Mayan seeds against feminist monoculture

In her book Talking Back, Feminist Thinking, Black Thinking, bell hooks talks about how often ‘feminist women (many of whom are white) say they want to hear women who until now haven’t had a voice, but they don’t always want to hear what we have to say.’  Her words sent flashes of the past when pedigreed feminists made comments about my culture and, regardless of whether they wanted to hear my voice or not, I couldn’t respond because I couldn’t manage to articulate why they were wrong. My voice went mute.

One of those times was with a Hollywood actress, whose name isn’t important here, who came to the city where I live to make a documentary about the history of women here. I worked on the production of the stories and introduced her to a group of fisherwomen who were transforming their community by showing that women could also make a living to fishing. She seemed to love the idea, but when she saw them approaching with men who were helping to carry their stuff, she looked at me disgusted and asked me why, if they were a group of fisherwomen, they were working with men.

Women in Yucatán work in fishing. Photo: Jafet Kantún

I wanted to explain the importance of these women, that they’re the leaders of the cooperative, that they’ve achieved economic independence for other women in the community, and that they’re raising their own families. The fact that boys and men helped them perform certain manual tasks doesn’t diminish their leadership. I wanted to tell her that in racialized communities, separatism isn’t always a viable strategy and that here the fundamental logic is communal. But I remained silent because, even though I had the thought in my head, I didn’t know how to say it (much less in English, because she didn’t speak Spanish).
Those were days when it seemed we were hearing “intersectional” feminist discourses everywhere, hearing in English about “sharing views and cultures,” but her entire perception of reality was one-sided. She, who had come to discover and document a different reality, was disappointed at not finding what she had imagined. And although one no longer expects anything from cool, hippie, white feminism, what really stuck with me was my own inability to speak up and describe my reality.

Why intersectional feminism is not enough

While I understand that there is a difference between white feminism disguised as intersectionality and “true” intersectional feminism, I do not believe that intersectional feminism includes all women-led movements. Just as men have the possibility of leading other movements that have nothing to do with their gender, women are also capable of choosing the movements we want to build. To say that intersectional feminism encompasses all of them is a lie when those struggles do not occupy a place on the feminist shelves of books, documentaries, films or everyday conversations.

The intersectional perspective points out the need to analyze a life in relation to all its parts, but many times in feminism it has had a somewhat globalizing application: it brings together, mixes and reduces women as if we were a homogeneous group. Yes, it has the good intention of understanding women from their differences, but it continues to put gender at the center and that’s a bias in itself, because for many women the first oppression isn’t seen as gender, or is indivisible from the others.

There are capitalist and white reasons for why in the collective imagination we have a better notion of what patriarchy means than of what environmental racism means. There’s a reason we talk about ‘intersectional feminism’ and not ‘intersectional anti-racism’.

Aura Cumes, Kaqchikel Mayan researcher and writer, explained why the universal premises of feminism do not fit the reality of many Mayan women:

“Feminist friends told me: Aura, you are a woman first and then you are Mayan. And we got entangled in those discussions that made no sense to me (…) Whoever is prioritizing a level of the struggle is speaking from one place, they are doing politics from one place and they are doing academia from one place. The people who are fighting because they are women are not being threatened with the threat that their people could be exterminated, that the river could be carried away, because they enjoy certain safe conditions that allow them to say ‘now I fight because I am a woman’, but that’s not the case for indigenous women and rural women.”

Aura Cumes

I’m from Yucatán and, although I grew up numb to assimilation in the classist, predominantly white city of Mérida, my father’s family is Mayan. I have not resolved my reflections on my identity but I sense – and I have heard that others sense it too – that the most intersectional feminism of all continues to fall short for Mayan women and women of Mayan descendance.

Because it continues to prioritize the condition of being a woman about any other “extra” experience that is diluted in the word intersectionality. It gives me the same vibes as the concept “indigenous peoples” that the Mexican government uses to talk about 68 cultures, to build an “artificial nation” as the linguist, writer, translator and Ayuujk researcher, Yásnaya Aguilar, has said.

Aguilar has also said that there are things in common among these peoples, but reducing them to the same thing, doesn’t allow us to distinguish the core differences. That’s the trouble with intersectional feminism: it encompasses everything without going to the trouble of breaking down each of the parts. They can’t include us if they still haven’t heard us, and they can’t hear us if we don’t articulate the words, if we don’t use our voices, if we don’t learn to use them.

I know it’s hard to determine which fight is more important when capitalism, racism, and patriarchy operate in such an articulated way. But in my search for my voice, for my center, I’m aware that racism and classism took away the Mayan people’s identity and their memory, and tore out their language. My father used to listen to his mother speak Mayan with his grandmother secretly, I heard him sometimes singing in Mayan. I’m left with only the remnants that exist in a mestizo language, and I rebuild my voice on the basis of that Malixlanguage because I’m no longer willing to have anything else taken from me.

Theory and wild feminism

A while ago the post “Your theory lacks street” showed up on the crowded streets of the internet. I was one of the users who shared it with a smile of ‘finally someone is saying it!’ and I did it again when I came across the improved image: “You don’t lack streets, you lack countryside’. And I thought about all the abstract concepts I’d learned in cornfields worked by organized women, in the forums of Mayan towns in the Yucatan Peninsula, and from after-dinner talks with Mayan women. All of those experiences radically changed my way of seeing life and myself in a way that no theory book had been able to do. And I believed, mistakenly, that since those words had not been published by the academy, the theory was not necessary. Until I heard the talk by Aura Cumes Simón, in which she spoke about the need to be epistemological subjects, that is, protagonists and authors of theory:

“We’ve set forth the political idea that indigenous women are not only followers of women’s, gender or feminist movements, but that we are epistemic subjects, that is, from our experience we create knowledge, practice and a political horizon. We are many things at the same time.”

Aura Cumes

There are many Mayan women interested in structuring contemporary gender and anti-racist thinking with a cultural perspective and that should be ample reason not to minimize theory or separate it from practice. That dual and separatist thinking, as bell hooks says, is also a colonial perspective. Unlike Mayan thought, for example, in which everything is connected.

At an international meeting held in March 2023 in the town of Sotuta, Alika Santiago, who describes herself as a wild feminist “because my feminism grew alone, as plants, flowers and herbs grow alone wherever there is land,” spoke about óol the will to life that depends on spiritual and mental balance, social ties and ties to the earth, seeing oneself in relation to everything. A well-being that goes beyond the economic, social and intellectual, where there are no separate struggles, but rather bonds that are broken.

Woman fishing. Photo: Jafet Kantún  

K-luumil X’Ko’olelo’ob, the collective she belongs to, has taken a political position of taking on care work to complement the struggle of other women who lead in the defense of territory and to concentrate on working with women. She criticized patriarchal logic “which has been bloody and painful for men and women,” but she also stressed the importance of transforming the violence learned by the Mayan people themselves:

“We live in a wonderful community based on our Mayan worldview, but even in our worldview there is a lot of violence and we have to talk about it. Yes, what our grandmothers and grandfathers left us we maintain and it’s alive today, but we must also sow new seeds. Someone has to do it; we have to fit together like spiders and bees complement each other.”

Alika Santiago

Also in that conversation was Leydy Pech, guardian of the bees, with other members of her Muuch Kambal Mayan women’s collective. Since I was moderating her talk, I introduced myself before starting and tried to convey to them, I don’t know why, that in that place where there were people from all continents, I was also from the peninsula. Leydy Pech looked at me curiously and asked if I was the ceibita she had heard about. It wasn’t me, but the image of the Ceiba, a sacred tree, stayed with me to describe a person who grew alone, who had to be shaded. And I remembered other concepts such as “mental monoculture”, a phrase I heard from Arnauld García, a biologist who works on agroforestry systems in Sotuta, to talk about the danger of thinking monolithically, without being nourished by other ideas.

Listening to the master sowers talk about their experience, accompanied by deep reflections on identity, colonialism, racism and extractivism, I finally felt the power of melding bone with flesh.

Theory and practice through one’s own voice, a common and at the once unprecedented language: mental monoculture, being a  ceiba, flourishing in drought, moving together like bees, women talking about caring for their gardens, redefining concepts without dividing theory and countryside, putting women at the center without forgetting that the basis is in the communal.

There are women’s movements in the world that do not call themselves feminists and that have no reason to use a concept with which they don’t identify despite efforts to universalize it, but there are also women who have redefined the word “feminist” to apply it to their struggles in their contexts. In addition to Alika Santiago, there’s Yamili Chan from the U Yich Lu’um family project on gender and environment in the municipality of Sanahcat, also in Yucatán.

Yameli Chan told me that when speaking Mayan, the language spoken by 23% of the Yucatecan population, being a feminist or not took a backseat because they’re not concepts that are used in that language. For her, it was revolutionary to call herself a feminist but she understood that for others it was not and that didn’t mean that the women of the community didn’t reflect on issues of sexual or family violence among.

Yes, theory is in need of neighborhood, countryside, sea, cenote, common land and possibly even parks, but even the mountain is fed by theory.

Identity is not private property

Among this diversity of opinions growing in the wild, there are anti-racist activists and thinkers who demonize feminism in all its forms. I don’t share this absolute criticism because it delegitimizes the reappropriations of the term, and stigmatizes feminists who maintain a close dialogue with women who lead other struggles without trying to baptize different struggles as “feminist”. I would also call this type of criticism ´mental monoculture´ (if we organize, we’ll become pop). There’s no need to choose one or the other. The struggles can converge in the same territory as watermelons converge with habanero peppers, corn and medicinal plants in the same plot without uprooting or interrupting each other’s cycles.

…forging collective voices that speaks about specific problems, in their own words and with their own ways of understanding the world, is essential for daily resistance.

In general, I agree with the criticisms of doing politics based solely on identity. Particularly in the Yucatan Peninsula, the erasure of Mayan knowledge is accompanied by a stripping of identity to exploit it through tourism and official culture. Gyms, hotels, festivals, even the megaprojects that dispossess the people, all have names in the Mayan language or “Maya” is simply added to what is cynically whiteness.

In this context, forging collective voices that speaks about specific problems, in their own words and with their own ways of understanding the world, is essential for daily resistance, strategies of care and struggle, and sowing a future that looks more like the world we want and not the one imposed on us. But we can’t get stuck only talking among peers.

Yucatecan writer and radio host Alf Bojórquez, whose radio program A Long, Wide and Deep Dream has been an antidote to my monolithic thinking (she calls the counterpart “collage thinking”), says that: “The world remains intact when we reclaim any identity or representation only for individual benefit. The political begins when our experiences become collectivized and we stop reproducing the current world, that is, it begins where the private property of the self ends.”

That’s why I started reading without dwelling on the identity credentials of authors who write about topics that interest me. Reading Black women has really helped me to connect reflections with my own experiences, even if they are not exactly what I live. For example, for many years I was struck by the discourses surrounding Afro hair and how its beauty and care had been celebrated. One day my dad told me about times when he felt discriminated against for having kixpol hair (a type of straight, thick and unruly hair that is usually associated with people of indigenous origin) and so he has worn a cap since I can remember. Perhaps if I hadn’t encountered the narratives of celebrating afro hair, it would have been harder to understand the aesthetic violence that people with kixpol hair experience. And if my dad had not told me that story, I wouldn’t have been able to transfer that knowledge to my reality.

If intersectional feminism is what a xe’ek is in Yucatán (a salad with fruit, chili and lemon), what are the fruits that make it up? If we can’t name them, do we really have the recipe? Have we ever tried it? Let’s stop pretending we’re anti-racist because we’ve read some Black women. I know people who know the poem Ain’t I a Woman by of Sojourner Truth by heart and who have such a sophisticated mental structure that they can instantly detect racist practices toward Afro-descendant populations, but at the same time they consider indigenous peoples as a moloch (group) of people who have poverty in common. I also know feminists who believe that a conversation with a Mayan person in a rural space will less important or less exciting than a conversation with a university graduate, and who would never seriously contemplate having a romantic relationship with an indigenous man because they considered them naturally violent.

It’s as important to talk about the experiences that don’t fit what has been said about racism, class and feminism as it is to talk about what isn’t part of our identity because it feeds us. There are plants in the garden that only serve to make other plants grow, others that are not endemic seeds but that fix themselves to the soil as if they were.

Readings from other worlds can be a flashlight to look at our own with new eyes. How are we reading those ideas in southern Mexico? What new seeds can we sow from those other experiences that seem so far away? Because reading Angela Davis on the couch in a study full of books is not the same as reading Angela Davis in my hammock while listening to the firecrackers of the festival in the village. How do we respond to that dialogue from our context? Racism manifests itself in very different ways as feminism multiplies, it reinvents and disguises itself. A truly diverse vision, a rich cultivation of ideas needs new names, words, concepts and logics -and many Mayan women in brightly embroidered dresses are sowing exactly that.

Katia Rejón Márquez (Campeche, 1993) Journalist and writer. Co-founded the magazine Memorias de Nómada and the podcast Fugitivas mx. She writes about environment, anti-racism, gender and culture.



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