As dusk settled across Mexico City’s historic center, a middle-aged woman standing on the second-story balcony of a graffiti-covered stone building clutched a microphone in one hand and raised a pack of papers with the other. “To hell with your institutions!” she yelled through a white mask covering her mouth and nose, her husky voice cracking from the force of her cry. She tore the papers—government forms she’d been instructed to fill out to push along her sister’s and niece’s missing persons cases, a never-ending bureaucratic nightmare she’d been engulfed in for years, she said—and tossed the shredded pieces like confetti to a roaring crowd of some 200 women dressed in black, packed on the street below. In a falsetto betraying their youth, they chanted, “You are not alone.” They pumped their fists in the air. The ones in balaclavas raised sticks and hammers.
It was September 14, the eve of Mexico’s independence festivities, an event inaugurated each year when the president steps out onto the presidential palace’s balcony and utters el grito—the cry—a reenactment of revolutionary hero Miguel Hidalgo’s call to arms against the Spanish in 1810 (a mythologized moment akin to the American Revolution’s “shot heard round the world”).
Here was the women’s anti-grita. As evening turned to night, mothers of daughters murdered, raped, and disappeared took to the balcony to wail their fury and call out the government for abandoning them. If the government and its institutions would not protect their freedom, they said, they would do it themselves. That’s why they’d seized the building from which they spoke—the National Human Rights Commission—two weeks prior.
It had all started on September 2, when Marcela Alemán tied her white sneakers’ shoelaces to a chair inside the commission. In a video she shot on her phone, she explained that commission staff had instructed her to file yet another report to begin legal proceedings against the people she accused of sexually abusing her daughter in 2017.
Alemán refused. She was done with the runaround she’d been subjected to for three years, she said, and demanded justice. She would not leave the building until it was served. “Long live women, and long live mothers who fight,” she proclaimed in the video, panning the camera down from her tied laces up across a Mexican flag waving in the balcony breeze beside her. Within hours, young women, many from an anarchist feminist collective, poured onto the street in front of the commission to create a human shield against the police they expected to arrive at any second to evict Alemán. Soon after, other women arrived: mothers of children murdered, disappeared, raped, and abused—all, like Alemán, exhausted and enraged by Mexican institutions’ failure to address mounting gender violence in the country. On September 3, the women stormed the building.
Under the guidance of a few feminist collectives, the women have occupied the Human Rights Commission ever since, and have transformed it into a shelter for victims of gender violence. They guard the entrance in makeshift balaclavas, behind a row of defaced paintings pulled out from the building—revolutionary heroes made over with pouty red lips, green eyeshadow, and purple hair, or devil’s horns and tails—which acts like a barricade and lends to the punk anarchist aesthetic. They refuse to hand the building back to the government. It’s world-class trolling.
The occupation is the latest in a series of increasingly dramatic feminist acts of civil disobedience, and perhaps best shows a potent alliance between younger, college-age punk/anarchist feminists and the mothers of victims of gender violence.
“The younger girls bring the ideas for action and the mothers give the movement legitimacy,” says Tania Castillo, an award-winning filmmaker whose upcoming feature chronicles the evolution of Mexico City’s feminism from an avant-garde movement spearheaded by the lesbian community in the 1970s to its massive and increasingly mainstream iteration today.
Much of Mexico’s feminism is informed by and responds to a state of staggering violence and impunity, which sees an average of 11 women murdered a day, with most cases left unsolved and unpunished. Grassroots feminism has long thrived in Mexico: Feminist journalists and academics were the first to bring the term “femicide,” or feminicidio—the murder of women on account of their gender—out of academic obscurity in the 1990s with the killings then in Ciudad Juárez. But over the past two years, the movement has mushroomed into a powerful political force threatening to pull support from under the current administration’s feet. It started in August 2019, when the alleged rape of a young woman by four police officers in Mexico City launched a “Glitter Revolution,” so called because protesters doused public spaces and monuments—and the capital’s security chief—in pink glitter during demonstrations.
Protests like these, mostly carried out by college-age, urban feminists, captured the media’s scorn and attention (many outlets focused on the women’s acts of vandalism instead of the sex crimes they denounced), and put a spotlight on what an older generation of women had sought for decades with less media buzz. These are the mothers of missing children—the more than 73,000 Mexicans “disappeared” since the early 2000s—who have formed collectives and brigades to search for their loved ones and, together, brave the Kafkaesque maze that is Mexico’s missing persons bureaucracy. The two generations have now joined forces. In a dazzling show of strength, they marched together on this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8—one of the biggest turnouts worldwide, and the largest Mexican protest in memory.
Shortly after, the coronavirus pandemic swept the Americas. As Mexico’s economy plummeted, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador slashed budgets, including those destined for women’s shelters and other agencies tasked with addressing gender violence. Almost overnight, domestic violence and femicide soared: April alone registered 267 murders of women, making it the deadliest month in the past five years. In response, AMLO’s administration rolled out a tone-deaf campaign urging Mexicans to “count to 10” when they felt upset, as a way to curb domestic violence. At the same time, AMLO said 90 percent of emergency hotline calls were “false” and blamed his predecessors’ neoliberal policies for the gender violence that did exist. Mexican women were told to stay home. And then they had had enough.
“After we took the commission, that was the first night in many years I was able to sleep,” Ema told me. “It feels like a new lease on life.”
Ema—a pseudonym to protect her identity—is a 59-year-old feminist activist and member of the Ni Una Menos collective, one of the groups leading the occupation. (Ni Una Menos, or “Not One Less [Woman Alive]” was an anti-femicide movement founded in Argentina in 2015 that soon spread throughout Latin America. The name is an adaptation of Ni Una Más, or “Not One More [Woman Killed],” coined by Mexican poet-activist Susana Chávez in the 1990s in response to the Ciudad Juárez murders.) A self-described lifelong feminist, Ema experienced firsthand the indifference and neglect with which government institutions handle cases of gender violence when her daughter, then 10, was raped a decade ago. The perpetrator of the crime, Ema says, runs free today. She’s done putting her faith in institutions. She says she still believes in justice. It just doesn’t look like courts.
Like many Mexicans—and many feminists—Ema voted for AMLO, who campaigned two years ago on a promise of progress and putting the poor and marginalized first. She feels utterly betrayed. The first time I saw Ema, she was standing before the commission, her mouth trembling with fury. “You betrayed us, Andrés Manuel, but we’re not your bitches anymore,” she said, her eyes ablaze, addressing Mexico’s president directly into a handful of recorders held out by journalists. “We’ve done something here that [the] Human Rights [Commission] has never done in its fucking existence.”
The Mexico City occupation has galvanized women in other parts of the country to follow suit. On September 10, groups of women seized the human rights offices in Ecatepec, Mexico State, while in the states of Michoacán, Veracruz, Aguascalientes, and Puebla, other groups protested before their human rights buildings.
“It’s happening,” Ema texted me afterward. “I’m so happy.”