Women's Rights

Indigenous Activists Occupy Mexico City

Tessy Schlosser of the Progressive International interviews Maricela Mejía, a feminist and Indigenous leader who helped organize the Third National Encounter of Women of the National Indigenous Congress.
“I know what I want, I know what I am fighting for, and I demand what is rightfully mine.” Maricela Mejía is connecting the shared struggles for women’s and Indigenous liberation in Mexico. This is her call to organize.
“I know what I want, I know what I am fighting for, and I demand what is rightfully mine.” Maricela Mejía is connecting the shared struggles for women’s and Indigenous liberation in Mexico. This is her call to organize.

An interview with Maricela Mejía.

Good afternoon, compañera. Thank you for receiving us in your home for the Third National Encounter of Women of the National Indigenous Congress.

The chosen venue for this year’s encounter was the “Toma del INPI”, the Occupied National Institute of Indigenous Peoples here in Mexico City. What was behind the decision to take over the facilities?

On 12 October, when the institute was taken over, it was yet another “Indigenous Peoples Day.” 528 years of contempt, dispossession, and amnesia that have been lived not only in my community, the Otomí, but in all Indigenous communities.

We have nothing to celebrate. While those from above celebrate that the communities and peoples are here, they tell us that we are a rebellious community, that we do not understand, that we do not know what we want. Since we arrived and entered this facility, we have shown that we do understand; we do know what we want, and we know what we are looking for. For this reason, we are now occupying a space that they say is the home of all peoples. “If it really is the home of all peoples,” we said, “then let's make it ours.”

This community came together, got involved, and took on the task of making these facilities their home. It was a peaceful takeover —it was not violent. It was done in the best way. That day, at 10 in the morning, we went in and there were very few people working. We told them it was a takeover and if they would please get out. The government workers did not understand what was happening. “What do you mean, a takeover?” they said. “We’ve come to recover what is ours — what has belonged to us for a long time.”

When we entered this space, we saw how the communities were hanging on the walls as decorative pieces. We saw the injustice and feigned care that was carried out from this building — the betrayal of the peoples. I, as a community; I, as a people; I, as a woman say: it is not fair to me for this bad government to go and speak to you with lies.

In my community they said "we are going to build a tourist plaza," but they never said how it would affect us or what they wanted from my town. They didn't ask us if we wanted it or not — they went and built it. Now, if they had consulted and asked us, we would have said what the people really need. It's like I say, “What's so beautiful about a tourist plaza if everything around it is full of poverty and marginalization?”

What does the community need and how do you seek it?

We need decent housing, health, education, space to work, food, democracy, and freedom...

In our community, for example, we do not have a 24-hour clinic. People in town are dying. When it’s possible, we go to nearby cities, Querétaro or San Juan del Río. And when it’s not, you die on the way. We’ve demanded health from the government for many years.

We also want our children to have education, but there is no such possibility in the community. It is very difficult. The state makes it very difficult for us. Hence, we decide to leave for the city.

But you arrive in the city and you face another lifestyle where you have no place. You arrive and are excluded for speaking a different tongue, for having a certain clothing. Society asks you “why do you speak like that?” or they tell you that you are not really from an indigenous community — maybe you are an impostor. That society itself would tell you that hurts —the contempt doesn’t only come from the government. This is part of our fight, every day.

So often we are forced to say "let's march because they are privatizing water", "let's march because they are polluting our water." Water is limited and counted for us, who take care of it. We have no right to water while those who pollute, sell, and waste it have the luxury of watering a garden and washing a car.

When we tell people "get organized,” we do not do so lightly." If we tell people to "get organized" it is because it is necessary. The strength to organize is what you need to survive.

After five months here, we continue to resist. The government bets on attrition — that we won’t have resources and we will die of hunger. We are artisans. We don't want to extend our hand; it is our hands that feed us.

What challenges have you all faced organizing the women’s encounters?

As a community, we faced difficulties when women began to organize. It was a lot of work for our compañeros to get that the compañeras also needed and wanted to go out to fight, organize, and raise their voices.

And the compañeras did not use to speak. They would tell me: “You speak for us.” And I said, “I am not going to speak for you.” They said, “No, whatever we have to say, do it.” I had to firmly say “No, you express yourself differently than I do. You have to speak for yourself.” Helping them get that confidence has been very important to me.

When the compañeras gained confidence, they also began to speak more about their experiences. They said, "I have been violated" or "My partner limits whether I can participate or cannot." I ask them, then, “But why? You have to talk to the compañero. What has he understood about the struggle? What does he still need to understand about it?” It has been a lot of work.

This is the Third Women’s Encounter. The compañeros are making tortillas. They are cooking the food. They are very happy doing it, too. They say: "The compañeras are in their meeting, they are in their plenary session and we have to cook them their food, make their tortillas and wash the dishes." The compañeros are getting it. It may be slow, but it is working. It requires a lot of conscience-raising work to say: “Yes, we have to support each other because the struggle belongs to both.” This is how you need to walk.

At the beginning of the encounter, we had a conversation with women from indigenous peoples located in other geographies, particularly in Bolivia and Guatemala. The compañeras from Bolivia invited us to think about the connection between women and life, focusing on the issues of femicide, connection with the land, and care. Could you tell us a little about how you see this connection?

If, for example, you get Covid now and you don't have money for oxygen, you don't have the right to health. In the communities, this situation has strengthened our connection to the land. Nature itself is the one that tells you: "Don't destroy me because you need me." It is what the capitalists and bad governments do—destroy so that you only need them and buy from them.

How many women are dying now due to medical negligence or poor care? In our communities, most women used to be midwives. Alternative medicine comes from that connection to the land. We knew how to use it and work with it. All the knowledge that our ancestors had was very beautiful but I was very young and I did not pay enough attention to it. How I wish I had and not let that knowledge die.

I have realized that in many struggles, be it in the communities or in cities, many times it is actually women who show our faces and put our bodies on the line. When you put your body in the struggle, you don't know what is coming. I told many compañeras, we came and did the occupation and we do not know the retaliation. Keep your head held high. If they have to put me in jail, let them put me in jail. Wherever I go, I will stay organized. I am not going to remain silent: I know what I want, I know what I am fighting for, and I demand what is rightfully mine.

I would like you to tell us a little about the difficult and intimate discussions we had in the working groups during the encounter. In these, the women spoke about their experiences in the last year and shared forms of organization and resistance, as well as the importance of internationalism in the struggle. Can you share some of what was talked about in these groups?

From the first encounter, we have asked the same questions: What is patriarchy? Why the struggle? Why is it important for women to raise our voices?

Many women have suffered violence and learned to remain silent. With the pandemic and the "stay at home" policy, much more so. How can I, as a woman, tell other women that they have to fight and believe in the possibility of a new world, when they, as women, live that violence every day?

In our encounters, it is necessary to put these questions on the table because with one woman who opens up and says "I have lived through this", a chain starts. Maybe they have lived it at home, at school, on their way somewhere. In one way or another, they have experienced violence. It is necessary to start there and from there, weave outwards. That is why we talk in these encounters through the axes of women, autonomy and territory, with regional and international analyses, to build anti-patriarchal resistance.

It is possible to transform and create a new world where many worlds fit, where we all fit. We also have the right to dream, we have the right to that new world.

As a last question. The CNI [National Indigenous Congress] and EZLN [Zapatista Army of National Liberation] have announced an upcoming tour to the five continents in the Declaration for Life, published in January 2021. What are your expectations in this regard?

It is a complicated emotion. On the one hand, we are going to visit towns that have also been violated and beaten. We will have an exchange of problems: I tell you and you tell me. Here, we have been told many times that in other countries and continents things are much better, but we know that there are also those peoples who share our problems. On the other hand, we not only want to exchange but to say “let's find solutions together”.

This has been my experience when going to Chiapas with my zapatista brothers and sisters. Every time I go to their community and return, I realize that I am still learning. I then put it into practice, which is how I keep learning.

We are also going to raise our voices. By going out and being in the 5 continents, we are going to say many things that have happened in Mexico. The Fourth Transformation is not what it appears, it is not what it says it is, it has not worked to do what it promised. For me as a woman, as a community, and as a people, it would be a fucking great thing to be able to unmask this bad government. We want to share about what is happening with femicide, our dead, harassment, political prisoners, dispossession... everything that we as peoples and communities have experienced — share with our brothers and sisters in other continents what we live day by day, in the face of government terror.

That is our fight: to make dignity until it becomes habit.

Photo: @CNI_Mexico / Twitter

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