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No “Happy Women’s Day” at Mexico City’s radical March 8 protests

With powerful determination, feminists faced down the metal walls rape apologist President AMLO built to keep them under control.

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In Mexico City, International Women’s Day is when massive amounts of women take to the streets, take over the streets. Here, you never say “Happy Women’s Day.” To the contrary; on March 8, the rest of the country must feel some small sliver of women’s pain.

Empathy for even one of the following would be nice; rising femicide rates, not being able to take an Uber or see a friend without worrying about the possibility of lethal assault, or the ache of having a president who women thought would be their champion, and is instead gaslighting them into rage

If you believe official numbers (don’t … ), more than 80 people were injured in this year’s Day of the Woman Worker march, the vast majority being police. But in reality, every one of the 20,000 people who estimated at the protest should be counted as walking wounded. 

That number included community groups marching for a young woman among them who had been the victim of femicide, university clubs, human rights non-profits, sex workers, moms with strollers, and small packs of twenty- and thirty-somethings with a sharp need to scream the year’s sadness, even spray their rapist’s name in bright green aerosol on a historic building or on the threatening, recently constructed metal wall meant to separate marchers from the patriarchy’s structures. 

All Mexico City Women’s Day march 2021 photos by Sandra Blow @sandrablow.photo

For all its complications, the power of the march is hard to understand if you’ve never been. In certain deeply-felt moments, when your voice grows hoarse in such a diverse mass of womandom, you have the sense that the strength of all cannot possibly be ignored. 

The march, like it always does, ended in the city’s historic central plaza, the vast Zócalo. As we arrived there, no one was surprised that the wall that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration erected (something that has never happened, in a metropolis known for its mass protests) to keep women from reaching the National Palace had been knocked down in certain sections.

In its place was revealed a double row of law enforcement with body shields and armed what the mayor would later insist was fire extinguisher powder and definitely not pepper or tear gas. 

When we eventually left the Zócalo it was because our eyes and sinuses were burning, some 50 meters away from the conflict at the wall. I’m not an expert, but also I’m not the only one who doesn’t believe that was all fire extinguisher powder. 

There are a few things you should know. In the first place, that the government has all but trained women that if they don’t vandalize, their protest won’t make a sound. 

That lesson was learned by many in 2019 when AMLO, despite his daily press conferences at dawn, failed to acknowledge a rash of rapes of young women by on-duty cops, or subsequent mass protests over the violations. 

Until, that is, the base of one of the city’s most iconic monuments, the Ángel de la Independencia, received an even more iconic coat of rainbow graffiti denouncing gender-based violence. In that moment, AMLO commented—on violence against monuments. 

“We are all obliged to act in a responsible manner, no excesses, no violence,” he told members of the press. 

But on March 8, 2021, the monument his administration made in unintended collaboration with the women was the site of real conflict. Though the walls around the palace were temporary metal slabs, by that day they had taken on the air of a landmark. The women had built them up with their own visible expressions knowing that soon, they’d have to come down.

On the previous Friday, the walls in front of the Palace were covered by feminist collectives with the names of women who have been lost to violence. The country’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography [INEGI] calculates that 10 femicides take place every day in Mexico, and that 66 percent of women have experienced sexual violence. 

Then on Sunday, someone brought a projector and the Palace behind the wall was lit up in the urgent messages that would guide the hands of the women at Monday’s march.

“A rapist will not be governor,” it read. 

That part. Because on top of AMLO’s assertions—in response to a startling rise in abuse rates during the COVID pandemic—that “90 percent” of calls to domestic abuse hotlines were fake, he’s also supporting Félix Salgado for governor, who, there seems to be no doubt, is a monster.

Salgado, who is running to lead the Drug War-strafed state of Guerrero, has been accused of raping five women. One was a minor at the time. Another was a journalist employed at a publication he owned. Salgado allegedly drugged and raped the latter, then coerced her into meeting with him again with the threat of publishing photos of her naked and unconscious. When she acceded to the request, he raped her again, beating her for good measure.

Women from AMLO’s political party Morena released a video on Saturday commanding Salgado to resign. Activist Stephanie Veloz renounced her affiliation with Morena entirely, saying it had “betrayed women.” 

It was in this environment that women readied for the march. Some printed t-shirts of a missing or slaughtered loved one. Some pasted the names of their heroines on top of street signs, rechristening the avenues of Mexico City. Some tuned their musical instruments, like the woman with the viola who we saw on the corner of Avenida 5 de Mayo, accompanying her sisters’ fury with a stirring concerto. 

Others had clearly been working on their agility, at least if we are to understand the athleticism of the punk queen in a crop top named Lila Cizas (immediately dubbed “La Reinota” on Twitter) who chased down a canister shot by government forces and hurled it back over the wall where it came from. 

Marchers spotted armed men on rooftops, looking down on the square’s action. If you think 50-some years is long enough for Mexico City to forget the horrors of 1968’s Tlatelolco massacre in which men like these killed swaths of protestors, you are wrong.

This part blows, but the police weren’t the only perpetrators of violence within the crowd. Mexican feminism is experiencing a tragic, horrific rise in transphobia, a phenomenon captured in trans journalist Láurel Miranda’s essay about the “Trojan horse of Mexican feminism,” which was originally censored along with two other of her articles by editors at the influential Mileno newspaper under pressure by trans-exclusive feminists. 

At present, the most visible symbol of the women’s movement is the occupied National Human Rights Commission, blocks from the Zócalo, that was taken by feminists last fall. After a series of schisms, the group left in control of the occupied space banned trans women from the building that they’d converted into a domestic violence shelter. What sucks, what really sucks, is that the project—just like Mexican transphobia in general—is led by young women. Somehow they have been convinced the struggle for trans rights erases theirs. The official slogan of this year’s 8M march in Guadalajara was the anti-trans “Against the Erasure of Women.” What women, it doesn’t specify.

A tri-color trans-inclusive feminism flag was designed for this year’s march. It bears a purple stripe to represent the women’s movement, green for the pro-choice movement, and pink to indicate support of the trans community. Many trans-inclusive feminists changed their social media profile photos to the three stripes in the run-up to the march. It has gotten to the point where you have to state your lack of bigotry explicitly.

At the march, contingents indicated that they did not include trans women in their struggle by using code words in their invite like “separatist,” even though the march itself is largely women-only. Even in the face of this mushrooming hate, at least one trans-led contingent marched. As they rested upon arriving in the Zócalo, a handful of TERFs approached them, placing themselves dead in front of the trans contingent, staring them down. 

“Fuera, TERFS. [Get out of here, TERFs,]” the crowd chanted as it became aware of the conflict, which nearly came to serious blows before it was diffused. Elsewhere, pro-trans graffiti was disfigured, painted over, even as the march took place. 

I’ve been reading Mademoiselle, Rhonda K. Garelick’s biography of Coco Chanel, the Nazi fashion designer. The dull horror of history grew into uncomfortable modern-day recognition when the book got to Chanel’s chic social circles, full of the Third Reich and its collaborators. I know Nazi comparisons are gauche and usually wrong, but in the run-up to Women’s Day, as acquaintances suddenly spouting anti-trans views, the resemblances were discomfiting. I’m not the only one who caught the vibe; CDMX multi-instrumentalist trans producer Manitas Nerviosas’ driving track “TERFS R’ NAZIS” surely got its plays over the last week.

All of these sights and sounds and feelings and thoughts are part of the Women’s Day march. It is allowed to be many things, to inspire and support and baffle and shock and bash back, just like women do.

At one point, probably around the time the protestors broke out an actual flame thrower, whose plumes licked between the gaps in the walls they’d rammed through, I imagined what would happen if the protestors somehow broke through the lines of police and their body shields and odd gases, took the National Palace for themselves. If they assumed control of the government, instituted community-based safety systems and drug decriminalization, effective jobs programs, subsidized childcare, safe and effective public transportation, an equitable water utility system.

That didn’t happen. Eventually, protestors left the Zócalo; to care for each other, to booze, to rest, to dream, to read suspect media reports, to rest up for the future protests that this year will surely bring. 

I haven’t gotten to the end of my thoughts yet—I doubt many have. But this I know; that fucking wall had it coming.

Caitlin Donohuehttp://www.donohue.work
Caitlin Donohue grew up in the Sunset and attended Jefferson Elementary School. She writes about weed, sex, perreo, and other methods of dismantling power structures. Her current center of operations is Mexico City.

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