By Elysse DaVega
Honks and obscenities filled the air as 15 or so women abruptly crossed the Eje Central, one of Mexico City’s widest and busiest avenues, toting a giant purple pad reading “MENSTRUATION IS A RIGHT.” They weren’t street performers or pranksters, but instead a small group of feminists advocating for period reform.
They had gathered early in the morning, all dressed in red, to protest the 16% value added tax (VAT) that Mexicans pay for menstrual products, which they deemed discriminatory. The gathering seemed rather inconsequential as other larger protests dominated the square– one for social security, one for police impunity– but they shouted through their megaphones as if all nine million people in the city had shown up for the cause.
I thought 7 a.m. was rather early for this, but that morning in late June I learned something crucial about Mexican feminism: it never stops and it never waits.
In the U.S., conversations about Mexico are often centered on immigration, trade, or tequila, but almost never about internal social movements — and much less its feminism.
Women have a similar history in both countries: we supported revolutionary war efforts, advocated for suffrage in the 20th century and tackled social inequality in the 60’s and 70’s. We’re neighbors, so it’s expected that we inspire and mirror one another.
Such is the case for any social group or minority.
Despite these similar timelines, the disparities in women’s rights and safety between the U.S. and Mexico are unignorable. The United States ranked twenty-first in the most recent women’s safety index from the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security; Mexico falls behind in eighty-eighth place.
However, this is more a reflection of the institutions and ideologies that dominate the respective nations. It shouldn’t suggest that Mexico’s feminist movement is any weaker. In many ways, it’s actually stronger.
A movement isn’t much of a movement without its symbolism and identity. At any feminist protest in the U.S., one is bound to see pink: pink signs, pink body paint and even pink ‘pussy hats’ as we saw at the colossal Women’s March protest the day after Trump’s inauguration in 2017. Another symbol common to American feminism is the female sign ?? by itself or in a fist variation.
As ubiquitous as they may be, there are still disconnects between these symbols and the movement which they purport to represent.
Pink is most often associated with the feminine and the female sign with biological females and feminine gender identities. As the trend of intersectionality continues to climb, these symbols become more restrictive than liberating.
The feminist movement in the U.S. undertakes a wide array of issues: advocacy for trans males and non-binary people, women of all races and ethnicities, and economic and environmental disparities. Its mainstream girl-power symbolism is no longer compatible with its ever-evolving nature. The movement has outgrown it.
In contrast, if one searches protesta feminista on Google Images, they’re more likely to see two colors: green and purple.
These are the colors that define the Mexican feminist movement and they’re not just for show: the green represents bodily autonomy and legal abortion; the purple is a general color, but some activists say it represents an end to femicide and violence. Our southern neighbors use color to represent their demands, not just the movement itself.
After this year’s International Women’s Day, a new flag was popularized in Mexico: a vertical tricolor of purple, green and pink. It’s the same pink that the U.S. does a whole lot of nothing with, but on this flag it represents trans women and their belonging to the movement.
But the Mexican feminist movement’s identity reaches far beyond colors: it even has a de facto anthem.
In 2020, one day before International Women’s Day, the song “Canción sin miedo” (Song Without Fear) by Vivir Quintana became a feminist anthem overnight. The song, a fierce blaze of acoustic guitar and an all-female choir in the background, demands justice for victims of gender-based violence, disappearances, and femicide.
“Every minute, every week
They steal our friends, they kill our sisters
They destroy their bodies, they disappear them
Please don’t forget their names, Mr. President.”
The song uses no metaphors or veiled references — It’s direct. In being direct, it’s an accurate embodiment of the movement as a whole.
I’d like to say the U.S. (or even the English-speaking world in general) has feminist songs of the same caliber, but it’s simply not true. If one searches “feminist anthem” on Google — or even “songs about feminism” if the first one wasn’t specific enough — the top results are songs like “Run the World (Girls)” by Beyoncé and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
These songs are definitely empowering and freeing for so many women, but most of their effect ends there. They don’t directly address any issues. Why?
For a country defending its First Amendment rights at every turn, we’re surely not getting the most out of them. Instead of vague descriptions of running the world and having fun, why aren’t we writing songs about the millions of women facing domestic violence in the U.S. every year?
On the topic of surface-level feminism, there’s something else we take for granted in the States: March 8. For us, International Women’s Day is more of a celebration than anything else. You tag your favorite women in an Instagram story, take a sip out of your “Nevertheless, she persisted” mug and call it a day.
In Mexico, March 8 (8M, as Mexicans refer to it) is a tradition of rebellion. IWD protests, especially those in Mexico City, have become more tense and more violent in recent years. In preparations for 2021’s marches, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO as he’s commonly called, even erected a 10-foot barrier around the National Palace to “avoid vandalism.”
Interestingly enough, this is the president that claims to be the “most feminist” leader the country’s ever had.
Nevertheless, the vandalism persisted. Female protesters spray-painted the entire circumference with the names of countless women that have been killed or disappeared. They later kicked it, defaced it, and burned it. When riot police threw tear gas bombs from the other side, they picked them up and threw them right back.
Although this is an extreme example, women in Mexico’s smaller states such as Veracruz, Puebla and Guerrero took to the streets with signs, flags and chants. All over the country, International Women’s Day is synonymous with direct action.
Yes, it’s important to discuss our advances and achievements, but celebrating International Women’s Day instead of utilizing it implies that our work is finished. It’s a waste of what could otherwise be a meaningful day for us.
The mainstream feminist movement in the U.S. might be more focused on wage gaps and glass ceilings, but whatever the causes are, there’s no better opportunity to fight for them than the one day when all the world’s eyes are on us.
What we can learn from Mexico is that the most outstanding activism occurs out of need. Women in Mexico have been stretched so far that many times they have no choice but to shout, fight and burn. They’ve caught the attention of not only all of Latin America, but the world at large. They’re not going to throw this attention away. They show us that we shouldn’t fold to authorities, especially ones that claim to be on our side in word, but take every action possible to show us otherwise.
More than anything, we can learn that accomplishments shouldn’t mollify our advocacy, but set it on fire. When we get what we demand, we ask for more and we continue to push until the day that women don’t need designated days to fight for our rights anymore.