Rachael Kay Albers www.RKAinLA.com
When I first arrived in Chiapas, Mexico, I was a lawyer-to-be with a summer internship and stacks of international legal texts in my suitcase. “The People,” as I imagined rural Mexicans—fuzzy, mysterious, unknown—were seeking refuge from violence, poverty, and impunity and I knew where they could find it. Or, I thought I did.
My relationship with the law changed quite a bit over that first San Cristóbal summer. 15 years had passed since the Zapatista uprising and, by this point, a stampede of international activists wielding a globalized rights rhetoric had passed through the same highland pueblos. Many were like me—sent by institutes, NGOs, research centers—with pens in their ears and pamphlets in their hands, ready to “rescue” Chiapas in 6 months or less with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But “The People” I encountered didn’t need rescuing, thank you very much, and they were wary of yet another yellow-haired graduate student talking excitedly about “derechos humanos.”
I, too, became resistant to my own rights rhetoric, which seemed too heavy for me to heft up the dusty highland roads outside the city. A lawyer-to-be (with two years on the clock) from los Estados Unidos was of little use to those in real need of immediate legal defense and “The People” I met were less than receptive to what the United Nations had to say about their liberation. Then I met the women of FOMMA, or, Fortaleza de la Mujer Maya (Strength of the Mayan Woman), an indigenous theater collective armed with art, not abogadas, and I began to learn about the type of resistance they don’t teach you in law school.
FOMMA was founded in 1994—the same year the EZLN made indigenous resistance in San Cristóbal de las Casas famous—by the Tzotzil-Tzeltal team of writers/actresses/educators, Petrona de la Cruz and Isabel Juárez Espinosa. But Petrona and Isabel had a different approach to activism—they wore no masks, occupied no buildings, recited no rhetoric. Theirs was a battle cry in costume—a resistance cloaked in poetry, drama, and storytelling (without any nods to the United Nations). As I watched these women work, a decade and a half later, I saw how much less unwieldy theater was to heft up highland roads—and how much more effective it was at mobilizing “The People,” who I began to see as my people once I approached them as fellow artists instead of needy objects.
FOMMA’s plays challenge violence, poverty, and impunity in ways a team of lawyers simply couldn’t—artful resistance allows people to rescue themselves by writing the terms to their liberation, instead of adopting a legal language not their own. Augusto Boal’s forum theater, a FOMMA favorite, developed out of Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed with this express aim—to give people a means of analyzing their oppression and a space to act upon it. In the forum, audience members are “spect-actors,” invited to deconstruct staged scenes of injustice and rehearse solutions. Thus, unlike parties to a legal case or participants in a “Know Your Rights” seminar, spect-actors need not wait for someone else to light the way. Moreover, the Arts cannot claim an official language, do not require a formal education, are not dominated by an elite league of Western men. Kind of makes a lawyer-to-be want to ditch her rights rhetoric.
When I last arrived in Chiapas, Mexico, I was an ex lawyer-to-be with no professional association, and piles of plays in my suitcase. My people, as I had come to know Mexicans—willful, passionate, creative—were seeking spaces to “rehearse revolution” as Boal would say, and I knew where they could find them. Today I work as a freelance writer and an arts facilitator—the high school girls I direct in a dusty highland town outside San Cristóbal de las Casas performed one of FOMMA’s plays this winter and it is exciting to watch them develop their own responses to violence, poverty, and impunity—rhetoric-free.
Here, I have found, there are plenty of uses for a yellow-haired girl talking excitedly about artful resistance. You can keep up with me on my blog, RKAinLA.com—a chronicle of my experiences and a gazette of art, action, and adventure in Latin America.
“The poetics of the [Theatre of the] Oppressed is essentially the poetics of liberation: the spectator no longer delegates power to the characters either to think or to act in his place. The spectator frees himself; he thinks and acts for himself! Theater is action! Perhaps the theater is not revolutionary in itself, but have no doubts, it is a rehearsal of revolution!” -Augusto Boal