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Latin American Feminism Has Much to Teach US Left on How to Fight for Abortion

“Mothers and grandmothers redefined what it means to do politics,” says Camila Valle.

Part of the Series

In this episode of “Movement Memos,” host Kelly Hayes talks with Camila Valle, translator of Set Fear on Fire: The Feminist Call That Set the Americas Ablaze by LASTESIS. Hayes and Valle discuss the struggle for abortion rights and access in Chile and Argentina, the need for democratic structures in movement work, and how LASTESIS has used art and performance to bring feminist theory to the streets.

Music credit: Son Monarcas & Silver Maple

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity, and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. In 2019, the feminist art collective LASTESIS debuted their performance piece “A Rapist in Your Path” in their native Chile during massive protests against then-President Sebastián Piñera. Their song and choreographed dance performance went viral and inspired hundreds of recreations around the world. The group’s manifesto, Set Fear on Fire: The Feminist Call That Set the Americas Ablaze, was recently published in the U.S. by Verso Books. In the Set Fear On Fear, members of LASTESIS speak with one voice about their experiences as artists, feminists, and people seeking underground abortions. I was excited to hear that this translation was being published in the U.S. because, while leftists talk a lot about internationalism, and the need to learn from resistance strategies in the Global South, not enough written work coming out of those regions is being translated into English for mass circulation. Given that less than a quarter of people living in the U.S. are multilingual, many of us would do well to broaden our linguistic horizons, but I am probably not going to be reading books in Spanish anytime soon. So I was grateful for the opportunity to engage with the experiences, insights and wisdom of LASTESIS. Today we will be talking to the book’s translator, Camila Valle. Camila is a translator, editor, writer, and researcher. She is also a member of NYC for Abortion Rights and an abortion doula, who has deep ties to the struggle for reproductive justice in Argentina. I really appreciate Camila’s analysis about how the people in Argentina won abortion rights, and what we here in the United States can learn from struggles being waged in Chile and Argentina. I know there is a lot happening here in the United States around this issue, and even trying to keep track of those onslaughts can be dizzying. But the world is much bigger than the United States, and we have a great deal to learn from struggles that have been waged elsewhere. In fact, learning about those struggles, in places like Chile and Argentina, is an important act of defiance, because those stories are being invisibilized, erased or simply left untranslated for a reason.

Camila Valle: My name is Camila Valle. I am a researcher, a writer, a translator. I am also a member of NYC for Abortion Rights and an abortion educator and acompañante or abortion doula. I come from a long line of women who had illegal abortions in Argentina before the legalization of abortion in that country.

Set Fear on Fire is a book I translated into English from Spanish by the feminist art collective, LASTESIS who are from Valparaíso, Chile, and they’re perhaps best known for their song, dance performance, “A Rapist in Your Path,” which became a sort of feminist anthem in 2020. You might have seen the videos of the choreography and chanting in unison with the blindfolds saying that “the rapist is you, the rapist is a judge, the rapist is the president, it’s the cops, it’s the oppressor state.” There’s a refrain that says “the oppressor state is a sexist rapist.”

I think the impact of that and why it was so compelling is that it was both an account of their own personal experiences with gendered violence as well as a systemic analysis of where that violence comes from. And the fact that it became shared vocabulary, a shared language, if you will, around these common problems, really goes to show how deep these problems run across the world, around the world, even when they’re translated into different languages, into different contexts, et cetera.

I think it was performed in around 200 different cities. And for me, translating this book, which is an account of the collective experiences of LASTESIS, of being Chilean women, of being daughters of political refugees, having had illegal abortions, being single parents, their experiences with abuse and being persecuted for speaking out, it is also a denunciation of the system and the way that our societies are organized to reproduce and produce these kinds of violences and experiences. And for me, it really is a testament to the fact that we are not alone in those experiences.

I also found that translating the book was really illuminating for me as a way of thinking not only about LASTESIS’s work, but also more broadly about feminism in general. I think it is a type of event to have a book of feminist theory be translated from Spanish into English and not the other way around because I think for the most part, works of feminist theory are translated and disseminated in the other way, so from north to south. And the ones that come from Latin America and are disseminated, translated, published in a place like the U.S. remain an exception to the rule.

The English-speaking left, I believe, suffers from a great crisis of translation, and I think it is part of an imperialist or colonial arrogance and extractivism where the U.S. takes as much value as it can from the places we come from except for the value of our ideas and our resistances. And it follows this developmentalist paradigm, that the south has to “catch up” to the U.S. or Europe, that we are somehow lagging behind. And this, I feel, extends to the production of knowledge. So for me, translating the book was a contribution against that. It was a contribution to say that we understand them as equals and not only as equals, but we have a debt with them and their work.

KH: Argentina relaxed its abortion laws in 2020, allowing abortions within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. Prior to that victory, abortion had only been legal in Argentina in cases of rape or to save the life of a pregnant person. In Chile, abortion is only legal in cases of rape, an unviable pregnancy, or a danger to the pregnant person’s life. Without legal abortion access, people in Chile have developed underground networks of care and assistance to facilitate illegal abortions. It seems clear that people in the United States have a lot to learn from the struggles that people in both of these countries have waged. But as Camila explains, in order to benefit from those lessons, we must first contextualize them, rather than making one-to-one comparisons.

CV: I think that when we try to compare the U.S. and places like Chile or Argentina, and Argentina specifically has really been a focal point because of the great victory of legalization of abortion as part of its public health care system in December of 2020. I think what we have to understand, which is sometimes hard to translate to a U.S. audience, is the way that Argentinian society is a highly mobilized society in a profound way.

So in moments of crisis, social movements are able to establish certain axes of discussion and of debate that can disrupt the dynamics of what is happening in society at any given time and can really open up new ways of thinking about them. So how we think about gender, for example, how we think about violence, about work, disenfranchisement, about the almost binary categories of the domestic and the public, the streets and the neighborhoods.

I think that this is really important because the effect of this impulse on the feminist movement in Argentina is a weaving together of all these different ways that the Argentinian people have experienced crisis and violence, but also have experienced themselves as agents, even primary agents of political change. And this is intimately tied to Argentinian history.

So the military dictatorship I think is one of the starting points that we think about when we think about contemporary Argentinian history and this dynamic of mobilization. It’s a struggle against the military dictatorship in the ’70s and ’80s was led by the mothers and the grandmothers of those disappeared by the dictatorship, who numbered up to 30,000 is the estimate. And 500 children were stolen from these parents and many of them were born in captivity in the concentration camps.

And the mothers and the grandmothers really, I think, redefined what it means to do politics or to be political in Argentina. They were at the margins of society. They were obviously feeling the brunt of the dictatorship in the struggle to find their children and their family members. They defied everything that the dictatorship was trying to impose. They publicly assembled and they didn’t stop in the search. In fact, if you go to Argentina today, you can still find them in the main square, in the main plaza of the capitol, Buenos Aires, every weekend still searching and demanding the safe return of their loved ones.

So you have that and then you also have the queer and trans movements that followed the union movement, annual feminist gatherings which are really important and forms of organization that also emerged out of the uprisings against the economic crisis in 2001 and 2002 that formed neighborhood assemblies, councils, worker, occupations of factories and so on.

So I think that experience and the experience of more massive movements around more traditionally, “feminist issues” such as gendered violence and femicide and abortion with Ni Una Menos movement, which translates into “not one less” and the “Green Tide,” the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion. You have abortion and reproductive justice struggles and struggles around feminism as a piece of this larger context. And this broadening and embeddedness of feminism and specific demands around abortion and reproductive justice are part, always, of a larger context when we talk about a society like Argentina.

It’s something that I think we really have to grapple with and absorb here in the U.S. while at the same time not thinking that we can just copy paste that dynamic or replicate it because of course the U.S. is a different society and in many ways doesn’t have the same kind of unbroken lineage of historical memory.

KH: In the United States, we have seen efforts to promote and assist pregnant people with self-managed abortions, as fewer people are able to access legal abortions in many red states. We have also seen people who offer assistance to those seeking to abort targeted by law enforcement. Some pregnant people are turning to social media for assistance, desperately seeking help through mechanisms that are, in reality, corporate surveillance systems. While there are some people on those platforms who are willing to help, the precarity of using a web of surveillance to plan illegal activities has been underscored by Facebook and Google’s cooperation with law enforcement agencies that are attempting to criminalize abortion seekers.

The situation is daunting, but it’s important to remember, as Camila reminds us, that the underground networks in Chile have been built out over the course of decades. By comparison, people in the United States have barely begun to wade into this work.

CV: One key difference that I want to mention briefly between the U.S. and a place like Argentina is Argentina’s public health care system. I think this is incredibly relevant to how we are thinking about the abortion and reproductive justice movement in the U.S. because I really depressingly think that we are far away from winning free abortion on demand in the U.S.. But I want us to think about the differences in how that slogan or a slogan like abortion is health care, health care is a right, lands in different places that have won different social services in society.

So in Argentina, even though the public health care system has been under assault, has been deteriorating, and the budget has been cut, it is also something that you do not touch. If a politician, a government, a state gets rid of or privatizes the Argentinian public health care system, it will be more trouble than it’s worth, and they know that. There are kind of more insidious ways that they are destroying it. But as a whole, anybody can still walk into a clinic, a hospital, and get access to the health care that they need for free.

So the fight, there’s of course an ideological component around the fight for abortion that is present everywhere. The stigma around abortion is sadly universal for the most part. But even once you get past, or you have breakthroughs in the stigma around abortion or these ideological fights around abortion being necessary and right, or abortion being health care. In Argentina, once you’ve made that big breakthrough and people understand that abortion is health care just like anything else, they don’t have to make the leap that health care is a right. Health care is a right. People think health care is a right.

In the U.S., even if you overcome these ideological obstacles, which are enormous, even though as we know, most polls that have come out around public opinion on abortion, note that the majority of Americans support abortion or at least are against abortion bans, you still don’t have the automatic connection that just because abortion is okay or abortion is good or a necessary part of a democratic flourishing society, doesn’t mean it’s a right that everybody should have.

And so there’s an extra phase of struggle that I think the U.S. will have to undergo to actually achieve something like free abortion on demand. I think that’s part of, again, the history of the different countries and the social services and programs that they’ve been able to win through struggle.

I think that we are in a position now where we are having to build or continue building, because of course a lot of bans and restrictions and inaccessibility of abortion in the U.S. predates Roe. And Roe and the Hyde Amendment, which precluded federal funding for any abortion, which means basically that poor people cannot have an insurance cover abortion, or have any covering of abortion through federal funds, is a place that places like Argentina and Chile and other places in Latin America have been building the infrastructure for decades. Because it’s very different to have a society in which a constitutional right to abortion was one and then lost than a society in which that right was not codified into law in the first place.

So in the experiences of Argentina, for example, you have decades of building up that infrastructure of underground networks that help people get abortions even though it’s illegal, of people researching and training people in abortions, of sex education curricula formulations that include abortion and the desire and pleasure of sex as part of the conversation around feminist ways of thinking about our own bodies and our sexualities and a lot more.

So I think right now, in a “post-Roe” world in the U.S., we are starting to really have to rely on these networks that we have been building for less time than in these other places. And without the impact that was felt in these other places like Argentina, because I think so many people relied on Roe as being set in stone and untouchable.


KH: A recent BBC article described how pregnant people in Argentina continue to face obstacles to abortion, in spite of legal victories. While the number of pregnant people dying from abortions has dropped 40% since the law legalizing abortion went into effect in the country, in 2021, the law allows medical professionals to abstain from the provision of abortion care. This means that abortion seekers may still struggle to get an appointment, and many still experience shaming and verbal abuse from providers who do extend care. And so the struggle for reproductive autonomy in Argentina continues, because as we have also learned in the United States, nothing ends with the law.

Returning to Set Fear on Fire, I was especially moved by the section of the book where the collective discusses their experiences aborting in secret in Chile. In the chapter “Together We Abort,” they quote a collaborative video the group worked on for the Day for the Decriminalization and Legalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean, in September of 2020. In the song, the group declares:

We abort the unwanted pregnancy, sexism,

misogyny, strategies of control,

the oppressor, the deadbeat dad, the unjust laws,

the prejudices, and the guilt. No more fear.

We abort, the child-mothers.

We abort the silence.

We abort forced motherhood.

We abort, because we are not alone.

We abort.

CV: The experiences of people aborting in secrecy in places like Chile, in places like Argentina before the legalization of abortion, but still today are similar to what we have been seeing and will be seeing more of in the U.S., which is a confluence of obstacles and challenges that really hinder people’s ability to make decisions about their own bodies and their lives. These include, for example, the complicity of medical institutions and doctors in enforcing abortion bans and spreading disinformation and refusing to care for the people that they have vowed to care for.

So in Set fear on Fire, in the book, LASTESIS talks about illegally aborting in Chile and going to a doctor simply for an ultrasound, but kind of disclosing at some point that they are unhappy about the pregnancy. And the doctor says that they will have a miscarriage to wait two weeks and it’ll sort itself out. And of course, he was lying and they find out that he was a secret conscientious objector. Of course during those two weeks, they were carrying the pregnancy that they didn’t want to carry. They had delayed seeking alternatives.

So you have the complicity of the medical institutions and doctors, and in the U.S. especially, we know the extreme violence that the medical institutions and obstetrics in particular have had on especially Black women and Black people. In the U.S. for example, the maternal mortality rate is astronomical. So abortion bans will also be increasing pregnancy-related complications and childbirth-related complications. And these will also have a differentiality in how risky they are with poor people and people of color, and Black people in particular bearing the brunt of the consequences.

There’s also of course the question of price. So in places like Chile where it’s not legal and in Argentina before it was legal, you had the astronomical cost of actually having an illegal abortion. There are doctors who will do it, but they will only do it at a high price. There is an underground market for pills which are also very expensive. And sometimes you have the occurrence of people being sold fake pills, so pills that don’t work and then you have to start all over again, pay the price all over again.

Of course, the people who don’t have that money will either carry to term a pregnancy they don’t want and be forced to raise a child that they do not want. And if they don’t have money for the pills, they also don’t have money to raise a child. But also the question and risk and reality of death and prison if they are desperate and try to self-manage their abortion without pills, but with other maybe unsafe methods, the risk of death or injury and being imprisoned for attempting to have an abortion outside of the law.

And many doctors, going back to the question of, medical institutions are the ones who report people for allegedly self-managing an abortion, even if it was just a miscarriage and they did not in fact try to have an abortion.

On the other hand, feminist networks are around that help people have abortions in Chile, but also Argentina and in other places. If folks haven’t heard of Las Libres in Mexico, they do phenomenal work and are also now helping people in the United States get abortion outside of clinical settings and outside of the law. And these feminist networks range from helping people obtain abortion pills. They do practical support work of accompanying people through their abortions while they have them in the safety of their own home.

There are abortion funds here in the U.S. that do raise money to help pay for things like childcare, transportation, hotel rooms, if they’re helping someone go to a state without an abortion ban or without restrictions, pay for the procedure itself, et cetera. So I think this kind of proliferation of feminist networks and this infrastructure that is, for the most part underground, is something that is very present in places in Latin America where abortion is illegal, but also here in the U.S., I think there is a difference in temporality, as I said, in which places like Argentina and Chile have been doing this work for decades because they never had the constitutional right to abortion. In the U.S., I think the urgency of it is more recently felt.

KH: In the book, LASTESIS also discusses how women and girls experience their bodies as sites of violence. In Set Fear on Fire, the group writes:

[Patriarchal violence] is directly related to the creation of the modern state, the ideological foundation that institutionally reproduces systemic violence against bodies and territories. In that same vein, the right-wing denunciation of “A Rapist in Your Path” reflects ideas posited by Rita Segato (2003) and Virginie Despentes (2018), who provide a theoretical basis for what the patriarchy has called “whining.”

In their performances, LASTESIS seeks to convey these ideas through their songs, bringing feminist theory to the streets.

CV: LASTESIS, I think does something very beautiful, which is to talk about feminism through the power of art and performance and through embodiment and through our bodies that are often places of extreme violence. I think this art and performance component is one of the main reasons why their work caught on internationally. I think it’s very different to try to spread or talk about feminist theory through a book, or even a protest, than it is to translate that feminist theory into a dance or a song or a performance or art.

What LASTESIS does so beautifully, in my opinion, is make the art a collective experience, a communal experience. It’s dynamic and participatory. It breaks down this wall of artist and viewer. Everybody who is “viewing” the art also has an opportunity to become part of that performance. And the power of it is in fact when people take that up and inscribe their own context and meanings to it.

When I was translating the book, something that I was struck by was the emphasis and frequency of the word “subjectivity” or “subjectivities.” And it struck me because it is a word that I don’t often read in the same way when I read feminist theory or feminist works in the U.S. from the U.S. written in English. I think it is something so crucial that LASTESIS , but also Latin American feminism does in general, which is to say, part of what capitalism does is it intervenes in each one of our subjectivity in the ways that we become ourselves, and therefore it is also a responsibility and a task and an intervention of feminisms to play a part in each of our subjectivities.

I think that is what feminism is or does when people encounter it. And it’s something that LASTESIS writes about basically throughout the book, which is that the ways that encountering feminism changes your life and shapes you and lets you know that things are not your fault. The things that you thought are not right with the world are in fact not right with the world, right? You’re not crazy.

So I think this emphasis on subjectivities and subjectivization through art, through feminism is something that LASTESIS really has done beautifully. I think there’s also a tendency sometimes in the U.S. to slip into anti-intellectualism and LASTESIS, I think, makes the argument that instead of being anti-intellectual, we can redefine what these concepts are.

So theory can be a chant, right? Language can be our bodies. Oppression can be a collage, and all of this is also a work of translation. When I was translating the book, it was also helping me think about what I was doing as within that lineage of feminist translation, the politics of feminism as work of translation. And if it’s not, something isn’t working there.

We are always trying to transform one thing into another, and embody different methods or ways of legibility and intelligibility. I think I just want to quote one of the lines, I believe it’s at the end of the introduction to the book where LASTESIS writes, “Subversion dipped in beauty is revolution,” and I think this gets to the heart of what they’re trying to do with the transformative power of art.

One of the things I find so brilliant about LASTESIS’ work and “A Rapist in Your Path,” which I think is what people are most familiar with, is the ways that every little detail is theorized and thought about so deeply. And I think one example that I wanted to share was the use of the blindfolds, which you can see in all of the videos they’re wearing when they are doing their choreography and chanting.

And the blindfold for LASTESIS has several meanings, but two that I want to highlight are of an allusion to the eye injuries that became prevalent in Chile during the 2019 and 2020 uprisings from riot police’s use of rubber bullets and tear gas grenades, and also a torture center near Santiago called La Venda Sexy or “the sexy blindfold” during the military dictatorship of Pinochet where women, for the most part, who were kidnapped and brought to this torture center were blindfolded and raped, sexually assaulted, tortured, et cetera.

So the way that they use symbols and metaphoric strategies, the right of people to metaphor, and to quote Emma Goldman, the right of all people to beautiful things while also imbuing them with extremely thought out political messages, I think is a real strength that is often overlooked. And the name of the collective itself, LASTESIS, I think is kind of like a fuck you to people who are saying, “This is just a little dance by feminists,” and how much is it actually contributing to “theory” on the “left.” And as a way of saying, actually what we’re doing is thesis, is a hypothesis, is an analysis of how we understand violence.

KH: I have had a lot of conversations since the fall of Roe with abortion providers, reproductive justice organizers, and other abortion doulas, like myself, and a common theme in those conversations is that we, here in the U.S., need a more radical mass movement for reproductive justice. In the 90’s, people tell me, movements in support of abortion rights relaxed, after the passage of The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994 (or FACE). The FACE Act made it a federal crime to physically obstruct the entrance to an abortion clinic or to use force, the threat of force, or physical obstruction, to interfere with, injure, or intimidate clinic workers or people seeking abortions. With the passage of that law, many people felt the battle had been won, but the anti-choice movement continued on its radical path, undaunted by the supposed impossibility of their objectives.

Now, abortion is almost entirely banned in 13 states, and about half of all states are expected to enact bans or gestational limits on abortion care. At the policy level, we hear timid conversations about the goal of codifying Roe —a wholly insufficient aspiration that we are reminded is still legislatively out of reach. In light of our situation, I was actually moved to tears by the closing chapter of Set Fear On Fire, Together, in which the authors wrote the following:

Together we set fire to forced motherhood.

Together we set fire to the guilt.

Together we set fire to symbolic, domestic, and sexual violence.

Together we set fire to the violence inscribed in our bodies.

Together we set fire to the pact of silence in the face of so much abuse and oppression.

Together we set fire to the fear.

I read those words and thought, that is the energy we need right now.

CV: The book is full of revolutionary energy and it is a revolutionary energy and momentum that propels LASTESIS and feminism in Latin America more generally. I think it’s a really crucial lesson for people in the U.S. who are trying to fight on these fronts. A point that Veronica Gago, who is an Argentinian thinker and leader of Ni Una Menos makes is that, unlike how we often think about massivity or a movement becoming massive, usually in the U.S. but in other places too is that we often think about that process as involving a defanging or a compromise, or like a reaching across the aisle.

It was actually the opposite experience in Argentina and in Latin America. It was actually the radicality of the movement that contributed and played a fundamental role in making it so massive.

And we often think about those two things as being counterposed or contradictory, but I think we need to really embrace that lesson that in fact, they are inseparable. There is often an accusation leveled at feminism nowadays in a place like Argentina, often by the media, which is that now feminism is mixing all these disparate elements together. You’re mixing everything up. What does housing have to do with feminism? What does housing have to do with the external debt and femicide and abortion?

I think the contribution or the argument that feminism, Latin American feminism in particular, is making is actually, of course, these are all feminist preoccupations. And you can’t think about them as not being feminist. So when you think about what are considered more “niche” or single issue, or minority, specialized preoccupations like femicide, like abortion, we need to be talking about the desire to actually change everything, to change the entire social and political order of society.

We need to always be reimagining a different world, a better world. And this broadening of feminism, this broadening of what it means to take abortion seriously, to take discrimination seriously. The questions around land and Indigenous struggles seriously is to bring them together into a mass movement.

I think we can really see that, as I mentioned before in the history of Argentina and Argentinian social struggle and this accumulation of experiences and this unbroken historical memory. You have the dictatorship. You have queer and trans movements, the unemployed, factory occupations. You have a movement against femicide, and it’s no surprise to me that you also have abortion emerge in this kind of constellation of rethinking about the world and how we change it.

And that means to me that the abortion movement and reproductive justice struggles in a place like Argentina take on a distinctly collective dimension and a distinct class dimension. It’s not just about my body, reclaiming an individual, right? I don’t have a body separate from other bodies. My body is not separate from what happens to our land, it is not separate to having a roof over my head, to a dignified way of life. It is not separate from our country having to pay for the IMF and therefore bear the brunt of austerity measures of an economic price crisis that we did not start or are responsible for.

So this idea that we are all connected by ways of caring for each other and ways of life, I think is really critical about that. The green tide, for example, which is the name of the mass abortion movement in Argentina, named after the green handkerchiefs or that became its symbol, is that it overflowed into schools. It overflowed into the slums, into unions, mutual aid networks, soup kitchens. And it really showed in practice that we are not one without the other. These webs of interdependence and building dignified ways of life with each other and for each other is also the way that we have and participate and build mass movements in a place like Argentina.

KH: Last year, Camila spoke on a panel about the fight for abortion and reproductive justice. The panel’s transcript was published in Spectre, and it is worth checking out, but I wanted to share something Camila said during her remarks, because, as we come to a close today, I want us to think about, not only what we are fighting for, in the struggle for reproductive justice, but also, what we have to build. Camila said:

I want to argue that the Argentinian abortion movement’s building of its own infrastructures was critical for its victory. I think there’s a tendency on the left in the U.S., at least one that I have felt, especially when it comes to the issue of abortion, to counterpose the building of independent infrastructures, which often provide direct material and affective support, such as helping people get abortions, and the idea that we should demand things from the state (i.e., our right to abortion codified into law). The experience of Argentina, as well as that of other countries such as Mexico, actually shows that you can’t do one without the other.

CV: For me, the history of Argentina and the history of the abortion movement in Argentina are concrete examples of how collective experiences of democratization can help bring marginalized issues like abortion to the fore, both in society more broadly and within the left in particular. And just to give a kind of quick summary of what happened in Argentina, which in a country like Argentina, when you talk about democracy, you can talk about it more broadly like we are more familiar with in the U.S., but it’s always tied to a specific period of Argentina history, which is the formal moment and process of democratization after the fall of the military dictatorship.

So when you go through a process of formal democratization in a place like Argentina, and during that process you get back all these rights that were taken away from you, including, for example, the right to public assembly, et cetera, it’s really hard to ignore the rights that are missing.

And so the fact that people were having illegal abortions before the dictatorship, during the dictatorship and after the dictatorship is something that you can’t hide. And so in this context of an inaugural moment in society, of mass popular participation in trying to rebuild the country in human rights organizations, unions, and queer and trans groups, student movements, all trying to come together to reconfigure themselves as a new country.

By the end of the 1990s, abortion starts to develop a different kind of profile, thanks in large part to these coalitions and collective experiences of political development. So when, in 2001 and 2002, we have the mass uprisings against the profound, profound economic crisis that the country is going through, you have a new chapter of struggle for democracy.And it took on a specifically anti kind of traditional political party character in Argentina during that time.

During this period, you have the emergence of neighborhood assemblies and coalitions and councils that functioned both as mutual aid networks because everybody was extremely poor, and as political organizing spaces around fighting austerity and fighting the politicians and the government and the International Monetary Fund, et cetera. And within that landscape, an abortion assembly is formed by feminists who are concerned about this issue in particular.

It was through this experience that abortion is able to move out of its silo, basically. So abortion activists who were involved in the abortion assembly brought abortion to the center of every single meeting, every single action, every single other assembly, right? They came and they participated in those assemblies and councils and movements, and also raised the question of abortion.

So it established itself. It became embedded in each one of these other spaces. At a certain point, when that happens, when the abortion movement is basically fully integrated into everything else, it’s no longer really necessary to have one specific group raise the question of abortion.

Abortion becomes a pillar of all the fronts and all the coalitions. So just as you have to be against the external debt, just as you have to be against austerity, against discrimination, you have to be for abortion and the legalization of abortion, of free abortion on demand. So I think this collective experience of democratization really has enormous implications. It’s something that I noticed trying to organize in the U.S. is this disconnect between this understanding of embeddedness and of bringing things together. There tends to be, I find, a habit of thinking, by a certain sector of the left, that just because you are a socialist, you know how to talk about abortion.

You can say, for example, we need a mass movement in the streets. Abortion needs to be part of Medicare for all, things like that. The Democrats will not save us. We should not rely on elections to win U.S. legal abortion. All of these things, which I agree with, absolutely. But that’s not enough. It’s not enough to simply be a socialist. You have to be able to talk specifically about this question. You have to know about the menstrual cycle. You have to know what mifepristone and misoprostol are. You need to know feminist history.

We have to recognize there are groups of people who have been doing this work for a long time, who have been helping people get abortions, even when Roe was in place. And that has not really been integrated into what we would call the traditional left, which for the most part has not been organized around this question or questions of reproductive justice.

So for me, this is a question of not only democracy in society, which is that if we have a democratic society, we would have autonomy over our own bodies and over our own lives, but also democracy within organizing spaces, democracy within the left, which is to say, this would be a central pillar if actually we were able to have collective experiences of trying to build something together.

That’s another lesson that I really take away from Argentina and other parts of Latin America, which is that, because of this kind of plurality of experiences and other movements, which feminists have always been a part of, feminists meet. They discuss things and that it’s not just about “traditional” feminist issues like rape, for example, but about all sorts of issues that we are facing.

We debate and we talk to each other, and we read together and we struggle together in the streets. It’s not just the same people over and over again. When you have that democracy of being able to organize together, but also just simply have spaces, organizing spaces, political spaces to talk about politics, to think about strategies and tactics, that inevitably influences how much these “specialized” issues gain traction or are taken seriously and really raised as critical for the common good. And so to me, it really is a question of democracy.

KH: Near the end of their manifesto, LASTESIS writes:

“Democracies” endure a lot and know how to hide it very well, but we are looking straight at them.

We watch them from the underground network of women and dissidents. From the edges where we weave together multiple threads to make a new fabric. Multicolored and multisensory textures, across borders, across cultures. A nonlinear, nonhomogeneous fabric, as incendiary as it is oceanic. As solid as it is liquid, with the potential to be indestructible at the same time as it vanishes into air, into water, to adapt according to the paths we find. To reinvent ourselves along with our multiple strategies of and for struggle.

The reinvention of self, of strategy, and of struggle itself is what a real movement against patriarchal violence, forced birth and the exploitation of our bodies demands of us. As I finished reading Set Fear On Fire, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for the book’s vision, and for the reminders it offers us — that our movements cannot be grounded in small asks, or cowed by those whose limited imaginations or narrow focus might place limits on our work. As LASTESIS reminds us,“Our battlegrounds are so numerous that we may never be able to fully fight on all fronts. But their bombs will never be enough, because together we have already embarked on this path against the patriarchy, against all forms of oppression. And there is no turning back.”

I want to thank Camila Valle for talking with me about Set Fear On Fire, and about the struggle for abortion in Chile and Argentina. I am more grateful than I can say for Camila’s work translating this book, and I learned so much from our conversation. I hope we can do it again sometime.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

Resources:

  • NYC for Abortion Rights is an intersectional, abolitionist, socialist-feminist collective of activists who believe NYC needs an unapologetic grassroots movement to fight for full abortion and reproductive justice.

Referenced:

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