Modern Feminist Graffiti in an Ancient Town


Between 2013 and 2014, an average of seven women were murdered in Mexico every day.1 According to the Amnesty International Report from 2015/16 on Mexico,2 violence (including killings, abductions, and sexual violence) against women and girls remained endemic, while Human Rights Watch has shown that Mexican laws do not adequately protect women and girls against domestic and sexual violence.3 Although accurate figures are hard to come by, possibly because of under-reporting, problems with data collection and/or data manipulation, there is no doubt that Mexico suffers from widespread violence against women.4,5

San Cristobal de las Casas, the cultural capital of Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico,  lies 7,200 feet above sea level amid pine-filled forests and mountain vistas. The Maya, who are descended from an ancient and indigenous civilization, are a strong presence in and around the city. Rich in architecture, craftwork, scenic vistas, and indigenous cultures, San Cristobal is also rich in political pro-feminist, anti-machismo graffiti bringing much-needed attention to the plight of women in the region.  This should come as no surprise, since the fight for equal treatment and against domestic violence has been a part of San Cristobal’s political landscape for over 20 years. When the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) rebelled against the Mexican government on January 1, 1994, they unveiled the Women’s Revolutionary Law as a key feature of their manifesto in San Cristobal. This 10-article bill of rights for indigenous women essentially declared that women have a right to a fair wage, quality health care, equal participation in the political system, marital and reproductive rights, and freedom from sexual and domestic violence.4

Establishing the right to have rights – especially women’s rights – is no easy task. Nor is it a small task. In Chiapas, the state with the highest levels of inequality and poverty in the country,6 it has been an especially challenging process, and remains a very much unfinished one.  Unfortunately, discrimination and violence against women is still commonplace. Many women, especially those from the indigenous communities, continue to face a great deal of machismo and discrimination at work and within their communities, and suffer from violence inflicted by their partners and the military.7 Now, however, some women are fighting back – not with their fists, but with graffiti.

Credit: Dawn Starin
Feminist graffiti in San Cristobal

Poverty, economic woes, and gender inequality have led to a surge in political creativity, and this is obvious in the pro-feminist anti-machismo graffiti popping up overnight on the many colorful stuccoed walls across San Cristobal.

While graffiti often conjures up images of vandalism and defacement, here it is being used as a positive device, an artistic and literary consciousness-raising tool symbolizing social and political grievances and needs. I’m not sure what the ancient Mayan craftspeople would have made of all these savvy, street-wise, modern scrawlings and stencillings, but this is now a town where the very modern art medium of graffiti is being actively employed to protest the very antiquated practice of machismo.

Speaking with both a local anthropologist and a midwife who works in the surrounding villages about the graffiti, each agreed that it was a good sign that the issue of women’s rights is being publicly expressed (and hopefully noticed), but were unsure how much of an impact the graffiti would ultimately have on local culture.

Credit: Dawn Starin
“Don’t submit to him, Don’t devote yourself to him. Woman, free, beautiful, and mad.”

If this graffiti can have an educational impact—even a small one—then the creators of these messages should be encouraged to spread their feminist communications far beyond the stuccoed walls of San Cristobal and out into the surrounding mountains and valleys and beyond.

Since women’s rights are threatened throughout the country, well beyond the borders of Chiapas, the voices of these graffiti artists should echo from walls across the country, slowly spreading a message of empowerment for women.

A previous version of this article appeared in The Progressive.8

 

References

  1. Instituto Nacional De Estadística Y Geografía. Estadísticas a Propósito del… Día Intrnacional de la Eliminación de la Violencia Contra La Mujer (25 de Noviembre) [online] (November 23, 2015). http://www.inegi.org.mx/saladeprensa/aproposito/2015/violencia0.pdf.
  2. Amnesty International. Mexico 2016/2017 [online] (2017). https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/americas/mexico/report-mexico/.
  3. Human Rights Watch. Mexico: Events of 2015 [online] (2017). https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2016/country-chapters/mexico.
  4. Liles, L. For women in Chiapas, working toward a ‘life free of violence.’ Cronkite News [online] (August 4, 2014). http://cronkitenewsonline.com/2014/08/for-women-in-chiapas-hoping-and-wo....
  5. Watson, K. Making a noise about machismo in Mexico. BBC News [online] (May 20, 2016). http://www.bbc.com/news/world-36324570.
  6. US $60 billion later, Chiapas no better off. Mexico News Daily [online] (April 1, 2016). http://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/chiapas-poverty/.
  7. Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Women’s Rights in Chiapas: Future Made Possible by the Revolutionary Law [online] (July 18, 2011). http://www.coha.org/womens-rights-in-chiapas-future-made-possible-by-the....
  8. Starin, D. Viva Graffiti: Women in Mexico are Protesting Violence—Creatively. The Progressive [online] (November 28, 2016). http://progressive.org/dispatches/viva-graffiti-women-mexico-protesting-....