Territories of Resistance and Healing

TONALÁ, FEBRUARY 11-13, 2023

On the Pacific coast of Chiapas Indigenous and mestizo women from the Zoque region, north-Palenque, Costa and Altos de Chiapas denounced the violence that affects their lives and territories; they carried out workshops in  political-community organization, communication, solidarity economy  and collective healing activities. “As women, we believe that the articulation and solidarity between organizations as we build, along with collective healing, is essential to face the different types of violence that women experience on our bodies-territories.” 

As women representing Schools for Chiapas, we are honored to be able to support and participate in the Assembly of Women in defense of Mother Earth and Territory. Defense of social justice and the strengthening of land defenders is part of the women’s struggle against the capitalist system of oppression, marginalization and destruction of societies and the land.

— Oh it is so beautiful! But…I can’t do it! — Marcelina yells, grabbing the colorful skirt whose filigree gently caresses her ankles. Another 10 compañeras, already seated to move to the other side of the bay, encourage her to get on the boat. Marcelina objects, not only is it her first time being in an unknown region, but her first time crossing the water in a boat. She is afraid of not feeling the earth, she is afraid of instability, she is afraid of everything that has a life of its own in these waters. Marcelina comes from the harsh and cold mountains of the Altos de Chiapas region. There, there are no rivers to cross, there is not so much heat, there she knows everything, there the stones that she finds on the paths in the forest, the ones that give her security of passage, they connect her with Mother Earth.

A young girl stands up, balancing carefully in the boat, still tied to the tree on the shore; she extends her hand offering firmness and security to the old woman. Marcelina, still doubtful, accepts her invitation. The rest of the women clap excitedly welcoming her to the adventure of her life.

The boat slowly begins making its way to the other side; the birds hidden in the crowns of the fluorescent trees welcome them with their song. Marcelina leaves her fear behind. It went away with the singing of the birds, with the unknown movement of the boat caressed by the subtle waves of the bay; it went away in the wonder of the surrounding nature, and in the fish that accompany them across, but more than all that, the fear went away because of the embrace of the young girl and the laughter of her companions on this path towards sharing.

On a little piece of beach, almost invisible due to the density of the trees, the open arms of the compañeras who live in this coastal land of Chiapas await her. One mooring the boat on the shore, others forming a line to pass the bags and backpacks of the women who arrive, and others extending their arms, to steady their guests as they step from boat.

While some disembark, others who arrived before prepare the comal to hold the flower petals, seeds, colored corn grains, fruits, copal, beans… everything for the Mayan altar to accompany them on days of work and deep sharing. The grandmothers and mothers will share the wooden cabins to give them shelter and safe rest at night; these who are younger spread their tents with the desire to sleep with the air and the sound of the sea, so present at this moment; the adolescents go straight to the hammocks strung between the palm trees on the beach.

The colors of the skirts, the traditional blouses, braided ribbons in the long hair, denim patched pants of the younger generation; younger women jumping out of the boat in the driving desire to explore, mothers carefully passing babies into the arms of their companions on the shore, curious and trusting old women extending their arms to strangers who offer support. The air is filled with emotion.

The women hurry to the sacred place – to where their hands, wrinkled by daily work, will prepare the altar. There are colors and shapes to accommodate, each with a meaning. Rosa, the compañera from the Region Zoque explains to the children – “the red represents the place where the sun rises and represents our blood and that of our ancestors, also it represents God, the sacred sun. Look! Here we are going to put everything black, color black is rest, and the mother moon, but it also represents our hair and the beautiful eyes that we have. Yellow flowers and seeds are placed in the south, it is abundance and represents fruits and meat for nourishment. And white is the breath of life that we must have. And these four elements make up our body because the white is also the bones. Can you see? We need all of these elements to survive and they are also needed by plants in order to grow. The center will be blue and green because they represent the Heart of Heaven and Mother Earth. Everything goes together. It can’t be just one. The sun is a man and the moon is a woman, the water is a woman; the wind is a man, the heart of the sky is also a man, but the earth is a woman, that is why we say Mother Earth” The children listen attentively, their little hands reach to help in the construction of what and who they themselves are.

The representatives of the 7 regions of Chiapas carefully raise the altar to take it to the sea leading a procession of lives, experiences, desires to share, to connect, to be, to fight, to live. Joy fills their hearts when they hear the beat of a drum. They arrive to the beach in the darkness –the bonfire prepared previously by the healer, awaits them– illuminating their tired but happy faces, smiles arising from this encounter, this desire to share and to connect. No one has to say what to do, they form a circle around a campfire to give thanks for the possibility of opening their hearts in the days to come. The altar is the offering to the land and the sea, respecting their power and generosity.

Women’s Movement in Defense of Mother Earth and Territory was born as a result of the encouragement from the Women’s Rights Center (CDMCH), in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, building the network of women’s organizations from various regions of Chiapas, and over time developing relationships with women’s organizations in other parts of Mexico. The women, after a careful analysis of the extractivist expansion in the Pechiblanco territory, decided to form a Movement with the objective of fighting politically and legally in defense of social property —ejidos and communities— and against the privatization and extraction policies of the capitalist system that, adopted and supported by the Mexican government through structural reforms and changes in the Constitution, threaten to expropriate indigenous and peasant lands. These policies constitute the complicity of the Mexican government in violating the human rights of the peoples in favor of national and foreign companies that invade territories and appropriate natural wealth, putting the existence of communities, cultures, the biodiversity of Chiapas and national sovereignty at risk. The women’s vision is that, for the political strength that these problems require, the struggle against the extractions and looters of oil, water, minerals and biodiversity of the territories must happen through the unity and organization of the peoples of Chiapas, and also the entire country.

Similarly, the Women’s Movement in Defense of Mother Earth and Territory seeks a way to join efforts with other movements in the country and the world in defense of nature, the environment, peasants, indigenous peoples, and women who are the most affected by the violence of the capitalist system. The movement, driven by the strength and determination of indigenous and peasant women, has sought, since its inception, to transcend individual and local processes, moving towards a regional construction in order to fight against all forms of violence against women and their families . This violence, caused by the neo-liberal, patriarchal and neo-extractivist capitalist system manifests in myriad forms — from the increase in poverty, to migration and drug trafficking, to the dispossession of land by other groups, organized crime, or even sometimes by their own family members.

Part of the analysis of the movement is a reflection on to what extent we take responsibility for the reality we live in, and identifying the current moment of global systemic collapse, which is the result of the hegemonic patriarchal system: a system which destroys entire cultures, worlds and ways of life, which destroys and makes women invisible, draining the vital energy of people and entire towns. All this was described long ago by the Zapatista towns as “the four wheels” of the patriarchal system: dispossession, exploitation, contempt/racism and repression. And these take force with the idea of «development and progress» (Sachs, 2001).

The sound of waves wakes some of the women, they stay in bed singing along with it; others do not even realize the fresh morning wind and unknown sound. It is the possibility of rest after a lifetime of work in the field, dedication to the education of children, organizational processes of a struggle to defend their land and dignity, the uncertainty from the threats against their lives….”Yes, compañera it is so beautiful to be able to leave everything behind, to be able to close the eyes without worrying if we will manage to survive the night.” The beginning of the assembly is still couple hours away, but the compañeras began their work of sharing what they experience in their communities. There are others that simply ran to the beach in this new dawn. Many have never seen the sea –its strength, power, depth, the fragrance it carries. Its sound and invitation to purify amazes them, even as it invokes fear, they are unmistakably one with its strength.

Assembly is a moment to see each other again, to feel the joy of sisterhood and closeness; it is an open space for analysis that is often painful but necessary to find the patterns of violence, and the threads that women can weave to resolve it. Here fear and shame do not exist. Here we walk together, a space for tears, pain, laughter, hugs, and the desire to talk –the desire to live and feel this life that pulsates with so much energy from each one, and all together at the same time.

“It is impossible to plant,” says a woman in her 40s. “Every day the soldiers arrive threatening us with their weapons, telling us to leave the land, there are already kidnappings of the compañeras who organize in the community, some appear raped, tortured, burned, others. ..who knows what they did to them…” María’s voice breaks, everyone knows that Ana – a community leader – disappeared 3 years ago, and was never heard from again. The region suffers violence from mining companies, there is everything… hydrocarbons and precious metals there. For many years the communities could not find a way to oppose these companies in the region. At first, people did not believe they were going to stay for long, then they began to dispossess and threaten those who did not want to move from their homes, they were forcibly removed or killed . The population began to organize and upon seeing the resistance on the part of the people, the military and paramilitary groups had to withdraw.

Continuous marches from the organized communities became part of daily life. But not everyone participated. So the women decided to form education groups in public places, schools, parks. Only the women went to these places, the men focused on resistance, throwing stones, complaints, blockades. The women’s strategy was to work with the people so that they understood the context.

“And so we realized that there is more strength in us, not brute force but persuasion, organizing from the neighborhoods, from the youth, walking together organizing and building movements against the companies and see that they had to withdraw” she shares with a smile.

From the other working group, a women in her early 50s shares:

“We realized that there was little action on the part of the men in defense of the land, so we wanted to see what would happen if we organized ourselves among the women. From there we noticed that there is better coordination within the movements, there are more specific actions, there are more achievements. We defend our territories with more strength and determination, we defend them against corporate terror or organized crime and its violence, we are capable of having strategies that work better, we analyze from our own experience and daily context, we talk, we seek solutions and actions. We defend the dignity of women, dignity of the water and that of Mother Earth, and that analysis is ours and is felt on our skin and bodies, because it is our lived experience. Our experience with the land is spiritual for being mothers, for being women, for understanding the connection between nature and our bodies.”

“Our grandmothers used to walk in silence, they used to live their lives without a voice. They could not share their opinion in the community assemblies, and even if they shared they were not listened to. We are the survivors of this mistreatment, and to be able to talk, to be able to express our voices in various spaces, to be seen; and our opinions and ideas to be heard is a great advance. And that did not happen from one day to the next, that is because we were able to organize as women and only women. Now we can speak and defend our territory with our word, with our skills, with our determination to protect Mother Earth”.

The heat of the coast and the sound of the sea were not strong enough to interrupt the sharing, the deepening of the analysis, the discovery of similar patterns of destruction by capitalism, multinational companies, drug influence, lack of hope among young people, kidnappings and prostitution of young girls. At one work-table there was laughter and jokes, in another concentration in silence, listening to the stories of the compañeras, and tables occupied with drawing women thoughts on paper. There are many strategies to do so — what really matters is the need to be part of this greater community– to feel the strength that unites them, but also to contextualize their struggles with those of regions. So often they are similar – in one region threats to defenders lives by mining companies, another by gas drilling, another looting by agribusiness; in all, the growing presence of drug traffickers, dispossession of the land and permanent destruction of indigenous peoples.

“It is important that we get together from different communities, that we continue calling others to join the movement; that we analyze our contexts and are able to see the patterns of destruction and how it affects not just us here in Mexico but everyone on this planet. It is important to recognize that we share our condition as women regardless of whether we are peasants, academics, activists, artists, mothers, widows, professionals, young or old; we all experience violence in different forms. It is so clear that this system of patriarchal oppression oppresses us all. But it is also true that in the same way that it oppresses us, it opens up space for us to organize and contest it together; if we are unified and organized we can free ourselves. But not only those of us who are already here have to come together, it is our responsibility to communicate our experiences, learning and analysis to other women, we have to share it with those who cannot leave their towns, those who do not have a conscience yet, those who still cannot see this panorama we are able to see thanks to the network of women organizations that form part of the Movement.”

Marcelina was not afraid to get on the boat back home. The three days of work on the context of Chiapas and Mexico; threats, violations, strategies to work together in the resistance; but also intimate connection with other women, conversations, workshops on self care, and games on the beach, ability to rest her heavily walked feet in the sea; the embrace of other women as they joined individual and shared healing rituals; spiritual and emotional cleansing with air, fire and water that is able to carry away internal demons and allows us to be reborn as strong new and loving women, weaving together the resistances. She was not afraid to step in on the boat, she felt safe but accepted the supporting hands of the young woman who was guiding her… trust, new learning, experiences, vision in a better future, new generations fighting together with grandmothers to save the earth, to save us….

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