Overnight, in beautiful handwriting, words appear on the walls of La Paz, the high-altitude capital of Bolivia. They speak truths Bolivian women won't say out loud. Deconstructing machismo, anti-gay prejudice and neoliberalism, Bolivian anarcho-feminist group Mujeres Creando takes art back to the streets. Theirs is a politics of creativity, of interventions in everyday life. Tired of the traditional Left where, they say, 'everything was organized from top down, the women only served the tea or their role was a purely sexual one, or they were nothing more than secretaries,' three friends - Maria Galindo, Julieta Paredes and Monica Mendoza - started Mujeres Creando (Women Creating) in 1992. Two are the only openly lesbian activists in Bolivia. At the time, they explain, there was little talk of feminism - a militant, radical feminism, a feminism of the streets, of everyday life.
'We decided on autonomy from political parties, NGOs, the state, hegemonic groups who wish to represent us. We don't want bosses, figureheads or exalted leaders. Nobody represents anybody else - each woman represents herself.'
'We believe that how we relate to people in the street is the most important thing. We have a newspaper which we edit and sell ourselves, and creative street actions. We paint graffiti - las pintadas - this is one of the communicative forms that really gets through to people. It began as a criticism of what the Left is - and the Right. It was our response to their painting in the streets saying "vote for so-and-so". They were affirmative or negative phrases, "no to the vote", "yes to this", "no to that". What we do instead is we appeal to poetry and creativity, to suggest ideas which aren't just "yes" or "no", "Left" or "Right".'
They have targeted all kinds of oppression from a feminist perspective - racism, the dictatorship and debt.
'Our aims aren't always centred on women's themes like abortion, reproductive rights, motherhood. The Government says: "You can dedicate yourselves to those issues, full stop." And we may say "no". Or we may say "yes, that interests us". We have positions on abortion, birth control, but don't categorize us! We are involved in everything: we are part of society. And for this reason we paint graffiti about different things. There is graffiti which provokes men, graffiti provoking the Government, graffiti which is only directed at women, graffiti about the political situation.
'For us, the street is a space like a common patio, where we can all be, including children. In Europe, everything is controlled: whether or not you can march, whether or not you can protest, whether or not you can sell things. In Bolivia, the streets belong to the people: people doing things, people selling things - the streets are ours.
'It is very important that what we do in the street interacts with people, talks to them so that they can see the graffiti, that it should provoke something in them, provoke laughter, provoke annoyance, provoke anger, provoke many things.
'People want to dispossess us of something that is ours. To turn creativity into something élitist. But creativity is human - it belongs to all women and men. It is fundamental to everything we do, in the books we make, in the street actions, in the graffiti. There are people who say to us: "You're artists." But we are not artists, we are street activists.'
This year a group called Deudora ('debtor'), made up largely of poor women from the barrios, came to La Paz to protest at the crippling rates of interest on their microcredit loans. 'We spoke to them about pacifism, we carried out some creative actions against interest, against the banks, against money. painting murals in the streets.' Mujeres Creando brought paint, and the Deudora group took off their shoes and dipped their feet into the pots, then lifted each other up to leave their footprints on the wall. This was a symbol of their long journey to the capital. On another street action the Mujeres threw themselves on the floor to shield the debtors' protest from attack by police.
'After three-and-a-half months, we managed to sit down with the large banking and financial associations and the Deudora group and achieved an agreement. Now people whose houses were being auctioned off have had their debts excused.
'Once an agreement was signed that benefited the debtors, we organized a kind of festival with flowers and bread. The children began to share out the bread with everyone, a symbol of the olla (collective cooking pot) of the poor - the poor who share what they have.'
© Copyright 2002 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.