas,’” Reforma, December 20, 2005.
[15] Luis Brito and Juan Corona, “Atrapan a Mataviejitas, lleva lista de ancianas,” Reforma, January 26, 2006.

Figure C.1. Letter from Juana Barraza to the author.

Many reports stated that “luck” had been crucial in the detention of serial killers around the world. [16] Similarly, criminologist Martín Barrón stated that “it might even take twenty years” to arrest El Mataviejitas and the detention was likely to “happen in a fortuitous manner.” [17] Less than a year later, though, after the arrest of Juana Barraza, Barrón was convinced that La Mataviejitas had been captured thanks to good police work and investigation. [18] Luis José Hinojosa, president of the National Centre of Criminalistic Research, meanwhile was certain that the detention of Juana Barraza “was a stroke of good luck and not the result of police investigation.” [19]

[16] Arturo Sierra, “Analizan a seriales de Europa,” Reforma, October 24, 2005.
[17] Jesús Padilla and Jorge Pérez, “Tarda hasta 20 años captura de asesinos,” Reforma, November 12, 2005.
[18] Martín Barrón Cruz, El nudo del silencio: Tras la pista de una asesina en serie, La Mataviejitas (Mexico City: Editorial Océano de México, 2006).
[19] Francisco Reséndiz, “La detención por suerte y no por investigación,” Crónica, January 26, 2006.

Bátiz stated in October 2005 that “El Mataviejitas was brilliant and didn’t leave any fingerprints on the crime scenes.” [20] Three months later, when Barraza was arrested, Bátiz confirmed that Juana Barraza was undoubtedly La Mataviejitas because her “10 fingerprints” had been found in eleven homicides and one failed homicide. [21] In the same press conference, held just six hours after Barraza’s arrest, Bátiz further stated police had determined that the one fingerprint they got from an X-ray, in the failed homicide, was “very similar” to Barraza’s fingerprints. [22] In spite of announcing beforehand that police “had only fragments” [23] of fingerprints as evidence of past homicides, Bátiz declared in the press conference that they had “enough [fragments] to consider that it was the same person.” [24] Heredia was certain that “there is a problem in relation to fingerprints. We need in the country a computerized system that allows us to compare fingerprints in a digital manner, given that a manual comparison takes a lot of time.” [25] He further stated that “a database with fingerprints is of little use if they cannot establish a relation between the victim and the criminal.” [26]

[20] Fernández, “Es ‘mataviejitas’ brillante.”
[21] Agustín Salgado and Mirna Servín, “Cae mataviejitas tras consumar otro de sus crímenes; es mujer,” La Jornada, January 26, 2006.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Hector Maudeleón, “En el 2003 iniciaron los asesinatos del ‘mataviejitas,’” El Universal, November 8, 2005.
[24] Salgado and Servín, “Cae mataviejitas.”
[25] Salgado, “Del mataviejitas.”
[26] Renato Sales Heredia, “Seis visiones en busca de un serial,” Proceso, February 12, 2006.

In the search for El Mataviejitas, police were certain that the serial killer was, like any other of his kind, just a “common citizen.” [27] When police arrested Juana Barraza, the Justice Department’s Margarita Guerra was certain that she not a sociopath. [28] According to academic Isabel Bueno, Barraza is a “sociopath just like Hitler and El Mochaorejas, whose strong personality attracts and fascinates.” [29]

[27] Padilla and Pérez, “Tarda hasta 20 años captura de asesinos.”
[28] Arturo Sierra, “Ligan a luchadores con ‘mataviejitas,’” Reforma, January 31, 2006.
[29] Dirección de Comunicación Institucional, “La Mataviejitas: ‘una sociópata,’ asegura académica de la UIA,” news release, January 26, 2006.

My intent is to point out how media, police, and criminologists are not demanding responsibility from Barraza for the killing of elderly women but are pathologizing her for her class, race, and most of all her nonnormative gender and wrestling practice. It is La Dama del Silencio who is being criminalized and not Juana Barraza. When Barraza was arrested, the Mataviejitas case was closed, suggesting that only one serial killer was responsible for all the killings of elderly women, despite the large number of unresolved cases.

Juana told me she was writing a book of her own. Her manuscript, called “When Women Cry,” narrates what happens to women at night while in prison “because when the dark comes, and they are in their bunks, they howl, they cry a lot. It is very hard to be here. It is very hard to be locked up.” She started crying and had to take a moment to collect herself. I remained silent and waited, looking at my hands in my lap. She also insisted that she never gets into trouble, “It’s not like me. I like to be good. I never swear or try not to swear.” When we exchanged letters, Barraza had asked me for money—living in prison is not cheap and she had a lot of expenses, not least continuing to provide for her children (fig. C.1). I gave her 500 pesos that I had on me.

Figure C.2. Letter from Juana Barraza to the author.

What felt most important to me about my meeting with Barraza was her emphasis on motherhood. As she put it, Juana Barraza could be anything you or I, or the media, or a criminologist, wanted, but a bad mother? No, that she could not be called. This to me is the highlight of my visit with her and the backbone of this book. Even Barraza, the alleged one and only female serial killer in Mexican history, knows full well how discourses on mexicanidad work, how being a good mother is the single most important cultural and social role for a woman. Again, I am not saying that all Mexican women feel this, or are good mothers, but Mexican women have to negotiate with this ideal, with this interiorized discourse, in which to be a good Mexican woman means being a good mother and the severe consequences of this discourses on mexicanidad. Being a bad mother, being called a bad mother is the worst, it crosses the line, even for an alleged serial killer, and Juana knows it. Being a bad mother would be being like her own mother, like Malinalli’s mother.

In this regard, there is nothing I could agree on more with Barraza, and that to me is the most crucial element of her alleged criminality. In discourses of mexicanidad, a bad mother, a woman who does not fulfill her most important and sacred role, is the criminal. A woman who murders those who embody that role is the most horrible of criminals.

You’ve read the conclusion to Susana Vargas Cervantes’ book The Little Old Lady Killer: The Sensationalized Crimes of Mexico’s First Female Serial Killer, published in 2019 by NYU Press. This conclusion has been edited for length.