Feminisms in Mexico: From Particularism Toward a Concrete Universalism

Doris Salcedo, Unland (1995-98).

Today’s feminism is positioning itself against global crisis. In doing so, it seems to me to be characterizing this crisis as the crisis of an era. The feminist struggles of recent years, in both their demands and claims, position us at a crossroads with one path leading to a radical rupture with capitalism. This feminism responds as a social body: if they touch one of us they touch us all; we want ourselves alive; #me too; #myfirstassault – this feminism has discovered that what concerns “women” is bound up with the system as a whole. It is a feminism which, therefore, purports to “change life as a whole” and puts our bodies at the center. But is this a global phenomenon?

“Feminism” was Merriam Webster’s word of the year in 2017,1 but feminism appears to have far exceeded the meanings attributed to it by such dictionaries. Merriam Webster’s first definition of the word states that it is “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.” Similarly, in the dictionary of the Real Academia Española, it is “the principle which upholds that women should have the same rights as men.” In Merriam Webster’s second definition, feminism is explained as “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” Yet today’s feminism takes not only the interests of “women” but those of the entire planet in its hands when, as José Saramago claims, “what exists in the world pertains to me, in the sense of responsibility.”

What is the significance of this shift in the meanings of women’s struggle? How is the scope of contemporary feminism being widened, and its radicalism deepened? Any account of these changes must begin with a consideration of the deepening crisis of capitalist modernity, both its forms of reproduction which today threaten all life as well as its forms of political management and decision-making which are incapable of halting the destructive action of global capital. Women today appear to be suspended at the margins of a system that systemically negates them, located in a particular way in relation to the violence exercised by capitalism and patriarchy in times of crisis.

Of course, “women’s locations,” by which I mean positionalities as well as strategies of resistance, are always geographical, historical, and contextual. Although different feminisms share a broad horizon, generally “anti-patriarchal,” contemporary feminisms situate themselves in local histories and struggles. The critical intentionality of women today seems to encounter the link between capitalism and male domination in each specific struggle; it appears to feminize individual struggles whether directly or through the work and perspectives of other women.

In Mexico, we have a history of speaking about “feminisms” in the plural in order to recognize the heterogeneous, multigenerational, cross-class and cross-cultural character that converges in mass urban manifestations like 8M. Speaking about feminisms allows us to recognize that these convergences are not without clashes, tensions, and differences (between feminist tendencies like autonomist, radical, “ultra,” historical, popular, indigenous, lesbian, liberal, and socialist). 

What is novel about the current moment is the confluence of two processes: on the one hand, the diffusion of feminism among a new generation of women, especially borne of confrontations with gendered violence (in the streets, at work, in the academy) and feminicide which has created a generation of warriors who are rediscovering forms of collectivity by taking care of one another, studying self-defense, feminizing their social environments, and for whom autonomy plays a vital role. A second process concerns the decolonization of (neo)liberal feminism, which began with the impact of the Zapatista movement and the uprising of 1994. Both processes have linked up and have spread: for example, the demonstration on March 8th this year included a contingent of urban indigenous Otomí women, and, conversely, urban youth of many states attended convergences in rural areas convened by Zapatista women and women of the Indigenous National Congress (or the CNI).

Zapatismo, and in particular the words of Zapatista women, have influenced feminism and women’s movements in Mexico, confronting them with their own colonial, even racist, view of indigenous and peasant women struggling in defense of their rights, territories and autonomies, and subjugated by the current Mexican government. Academic strands of feminism launched a critique of indigenismo, claiming it was a nationalist ideology that nominally embraces an indigenous identity while positioning actual indigenous people as lacking agency and in need of being rescued from poverty by the developmentalist action of the state. In moving closer to Zapatismo, strands of feminism have strengthened their critical anti-colonial and anti-capitalist visions, and have begun to understand their struggles against patriarchy in situated contexts, that is, to recognize concrete lifeworlds and diverse subjectivities. Some women are also becoming more firm in their recognition of their own indigenous roots. Zapatismo, on the other hand, has opened spaces such as the Zapatista Little School (Escuelita Zapatista), which have helped many young women become involved in rural and peasant life and a political project of autonomy. Zapatismo’s internal process of autonomous self-constitution has been another strong catalyst for the transformation of indigenous women’s subjectivity, self-recognition and active participation in the decision-making of what can be called the prefiguration of their collective autonomy.2 Many women belonging to the younger generation who are part of the urban feminist movement have learned their horizontalist vision of struggle from Zapatismo, and regard Zapatista women and their world of autonomous community-building as teachers. And this has deeply affected the perspective of feminism, broadening it and making it more complex. It has also fostered affection toward Zapatista women. 

The meaning of “feminist emancipation” has been enriched by radical critiques of a number of mediations or vectors of power: capital, work, consumption, territory, body. Intergenerational collectives have distanced themselves from a liberal conception of feminism restricted to women’s rights or equality so as to encompass a far-reaching social content and class, ethnicity, and gender consciousness.

This tendency to articulate feminist struggles as the “women we are” and as the “women who struggle” was seen in the First International Gathering of Politics, Art, Sport and Culture for Women in Struggle, held on Zapatista territory in March 2018, which gathered more than 8,000 women from all over the world and was a space of collective learning as well as differentiation. It was an autonomous space showing the consistency, discipline and organization of the Zapatistas, where women of the world were called to unite in defense of life: in order to resist, we must “remember to live.”

In Mexico, the “Spring” or “fourth wave” of feminist struggles has become apparent in the mobilizations of #24A against violence and femicide, and in the mobilizations of #8M. The latter movement saw the erection of an “anti-monument” that recalls victims of violence; as in other places, texts have been produced discussing how to understand the totality of feminist struggle linking this to the struggle of the mothers of the disappeared (in Ayotzinapa), of women who have suffered sexual torture, and of collectives of autonomist and radical feminists. The movement is composed of diverse forms of resistance, which have united at least in these demonstrations, though not without conflict or even violence.3 Ultimately, it is the “encuentros” which have fostered a deeper articulation between different forms of feminisms and other struggles.

The 2018 encuentro hosted by Zapatista women inaugurated a form of collective self-assembly that distances itself from particularist forms of self-identification in order to offer a common meeting ground: women in struggle. The inaugural speech, an outcome of the process of intergenerational struggle and of the diversity of cultures that make up contemporary Zapatismo, offered a history of indigenous women’s self-affirmation as political subjects, a genealogy of struggle against racism, discrimination and exploitation, often practiced by women. It also showed that struggles are not all sacrifice and pain, but can be spaces of joy and resistance, celebration and freedom as evidenced by the autonomous territories. The convergence was put forward as a space to recognizing the constructive nature of vectors of power and oppression:

…Not just because the fucking capitalist system wants to destroy us: it’s also because we have to fight against the system that makes men believe that we women are less than, and good for nothing. And sometimes, it must be said, even as women we screw each other over and speak badly of each other, that is, we don’t respect each other. Because it’s not just men. There are also women from the cities who look down on us because they say we don’t know about women’s struggle because we haven’t read books where the feminists explain how it should be. They comment and critique without knowing what our struggle is like. Because it’s one thing to be a woman, another to be poor, and another thing altogether to be indigenous. The indigenous women listening know this very well. And it is yet another and more difficult thing to be a Zapatista indigenous woman.

And so the idea of an encounter between “women in struggle” was proposed as one in which, despite – or perhaps through – these differences, the commonality of the struggle was recognized:

What also makes us the same is the deadly violence carried out against us. That’s how we see the modern condition of this fucking capitalist system. We see that it made a forest of all the women of the world with its violence and death which has the face, body and idiot brain of the patriarchy.

So we say to you that we invited you so we can speak to one another, listen to one another, see one another, and celebrate together. We thought it should only be women so that we can speak, listen, see, and celebrate without the gaze of men, whether they’re good men or bad men. What matters is that we’re women and that we’re women in struggle, that is, that we don’t resign ourselves to what’s happening and that each of us ﹘according to her way, her time, and her location – struggles. She rebels. She gets pissed and does something about it.

Based on this recognition, the call was not for a competition among women but rather to listen to each other. The event was full of workshops, forums, music, theater, sports, and the Zapatista comrades listened to and made note of what was said – from a workshop on the clitoris, to one about the struggles against extractivism, which are just some examples of the diversity of its contents.

In the closing ceremony, they proposed that since not all women agree that those responsible for our pain as women are the patriarchal capitalist system, we should continue thinking together and creating more gatherings.

The environment of Zapatismo has also been an important arena of internationalism. Many people and groups from around the world have become interested and have visited the territory, and this has extended to the women’s meetings. After March 2018 another meeting, equally separatist, was convened by the women of the National Indigenous Congress in ​​the State of Mexico. Over 1,000 women attended. I believe that number is important, considering the lack of an incentive to be with the Zapatistas. At this meeting we witnessed how intercultural struggles actually began to intertwine. Kurdish women have been a key inspiration to this tendency and were present at this and the latest gathering of “women in struggle,” which was self-convened by a network of feminists on March 16 and 17, 2019 in Mexico City. We attempted to reproduce the conditions of the other “encuentros” – being able to spend the night together, in a separatist space, with workshops, forums, special guests representing different struggles, cultural events and actions. Some 1,700 women came and there was an international presence. The event was moving – a comrade performed a rap song in German dedicated to Kurdish women; we were able to listen to the greeting in six different indigenous languages from ​​across the country. This event was organized following the open letter from Zapatista women explaining that, being on high alert in their own struggle, they would not be able to host or attend the next “encuentro.” In fifteen cities in the country, the call was answered. We were eventually able to coordinate the events, achieve a common vision and propose the “day of the women in struggle.” For the first time, union leaders from the strike movements participated.4

It is important to note how organizational forms acquire the agility and horizontalism of networks, where each node is autonomous and coordinates with the others, and where a common horizon is considered from many perspectives. Perhaps we can think of these as flexible, non-centralized articulations that are ever-expanding and that develop local, regional, and global strategies. It is an internationalism that begins to braid itself up from below, and that forges the ground, in Rita Segato’s words, for recovering feminism in order to recover politics.

Translated by Kelly Gawel 

This article is part of a dossier entitled “New Dispatches from the Feminist International.”


1 Due to phenomena as diverse as Wonder Woman, the #MeToo movement, the Women’s March, #Nosotras paramos, #Vivas nos queremos, #NiUnaMenos, and we could add women’s massive protests in US cities against the separation of migrant families, the call to the International Gathering of Politics, Art, Sport and Culture for Women in Struggle, March 8, 2018, and more events up to the present.
2 Zapatismo has been a movement with a “gender agenda” since its inception. We should remember that among its revolutionary laws was the Revolutionary Law of Women, made by comandantas and combatants and agreed upon with the base communities. This law, announced in January 1994, identified the patriarchal chain connecting the state, the boss, the community through the father, husband or elder brother, but also the structures of the rebel organization, as structures to be modified. The leadership has continued to insist upon the recognition and participation of women, their training as promoters of health, education, human rights. There are cooperatives and stores only for women in the Zapatista region, and since 2007 many meetings of women have been held. But it has been since 2017 that women’s organization and spaces have been more clearly proposed.
3 A concern was men’s participation in the March 8th marches. The initiative of mixed groups and the intention of some men to preside over the march met with many indignant responses. There were also disagreements concerning the speeches.
4 The strike of the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM) in Mexico City and the maquiladora strike in Matamoros, Tamaulipas.

Author of the article

is a sociologist and social anthropologist, and a professor at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences at UNAM. She is part of the Network of Decolonial Feminisms and the research group Prefiguraciones de lo Político.