A Day without Women
The Rise of “the Purple Tide” in Mexico
“Es más probable que me mate un hombre a que me mate el coronavirus.”
“It’s more likely that I’ll be killed by a man than by the coronavirus.” — protestor’s sign at the women’s march
This is the season when the jacaranda trees bloom in Mexico City. Blossoms fill their elegant frames, soft purple flowers covering the curves of upwardly extended branches. It is also the season of International Women’s Day.
Here in the Mexican capital, March 8 saw over 80,000 women fill the length of downtown Reforma Avenue. They donned purple shirts, bandanas, and flags, the symbolic color of the women’s movement that, coincidentally, matched the blooming jacarandas. Some have coined this mass movement “The Purple Tide.” They came out in droves—coronavirus concerns be damned. These women were not just marching for equal pay or greater government representation: they were marching for their lives. The protest was focused on a nationwide epidemic of femicides—the murder of women based on their gender—with calls for a nationwide strike the following day. It would be un día sin mujeres: a day without women.
My girlfriend and I took our places at the rear of the march, having heard that the vanguard was reserved exclusively for women. We had also read online posts by some of the most militant groups, threatening violence against any men who took photographs or “looked suspicious.” Their threats were not empty; misogynists have been known to harass such protests.
From where we stood, the mood was celebratory and friendly. The crowd was made up of women, teenagers, and young girls, of all walks of life. They carried signs that expressed indignation, sadness, rage, in creative and poetic terms:
If you touch one of us, you touch all of us.
Don’t call it “homicide.” It’s femicide.
Neither women nor land should be subjected to your dreams of conquest.
Similar messages had been spray-painted on public buildings, written on signs taped to the Senate chambers on Reforma. The most common phrase was simple and to the point: NOS ESTÁN MATANDO. “They’re killing us.” Several public gardens on the avenue had been transformed into makeshift “cemeteries,” in memoriam of the deceased.
I wasn’t the only man there; a healthy scattering of others had shown up in support. They pushed strollers and carried their children on their shoulders, sporting purple bandanas in solidarity with their significant others. One teenager marched with his girlfriend, holding a sign that read: A man who hits a woman is no man at all.
As we reached a major traffic circle on Reforma, the central fountain sprayed a massive pink plume into the sky. Protesters had poured colored dye into the water. The abstract equine statue known as El Caballito had been graffitied with messages of outrage, while nearby buildings were covered with posters of well-known politicians and businessmen who have mistreated women. Even the “Apostle” Naasón Joaquín García—leader of the Luz del Mundo cult—was depicted, with a mention of the child rape and human trafficking charges he is facing in Los Angeles.
Security for the march was provided almost exclusively by women: 2,760 female officers with the Atenea division of the Mexico City Police. Both the city and federal governments made every effort to avoid confrontations and protect the participants. Several photos emerged of activists hugging the female officers.
The great crowd of women filled the city, eventually reaching the central plaza known as the Zócalo, framed by the Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Presidential Palace. Activists spray-painted, on the ground of the Zócalo, the names of all the women murdered between 2016 and 2019. In aerial footage, the countless purple shirts took the form of a massive jacaranda tree spreading its branches down the main arteries of the city. One young woman marching next to us carried a handmade sign that read: This isn’t a ‘purple tide.’ It’s a tsunami.
Many participants also wore green bandanas, a symbol of the fight to legalize abortion. Some protesters had climbed iron statues to tie green bandanas around the necks of national heroes; days after the event, the bandanas were still there. Others marched in black, in mourning for the women whose lives were tragically cut short. One student stood on a platform in the Zócalo holding a flag, half purple and half black, bearing the message: We are fighting today so we won’t die tomorrow.
When we heard a massive cry several blocks ahead of us, I craned my neck to see if any radical anarchists were coming our way. My girlfriend noticed the cautious look on my face. “You know,” I told her, “I feel safer with you here next to me.”
She chuckled, and we recalled countless moments when the roles had been reversed: How many times had we walked together down a dark alley, late at night, a place she wouldn’t have felt safe in alone?
“But that’s just the point of all this, isn’t it?” she said. “Nobody should have to protect anyone. Nobody should have to be afraid.”
“Somos las nietas de todas las brujas que nunca pudieron quemar.”
“We are the granddaughters of all the witches you never managed to burn.”
Women make up 51 percent of the world’s population, but are 70 percent of the world’s poor. Women do 66 percent of the work on our planet and produce 50 percent of our food, but receive 11 percent of the world’s income. They own less than 1 percent of our land.
March 8 has been a day of demonstrations for women’s rights all over the world, since the early 20th century. Here in Mexico, the focus has been on the appalling numbers of women who have been kidnapped, disappeared, and murdered. In 2019 alone, 2,825 murders of women were reported; of these, 1,006 were officially classified as femicides. Since May 2019, however, only four femicides have gone to trial. 170 investigations opened by the National Attorney General’s Office. Less than 1 percent of them go to trial. (Desde mayo se ha vinculado a proceso sólo a 4 feminicidas, Milenio, March 9, 2020.)
The epidemic of femicides has been attributed to myriad causes: social inequality, widespread corruption, and the culture of machismo. The increasingly mobile pool of expendable female labor created by the maquiladora factory industry, serving the interests of foreign corporations. The massive flow of cash and guns from the U.S. that bolsters criminal organizations. One thing everyone can agree on—they are fed up with feeling afraid.
Last year saw several spontaneous protests, after a teenage girl reported that she was raped by four policemen. Outrage escalated with two well-publicized cases this February. During an argument with her intoxicated husband, 25 year old Ingrid Escamilla was stabbed to death. Her husband then chopped her body to pieces. Later that month, a seven year old girl named Fátima was brutally tortured and murdered in the south of Mexico City.
In addition to these recent horrors, other issues were mentioned by protesters. The green bandanas worn by many activists symbolized the limited access of many Mexican women to safe and legal abortions. While the procedure has been legal in Mexico City since 2007 and was legalized in Oaxaca State last year, other regions are more limited. In the States of Querétaro and Guanajuato, abortion is only permitted in the event of rape or accidental interruption of pregnancy. In fact, very few countries in Latin America have fully legalized it: Cuba, Uruguay, Guyana, French Guiana, and Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, in Mexico City, the abortion rate has been steadily decreasing since it was legalized. From 2014 to 2019, it went down by 29 percent.
Similar marches took place across Mexico, with a focus on the crimes against women in each location. In the southern state of Oaxaca, protesters called for justice for María Elena Ríos, a musician who was sprayed with acid by a former congressman last September. The perpetrator is still at large. In the coastal city of Veracruz, students held signs naming the nearly 40 women murdered this year alone. In Mexico State, adjacent to the capital city, protesters marched to the Nezahualcóyotl Municipal Government Building, outraged over the murders of numerous teenagers and young girls in their state.
Expressions of support and solidarity popped up all over Mexico City. Buildings were adorned with purple banners, including Frida Kahlo’s historic home in the trendy Coyoacán neighborhood. Newspapers printed headlines in purple ink. Government agencies and private enterprise rose to the occasion.
Noteworthy Mexican women expressed their solidarity from all over the world. “I’m so proud of my Mexican sisters for speaking out against femicide,” actress Salma Hayek wrote on Instagram. Musician Lila Downs described her own experiences with racial and gender-based discrimination in an interview with Telemundo. “When I see the femicides taking place in my country, how the same problems that have existed for so many years still exist, how women are being ‘disappeared’ [...] It concerns me as a citizen, as a human being.”
“Te prefiero violenta que violada”
“I’d rather see you get violent than get raped”
These protests come at a time of increasing awareness of violence against women. In this globalized age, the #MeToo movement has inspired women to raise their voices across the planet.
Mexico is certainly not the only country where femicide runs rampant. According to a study cited in Psychology Today, four women in the United States are murdered by their intimate partner every day. Author Myriam Gurba shared some other disturbing figures with me: one third of the women in the United States will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives. Half of the women trapped in violent relationships are regularly raped by their partners. “And it’s common,” she said. “Much more common than ‘serial killers.’ And nobody gives a shit… Until the woman is dead. And then when she's dead, people will blame her… ‘Why didn't she leave?’ they'll ask. Because they hunt us when we leave! It’s the public health crisis that nobody talks about, except for through euphemisms.”
In 2018, U.S. activist Danielle Muscato asked women on Twitter to imagine if men were subject to a 9:00 p.m. curfew. If they knew that the streets would be free of men at night, what would they do? The responses were remarkably commonplace: Go for a walk in the woods. Jog with both earbuds in. Open the front door without fear. Drive without locking the car door. Enjoy the stars and the night air. In other words—things most men take for granted. It doesn’t take a political radical to say that everyone should be able to do these things. Nobody should fear for their safety.
This Twitter thread was mentioned by author Colleen Oakes during a presentation of her novel, The Black Coats, at the Guadalajara International Book Fair last November. The young adult fiction novel describes a secret society of women who get revenge on abusive men. I had the privilege of translating the book into Spanish, and was present at its presentation in Guadalajara. The story was a big hit with readers here in Mexico. Young readers, especially young women, connected deeply to it. “It feels like you wrote this book specifically for us,” one Mexico City student told Oakes.
“Somos la voz de las que ya no están”
“We are the voice of those women who are no longer here”
The national women’s strike was called for the day after the march, inspired by a similar event in Iceland in 1975. Women invited each other to stay home from work and school and abstain from any economic transactions. I wondered, though: how many people would participate? I thought back to the “Day Without a Migrant” events we had organized years ago, back in California. While plenty of people attended the protests, many feared losing their job. Would intimidation and fear have the last word here?
My girlfriend had received official permission to stay home from work. As she vowed to not leave the house, I cooked her lunch before going about my business. I stepped outside into an eerie, dystopian scene: Mexico City, the largest city on earth, had turned into a ghost town.
The streets were free of their usual traffic, even during rush hour. The major commercial hubs of Reforma Avenue were inactive. The front cars of the subway and the Metrobús, officially reserved for women, were nearly empty. Even inside the swanky, central shopping mall, Reforma 222, many stores were closed.
In stark contrast with the previous day’s euphoria, the city was conspicuously empty—more than on a Sunday, more than during Easter weekend. Unlike during the holidays, however, there was nothing celebratory or relaxing here. It felt somber, tragic, a dark shadow cast over the metropolis. The half-empty streets of Mexico City reminded me of an episode of the British sci-fi series Black Mirror: After a mass culling of the population, London becomes a somber shell of its former self.
Professionals and office workers were not the only women who participated in the national strike. Many working-class positions were empty as well: stalls in public markets, cafes, and restaurants were unattended. One male friend of mine went to his job at a government office. He reported that even the woman who runs a juice cart in front of his office was gone. “And that lady never misses work,” he said. “To look at her cart and not see her… It was really unsettling.” It was a somber reminder of how dark our world looks when half of us are missing from public life, a grave memorial to those women whose lives had been tragically cut short.
According to CIMAD, The Center of Research of Women in High-Level Positions, the women participating in the strike represented 40 percent of Mexico’s personnel nationwide. Many employers were in favor of it. The Confederation of National Chambers of Commerce, Services, and Tourism (CONCANACO) made an official statement of solidarity. Journalist Daniela Malpica published a survey in Milenio on Monday, March 9; Of 598 women surveyed, from 28 states across Mexico, 56 percent said that their employers had promised to support them unconditionally. 16 percent more were asked to work from home, or they would be docked the day's pay. Only 26 percent of employers were against it.
Despite the statements from chambers of commerce, the least amount of support came from private business. Most employers who supported the march, according to Malpica’s survey, were from the public sector—educational institutions and government organizations.
This is especially significant, considering that right wing groups have tried to manipulate the women’s movement into an attack on the current administration. President Andŕes Manuel López Obrador and his center-left Morena Party have attracted the ire of conservative groups, many of which hoped to push an anti-government message onto the protest.
The protesters didn’t take the bait, though. This movement is so much bigger than any partisan political agenda. In fact, several female legislators and government officials affiliated with the ruling Morena Party issued a statement of support for the protest, condemning “opportunistic” right-wing groups trying to piggyback onto it. “We will continue in the struggle, along with our women comrades, to turn Mexico into a place where we women can live freely and sovereignly,” the statement concluded. “We will do this from the seats of decision-making power in the government, and especially, from the streets.”
In the days since that great march, the entire city has felt softer, gentler. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I seem to notice more families walking together in the park, more fathers pushing strollers and taking their daughters by the hand on the subway. Beyond my own impressions, many analysts have declared this week a watershed moment in Mexico’s history, a new stage of the national consciousness. Thousands of voices have been heard as never before, demanding action. As the jacaranda trees continue to bloom, blanketing the city in a layer of soft purple blossoms, a new term for this season has arisen.
La Primavera Feminista : The Feminist Spring.