I am a Colombian woman who is active in the women’s movement in Vancouver through my collective. As a group, we’ve agreed to learn from the struggles of our allies and women organizing, both locally and internationally. When I heard in the beginning of the year that the Zapatista women were organizing their First International Gathering of Politics, Sport, and Culture for Women in Struggle, I thought this would be an opportunity to gain insight into the successes and struggles of our international sisters’ have organizing efforts. I and two other collective members decided to go.
We joined other women activists in Mexico to do the last part of the trip together. As we drove in a cargo van through the highlands of the southwestern Mexican state of Chiapas, I observed in detail the different hues of green in the trees and mountains that have served as a battleground. The Indigenous peoples of these lands have been in a protracted and bloody struggle for liberation from the oppressive government of Mexico.
When we arrived at Oventic Caracol de Morelia, a sign at the front gate read “Men are prohibited beyond the entrance.” Once we entered the camp site, we were among more than 7,000 women, 2,000 of whom were Zapatistas from five different caracoles. There were feminists, journalists, writers, human rights activists, environmentalists, indigenous women working on cases of missing and murdered indigenous people, and spectators. Though most women were from Latin America, some came from Canada, the United States, and Europe.
On our first day, we woke up to the voice of a Latina woman singing stories of women’s resistance and struggle. We joined her and other women to sing together in Spanish “Oh, how beautiful is life, the land, the struggle, that makes me a woman” and later another song “I know with all my being, my life proclaims it, our liberty will come tomorrow.” Music was an essential activity throughout the gathering. Women brought their drums and chanted all together “Women in struggle,” “Alive they took them, and alive we want them back,” “whatever it takes, from east and west, we will win this struggle.”
I enjoyed watching the Zapatista women play soccer. I had so much energy, I jumped, I cheered, I laughed, and at times my cheeks flushed when I saw a good ‘tiro de esquina’ or corner kick. Soccer has been a loaded issue for me. I have always been critical of the rampant exploitation of people of colour in corporatized sports leagues and the absolute disregard of women’s influence in sport. But here, it was wonderful to see a community of women play for the love of the sport rather than a paycheck.
There were brightly-coloured murals all over the grounds displaying anti-capitalist, pro-women and Indigenous rights’ messages. One of them read: “Our voice is not only the voice of Indigenous peoples, but at the same time the voice of all the women in the world.”
We were immersed in something so much bigger than us, we were observing and breathing in the Latin American women’s movement. Women participated in workshops, art exhibits, films, music, poetry, soccer and basketball tournaments. For three full days, we celebrated being in a space where men were not allowed to be, let alone harass, beat, or rape us.
We participated in as many workshops as we could to understand the scope of issues Latin American women were struggling with. We heard from Colombian Indigenous women who, like the Zapatista’s, are struggling to fight against neoliberal governments that continue to exploit their lands and more specifically the Nasa peoples. We heard from women who spoke to the experiences of immigrant women without status in the United States. With vast numbers of missing and murdered women all over Latin America, the campaign “NiUnaMenos” was a major theme in the gathering.
On one night, a woman spoke about her desperate efforts to find her missing son. In response, another woman initiated a chant “We are not alone, you are not alone,” the crowd of women followed “You are not alone!” I was overcome with emotion. It was clear that all these women saw themselves and their experiences as connected to her story. What woman in Latin America has not lost someone to violence? What woman in Latin America has not herself been a victim of male violence?
We left the gathering grateful for the Zapatista women and for all the thinking and labour they put into creating a space for so many women to come together. We want to follow their example. Any debates and disagreements they have with one another are outweighed by the solidarity, love and appreciation they have for each other.