If I were asked by a random survey about my experience with sexual assault, I would decisively recount two incidents.
In the first case, it was my first weekend away on a college campus in a sleepy South Carolina town, and a guy who went after me with laser-like precision, quaaludes, a drink he’d “made just for me” and the air of someone who didn’t think there was anything wrong with what he was doing.
The second, an afternoon in September of last year, at a restaurant on a Soho street in downtown Manhattan while Marco Poloing with a friend, a man whose hands wouldn’t take no for an answer, spitting in my face before raising a stool above his head to hit me because “I was rude.” And yet, I can still recall the deep alone-ness I felt in the seconds I looked on at tables of suited men on their lunch breaks — waiting for someone to step in — before I’d decided: enough.
These two events are bonded to and inform my own personal perspective of power differentials, but they are only really alike in the patriarchal ambivalence that sanctioned them and the men who stood nearby and said nothing, did nothing.
I’ve been thinking about this — how people act within a particular environment and how norms incubate inaction. Also, of course, the progress neutralized by that nothingness, the collective pain of women’s suffering levied, and how, at least, part of the pain resides in the notion that pain can just be normalized rather than confronting violence and injustice with accountability.
In Mexico, women have suffered grievous levels of violence and injustice without accountability for centuries, but the beginning of Covid-19 coincided with an inflection point in Mexico’s history of violence and an epidemic within an epidemic: femicide.
Femicide, or “feminicido” in Spanish, is the “intentional murder of women and girls because they are women,” according to the World Health Organization. “Most cases of femicide are committed by partners or ex-partners, and involve ongoing abuse in the home, threats or intimidation, sexual violence or situations where women have less power or fewer resources than their partner.” Among the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world, according to the UN, 14 are in Latin America and the Caribbean region.
In 2020, after a series of high-profile femicide and sexual assault cases, women across Mexico responded. In Mexico’s capital, Mexico City, women staged mass protests, breaking windows, burning down a police station and spray-painting the names of victims across sidewalks, doors and monuments; Ingrid, a former beauty queen, murdered and dismembered by her partner; several days later, Fatima, a seven-year-old kidnapped outside her school and found tortured; Lesvy, strangled on her university campus; their memory, the songs of the movement:
“Porque vivas se las llevaron, vivas las queremos!” (Because they were taken alive, alive is how we want them back)
And on Tuesday, March 8th, 2022, hundreds of thousands of women returned to Mexico City streets to sing them, wearing purple bandanas, a symbol of Latin America’s anti-gender violence, to demand that the government enact policies to protect women, take femicide investigations seriously and bring justice to victims and their families.
They are defiant young women of Mexico who have become a political symbol in a country that both fears and abandons them. And they are grandmothers, mothers who share stories and photos of friends, neighbors, daughters who have disappeared with judiciary indifference. The stories are many but they are each deeply personal.
The perception of femicide within most of Mexico’s governing enviros is that it is a women’s issue. And although formally recognized as a federal crime in Mexico in 2012, Mexico femicides doubled in the last 5 years to 969 last year, according to government figures. But activists say the real numbers are much higher, that the government and systemic impunity in Mexico intentionally obfuscates these figures and some estimate that 10 women a day are murdered. Mexico’s impunity rate has reached jolting levels, according to the New York Times as “93 percent of crimes were either not reported or not investigated in 2018”
“Verga violadora, a la licuadora!” (Rapist dicks, into a blender)
A sixteen-year-old girl tells me this is her favorite chant — “it’s funny” and then, her amusement turns to grief, “but it’s also indicative of finding humor in this helplessness. Because of (the systemic impunity,) it’s up to us to get justice — families often have to investigate the aggressors themselves and get their own redemption.”
“Dónde estás cuando te necesitamos?” (where are you when we need you?) reads a purple sign in black paint, pointed at a women-only unit of hundreds of officers outfitted in riot gear assigned to the protest. “Estar con nosotros, no entre nosotros” (stand with us, not between us) reads another.
In 2020, Netflix released a documentary following Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, a human rights defender who was supposed to be assigned protective detail but was assassinated outside the Palace of the Governor holding a vigil vowing not to move until investigators showed progress the case of her daughter, Rubí Marisol Frayre, who was murdered 2 years prior.
“The world that treats power abuse, harassment, bullying, racism, and assault” Rebecca Traister writes for The Cut, “as if nothing had happened, especially when weighed against remunerative work, adoration, and the further accumulation of authority — the making of a movie, publication of a best seller, the election of a politician — is a world that confirms over and over and over again that bad behavior is imaginatively linked to power and profit.”
Senadora Olga Sánchez Cordero promised last year to make the issue of violence against women “a top priority for the government,” but many feel President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has no intention of protecting Mexico’s women. In March of 2020, an astounding 26,171 calls were made to the country’s emergency call center at the beginning of the shutdown about violent incidents against women but López Obrador suggested in a press conference, without evidence, that “ninety percent of those calls that you’re referring to are fake.”
All of this — the performative acts of authority, careful examination and disregard take place in Mexico as well as South Carolina, New York, the world over. Its behavior made possible by indifference — that’s how norms get normalized.
One of the things I find so moving about the intense public pushback to these tragedies is the readiness in which the women in Mexico have responded with their unrevised and unapologetic rage. In the past, in my interactions with aggressive men, my proclivity has often been to shrink smaller and smaller but last September on Grand Street, in the moments I felt the world getting larger and larger and my trust in it melting away, I released my own.
Before I knew what I was doing, there was a stool in my hands — hands formerly tied behind my back by all the times I was told to be polite, play it cool, deal with it. In the video of the event, as my friends love to remind me, you can hear me say “I’m from South Carolina, motherfucker. I will end you.” My submission to a system that asks women, the trans community to endure while aggressors act with impunity was washed away by enough.
A few moments later, several men sashayed up to my table to ask me if I need anything — are you fucking kidding me? What I needed was for even one of you — any of you to stand up and do something the moment that you instead normalized this fuckery with your inaction.
What I needed was to not feel alone in my response — my rage — rage that was shared by hundreds of thousands of mis hermanas who marched on Tuesday in Mexico City with theirs, the collective will to resist, to together say basta and the confirmation of a sign that read “ya nunca mas estaremos solas” (we will never be alone again).
As the sun began to set on Tuesday and, as a common precaution, my friends shared our live locations with one another for the remainder of the evening, every body from my eyes to the horizon began jumping — up and down: “el que no brinca es macho, el que no brinca es macho” (if you don’t jump, you must be a man, if you don’t jump you must be a man.”)
A friend takes my hand and tells me “stop — stand still. Do you feel it?”
And I did. There, alongside hundreds of thousands of women singing and jumping, the asphalt shook beneath us. As of this week, the lack of accountability for women’s suffering in Mexico remains but with women quite literally moving mountains together in Mexico City, you have to hope that people in power are feeling the earth trembling beneath them, the tides shifting and the women of Mexico saying “enough.”