It felt like spring in New York City on Sunday, March 8th, International Women’s Day, the day of a global celebration of women and an evening when the reverberating voices of women everywhere demanding dignity were given our full attention. It was in this spirit that activists crowded into the Maysles Cinema on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem for an event convened by Movement for Justice in El Barrio (Movement), to hear these voices from NYC and beyond.
Movement for Justice in El Barrio is in its tenth year of organizing for dignified housing and against displacement. Founded by mothers demanding better living conditions in their buildings, this movement has grown to include over 85 organized buildings and 900 members. The great majority of their members are women. With a focus on everything, from winning international battles against multinational corporations to fighting against multiple forms of oppression, the organization’s roots as a women-founded movement has also inspired international solidarity.
Led and run entirely by women, the evening began with a warm welcome from Movement members, and each participant was handed a single red rose at the door. This rose was lifted in commemoration more than once during the evening. Attended by a diverse group of people of different ages and walks of life, including many representatives of community organizations and activists, it was an incredibly refreshing tribute to those dedicated to justice and who are fighting for their rights and the rights of women everywhere.
A documentary entitled Graffiti Women, which was made by young women, launched the evening. These young women discuss how they became graffiti artists in a subculture dominated by boys and men. Their work is shown with the risk of being viewed through double standards. While it is as good if not better than the work made by their male colleagues –it is not always given equal respect for the simple fact of being made by girls. They were shown in the video to be very busy changing that.
The evening then embarked overseas, with video-messages sent to the gathering from the European Women’s Network of Greece as well as the Organization of African Women.
The European Women’s Network sent greetings of solidarity and described the violence they face day to day as they struggle to change their society from the inside out. The Organization of African Women spoke of the many daily obstacles they face as migrant women, and sent a message of hope and continued struggle.
There was also a clip entitled Zama, based in South Africa. This short film gives a succinct portrait of one woman’s life within the Shack Dwellers Movement, or Abahlali baseMjondolo. This is an organization that Movement has connected with in the past and they maintain a relationship of solidarity, as the struggle for dignified housing links them across the space and time that separates them. The film starts with a South African saying that is fitting every day, but particularly on International Women’s Day: “When you strike a woman, you strike a stone.”
The evening then took a turn to Mexico, where a film focused on a “Zapatista Women’s Encuentro”, an international gathering of women dedicated to a leader held in high esteem, Comandanta Ramona. The Zapatistas are already committed to feminism and promoting female leadership, but this encuentro went the extra step and refused admittance to any and all compañeros (men) in the conference hall. Men were able to participate in the encuentro in roles traditionally held by women such as cooking, cleaning and childcare. In this very concrete way, the years that women´s voices had been silenced were acknowledged and an attempt was made to remedy the injustice in the present day.
We stayed in Mexico with the next film to hear the voices of the Mothers of the 43 students who have been disappeared from Ayotzinapa via another video-message sent especially for this gathering. These women have taken the disappearance of their sons and turned their pain into an international campaign, creating what Movement calls a “living testament that this “other world” we desire is currently being inspired and created, from the bottom up, by women.”
There was then the premiere screening of a new documentary about the women of Movement for Justice in El Barrio. While many of these women were present at the event, the film showcased personal portraits of these amazing women and their struggle for another world. The film also focused on the engagement of the youth in the movement. Children of organizing members play an active role in the movement and are able to take ownership of it, in this way ensuring its continued struggle in the years and generations to come.
A video-message sent to the gathering was presented from women members of the community of San Sebastián Bachajón, whose lands include the access road to the highly desirable tourist attraction of Agua Azul, and who have been fighting to maintain control of their lands. They spoke of their commitment to equality between men and women, and their sacred duty to care for the land that their ancestors left to them. The film series ended with a music video celebrating “indignadas” from around the world. Clips from all over the world celebrated the struggles many women have been actively engaged in to create a new and more just world. As Movement members declared in the evening’s program, “For us, the bravery and strength of women form the backbone of human dignity.” Champagne glasses were then handed out to everyone in the crowd, sparkling wine was poured for all and a toast to women everywhere was given.
Everyone then held up their roses in silence for a special homage to Antonia López Méndez, a young 11-year-old girl who died of malnutrition and lack of access to medical services when her family was displaced from their home in Banavil, Chiapas, Mexico. Her death was a direct result of the displacement her family was forced to endure. Her spirit was honored by all those present, roses held in the air. The homage included the world premiere screening of a new film on the dignified struggle of the displaced families of Banavil. It concluded with a call for people to join the Faces of the Displaced campaign.
A letter sent to the gathering from a group of indigenous women and men Las Abejas in a community called Acteal in Chiapas, Mexico was also read out at the event. This pacifist community endured a brutal massacre in 1997 by a paramilitary group as men, women and children attended a prayer meeting. The letter spoke to the need to continue in the struggle, and the power of a community to endure.
While its focus is in dignified housing, Movement links with groups locally in NYC and globally who share a common struggle. Many of these groups were invited to celebrate the evening. CAAAV - Organizing Asian Communities, Gabriela NY, Damayan Migrant Workers Association, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Youth Activists-Youth Allies Network, the New York Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines, Bayan, US, Caravan 43, and Mother Tongue spoke, sang and shared their struggle with the audience in a dialogue focusing on the role of women at the forefront of dignified struggles, making links between work that may be quite different but shares common analysis, enemies, values and goals. The floor was then opened up for the audience to share and discuss their ideas about women in the struggle.
The audience was bid adieu with nuggets of wisdom from women members of Movement. Throughout the last ten years, we were told, we have learned that winning is possible only when we work together to achieve a common goal. “Uno sola no puede lograr nada, sólo vamos a ganar si luchamos y trabajamos juntas. Así sí podemos ganar.” These were the words we were left with as we entered back into the almost springtime air, full of inspiration from the women’s voices we had heard, and filled with the power of those voices to make change in this world.
On March 8th, 2015, International Women’s Day, the mothers of the 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa broke down borders by sending a powerful video-message to the global gathering “Women’s Struggles Transform the World!” held in New York and convoked by Movement for Justice in El Barrio.
The worldwide struggle of the 43 disappeared of Ayotzinapa has been headed by the mothers of the students. These amazing mothers have touched the hearts and motivated countless people from throughout the world to join with them. A living testament that this “other world” we desire is currently being inspired and created, from the bottom-up, by women. The mothers of the 43 chose to break down borders with this heartfelt video-message which is yet another reminder of their contribution to movements everywhere.