Keynote Speech by Catalina Ruiz Navarro - the Germany Launch Event
Not many people know this but I studied fine arts for five years as an undergraduate degree. In each of the ten semesters we had a course on art history. It was just called art history, until in the last semester we had a course on history of Latin American art and then it became clear that it was not art history that we had studied before, but European art history.
My thesis work consisted of a series of appropriations of iconic pictures of the Christian tradition and subvert them to talk about agnosticism. One of those paintings was the Annunciation by Fra Angelico, an especially beautiful work because of its use of color, proportion and perspective. To be able to copy the painting in a format of 1 x 1.5 meters, back then, in 2004 when I did not have internet in my house and finding good quality images was difficult, was hard. In order to access the painting I had to go to the university library to get expensive color photocopies, enlarging some of the details. I studied them carefully and then copied them on canvas.
Time passed, I left arts to be a journalist and it was not until 2012 that I went to Spain for the first time and I was able to see Fra Angelico's original painting in the Prado Museum. It had been 8 years. When I saw the real painting in front of me, I had an immense desire to cry: There were so many details, so many brushstrokes, that they were lost in the reproductions, so many things that I only could have learned by seeing the painting live. I cried partly for the excitement of finally seeing this masterpiece that I liked so much, and partly because for the first time I had realized how colonialism had affected my way of thinking.
I grew up reading books for children full of mysterious things like snow, blueberries, wolves that were so alien to a Caribbean girl that grew up without snow but sand, without wolves, but iguanas. My thinking was all built on the basis of images and symbols to which I had no direct access, my language is the language of the colonizers, of men, their looks and their symbols inhabit within me.
In Latin America something curious happens to us and we think that we are part of the West, although in reality, as happens with everything that is euphemistically called ‘Global South’, we are postcolonial countries subject to the same Orientalist look which Edward Said describes as: “We are the other, even for ourselves”.
This definitely affects our relationship with other countries, especially with the countries that have more power. Often the help that comes from outside has two problems:
1. Aid comes from countries with a past and present of imperialistic practices and that are openly aware that the problems they seek solve in the so-called third world countries such as poverty, inequality, war, were created by imperialism and colonization.
2. Most of this financial aid comes with many strings attached and objectives that serve the agenda of the dominant country without taking into account the local contexts and situations.
For the second point I have another example. Once I met a male Argentinian documentarian who had done a film about indigenous women in an isolated and poor community in Mexico where women were denied their right to have an abortion. What most impressed this man was that one of the women protagonists of the documentary lived in a house that had no windows. The documentary maker wanted to help her, so at the end of the shoot she was surprised by a window in her house. The woman received her present annoyed and the documentarian left believing that she was a terrible and ungrateful woman. What he did not know was that now, thanks to the window, the woman’s ex-husband could go into her house at night to beat and rape her. The things that seem vital and important to us are not necessarily useful for other communities. And this error happens very frequently in international efforts to "build peace".
A few years ago the whole world turned to look at my country, Colombia, because we had finally reached an agreement to end 60 years of internal armed conflict. The war in Colombia is an invention of men, but those who survive it, remember it, carry it in their bodies are women. Even so, when the negotiation table was created, there was not a woman invited to the table.
But this led to something amazing: One of the main problems that feminism in Latin America faces is that it is strongly divided by class, race, education, regionality etc. But, during the Colombian peace process, women’s groups, victims’ groups, grassroots movements, and feminist groups all got together to have a conversation on how to make their voices heard in the negotiations.
Women’s groups started being invited to the negotiation table and were able to talk about what they needed. This was particularly important because many of the survivors of the civil war — one of the oldest ongoing armed conflicts in the world — were women. They carried the dead bodies, they were the ones who got hurt. So well before the negotiations began, women had started to construct strategies for peace, reconciliation, and reparation. Women were the ones who knew how to heal the country.
But shortly after this initial success, the conservative party came into power and installed a pervasive and dangerous discourse that is well-known across Latin America: “Ideologia de género” (gender ideology) — basically a made-up story on how feminists want to corrupt children by teaching them their rights. When this discussion popped up, it was two months before the peace treaty and lots of people went on the streets to ‘defend’ the traditional family. So what it came down to was that in the final peace treaty, they undermined many of the demands we had pushed for, e.g. by replacing the word “gender” with “women”, which was, of course, very frustrating for the movement.
But, on the other hand, the entire peace process left us with a very fine-tuned and well-organised group of Colombian women and feminists from very different backgrounds who share one goal: to advance gender equality in Colombia.
The problem, however, is that many of these women face the double-burden of managing both their households and trying to earn money for these families with the low salaries they get as activists, if they are lucky enough to get a salary at all. It is a huge problem that much of the funding from other countries is only dedicated to projects instead of to paying women decent salaries and general expenses. If women’s activists could have decent jobs, a house and pay their rent, this would change their reality.
Another approach would be to offer trainings for women to participate in public debates and politics — in other words, enable them to make their voices heard. Because a lot of women’s activists have never learned the craft of being a politician or a public influencer, which is essential to get noticed.
There are a lot of women in Colombia working with the victims of conflict who need economic support. They already do an amazing job — nobody needs to tell them what to do or what issues to focus on. They, we, all of the women in the world, we are sick and tired of people prescribing constantly what we have to do and how. This is patronizing. We, women, and specially poor women, racialized women, that have survived the most adverse situations, already know what to do, they just need the means, specifically money and time to do it.
Catalina Ruiz-Navarro, Activist and Journalist, CFFP Advisory Council Member. She is a Colombian-Caribbean feminist activist and journalist living in Mexico City. She is the editor-in-chief of the feminist Latin American magazine Volcánica, the co-creator of Amazona TV and has worked as a weekly columnist for El Espectador and El Heraldo in Colombia, writing on feminist topics such as abortion rights in Latin America. Catalina also founded the feminist Youtube channel “(e)stereotipas”.
Photos by Waleria Schuele