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Mujeres Creando: An interview with Julieta Ojeda of Mujeres Creando (Women Creating)
By Sophie Styles
Julieta Ojeda is an active member of the anarcha-feminist collective Mujeres Creando based in La Paz, Bolivia. Their activities include publishing, direct action, and running a small cultural center. They are best known for their graffiti, always signed Mujeres Creando.
SOPHIE STYLES: How did you become active in Mujeres Creando?
JULIETA OJEDA: The group has been going for ten years, but I got to know them nine years ago through their activities at the university, like murals and different actions. It was a completely new kind of group. There was no talk about that kind of feminism at the time—a militant, radical feminism, a feminism of the streets, of everyday life. Of course the government was talking about the rights of women on the radio and in the papers, and about certain laws for women, but never about a feminism that engages you in any form of struggle or politicized you. By contrast, the feminism of Mujeres Creando was real and tangible.
By the time I got involved in Mujeres Creando, I was realizing that political activity does not only happen in political parties or in organized groups; it happens as soon as you are conscious of your actions and your decisions, an intuitive kind of feminism. Within the university, there were a lot of groups on the left—Trotskyites, Maoists, Guevarists—but none of them appealed to me or let me feel as though I could be myself in those groups. It was very different with Mujeres Creando. I think that through feminism, women come to know themselves and each other, with all our potential, our strengths, our weaknesses, and we discover a freedom that we keep on developing.
How would you describe Mujeres Creando?
When we got together we said, We’re a group of women and we’re a different kind of organization than the ones around us where the revolutionary subject is the proletariat. We tried to demystify this ideology. There are groups and sectors in society who are oppressed and these are no less important. So with our starting point as women and our identities as women, we can assert our own struggles and fight against oppressions in society.
We also recognized that we come from a particular social class, that we have our own ethnic origins, that we are different ages, and that we are part of society. In this sense, we don’t only struggle for women’s rights or issues that affect women, but against all types of oppression.
How do you organize and make decisions?
Things happen when somebody takes the initiative. We don’t consult each other about everything we do, although there are things that we each take responsibility for, such as working in specific areas. For example, some of us organize at the university, others with domestic workers, others with rural women.
If there is an initiative that we all like and can all participate in, then we get involved and help to organize it. For us, the important thing is not to neutralize each other and that every woman makes her own decisions and puts forward her initiatives, without feeling inhibited.
What kind of actions have you organized?
We are street activists, we are creative women, but we are not artists and we don’t want to become into an artistic elite. We take up our right to create and to do new things. Creativity complements our political practice. After we brought out our newspaper eight years ago, we moved into graffiti and street actions, or creative actions as we call them. The street for us is an important center of political activity, because it allows us to interact with and be in permanent contact with people. But our actions don’t only take place in the streets, sometimes we occupy other spaces.
At the beginning, we focused on the dictatorship. We mainly use symbols, rather than being explicit. We also use theater: to symbolize blood, we use red dye; for death, we use crosses; for joy, we share bread and flowers with people. We’ve been doing these kinds of actions for a long time. Two years ago we did a TV program called “Creando Mujeres,” which covered the different issues our group works on. We touched on the subject of the dictatorship, on NGOs, on work, on the question of justice. For example, we did an action at the Palace of Justice where we went in and filled the offices with rubbish. We also touched on lesbianism, Barbies, racism, all of which we’ve worked on.
What was your involvement with the small debtors movement?
We were working alongside the organization of debtors, which is a large movement. We had to rethink the idea of creative actions because we were working with a very large number of people who wanted to get involved in peaceful protest. Later on it turned into something violent out of sheer desperation and a whole host of reasons.
We organized collective actions where everyone took part, women and men. In one of them we painted a mural: the people took their shoes off, put their feet into paint, and then they lifted each other up so they could leave their footprints on the wall. The children also put their hands into the paint and left their handprints.
This symbolized the journey that these people had made. It symbolized the harsh and difficult journey that these people had made. They suffered a lot of repression as a movement. In another action, we threw ourselves on the ground in front of the police so that we wouldn’t be attacked. At the end, once an agreement was signed that benefited the debtors, we organized a festival with flowers and bread. The children began to share bread with everyone, a symbol of the food of the poor, and of the poor who share what they have.
Give us some background on the debtors’ bank occupation and your involvement in this.
We had been working very closely with the debtors. Their organization was fundamentally made up of women, which is why we worked closely together. We had openly denounced the abuse of micro-credit in Bolivia, as there were very high interest rates and a lot of irregularities in the charges. People’s debts had doubled and tripled. When the group arrived in La Paz they were already asking for the forgiveness of their debts.
We soon realized that these people had been indebted to micro-credit institutions for eight, nine, or ten years. They had been trying to pay off their debts all this time, but they reached a point when they couldn’t pay any more. They were bankrupt, they didn’t have a penny left.
We organized a range of activities with them, from actions to reflecting on issues such as non-violent direct action. We took films along to the place where they were staying in the university. We did courses explaining what international institutions were financing the Bolivian banks and financial entities. In a lot of cases they were misusing aid-provided micro-credit.
The debtors had been in La Paz for three months and all that time they didn’t get a chance to sit down and be heard by the presidents of the associations, of the banks, of the private funds, mutuals, and NGOs. During this time, many of them fell ill and many had respiratory infections as they had been tear-gassed a lot.
We published a newspaper with them and sold it together, so that the general public would revise their opinion of the debtors. A lot of people were saying that they were good-for-nothings who just didn’t want to pay their debts. But then people began to realize that it wasn’t that simple and that in reality the financial institutions were committing usury and extortion, cheating people and exploiting their ignorance, making them sign contracts that they didn’t understand.
These people became really desperate. We were not involved in the action, because we do not agree with using violence and we didn’t actually know about it in advance. It was a group that decided to occupy the Banking Supervisory Agency. We found out about the occupation on the radio and immediately got involved, as we had done so much work with them up to that point. One of our group went to the Supervisory building to try and prevent a massacre from taking place, as the police were ready to go in and start shooting. Another companera joined the negotiating table. It was a very tense moment and Mujeres Creando was able to get everyone to sit down together and in the end an agreement was reached that benefited the people. They didn’t get their debts canceled but a lot was put under scrutiny and the Supervisory Agency began to look into what was happening with financial institutions in relation to micro-credit. We managed to stop the bailiffs from seizing people’s property for 100 days, from July to October. In cases where they had complained of irregularities, these were revised, and in cases where the women had paid out more than they should have, this debt was cancelled. There were many successes.
Now they are organizing in their communities. Together we are going to organize an international seminar on usury, on high interest rates. This is a policy of capitalism, of neoliberalism. But these are people who have no money and no resources and we need to find a way in which micro-credit can benefit them rather than making them poorer.
What other kinds of actions have you organized against neoliberalism?
We’ve also done actions against Coca-Cola and McDonalds, we’ve brought out publications. We were one of the first organizations to denounce the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in Bolivia. We have promoted quite a lot about what had happened in Seattle, in Prague.
Do you feel part of a global movement?
Yes, I think so. Our aim is not to become the vanguard in any society. We have our struggles and we propose the changes we want to society and we try to provoke, but we don’t think we are the only ones that are going to change society. We know that we’ll do it with other organizations around the world and in Bolivia, and although we disagree with many forms of organization, we know that it is a common struggle. We also realize that we have to struggle where we are, in our own society.
What we want is to coordinate with other autonomous feminists around the world. In 1998, we organized the first meeting of autonomous feminists from Latin America and the Caribbean. In Latin American there is a political split between the “gender technocrats,” or institutional feminists who work within government or within large NGOs, and the autonomous feminists. We were appointed as the organizational commission for the first meeting of autonomous feminists to deepen our reflection and debates. We put forward many alternatives, as autonomous feminists from Latin America, and explored ways of co-coordinating our struggles as women. We plan to organize coordinated actions with other women and with other groups, such as anarchists and ecologists.
We’ve been in contact with Spanish companeras as well. There are also things that feminist women from Europe, from the North, can be active on, for example, on the question of funding, which comes to Latin America in the name of women and is always mediated by big NGOs and governments. This solidarity is helpful to women in Latin America and helps to combat colonialism. There are things that we would like women from the North to do in their own countries to help Latin American women, for example, on immigration or xenophobia, not as a form of charity, but as part of a joint struggle.
Sophie Styles is a freelance writer and activist who recently attended the People’s Global Action (PGA) meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia. This interview is part of a collection of women’s stories of grassroots resistance from around the world, due in July (contact pga email@example.com).