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