The alliance between Zapatistas, sex workers, and transvestites shows the power of social change in a key cultural way-when it’s anchored to daily life. In Mexico, one of the strongest and most overbearing enclaves of patriarchy and machismo, Subcomandante Marcos has opened the doors to debate about discrimination in a controversial area.
What purpose is there, in classic revolutionary logic, in covering thousands of kilometers to meet with a handful of whores and crossdressers? What can such alliances offer to strengthen the “accumulation of power,” any professional politicians’ central task? It seems obvious, from a cost-benefit analysis, that this type of effort should be useless. However, Subcomandante Marcos has been committed to this kind of meeting since January of last year under the auspices of The Other Campaign (La Otra Campaña), with the understanding that it means looking for new ways of doing politics. It passes through places that are far from the madding crowd and takes place with actors who, like indigenous people, understand social change as an affirmation of difference.
Brigada Callejera de Apoyo a la Mujer (Women’s Supportive Street Brigade) is a Mexican collective that has managed, in the last 15 years, to weave a wide net of social work with prostitutes and transvestites, called the Mexican Sex Work Network. This has meant transcending the “victim” role and becoming people who want to be recognized as workers by their peers, not seen as beings who have “fallen” into the world’s oldest profession through ignorance, poverty, or submission. A quick look at what they have tackled so far reveals a deep work of emancipation.
Education, Clinics, and Condoms
A differentiating characteristic of the Network is that its members don’t want to depend on the State, although they are constantly criticizing it. Street Brigade began its work 15 years ago, its base a group of sociology graduates from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The small initial nucleus-Elvira Madrid, Jaime Montejo, and Rosa Icela-began to weave a net that now reaches 28 of Mexico’s 32 states. Over time they chose to work in a horizontal form, but not for ideological reasons. “The government co-opted many state coordinations, a habitual practice in the political culture of this country, so we saw that the best way to work is horizontally, in an assembly style, and trying not to have representatives,” Elvira points out.
The Network encouraged women to form cooperatives to avoid dependence and to make themselves the bosses of their sources of employment. They rented hotels and shared the profits among the members. The first were the transvestites who formed the cooperative Angeles en Busca de Libertad (Angels Searching for Freedom).
“The cooperative hotels exist in various states but some of them failed because the members would end up replicating the same behavioral patterns as the ones they were organizing against,” Rosa comments.
But the star project, the one most valued by the workers, are the clinics. Two clinics already exist in Mexico City and are self-managed and free of charge. They were born from the corruption and discrimination of the state organisms that only provided them with services through bribery. Moreover, Elvira indicates, “Getting tested scared them because it could mean loss of income, given that when a girl has AIDS there are state governments that will put her photo up in hotels so that they don’t give her a room.” On the contrary, in the Network clinics tests are voluntary and confidential, emphasizing education. “The majority of sex workers are illiterate and many are indigenous. For this reason we dedicate most of our efforts to education, to the point that most of the participants in the Network are health promoters and educate their peers, which is much more effective.”
The clinics, one of them situated in the center of the city right in the “red light district” offer colposcopies and pap smears and also electrosurgery because, as Rosa says, “in Mexico papiloma viruses (HPV) cause more deaths than HIV.” While inefficient public hospitals have two-month waiting lists for being seen and one year waiting lists for surgery, the Network clinics’ results are ready in just a week.
The prostitutes and the transvestites seem enthusiastic about “their” clinic, where they often bring their partners, and where some even drag their clients. “The main part of our work is respect. We don’t ask why they got infected, rather we concentrate on educating them so it doesn’t happen to them again, so they aren’t just patients any more, so they begin to be active participants in their health care,” Elvira says. The project is rounded off with a food program for people with limited resources or who for some reason can’t work, a school assistance program for the kids, and another to help mothers finish school.
The Network’s projects are financed by “social condom marketing.” Condoms are sold at different prices depending on the ability and responsibility of the buyer, and represent 85% of the Network’s income. No one is salaried and the only people who are paid for their work are the doctors. “We don’t agree with sex work, but it exists and will continue to exist, and in the meantime we have to do something. We were an abolitionist group but later we saw that it wasn’t about saving anybody, but really about working together,” Jaime intervenes. For those who are looking for alternatives to sex work, there are productive projects, the most outstanding of which are handicrafts, production and sale of clothing, and condom stores. Although some projects have turned out to be unviable, as families collaborated they managed to keep two-thirds of the attempts open.
Survival in the Jungle
In 2004, the members of the Street Brigade came into contact with the Health Collective for Everyone (Colectivo de Salud para Todos y Todas), university students who coordinate health projects in the autonomous Zapatista communities in Chiapas. For two years they worked with a group of health promoters in the communities, indigenous people chosen by their neighbors to specialize in sanitary assistance. “One of the first challenges was breaking the fear of supposed cultural resistances about the subject of contraception, sexual and reproductive rights, and sexually transmitted diseases,” they relate.
During these consultations and workshops they chose the themes that would later resurface in the elaboration of a long and densely-named manual: The Other Campaign of Sexual and Reproductive Health for the Indigenous and Peasant Resistance in Mexico. Over 270 pages, this text, full of detailed illustrations designed for work with indigenous women, covers the usual issues like anatomy and physiology of the reproductive organs, use of contraceptives, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other illnesses. They also speak of abortion, although the catechists condemn it. “Samuel Ruiz, a man who is very close to the indigenous people, toured the communities when the Zapatistas decriminalized abortion, saying that it’s a crime,” Jaime remembers.
But there are sections imbibed with diverse currents of alternative health. One of these concentrates on “women’s bodily autonomy,” which covers education on how to avoid illnesses, choosing how many children to have, and how to enjoy one’s sexuality (almost a taboo among indigenous people). Bodily autonomy supposes, according to this manual, the exploration of the senses, connection with language to do with the body, and the different reactions of the body in extreme situations. Collective and self-massages link this to a holistic conception of health and curing.
Can Transvestites Change the World?
Can indigenous people? Half a century ago, one of the founders of so-called “scientific socialism,” wrote that the proletariats could change the world because they had nothing to lose “but their chains.” Today, the heirs of those proletariats are rebellious at the hour of losing privileges like steady work and retirement, they refuse to pay taxes, and they strike to avoid being charged the tax on their income.
Marcos himself hints at this in his epilogue to the manual, laying bare how the alliance between health and sex is one of the strongest nuclei of social control. “Capitalism converts health into a market good, and health administrators, doctors, nurses, and all the apparatus of hospitalization or health distribution are also turned in to a type of foreman of this business, turning the patient into a de facto client, from whom the object is to get as much money as possible from without necessarily giving more health back in return.” It seems to be no coincidence that, along their dependency-breaking road, the Zapatistas have run up against the area of prostitute health and organized transvestites, groups that have been forced to take control of healthcare into their own hands. Seen in this light, some people belong in the “disposable” category, barely even having chains, material or symbolic, to lose.
Translated by Nalina Eggert.
RAÚL ZIBECHI is a member of the Editorial Council of the weekly Brecha de Montevideo, teacher and researcher of social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to social groups. He is a monthly collaborator of the IRC Americas Program .