16 Parar para Avanzar: Feminist Activism in 2019 Latin American Mobilizations

By Erika Márquez-Montaño, Universidad Icesi

Illustration of author Erika Márquez-Montaño with her hands folded below her chin and a serious look in her eyes
Erika Márquez-Montaño by Nicole Carter

In 2019, global protests challenged the belief that the world had moved irreversibly towards political authoritarianism. In Latin America, the wave of mobilizations was most visible in Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, where immediate grievances like low salaries or public transportation hikes triggered demonstrations alongside more structural issues such as assaults on democracy or austerity measures. Prominent among the protestors’ ranks were women, youth, and middle-class people who, adding to the traditional workers’ protest repertoires, advanced claims for equality, dignity, and the end of all forms of violence—chiefly, patriarchal violence.

Among this plurality of actors, feminist collectives added in significant ways to the emerging mobilization. Even though women’s organizing in Latin America is far from new, this time feminist protests intersected with concurrent actors in a way that both amplified their own claims and enriched others’ agendas. As they joined the new wave of protests, feminists built upon a legacy of activism that galvanized agendas focusing on multiple issues from political participation to gender violence (Maier and Lebon, 2010). Throughout the 20th century, feminists accessed policymaking, academia, and other mainstream venues to which they brought intellectual influences including Gender and Women’s Studies, intersectional approaches, and decolonial perspectives (León, 2007; Curiel, 2007). At the same time, Latin American feminists relied on both local and transnational feminisms (Thayer, 2010), a mixture that allowed them to enrich their critique of patriarchal forces in the region as well as to project their proposals towards the larger mobilization arena.

Over the last decades of the 20th century, too, Latin American feminists moved to collaborate in strategic alliances with a variety of sectors to advance a cross-section of causes, from the defense of human rights, antiracism platforms, or workers’ rights, to the development of Gender and Women Studies programs, among others. Participating in these causes, they engaged in what Sonia Alvarez (2010) has theorized as feminist sidestreaming, or the militance that “spreads horizontally into a wide array of class and racial-ethnic communities and social and cultural spaces, including parallel social movements publics” (p. xii). As opposed to mainstreaming feminism, whose focus is on the state, parties, and institutions, sidestreaming feminism allows for co-construction opportunities where movement agendas can influence other struggles and build collectively, as it happened in the 1980s in Central American national liberation movements or the Southern Cone transition to democracy. In these cases, women activists started as revolutionaries or pro-democracy activists but eventually branched out to have their activism include feminism (Shayne, 2004). In 2019, sidestreaming was particularly visible in cases such as those of Colombia and Chile, where feminists both articulated their own demands and were amplified by ongoing plural mobilizations.

Examining 2019 protests, it is possible to see that Latin American feminist mobilizations built upon the larger anti-neoliberal agenda (Seoane and Taddei, 2002) in order to make claims regarding the precarity of women’s lives. Grievances included the deepening of economic inequality which is reflected in situations such as continuing gaps in salaries, the overrepresentation of women in the informal sector, and the invisibility of care work which is done predominantly by women. At the same time, feminist protests like the ones that happened in Colombia concurrently with a national strike on November 21st, formulated proposals complementing a set of demands that the movement’s coordinating committee presented. The first point concerned the government’s recent tax reform. They demanded it be repealed in part due to its regressive structure, as the strikers claimed, but also because its lack of gender perspective further contributed to the feminization of poverty (“Así fue,” 2019).

Feminist demands also enriched mobilizations with a critique of the state that stressed how it advanced towards a markedly securitized agenda. In Chile, for instance—where October 2019 demonstrations were fueled by increases in transportation fares—protesters were met by state repression and 24 cases of sexual violence perpetrated by members of the police and army were reported (UN OHCHR, 2019). In this case, as feminist collectives came into the streets and the institutional reaction against them intensified, their claims grew more visible, drawing a larger female presence into the protests. Similarly, in Colombia, the special police force ESMAD (anti-riots mobile squad) was heavily criticized as it engaged in an inordinate amount of force. In Bogotá, movements showed how repression disproportionately targeted youth and women. Feminist organizations decried state censorship as La Morada collective’s meeting space was visited by police units in connection with the November 21st mobilization, with officers claiming that the women needed to be “protected” (Tapia Jáuregui, 2019).

The feminists’ critique against the state resonated with the situation in countries like Honduras and Brazil, where prominent women social movement leaders Berta Cáceres and Marielle Franco were assassinated because of their activism for territory and people’s rights (Mackey, 2016; Neuenschwander and Giraldes, 2018). In Colombia, only three weeks before the November 21st strike, indigenous governor Cristina Bautista was killed near the Tacueyó Nasa reservation—a painful event that renewed demands for social movement leaders to receive special protection as 844 of them, including leaders and human rights defenders, had now been attacked in Colombia in 2019 (Somos Defensores, 2019). In the case of female leaders, activists emphasized women’s importance in the defense of human rights, especially in this period when the country moved forward to a complicated post-peace agreement reality. Feminist organizations reiterated that during an armed conflict, women’s bodies become war spoils, and that a gender perspective needs to be applied so that human rights violations against women are actually investigated, and those who perpetrate them are punished (Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres, 2014).

Amidst this complex scenario, expressive activism also had a place. Chants, writings, visual art, and songs about state repression resonated throughout the region. LasTesis collective’s performance “Un violador en tu camino” (“a rapist in your  path”) about gender violence and impunity became an anthem among feminists throughout the world, offering a possibility to articulate claims on sexual violence that are often ignored and underreported (Serafini, 2020). The performative power of LasTesis permitted a connection between body and mass action—a link with transnational repercussions and the possibility to strengthen feminist agendas locally and beyond. At the same time, 2019 protests also built upon creativity and “artivism” as a response to widespread fear and curfews. Urban art, graffiti and silkscreen printing were used in marches and the emphasis was on public access rather than individual authorship. Strikers appealed to memory as a way of reclaiming truth, and platforms such as “Puro Veneno” invited to remember and reflect through different visual art formats in Bogotá and elsewhere in Colombia (Motilla Chávez, 2019).

If historically, feminists staked claims for equity in institutional settings, including universities, then street protests opened up existing repertoires to pursue feminist agendas in the public arena. Marches, on the one hand, became a possibility of meeting face to face while broadening activist networks. Cacerolazos—banging empty pots and pans, often from home—meant that protests could erupt at any moment or place without a possibility of restriction. Cacerolazos aimed to extend the realm of the domestic to call those sympathetic and nearby into action or reflection. Through direct action, Colombian feminist collectives engaged in juntanzas, or the convergence of feminist sectors that might have been fragmented because of their dissenting positions on different issues.

Latin American feminists provided the larger 2019 protest movement with an enriched explanation of the conditions for greater injustice adding a gender perspective while collectively challenging structural violence. Through a unique repertoire, they turned the protests into a platform for women to articulate demands previously silenced amidst the rampant impunity. At the rhythm of “El Violador Eres Tú” (“the rapist is you”) and other lines from LasTesis’ performance, countless previously silenced voices came forward after recognizing that they were not the only ones who had been sexually abused; that there were endless others who were willing to support them.

Traditional feminist demands gained momentum through the national protests. Drawing on historical legal gains on matters like gender violence and public participation, mobilizations resurfaced issues that had never been resolved: feminicide, sexual harassment at the university, and continuing obstacles to sexual and reproductive rights. Incomplete agendas in these areas certainly kept feminists going. Their mass participation presented a threat to religious and right-wing groups, who seek to impede the right to free and accessible abortion as well as other gendered rights at risk. The religious right’s attempt to control women’s bodily autonomy of course fuels feminist activism rather than silences them as the right would hope. At the same time, the growing levels of consciousness gained by younger activists who are now enjoying the fruits from previous generations’ struggles, as well as the influences of movements such as #MeToo and Ni Una Más or Ni Una Menos cannot be underestimated as an explanation for this wave of mobilizations.

Intersectional demands were important for this process, too, as feminist collectives furthered anti-racist agendas. In Bolivia, for example, during the November 2019 coup against Evo Morales (Farthing and Arigho-Stiles, 2020), voices were raised to protest the opposition’s violence against women’s marches that directly attacked indigenous symbols such as the indigenous flag or Wiphala, as well as women’s braids and traditional skirts. As Aymara feminist Adriana Guzmán (2019) put it, the coup was racist, patriarchal, and colonial as it looked for expelling indigenous peoples from universities and the congress and to turn them back into servants and subordinates. In Colombia, anti-racist and decolonial feminists protested against all forms of oppression affecting women, from gender to unequal race relations, which was reflected, among others, in the overrepresentation of Black and rural women in service and domestic work.

In all their diversity, mobilizations in Latin America during the end of 2019 marked an inflection point for both feminists and social movements protesting on the streets. For feminists, this was an opportunity to amplify their demands in public scenarios and through direct action while they challenged the state. For the larger movement, feminist contributions represented an opportunity for a renewed repertoire where demands could respond to gender-specific realities. In the case of Colombia, just after the peak of the protests passed and mobilization concerns started giving way to the end of the year’s inertia, feminist assemblies continued, expecting to include some of their claims at the negotiation table with the government (“Feministas piden”, 2019). Beyond official recognition, though, feminist demands in these mobilizations represented an important victory. Claiming public space, reframing political issues, and supporting a new generation of feminist activists were only some of the achievements resulting from marching and performing in the streets and their homes.

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