Food can tell stories, its flavors, smells and colors can take one back home or to a place unknown. There are elements in one’s diet that can also speak of relations between nations and peoples. The language used to refer to a specific ingredient can also reveal where it originally comes from. Food is at the heart of culture and can provide a way to analyze sociopolitical aspects and help us understand historical events such as those related to colonization and imperialism. One can think on the role trade of spices, and food, as well as plantations had in shaping social hierarchies, who had access to these and who were exploited in order for others to consume these goods. What do specific elements in a dish tell about the sociopolitical context of the time? What has been the role of migration in the shaping of a specific dish or a nation’s cuisine?
I love food and grew up in Mexico where endemic species of chiles, corn and other foods have made it to the diets and cuisine of peoples in faraway lands e.g. tomatoes that are essential in Italian cuisine. Another example is chocolate that has gained an important place in international bakery. The story of these originate in Mexico, where chocolate was consumed by Mexica elite in a drink with water and chile since before colonization. Sugar was added after since it was the Spanish conquerors who brought sugar cane to these territories. Red tomatoes are known in Mexico as jitomate, its name comes from náhuatl language xitómatl. This plant was domesticated in Mesoamérica, this means grown and harvested even if it came from South America where it was not consumed at the time. Green tomatoes were never really appreciated in Europe, whereas one cannot think of Mexican cuisine without these. What foods made it into European kitchens had also to do with how these were perceived, how their properties were understood by those who wrote about these. Those who made sure to define and explain what they themselves had little knowledge about. Appropriation of territories also involves appropriation of knowledges and culture.
In the same way colonizers had the privilege of naming local foods, plants, animals …representing these within hierarchies they established guided by their own assumptions about the world; they also defined people and placed them along a social hierarchy based on race-gender. I put these two together as I use feminist philosopher Maria Lugones’ understanding of gender as inseparable of race in what she calls the colonial gender system. There is much we still need to challenge from inherited representations that continue to construct the ways in which we are perceived in order to dismantle the structures that hold white supremacy, in order to create a just world. While I write this, the news from another US police killing targeting and innocent and unarmed black man whose last words were “I can’t breathe” has reached me. His name was George Floyd. Racism cannot and should not be reduced to a racist act, as Robin Diangelo reminds that it is embedded in culture, while institutionally implemented. This means that reducing it to an act prevents those who do not consider themselves as racist, from taking responsibility. This is how white fragility enacted by the most liberal and progressive people sustains white supremacy, as they cannot reflect in the ways they benefit from structural racism, nor in the ways they actually reproduce it in unconscious ways through assumptions.
We all have work to do if we want a just world for everyone. And for those of us who have been racialized and dehumanized, we need to find ways to tell our stories, to share the connections with other peoples’ histories of oppression. To weave our own liberation as a creative radical act of love that holds our own humanity. I go back to my roots and my ancestras for guidance, to the taste of a freshly made corn tortilla, and to a pot of black beans. What are the tastes and smells that sustain and guide you? Where are these rooted?
This PhD has been an intense journey of learning and unlearning full of challenges, something I will be exploring in this post. My work is political, everything I do is political. This is why I took the loving task of doing research differently, of finding the right ways that allowed to tell what is so violent about development (imposing and negating others), and about doing research too (classifying, representing, appropriating, othering, denying); while bringing an epistemology that does not have its roots in western-modern-logics. This means bringing options where one is often told there aren’t any. And as an attempt at decolonizing the field. In what follows I would like to share some of my personal experiences while reflecting on the process of doing a PhD in a European University as a woman of color. Hopefully someone else finds it useful. As peoples from different backgrounds, sex, gender, race… our experiences within Western Academia are also shaped by these intersections. For example, the possibilities of being heard, dismissed or considered are different for white people than for people of color. A supervision team aware of these aspects and power relations makes the journey more bearable, but this “awareness” is rare. What other aspects influence experiences within academia? For example, I think of single mothers whose challenges are different than for those who happen to be able to rely on a partner, or from those who do not have kids at all. Aspects of everyday life, relations, and health can add to the number of factors that make one’s journey in this institution more difficult or even violent.
A PhD can be a very solo journey, these words are an attempt to reach out to others walking on this path. Perhaps these are also a mirror where others who are or have been in similar situations can see their own reflection. Those who are doubting/struggling in their very own PhD journey. I want to particularly address women, and especially those engaging with the decolonial option. Those who seek to decolonize knowledge in whatever way they choose to do so. I know by experience there are huge bumps, cliffs, holes along the way which is not linear. Some of these difficulties have to do with what kind of resources one has in terms of time, budget and actual possibilities (support) in challenging academia creatively with its own tools. There can be several restrictions to engage with decolonial thinking. These become institutional walls similar to those described by Ahmed (2017) that prevent one from moving. Some of the biggest walls can be put in place by supervisors as well as by others above the hierarchy. On top of that, consider what an increasingly neoliberal academia means, and how it shapes the experiences of PhD researchers who are at the bottom. For example, the pressure for publishing, attending conferences, teaching, getting involved in committees and other activities while progressing with one’s own research. These can be quite stressful. It is not surprising that PhDs are at high risk of developing mental health problems, something universities are not necessarily prepared to deal with. This means that if you ever break down or face any mental health problems, remember the system is the problem, not you.
If you are considering a PhD, or are starting one… I want to be honest, it will be exhausting at times, it will be confusing and even scary since it is a path full of doubts. Some of us are hegemonically constructed to embody ambiguity. What I mean by this is that we were meant to doubt ourselves, since our rationality is always in question…There are ups and downs along the way, I remember moments when I wondered what and why was I doing this for…If you are a woman of color reading this, chances are that you will be ignored. I have also been dismissed, I have seen other brilliant women of color being dismissed. Remember you are not alone. The system is set to make you feel small and isolated. Feel the presence of every woman of color who dared to ask the “wrong questions” inappropriately speaking to power as if they were entitled to and as if power could listen…Warning: Power does not listen. Feel the strength of the words written, spoken, bled through generations of women born with a question mark on their foreheads daring to walk into the tower that we hoped was accessible to us. Warning: is not. This only means you will have to open the way, follow the steps of those who have been tracing a path for you to walk on. Find the clues of your ancestors, do not be caught up into the fantasy of the race that one is supposed to compete in. Warning: none ever wins this race. It brings extra hours of work, solitude, burn outs, harms relationships and health. It is one of the strategies of the system to isolate and impede the creation of nourishing communities of mutual support and exchange of knowledges (Icaza 2015). You will need a nourishing community, you may have to plant the seeds for one to flourish.
In what follows I would like to share some tools that I found useful along the way. I do believe though, that each person needs to find what works for them. Find what works for you! These tools allowed me to walk through challenges that were emotional, in relation to personal health, intellectual, and in finding ways to balance different aspects of my life. I am a PhD researcher but that is not all of who I am. This means I dedicate my time-energy to other aspects of my life, to other relations that are not entirely about the research I do, even if that defines a big part of where I go and how I get to be in that place. To these tools I add those reflections that other women doing their PhDs shared with me. Some of these women have children, others do not have funding for their PhDs. This means they have jobs on top of their research to pay the bills. Others have the privilege of focusing on their work since funding is not an issue. This is my case as well, it was not like this during the first year of my PhD. I know too well how difficult it is to have other precarious jobs and do your PhD at the same time. I also know that having funding does not mean one is not living precariously.
I would first suggest doing a visual map of where and how you spend your time-energy, to have it clear what other aspects of your life are meaningful and need to be a priority. Have it somewhere you can see it often.
If family and friends are important to you, then make sure you make the space to nourish these relations. This will have an impact on the emotional aspects of your life.
Sleep if you can! A good sleep is precious and not always a possibility, but if you have the choice and can make it happen, do it! It will be good for more than mental clarity.
Walk, this might sound meaningless, but sometimes one gets caught up in reading-writing mode and barely moves the body…Going for a walk makes a big difference during these times.
Pay attention to your body. I noticed how during the winter I get slower and tried to rest more when possible. Once the darkest times are over, I wake up earlier and try to do more, for me it works. This is to say: find your own rhythm, see if weather/seasons affect your body and if so, use that information accordingly. It is a way of being in sync with one’s own body and respect it. I know… deadlines have no respect for such organic rhythms…
Make room for things that make you happy, it can be a Skype call with an old friend or an evening of cooking with friends.
Find a routine that works for you. My routine includes yoga and meditation. These have been great tools for me. Yoga classes forced me to stop working and get out of the office/house. Meditation helped me deal with stressful moments. I meditate every day and can only recommend it. I know by experience what it does for me. I also know there are several techniques of meditation and finding the right one is important. By that I mean that choose a technique that helps focusing easier, one that “speaks to you” best. And if meditation is not your thing, then find what helps you create a routine that sustains you emotionally-mentally.
Seek support when you need to, take time off when your body calls for it.
If you have a deadline coming and cannot sit down to work (procrastination), but anxiety is increasing, remember how less stressed you will feel if you just start. There is no way around it.
Keep in mind that ideas will come in the most unexpected moments like when taking a shower or washing the dishes so, keep something nearby to write your thoughts. And do not stress too much when things do not flow while you are starring at the screen of your laptop. Do something else instead of writing, it could be reading or searching for material to read…this is to say there are moments in which forcing it is more stressful and less strategic.
A PhD can be a journey that helps one ground in their own skin. Learning what their body needs, how to read-relate to it better. Take this chance to connect with yourself. This can be a form of resistance to the fragmentation and numbness required by dominant academia (Icaza 2015). I find this essential in relating to others, in building nourishing communities of learning-sharing (Icaza 2015). Perhaps this is what I am so grateful about persisting on this quest, that it took me back to my roots and to my body in unexpected ways. I yearn for reaching out, inspired by Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) and particularly with those whose bodies inhabit the border, any kind of border… those whose bodies place them outside the norm (white-male…). I am also inspired by María Lugones (2015) in building coalitions of solidarity from a feminism that parts/acknowledges the colonial difference.
A final advice would be to make sure you can count on meaningful relations that allow you to sustain yourself and others. Take care of yourself and other women around you, support each other in whatever way you can. This is a clue for survival, but also a conscious attempt at doing academia differently. It implies bringing the body into the “body-less” dominant notion of doing research/producing knowledge. It also implies prioritizing life and what sustains it. In the spirit of indigenous feminists walking the path of feminism comunitario who ask to build community wherever we are, and whose vindication of rights come from the community; not from an individual subject. What I am saying is let’s build community, let us walk together, let us recognize, support, sustain each other instead of compete in isolation. Perhaps this is how we can open cracks in the tower, shake its ground and watch it crumble…
Opulence permeates the art exhibit at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn (Germany) where the work of princely painters is currently on display. Princely painters are a bunch of all male, all white and wealthy successful artists from the mid to late 1800s in Europe who lived extravagant royal like lives (ridiculous). They did not all come from wealthy families but their success made them celebrities of their times. They were born in Austria, Poland, UK, Hungary and Germany. These were men who navigated the oceans of aristocracy in a time where European nations were colonizing and benefiting from the empires’ exploitation, slavery and exctractivism in other regions of the world. Germany for example colonized Rwanda and Namibia. These were the times of researchers measuring skulls to try to prove the assumed inferiority of colonized peoples, of peoples of color. Rolando Vázquez explains that from a modernity/coloniality perspective modernity has “the monopoly of representation”. From this perspective the concept of modernity is used to point to the roots of the thinking-logics and culture (Eurocentric) that has had the power to represent itself and assumes its knowledge as universal. Coloniality is what modernity erases (other ways of knowing-being) by establishing itself at the center, and these two (modernity/coloniality) always come together.
What is the meaning of an art exhibit that chooses to portray the royal like lifestyle and work of these painters without the context of colonial history and racism where these paintings originated? The tour guide mentioned that some of these paintings were for years “in the dark” because this art work was highly praised by well known Nazis (Hitler for example) . Why were these paintings so valued and what does this tell about the role art plays in sustaining and reproducing narratives of white supremacy and European cultural superiority, narratives that may potentially translate into hateful actions-stereotypes. In other words: Why this exhibit? And why in this way… By this I mean why so uncritical about the role of these painters in reproducing patriarchal-western symbols that remain in the collective imaginary, and why now? These are the times where politicians in Europe and the US speak of protecting what they imagine as “western values” or “Western culture” from the menacing threat of the (racialized) other. I ask these questions considering the current political climate where the extreme right and fascism is becoming more visible across Europe.
This makes me think about how the role of art is never innocent in its meanings and symbols. And also, about how art can be used politically in different ways. Such use of art responds to questions of its particular historical-socio-political context. I want to bring the following example, Simon Bikindi is a musician from Rwanda who got sentenced by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his songs which are thought to incite hatred and actions during the genocide in Rwanda. There is a good research on the use of music to instigate violence that focused on Bikindi songs by Jason McCoy. One aspect that makes it good in my view is that he asked survivors of genocide, those targeted and also those who were not targeted about the songs. He asked about their meaning, wanting to know their associations with the songs. He also got to interview Bikindi himself, looked at the ICC reports and worked with several people (including Bikindi) in the translations of the songs as to have different perspectives about the meanings. McCoy believes art may not be intended to cause hatred but the feelings and interpretations that those exposed to it associate with it in a particular moment, can indeed reproduce it. He believes music in this way can be used as propaganda targeting those who already have assumptions and stereotypes born out of anger or fear. He states “propaganda only needs a small receptive audience, a handful of true believers, to be effective. A small group of politically powerful, enraged, armed individuals can quickly and easily subdue a large, complacent, and fearful population into obedience, preventing any resistance from organizing” (2013 p. 271). This of course was a context of genocide which is not where we are at in the EU. My intention on brining McCoy’s reflections, is to highlight that art whether paintings or music triggers meanings, interpretations and symbols that need to be looked at critically and in relation to their sociopolitical context.
All Princely Painters did many portraits of the aristocracy and important people of their time. The guide of the museum exhibit mentioned they would preferably paint important wealthy people. The kind of people benefitting from imperial and colonial unequal relations, the ones who benefitted from the structural hierarchies in terms of race and class, the ones who sustained them. There is in their work a notable sense of nostalgia for the Greek and Roman empires. The guide also mentioned there was a constant tribute to painters like Rubens or Titian. The masters, the genius to which they wanted to symbolically relate to. The princely painters’ work includes oriental portrayals evident in clothes and symbols as well as battles, symbols from Greek mythology and Christianity. All with a tone of grandeur. That makes me question how are these images not related and reinforcing the western values/culture narrative white supremacist are so keen to protect? Another thing the guide mentioned was in relation to the art studios of these painters which were exuberant and where they hosted VIP guests. The museum shows an amplified photograph of Austrian painter Hans Makart’s studio where he kept his own art collection and antiques. What is the role of art museums in reinforcing nationalistic sentiments? And how to avoid going in that direction?
I want to be clear on this, the quality of the work of these painters and skills are not into question. I personally like many of the works even thought they do have a disproportionate portrayal of female nudes, but that is not the point. What I am questioning is the way these wealthy painters are being portrayed, and the exhibit itself. There is the question of the message it sends, the meaning of it. Also, it is safe to state that in general art museums do not lack representation of white western men. What I argue is the importance of contextualizing and critically looking at what these works mean in relation to colonial history, white supremacy, the rise of fascism in today’s political climate. I do not think we should ignore the work of the princely painters or simply put it aside as it was preferred for the good old times when to be publicly associated with Nazi ideology wasn’t desirable. I do believe that racism and white supremacy haven’t gone anywhere…so, what I mean is why not using the opportunity to look at these painters and their art work to question historical dominant narratives. This in order to mention the context where these works were produced (imperialism, colonization). Use the art work to see what we are trained not to see (the fallacy of European cultural superiority for example). How institutions produced the idea of the West and sustain modernity. It is dangerous not to do so and a wasted opportunity if you ask me… Culture was a way in which colonized peoples were produced as inferior, uncivilized, backward as not human in relation to the West that represented itself as civilized, rational…it still is. How can museums be more critical and arrange art exhibits in a more constructive way? How to decolonize these institutions?
McCoy said it took years of propaganda and Bikindi’s songs were only one of the forms this took. There were also political speeches that dehumanized people in a way that the genocide could take place. It is precisely when peoples are dehumanized that their bodies become worthless and their destruction do not matter. This is when violence against specific groups of peoples becomes justified. Let’s take then the old white male wealthy princely painters’ work and use it to change the narratives that at least problematize the so called “western culture” instead of blindly reproducing these imaginaries. We need to do better and to no fall in the fear and hatred of the times. Let’s imagine ways to creatively change such narratives so we are able to see each other, to see the human in every being that modernity/coloniality has for so long denied.
Here some images of the humble studios and homes of the so called princely painters
At the Bundeskunsthalle website there is a video where the curator explains about the exhibit (it’s in German) but she does pose the question on why an all white male exhibit. However, she does not really address it. In any case, if you understand German watch it and share your thoughts!
I was avoiding writing this post…it is exhausting to deal with these topics again, and again. A few weeks ago, I was at a small wedding somewhere in Germany. I was not the only guest who could not have a conversation in German and ended up chatting with a guy from Sweden who studied psychology and worked with refugees. At some point during our conversation, he mentioned having experienced racism in Japan (he is white). I was the only person of color in this party. I remember thinking maybe I should not go there…I said it anyways. I told this guy that a white person cannot experience racism, is just not how racism works… What followed was an annoying conversation in which I had to explain white privilege and racism in such a context (a wedding!) to this guy who seemed desperately trying to understand and genuinely curious-confused. However, why was it my task to educate him on his privilege?
A few days ago, an article from Erasmus Magazine presented an interview with a retired ISS Dutch professor who was being asked about his terrible choice in publishing on predatory journals. He not only dismissed the issue but blamed the PhDs from “third world” countries he works with. He stated how these are not all “brilliant and cannot compete on the champions league”. Yes, he basically meant that these PhDs cannot get their research published in the top journals because… coming from the third world somehow implied not being smart-capable enough?! That kind of racist assumption is what we experience in the everyday, by everyone educated or not, in a position of power or not, colleagues, employers, guy at the bus stop… humanity is not a given for everyone. What I mean by this is that some peoples are perceived as human by default (rational, capable, knowledgeable…) but some others have to work on it (show credentials, publish, excel) and still, they never will be perceived as fully human. This is what racism has done, it has created a social hierarchy where some people’s humanity is an impossibility. At the top of the hierarchy is whiteness. Hence, racism is experienced by those that do not inhabit whiteness, those otherized in opposition to it.
Whiteness grants people the possibility of being human, of being promoted, of getting access to positions of power particularly if that comes with being male. The genius, the master, the artist, the theoretical eminence has historically been a white male…mostly from European descent. This has been a matter of power and not of pure talent. Particularly when taking colonial history into account. Those who are concerned with decolonizing knowledge in academia are pushing to show other texts than those written by white dead males. Also, looking to bring true diversity in terms of ways to know that originate in thinking other than western-modern-thought. Localizing knowledge that claims universality. These are all important political choices, particularly when reflecting on how knowledge production has been a way to perpetuate such dehumanization and racist views.
Below I want to bring some resources for those who seek to understand more about this. The links include topics like reversed racism or basically why can’t white people experience racism (that doesn’t mean they can’t experience discrimination based on sex, gender, class…). If you are a person of color, I truly hope you never find yourself having to explain to a white educated, heterosexual Swede that there is such thing as “white privilege” unless you choose that for a living and get paid for it! If you are a white person who has been feeling very uncomfortable reading this and don’t quite get it, please do not be that person at the party who seeks the one person of color to explain them about their privilege… you may also want to look into white fragility (it is a thing!) and white innocence. For the last one the ethnographic work of Dutch whiteness by professor Gloria Wekker is an amazing resource. I know it is hard to discuss these topics, but fuck is necessary! It is also in my experience way harder to do it with people who think of themselves as very progressive and non-racist. Those who assume having black friends equals not being racist yet take no offence in Zwarte Piet or are condescending in their everyday interactions with people of color. These are not the people that would scream something racist in anger, but those who do not reflect on their own racist assumptions about people of color. We all grew up in racist societies so, there are racist assumptions engrained in our ways of seeing-perceiving ourselves and others. If we do not reflect on these, unlearn and question these, then chances are we are reproducing them. If you are one of those progressive people that consider herself as not racist, be open to the conversation instead of feeling offended.
However, If you feel immediately offended by such terms as white privilege, I’ll give you the advice I gave to that guy at the party: Look it up, read the arguments, do your research, read people of color sharing their everyday experiences of racism, read those speaking about it to understand what they are saying, why are they doing it and then reflect on it all. Otherwise you are just rejecting something you do not even want to understand and that is your privilege!
Reverse racism this is the best and funniest explanation I have found.
In this post I want to share a poem that is a call for collective healing and resistance against the violence of dehumanization racialized and gendered bodies have been experiencing as a consequence of colonization. I wrote this poem as a way to express the essence of my research that focuses on resistance to the erasure of ways of knowing-being and the peoples that embody these in a context of feminicide (erasure of specific bodies) in Chiapas, Mexico. My work looks at the politics of knowledge within the field of development studies. I understand development as a project of coloniality. The latter a form of erasure. Coloniality entails erasure of everything that has its roots outside modern logics-ways. The poem is entitled:
“You don’t break our spirits by braking our bones”
The colonial difference I inhabit with this body constructed to not fit the category of human, from generation after generation born out of rape and exploitation this mestizaje has left scars in a society that continues to perpetuate this violence of dehumanization. Black hair, dark eyes, disappeared on her way home from work, from school, her body appears hundreds of times abandoned in the desert, broken and tied on a field, in pieces in a plastic bag. This war is on our bodies but is not our battle, is the accumulation of years of dispossession with the racialization and gendering of our bodies that holds as normal the complete destruction of our beings…we are still not perceived as human beings but possessions, disposable objects of pleasure and what is more pleasurable than the power of destruction money can actually buy?
But to you who feel entitled of taking her breath, our words, you who crumble our worlds and fumigate with hate our wombs, I want to say you don’t break our spirits by breaking our bones, to this system of death I want to say you don’t break our spirits by breaking our bones, reality does not lie, we have been dancing this destruction dance for five hundred years now, believe me, we are here, they are here, you don’t break our spirits by breaking our bones. Our bones carry the stories of resistance of every colonized, dehumanized people, of every woman who fought in resistance of her own feminicide, it’s true, you don’t break our spirits by breaking our bones.
If our bodies are the territories where power is being disputed in this system of destruction then we need to shake this ground, turn the violence displayed on this body made into a battlefield and dance until it falls apart, turn our bodies into prayers where none can set foot but everyone is forced to listen to the rhythm that carries the power of holding oneself in relation to life and as an offering to the memory of those whose lives were taken before they could join in this healing dance of resistance where our hearts follow the beat of the drums.
You don’t break our spirits by breaking our bones.
Art to remember, to make present those whose bodies were destroyed, and their lives taken, to name them and never forget them. This post is about a collective of illustrators from Mexico who have created a virtual platform via Instagram and facebook to make visible the violence of feminicide in Mexico. Feminicide is a term that speaks of gender related violence. Feminist anthropologist Rita Segato explains that the bodies understood under the lens of the feminine are targets of such violence. The collective has been inspired by the action of activist Frida Guerrera Villalvazo who made a list of women who had been victims of feminicide. The long list circulated around social media. The collective is named “No estamos todas” (the feminine for “not all of us are here”). This post is about the work they do and also about the women missing, about the reality of violence that suffocates and targets specific bodies in Mexico. These are the bodies marked by systems of race and gender.
No estamos todas is a project that not only wants to highlight the dimension of the issue but to bring a face, a story, and to make it about “her” who is missing. The illustrators collaborating are not only from Mexico. They are given details of the case of one of the victims to portray her in their own way. While representation is never unproblematic since it always matters who is involved, how and from whose gaze, this initiative is necessary. Thinking on the context where the victims have been denied their own existence and often their families request for proper investigation is undermined, a context where women are erased symbolically and materially. This collective was originally started by two young women who remain anonymous. In Mexico seven women a day are victims of feminicide that mostly includes sexual violence and torture as a way of destroying these bodies. The panorama is scary in a place where the state contributes in the reproduction of such violence by sustaining impunity. This means that most of these cases will never get legal justice. This is why feminist anthropologist Marcela Lagarde speaks of feminicidio not femicidio, to highlight institutional failure, to name it a state crime. It is in this context where ‘No estamos todas’ exists, as a form of resistance to the violence of erasure of these women, their bodies, their stories, their lives. Also, to appeal to the power of collective memory.
Naming the violence is important to make it visible. This has been a feminist struggle to find the terms that allow to seek legal justice, something quite challenging in patriarchal societies where the institutions are part of the problem. Here lies the importance of using the term feminicide that speaks of this type of violence that not every-body is affected by since not every-body is seen under the lens of the feminine. The INEGI National Statistics and Geography Institute recorded 2, 735 violent homicides of women in 2016 only. This violence implies a historical dehumanization that places our bodies as targets and territories to be destroyed, taken. I find hope in creative initiatives that coming from those who are affected by this violent reality, come up with ways to express, confront, heal and resist it. This is a post about those who create these actions and seek to imagine a reality where we do not have to continue searching for the disappeared loved ones. A reality where fear steps back because we found the way to keep the humanity denied to us. Where healing happens as a collective response to the pain experienced by every life taken with each feminicide. As for now, we live in a world that has forced us to be warriors and healers while we find the ways to keep the memory alive, we have to because some lives, our lives, do not seem to matter…we are forced to create, write, paint their names, their stories…This is a post to remember, to contribute in the making of collective memory, to never forget those who are missing.
The day my youngest cousin was giving birth I was praying so she could do it just fine, so she would not have to be taken by doctors last minute to get a C-section. She had decided to give birth with a midwife but was later moved to a hospital, this was in Mexico. I had my hopes on her and on the midwives assisting the birth because I thought she could break the cycle of women in the family getting C-sections. I thought if she could do it, perhaps one day I could do it too. My mother had three C-sections and my sister had one too, even I have a ten centimeters scar below my abdomen despite the fact I have never being pregnant or know whether I can. This did not exempt me from carrying the mark women in my family seem to not be able to get rid of. My cousin’s natural birth meant the world to me, it meant not only the breaking of a cycle of unwanted and perhaps unnecessary medical procedures, but also the re-establishing of old bonds between women who help other women give birth. It implied the holding of a space that has been long denied for us through years of dehumanization and through the implementation of institutional knowledge from which we were mostly excluded.
Midwifery became a practice that was criminalized, diminished and in many countries is still subject to strict regulations meant to separate it from its cultural and spiritual meanings as researcher Maria José Araya points out. Then, there are international institutions like WHO, with the power to set standards and recommendations that translate into policies unavoidably erasing the local practices of midwifery in different parts of the world. An example is found on the research of Allessandra Sarelin on the prohibition of traditional birth assistants in Malawi following such international frameworks seeking to “modernize” the practice. These recommendations are written somewhere else by very privileged people in the Global North. The thing is, European countries have a history of persecution and even burning of midwives. Professor Apffel-Marglin reminds that in the city of Cologne in Germany, most midwives from this region were killed during the times Descartes work was emerging. What was so threatening about these women, their knowledges and practices? To whom do they represented a threat? Let us be clear that their devaluation, criminalization and persecution in Europe had nothing to do with a questioning of their skills, it was about power.
Marxist feminist Silvia Federici writes about the persecution of women during the witch hunt in Europe, related to a process of domestication and disciplining of the body that had to take place in order for the emerging capitalist system to become established. Federici mentions:
“The entrance of the male doctor in the delivery room-stemmed more from the authorities’ fears of infanticide than from any concern with the midwives’ alleged medical incompetence…  …a new practice also prevailed, one that in the case of a medical emergency prioritized the life of the fetus over that of the mother. This was in contrast to the customary birthing process which women had controlled; and indeed, for it to happen, the community of women that had gathered around the bed of the future mother had to be first expelled from the delivery room, and midwives had to be placed under the surveillance of the doctor” (Federici 2014, p. 8).
The research of Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English points to how healers and midwives were persecuted, and their practices made illegal with the help of doctors who benefited from the monopoly on care. Doctors were often called to testify whether a disease was caused by witchcraft. The medical profession was only open to men of a certain class (who could go to university). In Europe the work of midwives became restricted and illegal under the command of the powers of the time (Church, state…) run by men of course. To this day is common to find an acceptance of midwives trained in a biomedical perspective only and preferably under the supervision of a doctor. This is why giving birth naturally, assisted by a midwife can indeed be an act of resistance and an opportunity to re-establish the not completely lost or forgotten bond of trust and care. The one that made sure women could help take care of other women for their own wellbeing. This to strengthen a sense of community mostly undesirable within individualistic values.
It took three days for my cousin to give birth to her beautiful, healthy baby. In many hospitals there is no patience for babies who take that long to slide down a woman’s vagina. There are even international standards (times) for a cervix to open enough so the baby can join us into this world. When these times are not met this is labeled as “failure to progress” and knives most enter into the picture. However, not all bodies obey international standards, some-bodies have their own rhythms. How did this international standards-times come to be established, by whom? Whose ideas and measurements have been influencing the decisions that result in women’s bodies being cut open when it could be avoided? I ask this thinking on how in the 70s in the public hospital in Mexico City where my brother and sister where born, my mom and other women there, were encouraged to feed their babies with formula instead of breastfeeding. It was doctors who recommended this probably based in some popular research of the time. In any case, this resulted in good business for the formula makers but also in women doubting their own bodies capacity to provide something many of them (not all) could do.
There is something perverse in the lack of trust on midwives’ knowledges and women’s knowledge about their own bodies. These have been twisted, diminished and constantly doubted because our bodies have been constructed as incapable of knowing. The only “valid” way of knowing has been through scientific methods disregarding practices of peoples all over the world. However, knowledge production for many centuries and until very recently has been the privilege of men only (mostly white, from European descent). Today only 30% of researchers in the world are women (rarely holding positions of power). Rebecca Dekker points how “Failure to progress” came after a study by Dr. Emanuel Friedman based on observing 500 white women in one hospital in the US. Friedman developed a graph known as “Friedman’s curve” meant to set what normal timing and pace of labor should be. This curve became the standard to be followed by doctors. To this day failure to progress is the leading cause for C-sections. Not until very recently (2014) it was suggested to give women who are in labor more time. The consortium on save labor presented data of a study that included 19 hospitals in the U.S. considering 62, 415 women. The study showed that ” 95th percentile rate of active phase dilation was substantially slower than the standard rate derived from Friedman’s work” (Obstetric Care Consensus 2014). It also showed that the active phase in both, women who are giving birth for the first time and women who have given birth before, starts only after 6cm. This means slower than what it was previously thought. This is why the suggestion was that such data should replace Friedman’s curve. Who has the power to challenge, change and set these standards in terms of race, class, gender…? In this case it was a decision by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine. It is important to reflect on how the decisions taken by such privileged groups of people translate into the concrete experiences of so many women who have no saying on this.
Most of midwives burned in Europe were women who cared for peasants and the poor. These were the healers and holders of knowledges about plants who depended on access to communal land and forests for their practices. In 1486 the very successful book Malleus Maleficarum was published to help identify a witch. This book was endorsed by the University of Cologne a year later and was published several times, only from 1574-1669 it was published sixteen times. Aspects that could help identify a witch were things like being a woman living alone, having pets and being knowledgeable about healing. This book written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger who were Dominican monks, became a tool used for inquisitors to criminalize and destroy women’s bodies. A fate suffered by many who were mostly peasant, poor, some of them healers and midwives. David Elio Malocco remarks that the title of the book itself is the feminine word from Malefica or Maleficus (witch in Latin). Maleficarum was used to refer to women only and Maleficorum to both sexes or male. One can certainly name this book a testament of misogyny for what it represents. Its effects and consequences on the lives of women in Europe are not entirely known, what is interesting is what it reveals of the times, how specific people were dehumanized. In protestant regions this book wouldn’t have been used on trial, this does not mean protestants didn’t persecute and prosecute women for witchcraft. In Germany for example, there is the famous case of the astronomer Johannes Kepler’s mother, Katarina Kepler who was accused of being a witch. Her son Johannes defended her during the long trail. There is a book by Ulinka Rublack where she does extensive archival work to look at the trial, and notes how other women in the region accused of being witches were mostly older and often widows. Ulinka’s research also shows how noble women in what is now Germany where actively involved in producing knowledge about healing, they ran royal pharmacies and were healers too. These women did not appear in witch trials.
Criminalization of midwives is far from being in the past. Even in the so called developed countries there are several restrictions to their practice. For example, in the country that saw the Mallus Maleficarum come into existence (Germany) the practice has been decreasing. Insurance companies with exaggerated premiums have made it almost impossible for midwives to afford the continuation of their practice which has resulted in shutting down birth homes along the country. The ways in which criminalization happens today are diverse but these still translate into the eradication or difficulty in practicing their very old trade. Perpetuating the violence healers, midwives and women have been experiencing for centuries. Science has been used to erase other ways of knowing while justifying racist sexist views about some bodies. People within Europe were persecuted, killed and exterminated. Those that did not abide to the dominant paradigm so intertwined with capitalism. One that commodifies life, makes health a business, sells knowledge and requires an understanding of the body as a machine to be exploited. One where women had no power of decision about their own bodies since their role became primarily in relation to social reproduction. Their non-waged labor as necessary for sustaining capitalism.
Detail of a miniature of the Birth of St. Edmund. England, 1434-1439
What about midwives in other parts of the world? For Mexicas (Aztecs) the practice of midwives who were known as tlamatlquiticitl was essential. These women payed visits during pregnancy and stayed over after the baby was born to make sure all was alright as well as to help the new mother. The use of temazcal (healing steam baths) was a common practice. They were knowledgeable in the use of plants and remedies to help ease pain and induce labor something described by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún in “the general history of the things of New Spain” back in the 16th century. While midwives in Europe were being burned, Mexica midwives experienced the violence of colonization and conquest that saw the imposition of other forms of knowing. The process that would lead to the devaluation of their own ways of knowing. This implied a process of dehumanization where race and gender played an important role in perpetuating such violence. The stories of midwives from colonized territories are not the story of midwives from Europe. The imposition of gender and race as systems of oppression are a characteristic of the devaluation and destruction of knowledges and the peoples these belong to. A characteristic experienced by colonized peoples, including the spiritual and cultural practices tied to different indigenous midwifery. How are current international institutions replicating this violence? In which ways is race inseparable of the assumption on what counts as knowledge and who is capable of knowing?
I seek the possibilities of reconnection with healing practices and knowledges that exist despite violence and constant erasure. A possibility of allowing our bodies to become whole and in relation to life, re-appropriating the skin that holds the chance to know in the ways many have known before me. In Europe fire was used to eliminate those who embodied specific practices and knowledges. In other region of the world it has been used to continue the transmission of other forms of knowledge (for example in temazcal ceremonies). Fire is not necessarily a weapon, it is just fire. However, knowledge can also be a weapon, like fire, it depends on how it is used, produced, for whom, by whom, with what purpose…it does not exist in a vacuum. Acknowledging the history and legacy of colonization, of how some practices become valid and others dismissed provides an opportunity to reflect on our own practices, knowledge, preferences and how we perpetuate or not some of these violent perceptions. I hope to live in a world where many forms of healing practices and knowledges can co-exist side by side without hierarchies and open to critical dialogue amongst them.
Babylon Berlin is a German TV show with more than a great soundtrack. It is set in the end of the 1920’s when the Weimar republic (1919-1933) was about to become history, when nationalists were plotting to end democracy and instead put a strong leader in place, when communists were organizing, people about to feel the consequences of the economic crisis that hit by the end of the decade. This series highlights an already known political climate, we know what happens next, we could wonder time after time how is it that Nazis took over, how people allowed the holocaust to happen, what were the conditions that led to white supremacy turning into what has been recorded in so many films and history books… These questions are the more relevant these days when Austria and Poland have been taken over by white supremacists, when in Spain freedom of expression becomes threatened and people are often criminalized for exercising their right to peacefully protest or when stating political opinions against the monarchy or the state in social media, when in the Netherlands they are trying a pilot program in Rotterdam to strip young people from their expensive coats and possessions if it seems “they should not be able to afford them”, when Denmark approved a law to take possessions away from asylum seekers if these sum up more than 10 000 Kroner. This is the context of Brexit, of an increasingly islamophobic Europe obsessed with the banning/ controlling of Muslim women’s religious attires whether is a head scarf or a burqa, the context of refugees and migrants being treated like the category human cannot stretch enough to embrace their dignity & bodies.
Human rights seem to apply differently to refugees and migrants that are increasingly perceived as threatening to those who hold and would like to protect the white European imaginary. These same rights that are an essential part of western narratives of self-definition and values to uphold to. A few days ago, I attended a workshop entitled “Global turn, decolonization and museums at the Latin American department of the University of Bonn. It was interesting to be surrounded by curators and scholars from a different discipline than mine, who were also concerned with the questions/challenges around decoloniality. This of course in their own fields and work environments. Museums of anthropology are institutions that hold different objects collected from around the world. How these objects were collected matters in this discussion, from where, and by whom.
The conversation unavoidably brought questions of repatriation, something highly political and sensitive. The curators that shared about their works and views were mostly European working from within European museums. Some of them had faced the request for repatriation of objects back to the regions were these were taken or bought from. It was asked whether repatriation would be enough or at least able to heal old wounds. It was also questioned who actually gets these objects (governments, communities) and what do they do to them, how are these then preserved? In my view, what happens to these object after been returned is not the point, the symbolic act of returning can indeed be important for the process of healing those wounds. Also, museums of anthropology are linked to the painful history of colonization and have been reproducing the ideas (dichotomies) of Western/other, Culture/nature, traditional/modern that have translated into historical dehumanization in the objectifying of peoples and their representation throughout the privileged gaze of an expert.
A story that arose feelings of uneasiness had to do with a museum in Spain where back in the nineties there was an attempt to speak of different religions placing the sculpture of a Mexica (Aztec) deity next to a virgin Mary. This caused outrage for it imply “a pagan deity was at the same label of the holy mother”. This was an example on how difficult it is to engage the audience with certain topics including slavery… and this is from a country that still celebrates the “día de la Híspanidad” (national Hispanic day) on October 12th, a country that tried so hard to impose and create a national identity forged by the nostalgia of a long-lost empire. Some of us back in the territories where genocide was committed celebrate the 12th of October as the day of indigenous resistance and like to stress the fact that none discovered the land occupied, claimed, re-named and raped by Cristopher Columbus and every other European conqueror because it was already inhabited. Also, as philosopher Enrrique Dussel mentions, it was the Chinese who first mapped the continent in 1421, these maps made their way to European markets where some saw interesting economic opportunities.
Another example was in relation to an exhibit in Austria on colonialism run by one of the curators present who shared how some people felt it was irrelevant “because Austria do not share that history other European nations do”. As if European western countries that “do not share that history” have not benefitted from the unequal relations and exploitation of former colonized nations… this remind me of Gloria Weker’s white innocence book presenting the ethnography of (dominant) Dutch whiteness in a society that defines itself as progressive and denies its own racism (zwarte Piet…). As if four hundred years of imperialism by the Dutch left no traces but colorful clothes and good Indonesian restaurants… It was mentioned that the role of anthropology museums is to preserve memories. I wonder whose memories are being preserved? Under whose gaze? Who has had the historical privilege of categorizing, classifying, re-naming peoples and their knowledges? Whose meanings are attached to such objects? How do peoples around the world choose to preserve their memory alive? The idea of putting objects to be stored in a sort of mausoleum might just not be the way other people find meaningful.
A big part of the problem has been the resistance from European peoples to identify and acknowledge the violence committed, as well as the negation of that negation. Yes, this unpleasant legacy and the fact that it has left structures of oppression that are still alive from which Europe still benefits today. How were these types of museums implicated in influencing white supremacy and racism in their reproduction of representations about “the other”? Let me place this in the current political context where white supremacy in European countries is once again permeating society and political parties. These museums have the privilege of producing knowledge that should make visible the violence perpetuated and should definitely engage in these sorts of conversations but can these institutions that have often served too as gate keepers of trophies from imperial times be decolonized? In my view this is not possible. I see these museums, the logic that sustains them as products of coloniality just like development that takes peoples as objects of study and that is implicated in extractivism, in shaping/imposing meanings, re-naming from a privileged distant position of power. The times portrayed by the series Babylon Berlin are far from ideal, what we are seeing today is in no way disconnected from that history and from the ideas that placed non- European peoples in museums of anthropology and Europeans in art museums. Ideas that continue to feed the white supremacist imaginary of racial superiority. The fact that I see as hopeless the attempt to decolonize museums of anthropology does not mean I think the conversation should stop, to the contrary, I believe we most continue to engage in this urgently!
Time shows the past is as present as the stolen memories currently in display, we might have to keep looking back to our future before it is too late again.
I recently started to watch the handmaid’s tale which is a series based on a book by Margaret Atwood about a dystopian reality where a group of religious men take over the US establishing a totalitarian theocratic regime. The US ceases to exist and becomes the Republic of Gilead instead. I do not wish to give too many details but I do want to warn that some spoilers may be unavoidable here so think twice before continuing if you are interested in watching it which I totally recommend you do. Anyways, the series portrays a world going wrong or “back to traditional values” meaning: women at home, women serving, restricted use of technology, men taking all decisions concerning absolutely everything. It also shows a society where everyone’s place is made visible not only by the kind of spaces they have access to but by the clothes they are forced to wear (uniforms) for example, the wives of the commanders (men in charge of it all) wear green dresses only. This is all happening in a world where apparently people started to become infertile, only a few children had been born in the US and those lucky fertile women who can give birth to them are now forced to be handmaids (spoiler alert, stop reading now…). This means that they are raped every month to try to get them pregnant by these powerful men. The idea is that these group of elite men can have offspring to continue the society they have created with so much effort (guns).
In the show, at some point one starts to see how it all began between flashbacks in the different episodes. It is not a crazy idea to think of groups of people acquiring weapons in the US where everyone has access to them; it often feels like it is easier to get a gun than a bottle of tequila if you are under twenty-one. These elements are put together with some religious extremism (that also happens to find itself around these days) but inspired in puritanism, adding to the equation some powerful wealthy white men who want to control and “make things better” for…themselves only. One could think this crazy dystopia where women become so restricted and are considered as property, used for the purpose and benefit of the male elite running the show is thankfully just fiction but, I believe reality has shown otherwise. Sociologist Andrés Aubry explained that more than seventy Spaniard colonizers (all males) founded the city of San Cristobal in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. They thought it would be great to bring some women to the newly established city and demanded 200 indigenous women were brought from what is now Mexico City. These women had no choice, they were there to serve them and their purposes… This is the foundation of a city established on death, appropriation, exploitation and rape for the benefit of a small elite of white privileged men.
Stories of dystopias are often inspired in political events, climates, histories about hypothetical futures. These are stories about machines taking over (like in matrix) reflecting old and current fears like severe climate change that leads to extinction and wars, as things that could potentially happen if we keep our ways. It sometimes seems that we forget the fact that apocalyptic moments have already been experienced. I mean that entire nations, millions of peoples have seen their ways of living abruptly and brutally interrupted by others who took their land, their bodies, their gods, and completely destroyed (or at least tried to) their knowledges implementing regimes and systems of oppression previously unknown to them. We can think of older empires such as the Roman subjugating peoples from other European regions; peoples whose gods were killed by Christianity and with them a whole way of relating to life. People who were later persecuted by the inquisition for believing nature was sacred just to end up doing the same to other people time later in a faraway land they claimed to discover (note: one cannot “discover” an inhabited land…).
Before colonizers arrived in Mesoamerica women were respected healers, midwives, spiritual leaders and held other positions. After the colonizers arrived imposing their ways, their views, capitalism, women became property, we still carry the burden of that. How? In my view one way is related to the fact that many women disappear and are killed today in Mexico because of their gender. I believe the handmaiden’s tale is an interesting perspective, a story told by a Canadian woman and writer about a woman in a terrifying scenario. I also believe the oppression and violence enslaved, indigenous and colonized women have experienced in their bodies is relatable. There is no fiction about that type of oppression.
It is also true that not all women are or have been oppressed equally, some have reproduced and even benefited from the oppression experienced by other women. This too becomes evident in the series, just as women from the British, Dutch and other empires participated in the oppression of other women from the colonies. Another example of these non-fiction dystopian experiences are the boarding schools were the Canadian state put First Nations’ children taken by force from their families. Antwood comes from a country that carries that history where settlers came to Turtle Island and named it Canada. Imposing a name is erasing an identity, ignoring the meaning and history of the land and its peoples, it is a violent act. As much as I enjoyed watching a good story well told like this one, I also wish for this new year that we can come up with stories that not only reflect what has happened in terms of the violence experienced and the horrible possibilities of it happening again. Perhaps it is also time to create stories about the worlds that are so desperately desired by many where life (humans and non-humans, the environment) is not a resource or a commodity, where we can live together in more equal terms, establishing healthier societies…I know this is way harder to imagine than a perfect dystopia but we better fucking try!
I offer no recipes but want to share my personal experience on this topic. I do this mainly because mental health illnesses are still a taboo and because I am still looking for ways to support those I love. There are examples of people who find creative ways of sharing their stories living and struggling with mental health. These stories are necessary to challenge stereotypes and also to let those who are going through similar experiences know they are not alone in this struggle. However, the stigma is so strong that it is completely understandable if people choose not to be open about it. I want to write about something related to this, I want to write this post about the experience of growing up, living and loving someone who has faced a mental health problem. I want to share how little prepared we are, how we can fail to know how to properly support someone facing this. In my case I was a kid and later a teenager when a member of my family experienced depression. I will refer to this person with the pronoun them to assign no gender and protect their identity.
I remember not knowing what to do when they told me how they wanted to die. The feeling of helplessness and fear that took over me. Also, anger, how could this person that I desperately loved and needed could not see how much I depended on their love, affection, and presence in my life? I tried suggesting things to do together like going out for a coffee, or to the movies but I could not fully understand that a person going through severe depression does not necessarily want to go out for a coffee or cannot get themselves to do so… I saw them shrinking until their body was so small that I was afraid they would just disappear. It was a scary picture that my fifteen-year-old me did not know how to deal with. Sometimes I was just around but they did not seem to notice and sometimes I opted for stepping back, giving them the space and solitude it seemed they wanted to have. Retrospectively, I wish I would have been more present than less, I wish I had known what was required for me to be able to support them however heartbreaking the whole thing was to witness.
The other day I bumped into this comic that was about a family, a man who is a father and about his relationship to his family. I looked at more of his work and realized this man/artist/father was also portraying his own depression in the everyday moments of his family life. I was very touched by his work that made me think about my own family and how important it is to show love and support to the person who is going through something like depression. There is indeed no manual to know how or what to do but I have come to realize that a big part is to just BE PRESENT. One cannot take their pain or sense of helplessness away but can be there for them throughout the episode to remind them how loved they are, how they are not alone. In the case of my loved one, they got therapy and medication, eventually came back to their own selves. These two things: therapy and medication are unfortunately not available to everyone, they remain a privilege some can have access to. This is also a way in which we fail as a society in being able to support people with mental health illness, or with any other health problems for that matter. I read this piece on how to connect with people with depression that mentioned 300 million people live with it around the world. However, people suffering from mental health have been historically discriminated and stigmatized, locked in hospitals under horrible conditions. I know the history of western medicine is not the only history of how mental health has been perceived and treated, I wonder how it has been in societies that were not individualistic in principle or that have different understandings/meanings of health, body, illness and how to treat them. For example, the research of María Eugenia Ruiz Velasco points that in Mesoamerica health reflected the equilibrium of a society, so one person being ill concerned the whole community and environment. This is still the case in communities of the different originary pueblos in Mexico.
I wish we talk about mental health more often, that we share our stories to continue raising awareness on this, to break the stigma and discrimination that exists. As for people that do not live/struggle with mental illness, I hope they find ways that work for maintaining health and balance in the every day. Things that can be as simple as spending time with a loved one, walking a dog, a night out dancing with friends, whatever keeps the heart happy! When it comes to wellbeing, art remains for me one of the ways in which I deal with stressful situations and a medium to release/channel strong emotions (fear, pain, anxiety…). Truth is, one does not need to know how (technique) to paint, a simple piece of paper, one pencil or color would do. In my art therapy training, I learned how using art one can create a safe space for others to work on their own emotions. That’s something I would like to do more, to create that space. I will not suggest my way is the way for everyone, I just want to highlight that we should find our very own little strategies to cope with this stressful ever-changing world and with the realities we are faced with. Also, to be aware of those around us who may be going through an episode of depression and need us not to judge them but to be there for them.
Here are some images from the comic I mentioned above by Christopher Grady whose book is called Lunarbaboon: The daily life of parenthood.