Akwe Amosu: Hey, I’m Akwe Amosu, and this is Strength and Solidarity.
Welcome to our podcast about the ideas driving – and disrupting – human rights movements around the world.
In this episode…
- We go to Mexico to meet a city lawyer navigating power and identity with her indigenous clients
- And in our Coda – a struggle for justice in El Salvador that set a young man’s course for life
Akwe Amosu: There’s a place in southern Mexico’s Oaxaca province which, for better or for worse, is ideal for harvesting wind energy, and in the global rush to find renewable energy, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec has become very popular with energy corporations – there are nearly 30 wind farms in the area. For the indigenous Zapotec communities who live and farm there, this has brought hard lessons in the tough realities of ownership and profit – understanding contracts, negotiating in Spanish when many in the community don’t speak it, and recognizing the omissions and manipulations of corporate attorneys? It’s not easy and in such situations, as they say, you need a good lawyer. So nine years ago the community of Union Hidalgo turned to ProDESC – in English, the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights Project – based in Mexico City whose founder and director, Alejandra Ancheita has decades of experience defending land and labor rights. Their work together has made good progress, winning back some control for the community. But that wasn’t the conversation I wanted to have with Alejandra. The field of human rights is littered with instances where people with education, resources and good intention nonetheless fail to anticipate the ways in which their privilege might undermine their efforts. So I wanted to hear from Alejandra about her experience building a partnership with clients who were far outside the circles of Mexico’s elite.
Akwe Amosu: Welcome Alejandra.
Alejandra Ancheita: Thank you so much, Akwe, for the invitation.
AA: What I’d love to hear about is what that process of working with these new clients was like for you. I mean, you were coming from a highly, educated and skilled legal community, to a client that didn’t know that world. And I’m just curious about how you entered, and what you experienced when you did so.
AA: That is very interesting question. Because I had been working, for several years with indigenous community, principally in the beginning of my career with indigenous women, indigenous women, and in the state of Chiapas. every experience is different, but what is very similar in each experience is that even when they know that I am a lawyer and I am also prepared to work with them in their defense, there is from the beginning a sense of distrust for me because I am an outsider. I am not part of the community. I am a lawyer, but also, I am a woman and for most of the indigenous communities, and honestly for most of the society, women still have to every single day demonstrate that we are capable to do the work.
AA: So what form did this distrust take?
AA: Well, with them – with communities in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec – they were nice people. They treat me well, but I came to this community accompanied by a male colleague, another lawyer. And when we started to talk with people in the assembly, was talking with them, and when they respond to the questions that I was doing in order to collect information, they were responding to my colleague, not directly to me. And that happens most of the time, no? When I was younger, I felt that kind of demonstration as disrespectful to me. But then, with the time and with experience that I was accumulating during the years, I understood that it is structural problem still. And it is happening not only with indigenous community, it’s happening everywhere.
AA: So that was the gender problem. There were other issues, I imagine, if they perceived you as an outsider?
AA: Yes. That was a gender issue. The other, thing that was also very interesting is that it is not the same when a female lawyer comes to the community and this female lawyer is probably whiter than me, no? That is another element. If it’s a female lawyer, but it is whiter than me, and her hair is lighter than the color of my hair, they assume immediately that they have some sort of power, and the reception for them is different. And that is the class element. It is always complicated to navigate that, because for example my male colleague, he’s whiter than me and his eyes are green. So that was another element to take into count. Even when I was the boss, the perception of community about power, it is not necessarily related to the experience and the structure of the organization. It is related to the gender and to the class or what they consider a class element, which is linked to the color of the skin and the color of the eyes and the color of the hair.
AA: It’s so interesting. I mean, you’re there in solidarity, you’re there to support their struggle, but in a sense, what’s getting projected back to you is a reduction in status; a low value is being assigned. How did you personally respond to that in that moment? I mean, I’m sure after nine years, you’ve got different thoughts now, but what was it like that first time?
AA: Well, honestly it was very hard for me. Principally because my reflection as a human rights defender is that I am working with people and trying to support their struggle. And what I am receiving from them – I am receiving some sort of exclusion. And then I also had to do a very deep reflection about power dynamics, and about what are my privileges, and also about how human rights defenders conceptualize communities or victims. We have this perception that communities are perfect, and that they are also the perfect victim, you know? That is, they are going to ask you, “Please, please protect me and support my struggle. And we are going to follow you until the last consequences.” And we have the tendency of objectifying communities. And what we understood, or I understood is, they are subjects of rights and they have also their own priorities. And they have also their internal power dynamics that make them complex. And they have also their own interests. Of course the interest of defending the rights, but they have also other interests, as any other human being. So for me, it was very important to understand that they were equal to me. That was key. And that I was a lawyer and they can see my work as useful, but they don’t necessarily know me. And they don’t necessarily see me as their savior. And that was a very important lesson for me. That was like, okay, I understand!
AA: You’re smiling, but I imagine that there must have been a moment of significant discomfort –
AA: Totally, totally, totally. It was painful. I tried to control myself. I tried to maintain the position of power. And the first thing that I did was like, “OK, I understand that you don’t have to trust me immediately, but I am the lawyer.” I have to exercise my power in order to maintain myself in the center, and not feel like overwhelmed with my own experience about feeling excluded – historically excluded. And in that way, exercising my own power was also very useful. And acknowledging that I can live (in) exclusion like everybody, but I can also out of that feeling of exclusion exercise my own power, not for abuse, or not to dominate people.
AA: In respect of yourself in a way.
AA: Yeah, and understanding that everybody has the right to exercise their own power. It was, as I told you, it was not easy, but at that moment, I had experience with that when I was younger. That kind of experience was very hard for me. And it made me doubt about myself, my skills, and if I have the courage to confront the situation in the right way.
AA: So how did the relationship evolve from that first set of exchanges? How they get used to the idea that you were not what they thought? How did things evolve?
AA: Well, with time; with work; with a very rigorous work from our part. Also it’s important to say that at that moment; it was not only me. It was an organization and it was an institution that was committed with them. And because of that, as ProDESC we are always developing the relationship with communities in a collective way, it is not one leadership that is working with the community; it is a collective leadership. And that makes this kind of experience sustainable. One of the elements of our methodology is creating relationships with the communities and the collective in a sense of co-responsibility. So we are responsible of working with them, but they also have to develop a responsibility of working with us. And that way of co-working helps to develop a different relationship with power. Important to say also that the power is still there, but working with this methodology helps to alleviate the imbalance of power from both sides.
AA: What language were you working in? It suddenly struck me that you have also been navigating a sort of mutual communication challenge.
AA: So we are working with this community in Spanish, but the other element that we had to learn is that the important decisions and the important information were taken in the assemblies or in the meetings in Zapotec. Even when we were there, they decided to speak in their own language. They knew we can’t understand, but they also decided that even when we already have a trusting relationship with them, some information and some decision-making process, it is important for them to do it in their own language because they know we can’t understand. And because they know they are allowed to do this self-determination exercise, even in front of us, that we are friends, we are allies.
AA: But did it set up anxiety on your side, although you trusted them – perhaps the questions that were being discussed were not ones that you thought were not the right questions, or perhaps that choices were being considered were not ones that you would agree with? I mean I’m just curious how you lived with that ignorance on your side.
AA: Yeah. It is always a sense of anxiety, not only from me, but also from my colleagues that are on the daily life working with them – the other lawyers and organizers. It is always this feeling like are they talking about us? Are they talking about their strategy? Are they agreeing, or they are deciding to go in another direction and we are not going to be informed. Those questions come when that exercise is happening. And what we learned to do again is to understand that it is not necessarily an exercise of subordination against us. It is the exercise every indigenous community to decide their strategies and their future in their own language. And we need to learn to be respectful about that.
AA: And I think that’s where I’m interested in this subject. It’s not, I’m sure a surprise to anyone listening, that these challenges might arise, or these dynamics might be there. But I think my interest here is in the nature of the task for someone offering solidarity. Are you able to tolerate a level of separation and still be a good ally? And so my curiosity is really about how you and your colleagues developed your own respectful tolerance of this situation so that it didn’t impede the work. And so that you had good working relationships, which I assume you did.
AA: Yeah, the result of the very good relationship with the community is that the second experience with them was that they have information about one new park that was supposed to be built in other part of their territory. And the owner of that park is Electricity de France, which is the biggest company of energy in France. And with the collaboration that we had with that community after working for several years, the construction it’s not started. We were able to suspend the construction now for almost five years. And the community is also able to decide how the consultation is going to be developed. And they are also deciding how to deal with this corporation, even with all the power this corporation has – in the decision-making with the government, and also in the decision-making internally with the community – because they have allies inside of the community.
But we have this very good relationship that gave us this important result. And how we develop and how we deal with this, demonstration of power from, the community in the case of ProDESC is identifying that we have power, but also the community has power. And the work of defending human rights is a power dynamic. It is important for us as human rights defenders to understand our privileges, which doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t suffer from exclusions. Of course, as I was saying the beginning of this interview, I still have to face exclusion related to gender issues. And also this question of being a brown woman instead of a blonde Mexican woman. That is still there. But when we are working with communities, we have to acknowledge our privileges and we have to acknowledge that they have also power and collective power, and they have the right to take their own decisions. And some, in some situations we are not going to agree in those decisions. And we have to be ready to say that and to step aside and to be respectful about the decision of that community. It is an individual process of reflecting about yourself; it is also a collective exercise of my organization of what kind of privileges we have, how to use those privileges, not to subordinate others – but for being useful for others, and understanding our own history of colonialism. It is very rewarding when people acknowledge that you are a good person and that you come to these communities to help them and not everybody is able or ready to do that kind of sacrifice… It is not a sacrifice. It is a work, and it has to be a professional work. That is the other thing.
And that is the link that I would like to do to the word of solidarity. We prefer to use the word of genuine collaboration because in the experience of solidarity, there is some sense of sacrifice, no? That people that doesn’t have to deal with exclusion are sacrificing their time and their privileges to, to help the others that doesn’t have the same situation. But there is another question about why you have those privileges and the other people don’t and why you have to develop solidarity to these people. And why you are not questioning the system, and the inequality of access to information, to decision-making, access to justice, access to be respected. So solidarity sounds like, “Well, I am a good person and I am going to support the other person that is under risk.” And for me, it is lacking the question about equality and respect.
AA: Would that be true even if you were just a person who saw what was happening to this community and you wanted to stand with them, but you had no function in relation to helping them? I mean, I really understand what you’re saying from the point of view of someone who’s got a role in helping them to win their struggle. But if you think about, say a union branch somewhere in Mexico City that just decides to come out in solidarity with this community, because of what is happening to them, do you still see some tone of sacrifice or condescension that somehow makes it less valuable?
AA: No, probably not. But it is important again, to name it. Like it is going to be just for this time and the only thing that I have to offer is this, “Name it.” Because in the other way, I can see those dynamics where people are showing their solidarity once in their life to these community, collective or people, and they will be acknowledged as such a good guy, you know? And they post a picture on social media, and other people will say, “Wow, you are so brave. You are so…”, you know? And then he or she never came again to the community, no? So that is a difference. Yeah. Let’s demonstrate solidarity, and solidarity could be very powerful in certain moments of the strategy, but let’s name it as that kind of exercise. And let’s be clear about what it means, because in the other way, it can even take away attention from the real struggle. I think we need clarity. We need to do a power analysis about what is the impact of our work. Also a power analysis about communities that we are working with that have their own interests. And they can see us as a tactic from their strategy, which is a long-term strategy, even when we think we are defining the strategy. And they probably will not tell us that we are just a tactic of their long-term strategy, probably because they don’t need to tell us. And also because they don’t want to hurt us, and it’s okay, but it is important to take in count that could be one of the scenarios and that is also okay. Understanding what is your role; what is your position; what is the power that you can exercise –
AA: And not to feel hurt.
AA: — And not to feel hurt. I feel like sometimes human rights defenders are complaining about these kinds of things and making themselves the center of another struggle. But it is not about us. No? So yeah, I think it is also an exercise of give again political content to the human rights field. For me, it’s not any longer about access to justice; it’s about access to equality, and what means equality in the current economic model? And I think that is something that we need to reflect, no? And make this work political again, not only professional, but also political again.
AA: Thank you, Alejandra.
AA: No, thank you.
AA: Alejandra Ancheita is the director of ProDESC, I talked to her on the line from Mexico City… You can find a transcript of my conversation with her and some reading suggestions on our website, strength and solidarity dot org.
Akwe Amosu: Time for our “Coda”, in which someone active in the Human Rights field shares something that gives them inspiration or insight into the work they do….
Jim Goldston went to El Salvador as a young lawyer in the late 1980s when its rightwing government, backed by Washington, was fighting the FMLN rebel movement and deploying terrifying impunity against civilians. Jim’s work was to interview ordinary people about what they had seen and experienced, working alongside nuns, priests, labor organisers and others, to document violent abuse and killings, and find ways to support the victims. Earlier, in March 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero had been assassinated for calling, in a powerful sermon, for an end to the carnage. Even though Jim arrived seven years after his murder, Romero’s legacy was still powerfully resonant.
Romero/voice-over translation: I want to make a special appeal to soldiers, national guardsmen, and policemen: Brothers, you come from our own people. The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear a man telling you to kill, remember God’s law, ‘thou shalt not kill.’
Jim Goldston: I went to El Salvador in 1987. This horrific war had been going on since the end of the 1970s and the Reagan Administration had been arming the Salvadoran military and essentially providing cover for these right-wing death squads, responsible – it ultimately turned out – for tens of thousands of murders of civilians and the mass displacement of persons inside the country and outside. And so I simply felt terrible outrage by what my government was doing and I, wanted to find a way of showing my support for the Salvadoran people and show my opposition to what my government was doing.
Romero/voice-over translation: No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No-one has to obey an immoral law. It is time you recover and obey your conscience. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination. In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people, whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, in the name of God I command you, stop the repression.”
JG: Oscar Romero was an iconic figure, of course, in the church in El Salvador, he represented in his early life allegiance to the hierarchy of the church that served the oligarchy traditionally in El Salvador – the famous seven wealthy families that controlled so much political and economic power – and yet the power of his own transformation in his own life and his own human confrontation with the consequences of what was happening in his country, forced in him, a reckoning, I think, that led him to view his role differently than he might’ve anticipated when he assumed the archbishopric. And he really became someone to whom people across the country looked as a force of truth and goodness and hope willing to use this extraordinary platform that he had to directly confront the powerful forces in his country, including the military actors who were responsible for so much of the violence.
[Song – Las Casa de Carton]
JG: During my time in El Salvador, music was ever present. And it was the period of la nueva cancion – the new song – which was linked to popular uprisings across much of Latin America. One of the most popular songs was from Venezuela called Las Casas de carton – the cardboard houses. Houses made literally of cardboard, evoked the poverty, but the humanity, and ultimately the power of people, uh, peasants and workers throughout Latin America, and Casas de Carton played, in many, many places. It was one of the signature songs, of the popular struggle in the country at that time.
JG: I was working with people who were extraordinarily courageous in risking their lives on a regular basis to provide information; to find information; and to provide limited forms of protection for people who were under threat. Being able to work closely with people of such integrity and courage was just profoundly inspiring.
JG: The people were just extraordinarily warm and generous. A number of times I attended gatherings of workers in cooperative associations and unions. I remember a time we went to a union hall down by the beach gathering information about what was happening to workers around the country, and people were speaking, and it was a very intense few days. It was very, very hot. I think it was March at the time; the hottest time of year. The sea breeze would be blowing in the evenings. Notwithstanding the intensity of what we were doing, people basically didn’t sleep. We spent the entire time talking, listening to music, dancing, communing, hugging, crying – It was a beautiful time, as painful and horrific as it was.
JG: I ended up spending a few years in Central America, in Salvador and Guatemala. It really marked a fork in the road in my life in which I discovered how to unite this feeling in my heart with skills that I had learned in my head in ways that put me on a path in the field of human rights for ever after. And in some way, I drew inspiration from what Romero represented as I went through that.
Akwe Amosu: Jim Goldston is the director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. Visit strength and solidarity dot org for details of that song, Las Casas de Carton, and suggestions for additional reading on that period in El Salvador.
Akwe Amosu: And that brings us to the end of Episode 10 in this second season of Strength and Solidarity. We’d love to reach new listeners so if you know someone who’d find these stories interesting please consider telling them about this episode. And we welcome your feedback. Send us an email – the address is firstname.lastname@example.org. A shout out this week to Sam Sloman for production assistance and thanks, as always to our producer Peter Coccoma. I’m Akwe Amosu – Do join us again next time.