martes, 27 de marzo de 2012

A life involved: Wendy Watriss

By Fernando Castro R.

Part II: A Completely Foreign Country*
*Part I was published in Lteral´s Spring Issue 2012

After her adventurous African journey in 1970 Wendy Watriss came back to New York to publish her stories and photographs. There she met Frederick Baldwin by chance. She recalls, “We did some assignments together in New York and we had a great time.” Shortly thereafter, Wendy took off again for Europe to do several assignments as both a reporter and photographer for Newsweek, The Smithsonian, and The New York Times. “Even though I had gotten involved with Fred, I left for Vienna thinking that I was not coming back. But Fred prevailed (she laughs gleefully) and a year-and-half later I came back.”
Thus Wendy and Fred began a life as a couple built on shared interests and common projects. Almost immediately they embarked on a project that they called “Back Roads of America.” Wendy describes it this way, “It was a way to get back to the grassroots experience of the United States. Both of us had been socially involved in different ways: he in the Civil Rights Movement, and I, at the level of world and national news. However, neither one of us had necessarily gotten the sense of how people from small towns live the American, or the U.S. experience and history. We decided that we would start in Texas. Fred bought a dinky trailer. He liked to call it a camper but it was more like a trailer —pulled by his hand-made Mercedes Cabriolet. Poor car! They only made about 300 of them!” Wendy makes an effort to hold the laughter caused by that jocund image that is obviously one of her fondest memories thus far. “Texas to me was like a completely foreign country,” she adds.
Driving south through Arkansas and Mississippi Fred and Wendy arrived in Texas in 1971. Wendy reminisces, “Along the way we stayed with migrant workers, farmers, and many other people. I would write every night. Once when we were heading towards Austin we passed through Anderson, Texas. It was three o’clock and school was out. We saw two remarkable things. In this town of three hundred people, there was a very large and imposing late 19th century Victorian-style courthouse at the head of the one main street with western-like architecture on both sides. The buildings were a bit run-down, but the courthouse was in good condition and stood like a great sentinel. On the street where we were driving, there were lines of black students coming out of school. It looked like the old South. No question about it. So Fred and I said to each other, ‘There is something about Texas history that is not being told.’”
Later at a dinner party in Austin that Dave and former Texas governor Anne Richards had given on their behalf, Wendy and Fred confirmed their impression with the notable Texas historian Larry Goodwyn. After doing more research at the University of Texas library they decided to stay in the Lone Star State. Wendy explains why: “Texas cultural frontiers parallel and reflect important cultural, ethnic, and demographic movements in U.S. history.” For a while they chose Austin as their home base.
Fred taught at the Journalism School and Wendy at the American Studies Program of the University of Texas. Wendy remembers that they combined their classes in a hands-on project for students to reconstruct the history of different communities. “By going out and talking to people and politicians, we had identified two Austin neighborhoods that needed historic designations.  One was Clarksville, one of the city’s oldest African-American neighborhoods; the other one, Hyde Park, a predominantly white middle class neighborhood. We sent out our students as teams of writer-reporters and photographers to document these neighborhoods block by block, research their history, and select a subject that was socially significant to be the focus of a written and photographic essay. These students were juniors and seniors of the advanced program of the University of Texas who were obliged to leave the classroom and make personal contact with strangers. It was an experience that changed the lives of at least ten of them.”
 After teaching at UT, Fred and Wendy set off on a two-year research project about Grimes County. “We stayed on a farm owned by an African-American family and we lived in our trailer!” says Wendy amused. “That family was a very unusual one because the father had created their wealth in the late eighteen-hundreds while the older generation had worked as tenant farmers in the big cotton farms along the Navasota-Brazos River.”
During that time Wendy and Fred also worked on a story about the black rodeo in the southwest, but their main focus remained the communities of Grimes County itself where there had been a history of racial tension. Wendy explains, “The county was part of the corn and cotton frontier of Texas first settled by Anglo-American plantation owners from the old South that had brought African-American slaves with them. After the Civil War, there was a lot of racial conflict and violence in the county. African-Americans had gained political power as post-Civil War Republicans. In the late 1890s, the Populist Party became powerful, bringing white and black people together. A white Populist sheriff who had African-American deputies was literally shot out of office by white landowners. For the following seventy years, the county’s politics were dominated by the White Man’s Union. This was true in many Texas counties and throughout the South until the Voting Rights Act of the 1960’s.”
Knowing that their presence in the county was quite conspicuous, Wendy and Fred took steps to preempt any unseemly confrontation. “In Grimes County, we were thoroughly checked out by law officers and the Department of Public Safety because we were outsiders. We were pretty bizarre. Luckily we had very good manners and Georgia license plates. We were very careful. We introduced ourselves to the presidents of the biggest banks, the county sheriff, the chief of police, and two of the county commissioners. We did not know until later how well we were going to be checked out. After two years of talking to people throughout the county and taking pictures of many events, we got to know everybody in the county. In fact, we were asked to do their sesquicentennial memoir. We did it like the English staging of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood.  We asked students to read scripts of personal histories of people in the county.  Behind them, we projected pictures from family albums. Besides the original settlement, the county’s history included Polish people, German settlers, and Mexican-Americans.”
In 1976, Wendy and Fred showed the Grimes county work at the Menil’s Rice Institute for the Arts. The exhibit had 400 pictures. Wendy describes it, “The idea was to experience American history through the county. The show took you visually from the outside —as if you were driving through—and little by little it brought you to the inside: the black life, the white life, their segregation, and some aspects of integration. In one room we had a projection of the old pictures we had photographed of members of different communities. The opening night was amazing because many people from Grimes county came —both black and white. They hired about eight buses. Dominique de Menil, whom we did not know very well at that time, was beside herself with joy. One of the best things was when the African-American artist John Biggers brought hundreds of black students to the exhibit. He told them: ‘We may not ever have the chance to see this view of black and southern history again.’”
Wendy reflects, “A lot of what I know and understand about the United States now came from having lived that experience and then gone to the German Hill County —which was completely different. To do that second project we were able to get a research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. We should have stopped and done the Grimes book, but instead we went almost immediately to the Hill country. We stayed there for a little over a year, photographing and doing oral history. The Germans who settled there came as a result of the 1848 upheavals in Europe; the nationalist movements in Germany, Hungary, Poland… These immigrants came to the Central part of Texas when it was still Comanche territory. Many were craftsmen from small towns. The Germans were probably the only ones who could have settled that territory. Due to the harsh conditions they probably lost about a third of their people. They thought they were buying agricultural land but unscrupulous developers had sold them land with very thin topsoil. Nevertheless, they adapted. They learned from the Mexicans how to raise sheep and goats. They lived on relatively small homesteads seventy-five acres or less —compared to the larger plots in East Texas, which were about five hundred acres. They built settlements and limestone houses. But theirs was a completely different political culture. It was what in the book we called “artisanal republicanism” with a small ‘r.’ If you read Robert Caro’s book on Lyndon Johnson, the name of our book about this work, “Coming to Terms,” comes from one of its chapters.”
“In Coming to Terms we include a copy of a remarkable document about the conception of government of these German settlers. If I remember correctly the statement was from 1857. It spelled out what the relationship of civil society and government should be: what government and what individual citizens should be responsible for. Government has to be responsible for infra-structural developments like roads and schools. This was completely antithetical to any southern-democratic government. That there needed to be public schools was unheard-of in the South. There was also an anti-slavery statement in there. You can take that document today and say that it is what Barack Obama is talking about. During the Civil War the German settlers refused to be conscripted. They tried to escape to Mexico and they were massacred a couple of times. All of that history is completely different from the rest of Texas history. I don’t know how it is right now, but up to about ten years ago that county had one of the best hospital systems in the state, the best public school systems, music clubs, dance clubs, …because there was such a strong background of civic interconnection between the individual and society. Until about 1950 it was fairly homogenous. Even when we were there, there were families who just spoke German —fractured and bad German, but German nevertheless.”
After their work on the German Hill country, Wendy and Fred headed to the southern tip of Texas, adjacent to Mexico. Wendy starts off again, “Although we did not do as much work there, the next area that we worked on was a border county that was Spanish-Mexican first and now is a Mexican-American county: Hidalgo. It became one of the major destinations for Mexican farm workers coming into the U.S. around 1910. At the time the border was still pretty open and ruthless land-developers thought they could make citrus farms out of much of this county. So they sold these tracts of land to people from the mid-west who had come down to farm. That is when the big Anglo-American influx into south Texas came; particularly in Cameron, McAllen, Brownsville, and Hidalgo counties —not so much Laredo, which was a little further northwest. One of the big land salesmen was Lloyd Bentsen’s father, that’s were that money came from. We stopped our work there around the time the big Central American influx began. Still the colonias were in pretty bad shape when we were there. It was the last five or six years of La Raza, so Antonio Orendain was still a strong head of the farm workers union. He and Chávez had split because of personal egos. But he was a very strong leader of the farm workers of South of Texas, which may not even exist anymore. La Raza politics were beginning to challenge the Anglo politics that had dominated that area. A school by the name of Antioch College funded four or five grassroots community colleges around the county. They had a progressive curriculum that focused on history, literature, and social studies from a community level as opposed to just national culture. We documented a lot of that part of the Latino Hispanic heritage of Texas; although maybe not enough to do a book just about it. But we actually had some exhibits in the eighties and early nineties of this work. We showed the German and the Latino Southern area work at the Philipps Collection in Washington in 1979.”
In the late seventies Wendy and Fred had to make a decision over whether they should stay in Houston or go back to New York. Wendy recollects their decision, “Our experience here with the Menils was very strong. I think that if Dominique hadn’t been here, we might not have moved here. Houston seemed like the most cosmopolitan, most open, and most interesting city in Texas.” So they stayed in Houston and they got one of the houses in the Menil ‘hood. Fred was asked to come back to teach journalism at the University of Texas and he later taught at the University of Houston. Wendy continued to free-lance and did the story on Agent Orange over a year-and-a-half period. “There were a lot of Vietnam veterans around Austin, so I began doing the story there. Life bought the story and enabled me to finish it. The story ran in Life and it won the World Press Award.”
The Agent Orange work is connected with the history of FotoFest. In 1979 Leica had begun to award the Oskar Barnack Prize and Wendy’s Agent Orange work was its third recipient. She remembers, “When Fred and I went to Amsterdam to receive the award, we were invited to Leica in Germany and several people there persuaded us to go to Arles in the summer. We did and we had a fantastic time. We brought the Texas work and the Agent Orange work. There was no organized portfolio review, but there was a way of meeting a lot of people, many of whom were in French, Belgian, and Scandinavian institutions. As a result, we had a lot of our work published in European magazines. The Agent Orange work was also published in the German magazine Stern. It was a very rich time. Back on the plane, Fred and I were talking about Arles and he said, “Why don’t we try something like that in the United States?” We had seen at Arles work that never got to States. Our idea was to break down the hierarchy, the closed circle of the decisions, and the curatorial power of the existing institutions of the United States, and open up to the world. Just about that same time, Le Mois de la Photo started in Paris; so we went and met with Jean Luc Monterosso. In Houston there was a German gallery at the Rice Village owned by Petra Benteler: Benteler Gallery. A very fine gallery that showed showed predominantly European photography. They had a fine show of Atget. She also showed Hungarian photographer André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and some more modern ones too. We got together with Petra and we hatched FotoFest over our breakfast table in 1983.” The first FotoFest was in 1986 and the HYPERLINK ""FotoFest 2012 Biennial will be the Fourteenth International Biennial. Wendy and Fred’s profile as international curators gained along twenty-five years of intense labor has tended to hide their photographic work. That trend has been partially reversed with the recent publication of their book Looking at the US 1957-1987 (2009). In the meantime, Texas for them is no longer the “foreign country” that it once was.

jueves, 22 de marzo de 2012

On History

In January of 2012, The Rothko Chapel hosted  internationally acclaimed Pakistani writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali. Oliver Stone engaged with   Tariq Ali in a probing, hard-hitting conversation on the forces that shape history and how that history gets told. The book On History chronicles their dialogue and brings to light a number of forgotten episodes of American history. Tariq Ali shared provocative insights from the book in front of a packed auditory.

By Tariq Ali

Illustration: Eunkyung Kang

Oliver Stone is making a set of ten documentaries for Showtime called The Untold History of the United States. In the course of making those films, he interviewed me specifically about the 20th Century for about seven or eight hours. The essence of what I said is what is contained in the book On History. We talked about how history has been devalued in the world, of how people have become almost frightened of history. Essentially, the elite groups that rule this world, not simply in the United States, are not interested in history. For a long time within academic institutions, history is being downgraded too. In Britain, entire history departments have been closed down. In older universities, they are not teaching anything but 20th Century history. Nobody can understand contemporary history without understanding the preceding centuries’ history. It is a very narrow vision of the world, and this suits certain people. My point is that History has not simply disappeared; it is often used badly and abused.
A starting point has to be the idea that the historical process is not linear. It goes up and down. Progress, rationalization, defeat, the rise of irrationalism, certainly for the last thousand years... There is nothing pre-ordained that says history has to progress and take the world with it. That is important to understand, though of course the technological and scientific processes that have turned the world are difficult to turn back. I am talking about politics and sociology where it is perfectly easy, as we have seen, to reverse the status quo for the sake of what has been considered to be for the general good. Roosevelt’s New Deal, for instance, was taken for granted once it had been established. People assumed that was fine and moved forward. This was not only the case in the United States, it was the case for most European countries after the Second World War where there was some form of social democracy, or governments which said that certain elementary things had to be achieved because the people had been through too much.  For the most part in Europe, this meant subsidized housing, free health, free medicine, subsidized public transport and utilities. All were controlled by the state to make life better for those who needed it to be made better. There was no actual health service as such, and attempts create one failed—even Nixon had a very good health program that was defeated by the resistance of the medical professionals. The world created after WWII is now gone.
A new consensus emerged from the Reagan and Thatcher years: the dogma or fundamentalist idea that the state cannot be allowed to do anything for ordinary people. That it is not the right of the state to intervene in any way, and that the market was the only determining factor and would essentially be able to solve the problems of humankind. People have forgotten—especially the younger generations who have grown up in the last twenty to twenty-five years—what it used to be like in the realm of social and political changes that took place, and many people have even forgotten how much better, in a number of ways, the culture of society used to be. The plays that were put on, the films that were made, the books that were read and encouraged—all of this used to be much better and, incidentally, much more diverse than it is today. Of course, to find the reason for that, we must look in history. The principal enemy of the Western powers of the time as they perceived it, was a particularly ruthless, distorted, degenerated and bureaucratic form of communism which forbade these essential freedoms, did not permit diversity of thought, segregated people for having different views and which executed people without trials or due process of the law. Against that particular political structure, the Western world, under the leadership of the United States, wanted to show what it could be like. That 70 year gap produced some of the most creative things in western society, but with the defeat of that political system and its disappearance or implosion, it was no longer necessary to be that creative. Societies all over the capitalist world are returning to what they used to be in some ways prior to WWI. Where this becomes very noticeable is after the Wall Street crash of 2008.
This crash continues to affect, not only the US, but also the entire world. Europe is in a total mess, as are other parts of the world. This particular economic crisis arose from the practice of creating money and using said money to make more money. It is very unproductive and based on fictitious capital. What happens when this crisis takes place? Was the market allowed to determine how the crisis took shape? No. Had the market been allowed to determine the outcome, a lot of banks would have gone under. The reason they did not want those banks to go under was not because of the small shareholders or depositors of those banks, but because huge amounts of money were involved. It was almost as if the cycle had come full circle. The state had denounced and attacked for years this particular system, and then it poured billions of taxpayers’ money to save these banks without ever considering the people. Therefore, the question that should be raised is: if the state can be used to bail out the rich, why should not it be used to bail out the poor?
The government carries on as if nothing has happened, while four of the top economies of the world are arguing that this is sticking plaster at best and that the economy is going to fall apart if everything carries on like this. The lessons of history have been forgotten. One reason people cannot come up with any alternatives or advocate for them is because they do not know them. That poses a problem on a very fundamental level concerning the necessity of learning from and understanding history.
            History can also be abused. One way is by, of course, forgetting it all. Another way is by inventing mythologies to justify current policies, whatever they may be. One very striking example of this is the case of Israel. A very distinguished Israeli historian, Shlomo Sand at Tel Aviv University, wrote a book that created a storm of controversy. He became a bestseller in Israel. It just took the country by storm, and it took some time before it was published in the West, but it eventually was. He essentially deconstructed all of the myths of Zionism and prevented their use for the justification of the existence of Israel. To be clear, Israel is here to stay and all citizens of Israel, whether they be Jews, Palestinian-Arabs, Christians, and Muslims should have the same rights. The right of return should be stopped. However, in order to put this argument forward, he really did a lot of historical and anthropological work. He argued that after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, contrary to mythology, there was no expulsion of Jews in the region. He pointed out, correctly, that the Romans were not in the habit of expelling people from the lands that they conquered because they needed people to cultivate the area. Not only were there no expulsions, but there were Jewish communities numbering up to 4 million people (which was large for that time) in Persia, Egypt, Asia minor, and elsewhere. He argued that there notion was a notion of a separation of the Jewish faith that was actually a reform movement, known as Christianity. Therefore the idea that there was a proselytization is totally false.  Many people were converted and some others some converted themselves. The Ashkenazi Jews in particular grew out the mass conversions on the edge of the Caspian Sea between the 7th and 10th Centuries of the Khazars. They finally adopted Hebrew and converted to a more wholesale Judaism. The Ashkenazi Jews were the people in the ghettos of Europe, and who suffered under the Holocaust. These are those people who descended from the Khazars. They are the people who compose the bulk of the Zionist movement, who had absolutely no connection to the Arab lands at all. If Palestine is not the unique ancestral homeland of the Jews, what happened to all the Jews in these countries? He says by and large in their majority, they converted to Islam—most of them, not all of them, as many other people did in that region at the time. The Palestinians, who we have been expelling and oppressing, are the direct descendants of the Jews supposedly expelled. This is a remarkable book and it is creating a huge debate. The debate, he says, is not in Israel. It is interesting, most Israeli historians accept this as accurate. Their response to Sand is that every nation creates its own mythology, and ask what the big deal is. Well, this also true, but this mythology is very potent and powerful because of the conflict it has unleashed that is still going on. No one would mind the mythology if everything had been settled and some agreement had been reached. But because it hasn’t, it becomes a very disruptive force. Shlomo Sand himself is by no means a radical figure. He says he is not a hardcore Zionist, but he believes in Israel. He thinks all citizens should have equal rights so they cannot prohibit Palestinians to come back to lands that were taken away from them while telling Jews, wherever they may be in whatever part of the world, that they can come whenever they want. The reason he wrote the book was to fight for equality. The big attacks on the book have come from the Diaspora. The New York Times ran a big review of it that created a huge controversy. In France and Britain there was some controversy, but by and large it was mostly accepted. The historians who reviewed the book said it was accurate. However, the Diaspora was angry that this had even been said, to which Sand replied, "If you are so keen on saying I’m wrong and what I’m doing is harming Israel, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and leave the Diaspora and come and settle in Israel?”
This is an example of how history is being abused, and the abuse is triggering a huge and very creative debate. However, debates and books alone do not sway the minds of powerful politicians or rulers, because ultimately they do not rule on the basis of myths—the myths are to keep the people in line. They rule for other reasons: to keep themselves in power, to keep control of society as it is.
The failure to understand what has happened over the last two centuries makes people accept some of the things going on today. The 19th and 20th Centuries were the periods when European imperial powers more or less dominated the world: Africa, Asia, and then North America for a while. The British were the largest empire in the world, and then France followed soon after. The Germans wanted their share, which triggered two world wars. No one at that point in time within the political classes of any of the European countries questioned occupying large tracts of the world. They thought they were bringing civilization to it. That was a widely-held view. It was only in the 20th Century that nationalist movements erupted and began to find support in the metropolitan imperial countries amongst minorities. It was well accepted. Might is right and might is also civilization. I’ve always liked the reply by Gandhi to an American journalist who asked him what was his view on Western Civilization. He said, “I think it would be a good idea.” It’s very simply stated but very understandable, because the people who suffered under them didn’t see them as civilized empires.
Contrary to some aphorisms coined by some of the great philosophers of the past, history very rarely repeats itself. In fact, it never repeats itself, it echoes. And these historical echoes are extremely important wherever and however they come. These echoes are never a repetition as such. What is happening in the 21st Century is essentially an old fashioned struggle for mastery of the world occurring in new conditions. The struggle takes place with a unique situation that has never existed in the world at any time since humanity began, which is the domination of the world militarily by one single power. There have been different powers in the past. Romans were all-powerful, but they were in the Mediterranean. They fought the Persian Empire, which they knew and recognized. They did not even know what the Chinese were doing or how much more advanced Chinese civilization was compared to them. In today's world, the U.S. is the single most important power, largely because of its military strength. It has more military power than the next hundred countries put together. Therefore, the notion that it can be challenged militarily by another state is unthinkable. The only way it can be challenged is when it occupies a country and the people fight back, as it has happened to a certain extent in Iraq and in a very big extent in Afghanistan. Contrary to the European Imperialist model, the U.S. imperial reach has ruled through indirect relays, whether it is through the military in one country or politicians aligned with them in another. That is traditionally the way the U.S. has had a presence in Latin American dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and others throughout the Cold War. They do not like to occupy countries, but that has by and large remained the pattern of American hegemony today.

lunes, 19 de marzo de 2012

Viaje de vuelta

El martes 27 de marzo a las 7:00pm se presentará Viaje de vuelta de Malva Flores en la librería Rosario Castellanos del FCE. Aquí un adelanto del libro:

"Para Vuelta, los lectores no fuimos consumidores, sino ciudadanos. La vocación minoritaria de sus miembros no respondió a un afán “elitista”, en términos de clase, sino a la convicción de que el artista, el rebelde, el crítico, no podían ser productos de maquila. Su intransigencia política o literaria apuntó más bien al reconocimiento del individuo, de su capacidad para admirar el mundo y para criticarlo desde una postura independiente, discrepando de la unanimidad.

Dije antes que Vuelta podía leerse como un diario, pues sus colaboradores no habían sido apologistas o teóricos, sino protagonistas del siglo pasado en distintos ámbitos y regiones. Al revisar sus páginas se pueden encontrar pistas de vida, amores, traiciones, arrepentimientos y reconsideraciones intelectuales; fechas de encuentros que el azar o la voluntad construyeron y que susurran al lector nadie me lo contó: estuve allí.

Elegido por el mercado editorial para encabezar las listas del Top Ten de la narrativa hispanoamericana a inicios del presente siglo, el rebelde Bolaño de los años setenta se convirtió en alimento precioso del voraz hoyo negro de un mercado que busca engullir a los marginales y los convierte en mercancía para después mostrárnoslos como estrellas de la “civilización del espectáculo”. Pero el caso de Bolaño, independientemente de sus méritos estéticos, es sólo ejemplo de un problema mucho más amplio y más antiguo, que Vuelta percibió siempre como una amenaza: la del poder del mercado que socavaba el de la tradición."

Por Malva Flores

martes, 6 de marzo de 2012


By Patricia Gras
Photo Courtesy Judy Rand
When Stieg Larsson wrote the first of his famous trilogy known as the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” before he died, the actual title of his book was the “ Men Who Hate Women.”
As a teenager Larsson had witnessed a gang rape of a young girl. Her name was Lisbeth like the main character of his books who was also a victim of rape.
You don’t expect anyone to notice this type of misogyny against women in a socialized country like Sweden where women tend to have more equal and human rights than other nations, but Larsson was sensitive enough to notice this is an international problem that is seldom discussed. Some men simply hate women and though they sleep with them, have children with them or are related to them in some way or another, they have no trouble raping, mutilating, trafficking, harassing or forcing them to disappear under the guise of war, political conflict or economic gain.
I had seldom heard the term “femicide” often defined as the misogynist murders of women because they are women. This includes the mutilation, murder, rape and beating of women. Recently, feminists in Latin America have started to use the term to describe the massive murders of women in Juarez and other parts of Mexico and Central America.
Violence against women has increased around the world. The United Nations Development fund for Women estimates that at least one out every three women globally will be beaten, raped or otherwise abused during their lifetime. During war, the stats get worse. According to UNIFEM, since the 90’s, 90 percent of war’s civilian casualties are women and children, not soldiers and this is what we corroborated in Mexico.
In January of this year, I was part of a delegation of Nobel Peace laureates led by Jody Williams, who won her peaceprize in 1997 for her work banning landmines around the world. I had met Ms. Williams while doing a local follow up television program to the Women War and Peace PBS series by award winning documentarian Abigail Disney. (You can watch the unprecedented series online
In the 80’s she had worked defending human rights especially in Central America and is now leading a campaign to stop violence against women worldwide.
The Women Nobel Laureates had gathered a diverse group together from the US and Canada. Besides journalists, there were human rights activists, an Oscar winning documentary filmmaker, a celebrity folk singer/songwriter, a comedian, and a movie star. We were there to listen to human rights activists in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. I was a participant in the Mexican portion of the trip.
The goal was to listen and find out why there were so many violations against human rights activists, especially females who are fighting injustice and insecurity, and to guarantee the Mexican Government protects them.
When the most violent drug war started in the beginning of 2006, the Juarez murders of hundreds of women became common in other parts of Mexico as well. The violence increased towards civilians, journalists and human rights activists. The violence was often brutal. The female editor of the Primera Hora newspaper in the border town of Nuevo Laredo for instance was beheaded for using social media to report on criminals. Right now Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist and if you are female the danger increases.
Living in Texas, we hear more about Mexico and the impact the drug war has on its people and the US but I never imagined I would hear the stories I heard and the ramifications for a nation threatened by a what appears to be a protracted silent war claiming thousands of innocent victims, many of them women.
One of our delegates was Laura Carlsen, the director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy. She has been writing about the current drug war’s impact on women in Mexico. She reports that the more than 50,000 Mexicans who have disappeared on the government’s assault on the drug trade are civilians and that murders of women have increased dramatically. She also cites a recent survey of Mexican women human rights defenders that found government national state and local security forces are responsible in 55% of cases of violence and threats of violence to women defenders.
The President of Mexico says they are mostly related to the drug dealers but what would he know when only 2 percent of crimes are investigated.
In two days we heard over 50 women, the common word that came out of their accounts was “impunity.” They say there is no justice in Mexico, even for those who demand it. For example, women who seek to find why a daughter disappeared or a son was murdered or why a human rights activist was raped by police.
In the last few years, six prominent human rights defenders have been murdered. And though women make up a small portion of murders in Mexico, they are the ones in the frontline, demanding justice, investigating cases, standing up for the disappeared, the raped, trafficked, tortured or dismembered.
There will be a report prepared by the Nobel Women’s delegation with all the accounts, each with its own characteristics, victims and anonymities since almost all lack any formal investigation.
As we listened to each account, the victims were no longer just tragic, cold and hard statistics. Each story had a face, and included a family’s suffering, an unsolved mystery and a high level of frustration and disappointment with authorities. They were accounts of real people seldom heard in their country or the world.
We heard the story of Araceli Rodríguez who is part of a movement for peace. Her son, a police officer disappeared like hundreds do in Mexico and there was no investigation. She like many with similar accounts of family members who disappear started the peace movement to carry out the investigations themselves. “I have learned to turn my own pain into collective strength. “ My soul has been mutilated by the absence of my son.”
María Herrera Magdalena shared a similar account. Her face stricken with grief while she spoke. Her four sons disappeared along with 19 other people. Again their cases were never investigated. Today she says spends every day tired of crying and begging for information. She is now committed to helping other families find their loved ones and demanding justice from the government. She like so many others call for a cease fire of a war that claims innocent and seemingly forgotten victims. “All governments in the world must come together to learn what is going on in Mexico. This is a national tragedy. We have been betrayed by our government.”
One of the most difficult cases we heard was fraught with tremendous brutality and violence. A young woman from Chiapas shared how working as a health provider with native women led to her torture and rape by several police agents. She can no longer find work. Her kids can’t go to school and she has no place to go though she suffers from PTSD.
Many of these women dealt with disappearances of family members and couldn’t get any relief from authorities so they joined groups to do the work of those who are supposed to serve them.
The next day we went to Chilpancingo the state capital of the mountain region of Guerrero, one of the poorest and most violent states in Mexico. Here indigenous peasant women suffer daily indignities by the police, the military, local governments and even their own tribes which have little regard for them.
80 percent of the natives here live in the mountains and in utter poverty.
Jody Williams shared at a press conference. “I was struck by the total lack of justice for indigenous women. The have no access to justice.”
Tlachinollan, the human rights center which welcomed us struggles to keep its doors open for human rights workers and those in need in this area providing all kinds of social and legal services and making sure mining (gold and silver) corporations or any corporations for that matter don’t step on their rights. The needs are much greater than the services, especially now under increasing militarization of the area. These indigineous communities are also plagued by domestic violence and to this day there are no women’s shelters to escape. If women have the courage to stand up for themselves, government officials won’t likely speak their native language and care little to meet their needs.
This extends to health care. We heard Juana Anairis whose sister passed in her twenties because the doctor refused to see her during the weekend. She died of a staff infection right after birth.
Two widows Margarita Martín and Marta Morales lost their human rights activist husbands and are trying to raise kids alone without a job because there is no work.
A young woman shared the story of her repressive family. Her own mother told her women in this culture were worth nothing. She refused to believe it and left her tribe at the age of 14 to study in another city. When she returned she was rejected because she was actually working and successful. This story was repeated by other women. They are discriminated outside and inside their communities.
Yet the courageous women who spoke don’t give up. They found radio stations, lead environmental groups, join the police force or defend women’s productive rights despite the harassment and danger. They continue to seek justice, though they are often re victimized, ignored or simply blamed, threatened for even speaking out. In Mexico, if you are a human rights leader, or a grassroots organizer or a journalist or indigenous and you happen to be female, the government will most likely turn you away.
We did visit the office of CONAVIM, the (Comison Nacional Para Prevenir y Erradicar la Violencia Contra Mujeres) ”The National Commission to prevent and eradicate Violence Against Women.” Dilcya García Espinosa de Los Monteros is respected for what she’s done in the short period there. She did promise the delegation leaders she would continue the dialogue with the network of human rights defenders and their office and create a protocol for the protection of the activists. She is also leading the creation of “Justice Centers” for women to protect their rights but she did admit they lack funds to confront such a widespread problem. This is also a political post which may end with the new administration.
Jody Williams shared she was happy CONAVIM was trying to make a difference. “They are people of action and as a woman activist myself with 40 years of experience, I know the only thing that works in these cases is action.”
Lisa Vene Klasen Director of Just Associates, an international women’s rights organization athat partnered with the Nobel Peace Laureates in the fact finding mission expressed CONAVIM was an ally and agreed to continue the dialogue between human rights defenders and the commission, especially to create a protocol to protect them.
What this agency can do however has a lot to do with the priorities of the new administration that will take over the country in July of this year. One of the most popular candidates Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI party served as governor of the state of Mexico from 2005 to 2011, during one of the worst periods of violence against women and human rights violations in its history.
So whether it is the government, the cartels, priavate security companies hired by national or transnational companies, the police or the military, women or their defenders become targets, the victims of a society which generally doesn’t value them. Maybe Stigg Larsen has something to say about that but his voice is silenced not only by his passing but also by the loud violent voice of some weak, violent, and cowardly men who hate women.
If you want to help stop the violence against women. Here are some of the recommendations by the Nobel Women’s Initiative.
� Prioritize human rights and women’s human rights in particular, in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. We urge you to work with the governments of Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala to ensure that it follows through on its responsibility to properly investigate all complaints of human rights violations against women, prosecute violations and compensate the survivors.

� Publicly denounce violence against women, including the targeting of women human rights defenders. Diplomats and members of the international community can help end the climate of ‘tolerance’ for targeted violence against women by denouncing specific cases of such violence as they arise.

� Tie aid and funding to human rights. We urge you to ensure that technical and financial support provided by different international organizations and governments to the governments of Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras fully complies with, and respects, human rights standards.

� Monitor the principal of judicial independence. We urge you to push the governments of Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala to guarantee judicial independence and effectiveness in order to combat impunity for violence against women and ensure fundamental rights are protected.

� Implement effective mechanisms for dispute resolution. We urge you to work with the governments of Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala to implement effective mechanisms to resolve disputes over land rights and titles, labour rights, environmental and collective rights. This will help ensure that women’s human rights defenders do not become targets of intimidation and aggression as a result of their involvement in these disputes.

� Support women at the community level to help bring an end to violence in the region. Investing in grassroots women’s organizations working to end violence in their community is a cost-effective, efficient and very sustainable way of improving security for people in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. We urge you to earmark a greater proportion of foreign assistance to women’s organizations. This community-based model will reduce a dangerous dependence on armed solutions to security challenges. For more information on the delegation, please visit the Nobel Women’s Initiative website: For media interviews, please contact: Rachel Vincent, Media Manager, Nobel Women’s Initiative | 613-276-9030; 613-569-8400, ext. 113