How do we create international solidarity? What possible connections exist between the struggles of immigrants from Northern Africa in Spain and those fleeing violence in Central America? How, in a world that is over-saturated by the immediacy of the 24 hour news cycle, can we possibly understand the structural roots of human rights violations? Recently, I had the opportunity of speaking to an organization that is working to answer these very questions – and more – building and strengthening transnational networks of solidarity during the times of Covid-19.
Las Vanders is a feminist pro-migrant organization based in Mexico City. Their mission is to assist immigrant women and people in the LGBTQ+ community, both those transiting through and those seeking refuge in Mexico, by helping them to access goods and services, such as healthcare and housing, and in carrying out government processes. Central to everything they do is a reliance on community networks – locally, nationally, and internationally, to encourage the exchange of strategies and experiences in assisting migrants. The organization consists of both Mexican and immigrant women.
Recently, during COVID-19, Las Vanders organized a series of three webinars that created a space for the exchange of ideas, experiences, and strategies between women leaders and activists across Mesoamerica, the United States, and Spain. The first was a discussion centering the experiences of women migrants within Mexico, the second focused on Mexico and Central America as a broader category, and the third was a conversation between three immigrant activists in Los Angeles, Mexico, and Spain, who spoke to their own experiences defending rights in both their countries of origin and the countries they have immigrated to.
The participants of the third webinar were the following: Odilia Romero is the director of the organization in California Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo DBA CIELO (Leadership in Indigenous Communities) that provides services and defends the rights of undocumented indigenous folks from Mexico living in the United States.
As a Zapotec woman from Oaxaca, she also defends the linguistic rights of indigenous communities in Mexico. Karen Rodriguez is a Honduran Immigrant living in Spain, and is a member of the Red de Hondurenas Migradas (Network of immigrated Honduran women) that fights for human rights both within Honduras and for immigrants in Spain, and Helaines Herrera is a Venezuelan refugee living in Mexico, who is also a member of Las Vanders, where she is in charge of connecting immigrants to services.
What resonated in the conversation between these three leaders is that, while the particular needs of the communities they serve may be distinct, there are many structural similarities that limit the rights of women and immigrants throughout the world. The strategy known in Spanish as “tejiendo redes” (literally translated to knitting networks) connects these leaders globally, by allowing them to share their experiences, and to collectively make demands to governments and combat systems of oppression.
Maintaining these transnational networks is a measure of mutual respect and support, and it creates space not only to fight unjust institutional oppression, but to imagine the possibilities of a just and fair world, even in the darkest moments of a global pandemic.
I spoke with Daniela Flores, the director of Las Vanders, and Teresa Gonzalez, the director of documentation, to learn more about their strategies for building international networks and fostering relationships across borders. We also spoke about the organization’s past projects, and why they see it as essential to center art and artistic practices in the fight for immigrant’s rights – not simply as a means of representation, but as direct political action.
In their own words, “migration is a social movement that fights for life.”
LR: How was Las Vanders founded?
Daniela Flores: I like to think of it in retrospect as a space of resistance, and a “block of resistance,” and of the work of women that met together in 2016. Because we were experiencing a large amount of violence close to and towards us: towards our friends, towards our own houses, against our own lives.
We had a moment when we said, where does one start so that this doesn’t keep happening to us, but that it also doesn’t keep happening to our sisters, and to our nieces?
So I thought of forming a space of resistance, as a block. As a repository for our worries, to explore how we could stand up to the situation in Mexico […]. And that’s how we began, and later we began facing more towards defending human rights, affecting political change, and towards work processes that we are close to.
We began to accompany women migrants, as well as girls, and people in the LGBTQ+ community, and for us it has been a fight that crosses over with many other fights. That is to say, it’s not only a fight for the defense of people that are in transit, that are migrating, rather in those fights we find the opportunity to fight for freedom.
Fighting for the free passage of immigrants means fighting for one’s body, it means fighting for the freedom to make decisions, it’s fighting in defense of territory; it’s a fight that is intersectional with many other fights.
It is very important for us to understand these intersections, and that this is not an isolated struggle, that this is not a system of public assistance, but rather a social movement. And a social movement in front of the necropolitical and capitalist system, that is being driven forward in Mexico, Mesoamerica, and Latin America.
Accompanying Migrants and The Important Role of Visual Art
LR: What are the principle activities of Las Vanders?
Teresa Gonzalez: Our main activities are the direct accompaniments that we provide to migrant women, girls, and youth, as well as in the LGBTQ+ community. We act as mediators in providing access to goods and services. The process of immigrating is becoming more acute in both Mexico and the United States, and even more so in Mexico where there are deeply-rooted historical institucional fractures.
Therefore, it is very complicated for migrant women to access goods and services without an intermediary. We focus on being those intermediaries, and to accompany women, but we also accompany in artistic practices for the same people, and as a form of creating a dialogue with civil society, and with other key actors in society.
We see art for migrant people not as a process of reflection, but rather as a pedagogical process that creates experiences, and that has great potential to generate actions. For us, art is also a form of accompanying, but it’s also a way to affect politics, and it’s also a form of resistance. It’s also another way to defend the rights of migrant people.
They are denied many rights, from the very right to assert their identity, to what their name is, to their language – for all of these reasons as well as many others, art is a state of recreation, a space for reflection, and for political action. We make use of artistic practices such as writing, theater, and embroidery. We create actions of resistance, dynamics, or workshops that seek to create safe spaces for reflection.
In those artistic spaces what we strive for is that in spaces that are safe both physically and emotionally – that is to say, where they can be heard and understood from their experiences – that they can rethink their own experiences and give them new meaning.
Artistic practices also represent bridges to be able to handle complex subjects, but also to create connections with the rest of society, in order to create dialogues of empathy, to make visible the problems that they are going through. For example we have a beautiful workshop called “tapesares,” [“tapiceria” means upholstery or tapestry making in Spanish, while “pesares” means grief or (emotional) weight].
This workshop creates a very deep dialogue of empathy between women – to get rid of the weight of a woman that arrives and to help her with her burdens, which is a symbolic gesture, but it opens new spaces.
We believe deeply in affecting change from the basis of community for various reasons. As Daniela mentioned we formed our organization with the idea of collective work, and many of us have participated in diverse fights.
We arrived here with the lessons learned from them, and they lead us to bring these strategies to our work and in most cases our work is between people because we also see a strong growing political fracture – I think that it is happening more with the younger generations – in that we feel more and more that these spaces of democratic, electoral, representation don’t represent us.
And for that reason we search for other types of spaces to affect change at the community level. We deeply believe that this is the way to articulate ourselves, like we have done with the migrant caravans when we worked directly with the participants – in that case there wasn’t the organization Las Vanders, but we worked with the compañeras that formed Las Vanders.
For example in the earthquake here in Mexico there was a well coordinated collective effort, from different agents in civil society that gave us this model of learning, to the work in a network and to work collectively, and direct intervention; it was this collective work that rescued a country that had collapsed.
From all of these learning experiences it is very important to us to affect change directly, collectively, with an intercultural mediation, because we believe that the first step to recognition, to respecting the other, is the recognition of identity, and this identity passes through the notion of culture.
On the other hand we also believe in forming bridges of dialogue within communities.
Daniela has worked on this part: conflicts in migration detention centers where we see here in Mexico how in very multicultural spaces conflicts are often detonated for those distinct cultural differences.
But culture is also a bridge, and at the end of the day when migrant people get to know one another across those bridges it happens that in reality they have great intercultural understanding, of traditions, and of costumes that they adapt to, and that enriches an entire system.
And on the other hand we believe this bridge is a mediator that opens new languages.
LR: What are some concrete examples of the accompaniments that you carry out? How do you relate the accompaniments, such as assisting in migration processes and guaranteeing access to goods and services, with artistic practices?
Daniela Flores: For us artistic spaces represent a space of power. That’s to say, we work with art not as a message, but as an experience. We use it as a way to create space for questions, to be able to say, what is it that you would like to create? What is the strength that you need?
If you arrive in a country and you are in a vulnerable state and you aren’t a privileged migrant, the space for your desires are reduced. The only things you can aspire to are to find a job, go to your house, and repeat – you lose the space to desire.
Therefore we strive to create spaces for desires, to create spaces through artistic practices in which what we want is – I am going to say something that might sound dumb – to have a a good time [pasandola rico]. We are so often taught to have a bad time, especially when you are in a complicated situation, and you are nothing more than a victim.
You aren’t allowed to produce other narratives, and other meanings. We have done work with dance, we did many projects with embroidery because we believe in the economy of solidarity, and we have projects to produce narratives. We believe in art because we believe it is a space of strength for experiences, for something that you aren’t going to experience in any other way.
Teresa Gonzalez: Some examples – we have embroidery workshops, we were invited recently to a migrant shelter, and we can also create spaces within shelters. Currently with social distancing, we are developing tutorials that people can follow, for embroidery for example. We are making very simple tutorials, that can be facilitated by the shelters themselves, or can be viewed from one’s phone.
We have also created workshops for embroidery on handkerchiefs, as a way to talk about the rights of women – the right to decide, the rights of their own bodies as well. To reclaim this idea we have done projects with giant bodies, as a way to reclaim this first territory of the body when it gets lost in the path of fleeing. Many women migrants also flee from violence, and the first violence is often against the body, so these activities of embroidery for example also help us to symbolically and materialy reclaim this territory that has been violated.
Latina Republic: In addition to the tutorials that you are developing, what have been the main actions of Las Vanders during the difficult times of COVID-19?
Teresa Gonzalez: Yes, we have done a variety of things in Las Vanders. The demand for accompaniments during this time of confinement has risen. We have the experience of accompanying remotely; even though we are in Mexico City, at any moment we can be directly contacted to accompany the needs of people in Tapachula, in Nuevo Leon, at the northern border, and in processes in Central America.
Just like the rest of the population, we were completely unprepared for COVID-19, and had little knowledge of the virus. The first thing we did was to create a manual for accompanying remotely – the manual included health measures, as well as how to give psychological attention.
That was a first step, and on the other hand we also created the “fund for urgent action” as a mechanism in solidarity; it was a mechanism implemented by our partners in our networks, and in solidarity they began to raise funds, from who could make donations, and searched for organizations to give resources to, so that they could reach women migrants, that had lost their job, that were searching for a stable life.
So these networks of solidarity worked to cover all of the voids left by indifferent politics on the part of the Mexican government, and not only for women migrants, but also for people here in the city of Mexico that have been forcibly displaced.
Webinars: Cultivating A Virtual Space for International Solidarity
And on the other hand we also created a series of webinars, as a political action as well, as a form of recognizing that women, and migrant women, also exist. They aren’t named in all of the reports that we have seen; many reports speak of “migrants, migrants, migrants, and day workers,” but there are also women day workers, and there are women workers that have their children in the field, and there are members of the LGBT community that are suffering discrimination in migration detention centers.
Or there are compañeros that are HIV positive and aren’t receiving any type of treatment. The webinars were created as a political action to name and say that women migrants also exist, and we want to know what is happening to them in Mexico.
We created a dialogue with organizations here in Mexico, to understand what is happening to those in transit here in Mexico. On the other hand it was to understand what is happening in their countries of origin, and in transnational routes.
It is very difficult to create a memory of those migratory processes because in our organizations we are very focused on attending to the problems at hand, and we have very little space for reflection, or to write about an experience. Ultimately our memory allows us to leave a testimony to the violations of human rights, which creates new antecedents for the appropriation of memories, and for the new transformations of movements.
We believe that migration is a social movement, that fights for life and that is searching for a dignified life.
On the other hand also the networks – to speak about resistances, because in the middle of a very devastating panorama, many resistances are being created, and an imagination and articulation of efforts to counteract these violations of human rights are emerging. And to knit networks.
We work in a network because we don’t have our own infrastructure, and if someone contacts us in Tapachula, we look to our networks in Tapachula. But also in Central America, and transnationally – just after the webinars compañeras from Brazil and Colombia have written to us, and our bonds have strengthened with the partners we invited.
LR: I am fascinated by the concept of knitting networks. Could you tell me more about this strategy? It seems like when institutions aren’t bothered by migrant people, it is civil society that needs to make up the difference.
Teresa Gonzalez: Yes, it’s like the dispute for those memories, and to speak also about the human rights violations, because it’s true that we are entering as a collective of civil society to cover those fronts, but on the other hand we cannot lose sight of the demands we make of the government, and of states, and what their roles are in these moments – or what their roles should be.
So those networks are also networks of political articulation. When we look to form or strengthen a network against the violence faced by women migrants, on the one hand we attend to their needs, and on the other we don’t stop denouncing the institutional voids.
We see this largely in Central America where their rights are violated three, four, or five times by each country, and where the governments are aso violating pacts. The webinars were also a political action to say what the governments aren’t doing and to denounce these things, such in the first conversation when the participants denounced systematically that the right to petition for asylum is being denied.
It’s a silent mechanism [of the states] that appears almost invisible, but with these immediate deportations we need to speak about these individual histories that are also political, and that is where the idea of the webinars comes from.
LR: Yes, and this dynamic of immigration is not only taking place in Mesoamerica, it’s also happening in Europe, in very similar ways on both sides of the ocean. It was very interesting, in the third webinar, to learn about the movement #regularizacionya (#papersforall) in Spain.
#Regularizacionya is a grassroots movement in Spain and other Western European countries. According to the movement’s website: “The INTERNATIONAL NETWORK OF MIGRANTS AND ANTI-RACIST ORGANIZATIONS AND COLLECTIVES #PapersForAll demands immediate, permanent and unconditional regularization for all migrants and refugees in this time of a global pandemic and health emergency. In addition, we demand that this regularization guarantees full access to all rights, in equality with the rest of the people who inhabit the different territories and countries of the world, including the immediate cessation of deportations in order to enjoy them without fear.” The movement is funded by hundreds of pro-immigrant organizations throughout the country, regularly holds demonstrations, and makes demands of Spain’s government.
Teresa Gonzalez: Yes, in fact I think that now we are going through systems where many dynamics are crossed in transnational routes. The forms of violations of human rights also cross transnationally. All of a sudden we see the effect of policies between Europe, the United States, and Mexico, and there aren’t many differences on the grounds of their interests.
But also the struggles, and this was the effect for example of building these dialogues with Honduran compañeras in Europe – to be able to understand also what they are doing and to take lessons from their struggles to put into action those mechanisms of solidarity that are also being supported.
They are supporting their own struggles to be recognized as immigrants, but they are also supporting profound fights in their countries of origin. Odilia for example mentioned this – from her experience of being in a Zapoteca community in Oaxaca, where she maintains a fight for linguistic rights, for cultural rights of indigenous people in the United States.
The compañeras that are right now in Honduras are supporting struggles and creating pressures against the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez. The idea is how do we emerge as a region, with our [unified] demands as a block?
Daniela Flores: I would like to add that the concept of #regularizacionya is a very important process. We have realized that Mexico not only hasn’t had the mechanisms [to respond to a series of demands], the government has generated a non-strategy to not respond [to the rights of immigrants].
In this sense, #regularizacionya that is taking place in Spain had resonance in Mexico for the members of some organizations. It has to do also with a system of organized response.
We show up as a regional block, because we have learned to show up as a block in our local communities, and that model expands. So, understanding that process and the work that is born there in networks is important to us because Las Vanders is an organization, but it is also a collective.
Las Vanders does not exist without these other networks, it does not exist without the work of these other organizations, it does not exist without the work of these other people, it does not exist without the collaborative work of the women migrants that support one another.
LR: Could you tell me more about what you have learned from this process, from the collaborative work of the webinars?
Teresa Gonzalez: Yes, we live in a world of massive violations of human rights. In a world also where information comes out immediately and where there are so many processes – now with digital platforms that give us information immediately, it’s easy to lose our memory. In the United States at the beginning we were very aware of all the protests, and now it would seem as if they had concluded, and no, they continue, but they aren’t in the focus. So we lose our memory of these processes the same as we lose them of processes in Latin America, and how we lose them in migratory processes.
The same with the migrants that were in the caravan – we don’t know anymore what happened to them but they continue living and debating and struggling – some of them trapped in Mexico, some unjustly deported, some in migration detention centers. How do we preserve memories of these immediate events?
We already had a very overwhelmed immigration system here in Mexico, and of violations, and the pandemic deepened them, and we wanted to speak about that. And on the other hand the webinars were thought of as a living process, because struggles are always living, and articulations and networks are living because they are of people. And they are for life itself. So now we are connecting to new processes to continue to work in a network, to work as a region in a network.
Principally, a theme that was also present in the webinars is the violence bound over our bodies, as women and as women from regions where violence is deepening. So we are connecting to those fights, and understanding that migration in reality is a very profound process in networks, like we saw with those transnational experiences; in those transnational experiences one is living [simultaneously] in those two networks or nations.
Now we are focusing particularly on violence against women – all forms of violence that fracture or break the lives of women, or their very bodies. On the other hand we are also looking to make a collaborative book, a book marked by artistic processes about these memories, to leave in some place this immediacy.
When we planned the webinars we hoped that in some future these migrant girls that are now in shelters or that are in transit, that some of them would look at this book and do what they want with it – critique it, undo it, or take up those experiences and transform them into other new ones, that they will be processes of learning.
So we want to rescue these memories so that they can be the antecedents, or a piece of the referent for other future movements, for other future processes that are being created.
LR: Thank you for sharing! Those are almost all of my questions. Lastly, how can one support Las Vanders, to continue knitting networks?
Daniela Flores: There are many ways to support. You can support us through donations. We generate processes of mutual support and of connection and systems of interrelations. Anyone who donates will receive a list of what they donated. And you can support us also by staying informed. You can follow our social media on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @lasvanders. And from there you could write to us and say “when we are able to meet in person, would it be possible to volunteer? Could I help informing myself and creating community spaces free of xenophobia and discrimination, to better understand the processes of fellow migrants?” And through those actions create a strengthened network. That’s to say, supporting in creating a social movement, that we are part of, is working to make another world possible. To create other systems of relationability.
To directly support the efforts of Las Vanders, donate to their “Emergency Solidarity Fund” (Fondo Solidario de Emergencia).
Dashiell Allen | Reed College
Dashiell is a senior at Reed College studying Latin American and Peninsular Spanish literature. He is currently writing a thesis on the literary and political production of the Frente de Liberación Homosexual in Argentina during the 1970s and is interested in studying feminist and LGBTQ+ movements in Latin America. At Latina Republic, Dashiell intends to elevate the voices of activists and organizers that work to promote human rights and immigrant rights throughout Mexico. He is excited to contribute to the organization’s mission of breaking stereotypes and bringing attention to underreported stories throughout Latin America.