Reporter's Notebook from Atenco, Mexico

Real Women Have Machetes

Part 3

by Luciente and the Atenco Project Writing Group

Revolutionary Worker #1178, December 8, 2002, posted at

This summer, RW correspondent Luciente traveled to Atenco, Mexico, to learn about the struggle of the campesinos to defend their land. The following is part 3 of a four-part report on the fighting peasants of Atenco. Part 1 appeared in RW #1174, and part 2 in RW #1176. The series is available online at

Desamarrandose el mandil/Taking off the apron

Justina--a housewife devoted to her children and her home--said that on October 22, 2001, she felt a rage so strong that it was almost impossible to express it. That was the day that Mexico's Fox government issued a decree declaring that the land worked by the campesinos of Atenco would be expropriated so that a new airport could be built.

Hundreds of people like Justina responded to the government's decree by taking to the streets with machetes, sticks, pipes, molotov cocktails, and rocks. The campesinos' rage was so strong that Margarito Yanez, the mayor of the town, fled the area fearing for his safety.

"Shouting is a way to make ourselves heard," Justina told me. "As we shouted our chants, I felt like when someone is trying to take a child away from his mother. I would shout, we would all shout, `The land is not for sale! The land is not for sale!'"

Many women said that before they became active in the struggle they were mujeres agachadas --women with their heads bowed down. They followed the same routine everyday: buy food, cook the food, wash the dishes, wash clothes, clean the house, cook again, wash again, etc., etc., etc. They rarely saw beyond their front door--not because they didn't care, but because it "wasn't their place." All this changed when they learned about the government's plans to expropriate their land. A flame was ignited in the hearts of the women of Atenco. They learned to be selfless and to dedicate their life to the struggle. The women described this change as "el día que naci"--"the day I was born."

"When I started here, I was a housewife," said Lucia as she rested her machete on her lap. In November, as it became clearer that the people in Atenco wanted to defend their land against the construction of the airport at whatever cost, she realized that she needed to get involved. "We left our aprons to join the struggle, to defend our land. That's when I started to participate, since the first confrontation between our compañeros and the riot police."

Valentina smoked a cigarette as she looked back at all the obstacles she had to overcome to join the struggle. When she started talking about the struggle and the need for everyone to get involved, her brothers told her, "You're crazy. Do you really think you can go up against the government? You're crazy." But she persisted. "I would get so angry to find people who were so negative that they would say `They're going to fuck you up.'"

Her brothers told her that she'd be beat up and no one would give her as much as a bandage. Valentina said that she didn't believe that, but even if it were true it wouldn't matter--she still wanted to fight. "I came into this world, and I want it to be for something."

The struggle allowed Valentina to feel complete for the first time in her life. She loves her children and her family, but in the struggle she discovered a new kind of love. Getting active in the struggle and fighting against the injustice that was being done against the people in Atenco is an experience that she wouldn't trade for anything else in the world. For the first time in her life she felt free and that her life truly mattered--she started to have dreams about flying.

Valentina said, "I wish you could have been here. Our rage was stronger than our fear." She wanted to give us a flavor of what she had experienced in the months between October and July. She showed us a video with footage and news clips of demonstrations they had participated in.

As I watched the images on the screen and saw the campesinos facing off against the riot police at a demonstration on November 14, 2001, my heart beat with anger and admiration at a pace so furious that I thought it would burst.

On that day, a contingent of more than 2,000 people from Atenco--led by a banner that read "Por la defensa de las tierras de cultivo" ("For the Defense of the Farming Land")-- planned a march to the Zocalo in Mexico City. More than 7,000 people from more than 50 social justice organizations, including students from UNAM and other universities, waited to join them. As the contingent from Atenco entered the City, more than 150 granaderos --riot police--formed a barrier to prevent them from reaching the Zocalo.

The demonstration refused to turn back--they stood their ground and demanded to be let through. The first battle began.

It was like a clash between two different worlds. Campesinos rode through the streets of Mexico City on horses holding their machetes high in the air. It looked like a scene from the 1910 Mexican Revolution--only it was taking place in the new millennium The riot police wore helmets, held shields, and swung their batons. Their uniforms resembled the ones worn by riot cops in Seattle, Prague, Genoa, and Los Angeles..

Tear gas filled the air and rubber bullets--made in the USA--pierced through the crowd as the demonstrators chanted "Tierra Sí! Aviones No!"--"Yes to the Land! Not to Airplanes!"

A woman disappeared among the clouds of gas and crashing police shields and machetes. She walked out of this chaos with her eye swollen shut and the pink collar of her blouse drenched in blood. As she wiped the blood off her face, other women dipped rags and handkerchiefs into vinegar bottles to ease the effects of the tear gas. They hurled insults and rocks at the riot police.

Sparks flew as the machetes wielded by white-haired campesinos scraped against the asphalt. The fierce determination and resolve in the eyes and machetes of the campesinos sliced through the riot police's formation.

El coraje que sentía la gente --the rage that people felt--quickened the collective pulse of the people of Atenco when the riot police attacked the campesinos the first time.

A woman shouted, "Blood will flow, but we will not give up our land!" The contingent fought its way through in their first victory against la repression --the repression. The terms were being set for the struggle.

La batalla/The battle-- July 11, 2002

On July 11, 2002, a delegation from Atenco marched in protest to a neighboring town where governor of the state of Mexico, Arturo Montiel Rojas, was giving a speech. Police ambushed the protestors and brutally beat them. Leading peasant activists were arrested and tortured, including Jose Enrique Espinoza Juarez, who died on July 24 as a result of the beating. The police refused to give Jose Enrique medical attention. Official statements declared that he had died of poorly treated diabetes and denied any wrongdoing by the authorities. The campesinos know the truth--their compañero was murdered.

As the news of the police ambush and the arrests reached Atenco, bells tolled and homemade cannons went off. People poured out of their houses.

Most of the people who came out were women because at the time many of the men were working in the fields. Immediately, the people made plans to barricade the roads to prevent the entry of authorities.

Elisa, a young campesina, told us, "The 11 th set things off. We were willing to give our lives for what our grandparents fought for. We were going to die fighting if they were going to take our land away. If our grandparents fought for a piece of land why not us?

"We carried heavy rocks to block the roads. What gave us courage was the rage we felt when we saw our compañeros being beat. In those days there were more women out there than men. We were home when the bells tolled and we got there sooner because many of our husbands were working in the fields."

When it was confirmed that two important leaders in the struggle, Ignacio del Valle and Adan Espinoza, had been brutalized and arrested, Trinidad del Valle knew it was time to address the people. She walked up to the microphone and said, "We've come to the critical moment we were waiting for. We were aware of what could happen. Now I ask you, people, because the decision and the final word belongs to you. What are we going to do? Are we going to confront them? Or are you scared? Are you afraid? We're all scared, and we have to be conscious of that, right? But either we defend [our land] now or we may never have the opportunity to do it again, but the decision is up to you."

The people of Atenco feel that a dormant strength was unlocked in those four days in July. A tremendous part of this strength came from women. Many men confessed that at first they didn't want their wives, daughters, and other women in the town to get involved. Women told us that in the first clashes with the police, the compañeros would push the compañeras aside. The women said that if one compañera was pushed aside, another one would step in. If she was pushed aside, three more would take her place.

Felipe was active in the struggle against the airport from the beginning. At first he was also concerned about women joining in the combative aspect of the struggle. But seeing the fierce determination of the women, he came to believe that the struggle was twice as strong because of the participation of women. "Now women also talk about this. They have forgotten how to be tied down to their husbands. Women are rebellious now. If her husband wouldn't go out there she would say, `If you don't go, I will, damn it! If you don't defend the land, I'm going to.' That's good!"

As the struggle reached a boiling point on July 11, many women gained fearless strength from seeing the riot police shake in their boots, holding their shields that quickly clouded up with the nervous breath from their quivering lips. The granaderos were afraid of the campesinos--men and women--who shook their machetes at the police lines.

"It doesn't mean anything to see a granadero now," Justina says. "I used to be afraid of them. Not now. Now we can look at each other face to face, and we're not afraid of them anymore. That's why I tell you that we're not the same. And we'll never be the same again."

Justina remains unapologetic about the resistance that people carried out against the government and its police forces. Her teenage children had attended demonstrations with her--she wanted them to learn what the pueblo was fighting in defense of. On July 11, she had an important task to carry out in town. She lost sight of her children as the clash with the police intensified. The next time she saw one of her kids was when her daughter was being put into a patrol car. Everything stopped for a few seconds. "What do I do?," she asked herself. Justina said that she had to turn a blind eye because there was nothing she could do--dropping everything to try to save her daughter would take her away from her task, and that would jeopardize the entire town.

Fortunately, Justina's daughter was later released. But that decision was the hardest she had ever made. And, she said, she'd do it again.

Justina said, "The struggle in Atenco was aggressive and hard. But if they don't struggle like that, those who want something are never going to accomplish anything. They will never succeed. Why? Because we have to give it everything we've got. Either we win or lose. Adults, men, women, children, and all kinds of people struggled here. Women, young women--everybody. The people who want to struggle for something have to do it like that.

"Atenco showed everyone who said you couldn't go up against the government that you can."

* * *

One night, as we walked in the cool evening breeze of Atenco, a woman whispered to me, "You know, I used to be one of those women who used to go to church only to criticize how people looked and what they wore. I know it's hard to believe, but I used to like to gossip. Not now.

"I look back and remember criticizing the students in UNAM for striking and creating such a ruckus about the privatization of the university. I used to say, `If they're so concerned about having access to the university, shouldn't they be focusing more on their studies instead of being such troublemakers?

"After being involved in this struggle, I can't imagine us succeeding without them. I'm thankful that they're such troublemakers!"

Part 4: The rebel youth of Atenco

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)