Graffiti and Glitter Bombs: An Interview with Alejandra Santillana Ortiz on Mexico’s Movement Against Rape

A protestor’s sign reads: “They don’t care for us, we care for ourselves.”

In August, women in Mexico took to the streets to protest rape and feminicide. They denounced the state and the atmosphere of impunity that allows gender-based violence to continue unabated – not least of all, at the hands of police. Tobias Boos spoke to organizer Alejandra Santillana Ortiz about the country’s feminist movement, its relationship to the AMLO government, and the global and regional context for its recent actions.

Tobias Boos: Could you briefly explain what happened recently in Mexico that brought about feminist protests?

Alejandra Santillana Ortiz: First, it’s important to remember what the global statistics tell us about feminicide: of the 25 countries with the most feminicides, 14 are Latin American. 1 This makes us think that there is a structural-regional violence against women on this continent. Mexico ranks 23rd in the rate of feminicides. El Salvador and Honduras top the painful list. Cis women, trans women, girls, and adolescentes receive the most extreme and regular violence. To give a statistic to those who don’t know about what hell it is for those who live here: In Mexico, a woman is murdered every two and a half hours, nine women daily. That is to say that so far in 2019 about 1199 Mexican women have been victims of feminicide. Every 18 seconds a woman or girl is raped. And the levels of impunity in relation to machista violence are so brutal that the survivors, those who end up making a report before the justice system know that only in between 8 and 10 percent of reported cases does some kind of judgement occur (not always favorable for the survivors), and the rest still result in impunity. 

TB: I suppose the rest don’t even get reported…

AS: Of course. Why don’t we report? Let’s remember that this is a country structured in recent decades fundamentally around narcotics, human trafficking, and the violent exploitation of labor, which is to say a country where violence configures our everyday life. So those who manage to survive and report often risk a chain of greater violence and greater threats in which their lives and those of their families are once again at risk. There is a kind of formation of a violent society without punishment in which the state is part of that violence. A great many of the crimes that have been committed in recent years in Mexico have the state and its functionaries or the police directly involved. Or, through judges or those in the justice system, the state guarantees generalized impunity in this country. 

Well it’s in this context in which one must look at what has occurred in recent days. At the beginning of August in the municipalities of Azcapotzalco and Cuauhtémoc (peripheral municipalities in Mexico City) four police raped a minor. She had taken a taxi, the taxi let her out half a block from her house, and in this half a block a squad car appears and the girl is raped. Some days later, in the Museum of Photography, a girl enters a bathroom and is raped by a police officer that was providing “protection and vigilance” in the Museum. In addition to these these facts are the rapes of adolescents and daily feminicides, which have taken place in the prepas (prepas are the mid-high level schools where students prepare to enter university) where there are basically girls and kids of 15, 16 years old. 

It’s in this context that various feminist collectives called a mobilization on Monday, August 12 and the gathering reaches the offices of the Attorney General of Mexico City. Those who have direct responsibility are the Mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, and Jesús Orta, Secretary of Citizen Security of Mexico City. Claudia Sheinbaum is part of the new government and various expectations weigh no her for her commitment to human rights, etc. (She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.) 

The call on social media carried the slogan “they don’t care for us, they rape us,” arguing that it’s pointless to have security measures that imply more police or National Guard members on the street (the latter has basically been the strategy of the “Fourth Transformation” on the part of AMLO’s government). In the August 12 protest there were some facts that became viral online. A moment of tension emerged between some compañeras and the police outside the offices of the Attorney General, and some broken glass. On the other hand when Jesús Orta came out, the compañeras threw glitter bombs at him, which we’ve seen as part of feminist protests in recent years in Latin America. Recall that these were already used in the mobilizations of the Green Tide for the legalization of abortion in Argentina (green glitter on the face and body) and later these had been used by the youngest girls in various protests around the continent. Nonetheless, here they acquire another significance. When they throw glitter at the Chief of Security of Mexico City, and it falls on his head while he’s wearing his business suit (obviously nothing happened to him, and nothing happens to anyone because some glitter falls on them), Jesús was making a report to the press. That image went viral. And then the glitter acquires a content, it becomes a poetic political gesture, something symbolic, feminist that directly interpellates the Mexican state for the violence against us, and which forms part of all of the calls that were made for a new offshoot of protest August 16th in Mexico City and replicated in 31 cities throughout the country. 

TB: Why was this new call issued?

AS: The first reason is that after the events of August 12, the response of the state was extremely grave and unfortunate. Not only are the police accused of raping a minor are still free, but personal information about the survivor was leaked, putting at risk her integrity and the security of her family. If indeed the police are suspended, in a context of structural violence like the one we’ve described, this means (as it has meant on many other occasions) a new threat because they are unpunished and free to frighten the person who reported the rape and her family. That information about her has leaked – where she lives, what she does, how old she is, what her family is like, etc. – is extremely grave and violates all guaranteed principles and protocols for one who has suffered a rape and furthermore chosen to report it. On top of this we can add a dynamic proper to contexts characterized by injustice and impunity, and which in Mexico is our daily dread: what emerges is the coexistence of multiple versions (many times contradictory) of the events that occurred which usually puts in doubt and casts suspicion on the words of women. There is in fact her version and then 20 other versions from functionaries that clash with her version. This we’ve already seen for example in the famous case of the feminicide of Lesvy Berlin Osorio.

The first declarations of Claudia Sheinbaum sustain that “I want to categorically affirm that this was a provocation.” How can a mayor, woman, defender of human rights, in this context accuse us of a provocation? The reaction unleashed online was that of a lot of anger and indignation once again against the state. Friday the 16th, we gathered on the Glorieta de los Insurgentes, a large roundabout located in the central part of Mexico City. The slogans that guided our convergence were “To demand justice is not a provocation,” and “They don’t care for us, they rape us,” and once again glitter was defended.

It’s worth remembering that between the statements of Claudia Sheinbaum and Jesús Orta, not only did they accuse of being provocateurs but they publicly announced that they would open investigations for the broken windows and glitter. Finally, Claudia Sheinbaum in a desperate act to gain legitimacy and support, convened a dialog with some institutionalized feminists and with representatives of the Morena party. 

We should also note that between the statements by Claudia Sheinbaum and Jesús Orta, we are being accused not only of being provocateurs but are now the targets of a public threat to open an investigation into the glitter bombing and window breaking.  Finally, Claudia Sheinbaum in a desperate act to gain legitimacy and support, convened a dialog with some institutionalized feminists and with representatives of the Morena party. It is, in my opinion, a great political error: it perpetuates a narrative that has been described by Mexican feminist and researcher Sandra Gónzalez as constructing a notion of “good” and “bad” feminists where the good ones come to the table to dialogue and the bad ones throw glitter and break windows. Of course, those seated at the table denounce and admonish those of us who protest, accusing us of not going about it the right way. What gets cast aside in this approach? An analysis of the underlying reasons for the feminist fury, that is: systematic and structural violence that we experience on a daily basis as women, and that has very painful consequences especially on young women and women from the popular sectors.

On Friday, together in the streets, we felt a pressing need to be embodied, to become one collective body, to politically express the rage we felt. We were millions. One thing to note is that while it was a feminist mobilization with agreement that only women would be on the front lines, there was a presence of men with faces covered or hidden throughout the march, who filmed us, who wanted to be in the front taking up space that didn’t belong to them, and exerting direct violence… these men who infiltrated our march came to unleash their patriarchal violence, to intimidate and to make clear that they would not allow a change to the murderous and oppressive status quo. One example is the violent man who attacked a reporter from ADN40 on camera while on the march. For decades in Mexico, it has been known that certain groups, called porros, infiltrate and participate in marches of various kinds for the sole purpose of provoking, being destructive and executing violence, and that these have been linked to or are branches of political parties that are now also involved in trafficking, drug trafficking, and soccer hooliganism.

But beyond that, the fundamental thing to understand about August 16th is that, as Uruguayan feminist and researcher Noelia Correa suggests in her recent article for Zur, it “was the closest thing to an insurrection” that our generation has seen.

TB: Why do you think these mass, widespread feminist protests are happening now? Where do you locate the roots of this powerful resistance?

AS: I think there are several important elements to look at. This insurrectionary feminist uprising has been shaped, on the one hand, by the brutal, patriarchal violence that suffocates us on a daily basis. I think it is nearly impossible for someone on the outside to understand the significance of the alarming levels of violence that women in this country face. Silvia Gil writes that “to understand the unrest in which Mexican women now find themselves as protagonists, you have to imagine a situation where every time you leave your house, go to school or work you simply do not know if you will come back alive.” Imagine a persistent feeling of not knowing what will happen to you when you step out on the street, taking twenty decisions a day to preserve your integrity and your life, decisions like what street to walk down, what street not to walk down, what to wear, having to notify people of where you are going and what time you should be expected back. How can a person have peace of mind knowing that on the metro in Mexico City, an integral part of the commute in the city, thousands of women have been kidnapped in a matter of months and that this all took place in public and in broad daylight? And if you aren’t kidnapped, you must consider the very high probability that you will be assaulted, or that you will encounter a violent aggression of some kind. This is the reason why there are there separate women-only cars on trains, but even then there are men who get on these cars. How do you live knowing that at college, school, or work you may be assaulted by a professor or colleague? How, when in addition to structural violence, in your interpersonal relationships with men, being beaten by your partner, being controlled, facing violence, which could escalate to murder? In spite of all of this, we women are here, not only surviving, but refusing to let violent patriarchy and capitalism take away our joy, and in spite of everything, organizing ourselves.

TB: While the debate over #NiUnaMenos takes place in Latin America, here in Europe the focus has been much more on #MeToo. Can you explain a bit about the role that these debates in Mexico? How did they come about and what have been the most important aspects in this context?

AS: Well, related to the previous question and again in dialogue with Sandra González, in addition to strucural violence there is a very specific feminist geneaology in this country which has had foundational moments in the 1960s and ‘70s. We are talking about a revolutionary militancy, of comrades who turned into guerillas, comades who decided to opt for the left and pave the way for radical militancy. What is happening in Mexico and in a large part of Latin America is that as of the ‘90s, there has been a more institutionalized agenda on gender, of professionalized women, white-collar, etc. Without taking away from all they have achieved and fought for on the inside to build gender policy in state institutions, this drained a lot of the feminist energy in relation to the state. There is no question that it is important to think about gender policy, but we know it is not enough. Add to that the fact that there is a very particular type of state in Mexico, based on a corporate model that devours everything and leaves little space for autonomy and self-management [autogestion], what you have are tensions resulting from the assumption that the state approach to gender is the only type of feminist organizing with strategic importance. In the face of this, the last few years have demonstrated a rebirth of a feminist movement at a regional level and also in Mexico. To this genealogy you can add others, a confluence as I see it, of another long tradition of student organizing dating back to 1968, the UNAM strike in 1989 but also other, more autonomous feminist traditions that directly question the state including with profound critiques of left parties. What’s more, some regional conditions have allowed a feminism for the many, a meeting place and a space of potential, of politicization, a feeling that enough is enough, and at the same time the discovery of new kinds of politics.

That is to say that in addition to the element of structural violence there is element of historical memory, of the same history of Mexican feminism being illuminated and at the same time a resonance and echo of capacious feminist movement that has been gestating in the last few years in Latin America. This specificity of Mexican feminism, which puts representation permanently into play, explains why there is not a single convening but many, not only one voice, but many collective ones. That is why sitting with the state becomes more complex in the Mexican context, not only because of the violent character or its corporate nature, but because the representation of the movement is at play in the dialogue. On the one hand, there are questions about who are the legitimate voices to speak with and be interlocutors with the state. On the other, it is very interesting because the existence of various collectives gives it a certain capacity for plurality. That is what we lived on Friday. And that is where the question is not so much between direct action or no direct action because we understand violence as a reaction to the permanent structural violence. As the girls say: “The walls can be cleaned, the windows can be fixed, but the murdered and raped do not come back,” and that is how plural political potential is built.

There is an element there that seems central to me, which has to do with something that is very specific to Latin America when thinking about NiUnaMenos or VivasNosQueremos: the visibility of the forms of collectively putting bodies on the line. These actions on the street involving all of us make us into a single body in plurality. When the first declarations came out about who had broken windows, the feminist movement’s response was that it was not a few women, “it was all of us.” It was all of us because we all suffer that violence, because we take care of each other, because whether or not we agree on everything, we know that the patriarchy oppresses us. It doesn’t matter if I did it or not, the issue here is that violence is fundamental, it is the patriarchal, capitalist, and colonial violence that we are all experiencing every day.

Later that is articulated with another element that is specific to Latin America, which is the conversation about life, dignified life and rage. In opposition to the logic of capitalism and patriarchy that accumulates and oppresses, for years the feminist movement in the region has maintained that its struggle is for life. What does life mean for us? What are referring to when we speak of putting life at the center? For us, life is not a declarative abstract, it necessarily involves talking about dignity and everything that makes it possible to enable dignity. In opposition to the exchange value and the inherited cultural capital acquired by objects broken and ruined by power, we put forth life without commodification, violence, or subordination. As we have seen written on the walls these days, “they will never again have the comfort of our silence,” because we are not willing to back to occupying that place of private silence, of silent submission. In that sense the broken glass, of real estate or the metrobus, etc. do not have, in any way, the same value as our lives. The meaning that we are putting up for debate here is the value of life. I think it is a very important political dispute in a country that experiences a type of brutal capitalism, including the maquilas, over-exploitation, quasi-slave labor, some of the lowest wages in the region.

Here we return to your question about how we dialogue with other feminist expressions: glitter became a feminist political symbol against sexist violence, not only in Mexico, but throughout the region, and specifically against the violence perpetrated by the state. The ability that countries such as Mexico or Argentina have for giving rise to certain elements that configure a feminist internationalism is very important because in the long run they contribute to the construction of a political and symbolic, but also poetic and aesthetic meaning, understood as a space that gives meaning, allowing a narrative and also a materiality to be constructed.

TB: There you already touched on another question in regards to the potential that you see in the protests: from your point of view, what impact could they have on Mexican society and politics?

AS: What happened after these mobilizations is that the Mayor finally sat down with some of the feminist collectives and the petition document that was read on Friday that has to do with declaring an alert against sexist violence in Mexico City and other issues. Additionally, she issued a series of statements in which she admits that she made a mistake and ensures that they will not open investigations against any of the women who went to the mobilization and she is not going to criminalize the protests. This takes us back to the internal debate about representation.

But there is an ambivalent nature to it. While I can question it in many ways, I can also see, because I see it in other women, in their commentaries, that this shows us that it is possible to obtain things by organizing and struggling. That is no small thing in a country like this one where there are immense mobilizations and, however, nothing happens. There have been mobilizations for Ayotzinapa, weeks of mobilizations, the largest reached almost 500,000 people in Mexico City, and yet, nothing. Impunity continues and the state does not admit anything. However, these types of actions by the state generate an enormous amount of skepticism, over whether the state will fulfill its role of guaranteeing our lives free from violence, but also over whether the state will seek to incorporate [corporativizar], and thus drain the autonomous energy of a large part of the feminist movement. This is a discussion that is also inscribed in the question about how the relationship with the new government will be shaped.

Let’s recall that Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently stated that those of us who were at the mobilization were violent, that one must protest without violence and he referred to the defense of patrimonial monuments that were graffitied and broken property. I have to say that this type of declaration is not only regrettable, but is even more serious coming from a head of state.

In this sense, the overwhelming presence of the Mexican state incorporating, coopting, diluting, and hollowing out radicalism in a country such as this one is constant. And it is not limited to the Fourth Transformation. It is a historical form that the state acquires here. We will have to see if what just happened effectively gives rise to certain levels of justice and possibilities for dialogue, or not, and under what conditions and at what costs, but since there is already an accepted petition document, it also opens a challenge for the feminist movement: how to strengthen itself in its plurality, as well as in its autonomy and, at the same time, be active players in the following steps.

Finally, time will tell what happens with the Mexican feminist movement, for now there are many voices that have been launched to try to give meanings and readings to what has happened, from various places and from different experiences. There are already some calls to meet and think together, to process this together, to recognize ourselves even if we are not all in agreement. We will see how we go about finding that wisdom to walk together, and to not lose the dignified rage nor the demand for justice, nor the collective embodiment [acuerpamiento] that was produced on that insurrectional Friday.

– Translated from Spanish by Robert Cavooris, Magally Miranda Alcázar, and Liz Mason-Deese.

Originally published in German at mosiak-blog.

References   [ + ]

1. Report from CEPAL: https://www.eleconomista.com.mx/politica/14-de-los-25-paises-con-mas-feminicidios-se-ubican-en-America-Latina--20181120-0048.html.

Authors of the article

is part of the Ruda Colectiva Feminista, Aborto Libre Ec, el Foro Feminista contra el G20 and the Latin Americanist collective Malandra Colectiva Feminista. She is a researcher at the Instituto de Estudios Ecuatorianos, and is currently carrying out her doctorate in Latin American Studies at UNAM.

holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Vienna where he is working as a postdoc in the area of International Politics. Currently he is a research fellow in a collaborative project about the middle class in Argentina and Bolivia during the pink tide in Latin America at CALAS/UNSAM (National University of General San Martín) in Buenos Aires.