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Singing, Survival and San Juan Copala: Murdered for their voices

May 14, 2010

Some people think we’re too young to know. They should know we’re too young to die. – Teresa Bautista and Felícitas Martínez, radio journalists, murdered in San Juan Copala in 2008

On April 27, a caravan of journalists, activists and human rights observers were attacked by government-backed paramilitaries on their way to bring food and supplies to San Juan Copala, a municipality several hours outside the city of Oaxaca in the second southernmost state in Mexico. Since declaring autonomy from the government in 2007, the municipality has been under siege by paramilitary groups that are backed by Oaxaca’s ruling political party, the PRI.

Two people were killed in the attack: long-time activist Bety Cariño Trujillo from the group CACTUS (Centro de apoyo comunitario trabajando unidos/Center for Community Support Working Together) and Finnish human rights observer and climate activist Jyri Jaakkola.

They join dozens of activists, journalists, and others who have been killed in San Juan Copala over the last few years, many of them by highly organized paramilitary groups that are supported by government officials who seek power and an end to indigenous resistance in the region occupied by the Triqui people. The struggle for indigenous self-determination in the region stretches back for decades. Since January, the paramilitary group UBISORT (Unidad de bienstar social de la Región Triqui/Union for the Wellbeing of the Triqui Region) has blockaded San Juan Copala, cutting it off from food, supplies, teachers and, reportedly, electricity. According to David Venegas, a survivor of the attack and an activist with the group VOCAL, UBISORT has been responsible for 19 assassinations since November of 2009. The April 27 caravan was attempting to break the blockade and to accompany teachers who wanted to return to their classes in San Juan Copala.

In 2008, an attack by another paramilitary group in San Juan Copala grabbed international attention. This time, two radio broadcasters, Felícitas Martínez, 24, and Teresa Bautista, 20, were killed for their participation in a community radio station called “La voz que rompe el silencio” (The voice that breaks the silence). From a tiny wooden shack in the village, several hours from the capital city along winding, mountain roads, the women spoke to members of their community about the impunity that surrounded them — the greedy land bosses, the government that pocketed aid, the theft of natural resources by transnational corporations. In the face of death threats, they continued their work in an area where men with guns patrolled the landscape. And for their singing, they were gunned down as they drove along the rural mountain roads.

Shortly after the attack, I went to San Juan Copala with a journalist who was guiding me through a research project on Oaxacan women and social movements. I saw the village and its radio tower. I saw the bullet-riddled, blood-stained clothes — the hardest evidence the community had that they needed witnesses, needed voices, needed the world to believe them. Some of the activists and community radio broadcasters who I met during that trip have since been harassed or assaulted. As of April 27, at least one of them, Bety Cariño, has been killed.

Felícitas Martínaz (far left) and Teresa Bautista (third from left) in the community radio station "La voz que rompe el silencio," San Juan Copala

When the caravan of journalists and activists left San Juan Copala two years ago, we were all given CDs with clips of radio broadcasts by Martínez and Bautista. After the visit, I tried to use the voices of the two women to root myself to their survival. I was determined to carry on their resistance by letting their voices penetrate my soul. But I felt disconnected. “There is no way for you to really meet with the underprivileged, since there is no common ground whatsoever for you to meet on,” Ivan Illich once told a group of American students who were on their way to “help” Mexicans through volunteer work.

I had very little ground on which to meet the radio broadcasters. Theirs was a kind of bravery I had trouble even imagining. All I could do was listen to a ten-second clip of their voices on recording. Here is what they said:

Algunas personas piensan que somos muy jóvenes para saber. Deberían saber que somos muy jóvenes para morir.

Some people think we’re too young to know. They should know that we’re too young to die.

They knew.  And they spoke out anyway.

Here’s the thing about the idea of singing for survival: in places where a powerful few rule with impunity, and where the rest of the powerful don’t pay any attention to the growing pile of bodies, singing can actually get you killed. These women opened their mouths against the impunity. And they were killed for it. Their own words show that they must have known the risk. They knew they could die.

After my visit to San Juan Copala, I listened to that clip for hours at a time. I listened, and I listened, and I hoped it would teach me something. But so far the greatest lesson, and maybe the only lesson I’ve been able to take from this experience, is that there are people in this world so brave that it is a privilege to share the earth with them. When they die, they leave behind a void so enormous you could fit a village inside of it. Martínez and Bautista saw very little change in their short lives. But their singing made something possible for the rest of us. It helped the dream of a different world survive.

Amy Littlefield is Music Editor here at Gender Across Borders.

Photos from El Enemigo Común

6 Comments
  1. Clara Fischer permalink
    May 17, 2010 9:11 am

    Amy, this really brings home the point that those who do not have a voice due to violent opposition require the solidarity of others. This can be frought with mixed feelings about relative privilege regarding relative voicelessness, but does it mean that we cannot show our support at all? I’m interested in how you tackled this. Can you tell us some more?

  2. Amy Littlefield permalink*
    May 17, 2010 12:39 pm

    Whew! Clara, I think you’ve raised a key point about solidarity between marginalized groups and the relatively privileged. As a white journalist born and educated in the United States, I struggle constantly with my role in representing marginalized women. I personally don’t feel that anyone can ever “speak for” someone else — and the results of people trying to “speak for” others, even when driven by good intentions, are often silencing. I’ve worked on testimony projects in Oaxaca and with immigrant women here, trying to help erase the gap between the voices of marginalized women and the audience of relatively privileged readers. But I’m not sure that that gap can ever truly be erased when it comes to written testimonies, since there is still a process of translation and making the words of marginalized women “readable” to an audience of the powerful. I realize that even in this post, I have taken words spoken by women I have never met, and imposed my own interpretation. There is a distortion there that does not do justice to the original speaker. But would it have been better not to repeat anything I learned at all?
    When I first went to San Juan Copala, I came back certain that I could never write about the experience. Too many white North American journalists have imposed their views on the lives of indigenous Mexican women, and the situation there seemed too complicated for me to write about with any authority. But in conversation with other journalists and students, I changed my mind. It was a rare privilege for someone who spoke English and had access to the North American media to go to the village. I had a platform among North American readers, and I felt I had an obligation to write about what I had seen. Instead of refraining from writing, I tried to write with a sense of humility and respect for the people I was writing about. While I cannot ever “speak for” anyone else, I believe the most important component of solidarity work is listening. Women, everywhere, are singing.
    I’d love to hear more about your thoughts!

  3. Clara Fischer permalink
    May 20, 2010 12:37 pm

    Your work sounds fascinating and I think you’re absolutely right regarding listening as a powerful tool for solidarity. It’s just such a fine line between representing somebody, giving voice to their concerns to a more privileged audience perhaps like you do, and distorting their position, thereby further adding to voicelessness. I like to think that feminists are aware of this quandary, and you certainly attest to that!

  4. Amanda permalink
    May 24, 2010 12:58 pm

    First and foremost, thank you for addressing the difficulty faced between the dynamic of feminist of the global North and the women of the global South. I recently returned from a short term study abroad in Chiapas (near San Cristobal de las Casas) where we interacted with many indigenous communities,including those from the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army),and non-governmental organizations . One of the central issues myself and the other students were faced with was trying to see where we fit in the puzzle. After a lot of reflection, we asked the members of the indigenous communities what it was that they wanted from us? What role would they like for us to play in their struggle? They unanimously requested our voices. They wanted us to bring their story back to the United States and let their story be heard. That was it. We could offer them money, resources, anything, but all they wanted was our voice. After spending time in these communities and with these amazing, dignifies,and courageous individuals, I am more than happy to offer my voice as a tool in their struggle for basic human rights. I disagree with Ivan Illich insofar as I truly believe that if we, as humans, are able to approach other humans on a platform of mutual respect and dignity, we will be able to realize that we aren’t so different from one another.

    Often times, we get caught up in the politics of situations and forget about the human-ness. If you write from your heart about what you see, hear, feel, touch – your empirical experiences – you will be contributing to the conversation of human rights and women’s rights in a genuine manner. Westerners like to “fix” conflicts, and we approach many situations from that perspective. If we remove the vail of “saviour” and replace it with humility and the ability to listen (as you mentioned, Amy), we will do more to empower these communities and people to make the changes they are capable of making.

    On a final note, I am very saddened by the loss of Bety, Jyri, Felicitas, and Teresa, but I think we should also keep in mind that hundereds, even thousands, of indigenous people have died fighting for the same cause. (Acteal comes to mind.) Their daily struggle to preserve their lives and fight for their lands deserves to be acknowledged.

    Thank you.

  5. Amy Littlefield permalink*
    May 26, 2010 11:27 pm

    Clara, thanks for pointing out the fine line between trying to spread the message and distorting someone else’s voice by trying to represent them. In a way, I think a distortion occurs any time someone uses their voice to speak for someone else. For feminists in the Global North who are trying to “translate” the voices of marginalized women for a privileged audience, distortion seems to be a necessary and an inherent part of the process (since translation, by definition, means making someone else’s words intelligible to an audience that does not always understand the context). But, as you point out, Amanda, it can be a greater disservice to marginalized communities if people who become aware of their struggles choose not to spread the word. Amanda, I think you make a really important point about the importance of mutual respect and humility. I’m glad you also pointed out the strength of indigenous resistance movements in Chiapas. The Acteal massacre is a powerful example of the systemic attempts at annihilation that these groups face, and the EZLN is an example of an indigenous revolution that has received widespread global support. Much of the “speaking” that has come from the EZLN has been from Subcomandante Marcos, who is effectively the group’s leader and voice. What ways have you used your voice in solidarity since returning from Mexico?

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