In Latin America, the idea of motherhood is revered while real life mothers who dare say no to violence are denied many of their basic human rights. In this region, a mother is supposed to be the self-sacrificing female at the center of the family. She is the nurturer, protector and educator of the children. She is the goddess of the hearth but only if she never ever questions the authority of the father. In many countries, such as El Salvador, where abortion is criminalized under all circumstances, she is even expected to give her life freely for the unborn child, even if this unborn child has no expectation of life beyond her uterus and even if she is a mother to other children. In other words, mothers, though revered, are not persons.
Brenda Rodriguez, Diana Mayén and Monserrat Sangabriel, Activist Mothers of Xalapa. Credit: Mayela Garcia, CIDEM
Yet in the late 70s, when many countries in this region were under regimes characterized by widespread disappearances and extra-judicial killings of those perceived by the State to be “leftists”, these same non-persons organized into mother´s associations. We have all heard of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an association formed by women who had met each other while trying to find their missing daughters and sons, who were believed to have been abducted by agents of the Argentine government during the years known as the Dirty War (1976–1983). But similar associations were formed, and are still being created in many other countries. One such organization was formed in El Salvador after the “march of women in black” organized to protest the massacre of 27 students on July 30, 1975. The march was attended by over a thousand women who later organized themselves into the Committee of Mothers and Relatives of the Politically Detained, Disappeared or Murdered. All these mothers decided that instead of remaining isolated in their homes and passively accepting their tragedy as mothers of the disappeared, detained or murdered, they would use the cultural reverence for motherhood and their own “mother’s love” (two things considered to be private, natural, and nonpolitical) to organize against the dictatorial regimes by bringing to the political arena their demands for the reappearance of, or freedom for, their children.
How did they do it? They decided to believe in the “power of motherhood” which was fed to them since their childhood by images of the Queen of the Heavens, the Holiest of Mothers, the Virgin Mary, believed to be an advocate before her Son´s court for truth and justice. With Mother Mary as their mentor, they took responsibility for dealing with their grief by taking collective action in order to get their children back. Though not focused on challenging gender systems or the sexual division of labor, they laid the foundation for the feminist critique of the arbitrary division between private and public spheres which was central for the later acceptance of women's rights as human rights in 1993 in Declaration of the U.N. World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna. It was this blurring of the two spheres which had led feminists to assert that violence against women in the domestic sphere should be considered a human rights violation, and not a private matter to be resolved by the couple. Furthermore, these mothers created a new form of political participation outside the traditional party structures and based on the values of love and caring. Motherhood allowed them to build a bond and shape a movement which is still operating in Argentina, for example, where the Mothers continue to press governments to comply with their human rights obligations. A movement which used the same human rights approach that was helping to free our Latin American nations from formal dictatorships, to free women from dictatorships in their homes. In doing so, they began what could now be considered a “tradition” of the political use of motherhood to achieve certain goals.
Madres Activistas de Xalapa (Activist Mothers of Xalapa) meeting with the president of the Women´s Commission of the State Congress. Credit: Mayela Garcia, CIDEM
And that is precisely what the Madres Activistas de Xalapa (Activist Mothers of Xalapa) are doing in the State of Veracruz in México. These activist mothers have been trying to get back their dissappeared-from-their-life children through individual struggles with a corrupt and sexist judicial system, some of them for years. But their struggle has now become public, and they have taken up political motherhood as their framework, winning an award from the Supreme Court of Mexico for their documentary on their plight. This documentary, entitled Activist Mothers of Xalapa and directed by a well known feminist human rights activist and educator in Veracruz, Mayela García, clearly demonstrates the feelings of empowerment these mothers experienced after they came together to demand justice.
This new use of political motherhood began on July 23rd, 2012 when Brenda Rodriguez called two other mothers, Diana Mayén and Monserrat Sangabriel whom she had met during her long hours in the buildings of the judicial bureaucracy. After discussing their options, the three of them decided to call on the Governor of the State of Veracruz because they were convinced they would never get justice if they continued to follow the long and arbitrary legal procedures where their husbands or ex-husbands had so much more power than they did, two of these husbands because they had friends in high places, but mostly because the Mexican legal system, like most legal systems, is biased in favor of men ( especially in cases where wives and mothers are involved). These three mothers had been fighting for shared custody of their children after their husbands had falsely accused them of domestic violence, or had used an outdated legal mechanism called “depósito” to place the children out of the mothers reach by placing them with someone other than the parents. Brenda has been going through this ordeal for over six years, and during this time she has not even been able to see her son who is now nine years old.
"To make this even worse, she is obligated to pay alimony to her husband and child support for her son”, explains another activist mother, Nancy Correa Grande, who has been going through this ordeal herself - but “only” since a little over a year ago. Nancy´s husband had accused her of domestic violence even before kicking her out of the house and getting a judicial order which prohibits her from seeing her sons on the grounds that she “abandoned them. “This proves to me that he had the intention of hurting me by taking my children away from me since the accusation of domestic violence was filed by my husband two months before he began to abuse me and finally kicked me out of our house.” She now works for CIDEM, the organization that helps the Mothers with the legal procedures, while she continues to go from judge to police to judge again, trying to get the judicial system to review her case.
One of the mothers being kissed by her son. Credit: Mayela Garcia, CIDEM
This never ending judicial bureaucracy is what pushed the first three mothers to call on the Governor of Veracruz; they wanted to inform him of the many irregular and downright discriminatory practices they have faced in their search for justice. But the Governor did not grant them a hearing, so the next day, July 24th, they stood in front of the State Mansion with their demands and pictures of their children. In a few days the three became ten, then seventeen and now they are more than twenty. They want their children back, at least in shared custody, but their priority is the reform of the justice system so that domestic violence cannot be used against mothers, especially when it is they who have been the victims of this violence - as has happened in almost all of their cases. They are also pushing for the inclusion of the crime of “parental alienation” in the penal code so that neither parent can manipulate the children against the other parent.
These Mothers have gone through hell and yet they are not vengeful. They want the best for their children, and therefore do not want to deprive them of their fathers even if these same fathers have lied and bribed their way into getting full custody. And the sad part of it is that many of these fathers who have deprived their own children of their mothers, don´t even live with them after they have won the legal battle for their custody but have left them in the hands of their own mothers. As one of the fathers told one of the mothers: “You will never see your children again, this is my punishment to you for defying me as your husband.”
It is really inspiring that after all they have gone through, including being jailed and having to pay alimony to the man who took away their kids, these mothers have understood that real motherhood is always political because it is not about thinking only about your immediate family, or about what is best for your children in the same narrow sense that these fathers have defined their fatherhood before the courts. It is about thinking about what is best for their children, and the children of their children, and the structures that they will need to form their own families. Political motherhood is about defending human rights way into the future but starting in the present. And that is why these Activists Mothers of Xalapa are the true daughters of those mothers who for the first time united their individual power as mothers to create a collective political motherhood that has resisted so many patriarchal institutions in the past, and could well be the driving force of a new society based on nurturing life instead of selling it.