The Latin American Green Tide: Desire and Feminist Transversality

Cecilia Palmeiro

Feminism, in all its multiplicity, is the most important social movement in Latin America now. After the region’s populist cycle, a turn to the most reactionary right-wing (either via the ballot box, as in Argentina and Chile, or via coups, as in Brazil, Paraguay and Honduras), has returned the continent to a stage of economic restoration, in the sense of a vertiginous accumulation of capital, perhaps the biggest since the nineteenth century, and one that runs parallel to former values related to the body, alongside former social privileges, with astonishing violence. The horrifying and escalating number of femicides and transfemicides at a continental scale, the murder of local anti-extractitivist female leaders, the wave of redundancies, and the current and future austerity measures, thanks to the return of the IMF to the arena of decision-making over our everyday lives, the economic crises delivered from above as a form of discipline, find in feminism their most vital form of resistance. Precisely because it is a form of politics connected to life, to an ethics of desire, to the body as a political category — an arena of struggle between the pain born out of the repression needed to extract value from our bodies, and the pleasure that we politicise as a right we won’t negotiate away.

The contrast is striking: only three months ago the whole continent was mourning the murder of Marielle Franco(1), an emblem of the New Feminism that is making the earth tremble. Like it trembled during the latest two International Women’s Strikes, which found enormous support across Latin America. A popular feminism, of the streets, of the favelas, of blackness, of queerness, of youth, against militarisation and the war on drugs — a micropolitics that is beginning to find its way into macropolitics. And then, the punishment: political femicide, ostensibly carried out by the security forces, who riddled Marielle’s body with bullets, but which also affronted our collective body, and that instead of locking us up forced us out onto the streets. The fear burned. The struggle was charged with anger and inspiration from the strength of our murdered compañera — once more we realised our transversality: all our struggles were the same ones as Marielle’s. We all have a place in her struggle, and she became the horizon for the feminism that is now fighting the State and for the State. Feminism stops being a minor struggle in order to become a major one.

Less than three months since Marielle’s assassination and the 8M (the women’s strike on International Women’s Day), a new earthquake: Argentina is on the road to legalising abortion. The project was voted on in the Cámara de Diputados (the Argentine Congress’s Lower Chamber) with 129 votes for and 125 against, during an epic session of 23 hours. There were 1,000,000 people waiting outside, in a vigil that often resembled a festival and a coven, with a stage that welcomed artists and compañeras and important figures in the struggle, with tents and stands of the different political organisations and collectives. There was one clear protagonist: las pibas, one distinct and specific subject of this feminist global tide. Las pibas is the lunfardo (Argentine street argot) term with which we name a new generation of teenage feminists, daughters of the Strike and #NiUnaMenos (2). They played a key role in the final months of a struggle that for thirteen years has been carried forward by the National Campaign for a Free, Safe and Legal Abortion — a project that has been presented in the national Congress seven times; the first six times without success. Las pibas (which in reality should be the gender-neutral lxs pibxs, but takes the feminine form for political reasons), put pressure on the debate from inside their schools and communities — on the day of the vote there were 15 schools under occupation. Las pibas educated their teachers and families, and the whole of society. They are the heirs of the 2006 Integral Sexual Education Law (almost annulled by the Macri administration), of the Equal Marriage Law of 2010, and the Gender Identity Law of 2012. With that baggage they are now the logical main protagonists of this debate, and they are those likely to be more affected by the legalisation of abortion.

But they aren’t the only ones. In the vigil and coven the tide in all its diversity was abuzz. One of the images doing the rounds on social media showed a Mother of Plaza de Mayo with her traditional white kerchief next to a piba with her green one. The Madres’ recognition of themselves as feminists and their activism within the Tide is one of the most moving constellations, because it shows the historical transformation of the human rights struggle and its coming together in the tide that assimilates and multiplies everything it touches. The same can be said of trade unionism, which was transformed forever by the women’s strikes of recent years. The base formed by women, lesbians and transsexual people went beyond the confines of specific organisations while re-signifying the struggle in a feminist and transversal key. This transversality means the pibas occupying schools, the female metro workers opening the gates for people to travel for free on the day of the vote, the women staffing the 144 phone line — charged with monitoring and supporting victims of domestic violence, one of the few resources provided by the state and now endangered because of the cuts — supporting the #NiUnaMenos movement and going on strike to oppose political persecution and redundancies by María Eugenia Vidal, the governor of Buenos Aires Province. This transversality means that we connect our struggles with those of other women, that we mirror ourselves and multiply — in this sense the processes of construction of the 8M — International Feminist Strike — are central as a global micro-capillary network and fabric. Without the strike there’d be no abortion campaign, without #NiUnaMenos there’d be no strike, without the National Campaign for Abortion there’d be no #NiUnaMenos, without the series of National Women Encounters there’d be no Campaign, without what we called the “Feminist International” we wouldn’t be where we are now. And we are conquering our rights at a continental level. Less than a week after the historical vote the tide is accelerating the revolutionary clock, and it is as if we were outside of the historical continuum: revolutionary time is lived outside of linear time, it’s a time that condenses all the frustrated dreams of the past, all the pending struggles, when we feel that strength of all our dead next to the image of our liberated descendants. Older women and las pibas. Three months ago we felt the impact of the bullets fired at Marielle, and a week after the vote (of what’s not yet a law) campaigns for abortion have started all over the continent: Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia are following Argentina’s example.

The Catholic Church, just like the earth, trembles. It is about to lose its last colony: Latin America. And more specifically it is about to lose our bodies, as we begin to recover them, not as factories (of which we are the rightful owners anyway) but also as surfaces for pleasure. This is the Church that has always been against any expansion of liberties and rights. The same Church always in favour of all possible forms of repression, of all ways of stealing not only our material resources but also our spiritual ones. The Church, through their “Pope of the people”, compares us to the Nazis, those villains of history. The Church, which supported all the genocides and all the dictatorships, guilty of more deaths than any other institution in history, resorts to the low blow of repeating that insult with which they try to disqualify us: feminazis. And this is so because the Church perceives that our movement is global and that we are challenging their spiritual monopoly. In the same way that in the past they burned women accused of witchcraft, in order to steal their souls through their bodies, and in the same sense that a chamanicide is happening in the rural areas of Latin America, now the Church attempts to stigmatise us if not simply accusing of a crime. And it does so because in the tide it recognises a danger. Fear changes sides: we recognise ourselves in these witches and we adopt their knowledge, knowledge of the body, the control of our health and reproduction, but also our non-religious spirituality. This might explain the desperate operations of the shanty-town priests and their attempts to stigmatise abortion as a middle-class affair, something for the IMF, a way of exterminating the poor. But the tide thinks the abortion debate in direct relationship to the economy: it is a matter of life and death for the popular classes. What’s more: in order to exploit us even more the market denigrates us as subjects of desire and of human rights. Without a right over our reproductive capacity we have no rights over our productive capacity. Our salaries go down and so do those of others, thanks to the healthy market competition — here is where the workers movement should pay attention to feminism. And in terms of a sexual and reproductive politics: the more impoverished labour there is, the cheaper it becomes, thus favouring the process of accumulation.

The abortion debate, then, must be thought in the opposite terms to those of the Church, interested only in defending all processes of accumulation, and particularly its own. What will happen when feminism also penetrates the Church and nuns start demanding equality?

This transversal struggle is one that makes us more empathetic with women and feminized bodies from different contexts. Without this transversality — clearly visible in the parliamentary debate — the law will never get approved. Female deputies from the ruling Cambiemos Alliance surprised us with their connection to struggles that don’t belong to their parties, but that are beginning to sneak into their political agenda. The tide covers the gap between different ideologies and a new gap is born: between feminism and rights-shy machismo. But we can’t afford to be naive when faced with this crossroads: will the popular feminists be able to get these other feminists on our side or will their parties appropriate our political capital? Could this transversality evolve into pink-washing? In order to avoid this shortfall, it is important to think of the right to abortion not only as something achieved in many capitalist countries without this interrupting their drive towards neoliberalism. It needs to be thought of as a politics of liberty, of anti-punitivist rights, against criminalisation and mass incarceration. Let’s turn abortion rights into the vanguard of social transformation, and not just into one more business opportunity for the pharmaceutical and health industries, as it is the case in the USA. Abortion rights and the transversality this struggle inspires can be weapons to fight the multiple forms of violence against women on a global scale.

And now the final battle is still to be won: in the Senate. Public opinion supports the legalisation of abortion with a majority of 60%. The parties are doing their maths. The Church despairs. The immediate future of Latin American politics is at this moment being decided in the streets and with las pibas.

Cecilia Palmeiro is a teacher, writer and activist. She is Licenciada en Letras, University of Buenos Aires, and received her PhD from Princeton University -Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and a repatriation postdoctoral fellowship from CONICET, University of Buenos Aires. She has taught Critical Theory and Cultural Studies at University of Buenos Aires and at Birkbeck (University of London), and now she teaches Contemporary Latin American Studies at NYU in Buenos Aires and Latin American Literature and Gender Theory at National University of Tres de Febrero (UNTREF). She is a member of the Ni Una Menos feminist collective and together with Fernanda Laguna, she is the curator of the art and feminism live archive “Mareadas en la marea” (High on the Tide)


  1. Marielle Franco was a Brazilian politician and feminist activist. An outspoken critic of police violence she was murdered alongside her driver after delivering a speech in Rio de Janeiro, in March 2018.
  2. #NiUnaMenos (Not One Woman Less) is the name of the fourth wave feminist social movement focused on gender-based violence against women. It originated in Argentina as a grassroots initiative by academics, artists, activists and it spread to many other Latin American countries.

Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies

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