Okupa Cuba Casa Refugio: The Shaheen Bagh of Mexico

Indian anarchist Pranav Jeevan P writes on a feminist occupation in Mexico. Content warning: this article includes discussion of sexual violence. This article was first published by Round Table India.

Submitted by R Totale on May 3, 2021

This article is about an occupation protest that happened in Mexico last year which didn’t get the attention it deserves in media. 2020 witnessed a lot of occupation protests from Shaheen Bagh to Farmers occupation of Delhi borders. Just like those in Shaheen Bagh, this occupation protest in Mexico was by led by women. It started with the spontaneous takeover of the Office of Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) in response to rising femicides in Mexico.

11 women are killed in the Mexico every day. Femicide rates have increased in Mexico each year for over a decade, their characteristics consistent and gruesome with many cases where perpetrators have mutilated and abused their victims’ bodies, then disposed of them on roadsides or in fields. Over 66 percent of Mexican women report having experienced some type of sexual violence. Victims find themselves caught in endless bureaucracy where they are denied justice for years and 98% of all reported crimes go unresolved.

The COVID-19 pandemic saw a 71% increase in reports of domestic violence and has created further difficulties for women seeking justice through the legal system. The Human Rights Commission was supposedly there to protect women, but their frustration over its failed justice system resulted in the women realizing that the government isn’t going to help them and they decided to take matters in their own hands which led to the unprecedented event in world history where women occupied a government building1 .

On 2nd September, 2020 two women refused to leave the office building in protest over the lack of progress in their respective cases, a murder and sexual assault. They requested local activists for support which was responded with dozens of feminist collectives arriving outside the building led by an anarcho-feminists wearing black balaclavas who call themselves Bloque Negro (Black Block). They occupied the pavement outside the building, wrote up a list of demands and with support from the feminist organization Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) they took over the building on September 4th. They forced into building and asked the remaining workers and guards to leave2 .

More and more women across various collectives joined putting their bodies in line with the women inside. As the word spread, supporters began bringing bags of donated clothes, food, diapers and toiletries, which the women passed out to local families in need. They painted a mural that declared: “Ni perdonamos, ni olvidamos (we neither forgive nor forget).” Bright murals covered the walls, offices became bedrooms and the staff kitchen became communal cafeteria. Women from all over Mexico City showed up to read poetry, perform music and write the names of their abusers on the walls. They renamed the building as Okupa Cuba Casa Refugio (Cuba Occupation-Shelter House) – or Okupa for short3 .

They have demanded that these women not to be prosecuted for the protest; for police officers to receive gender sensitivity training; for the president to present a report on actions to decrease gender-based violence; and for the state to guarantee a quick resolution of femicide and disappearance cases4 .

The occupation was the culmination of year long mobilizations against gender violence in Mexico City. The young women of the Bloque Negro joined the movement from personal experience of violence. Others were radicalized by the police violence they experienced during protests. Every day, they wake up to alerts in news and social media about disappearances, rape, abuse and murder. Black Block protestors protesting through direct-action techniques have long been a ubiquitous presence at political demonstrations in Mexico City. Their appearance was inspired by Zapatistas, anarchists who wore black balaclavas to declare a war on the Mexican state in 1994 and take over not a building but a territory. Now, large groups of women started adopting these strategies. After police officers sexually assaulted a young woman, activists took to the street, broke bus station windows, set a police station on fire, and graffitied feminist slogans on the iconic Angel of Independence monument. They expected police retaliation and arrests, which led them to coin the phrase fuimos todas (it was all of us)”, “The window we broke, the fire, wasn’t done by one person” so that police can’t target them individually5 .

The women had declared the Okupa a shelter for survivors of gender-based violence. The building became a safe haven for many, including relatives of victims of forced disappearance, Indigenous women forcibly displaced from their homes by organized crime and survivors of domestic violence. Hundreds of victims have come to seek lodging and legal counsel. They gather to hear testimonies of fellow mothers of victims of femicide, rape and enforced disappearance. They have turned the building into a community. A committee was constituted for cooking each meal and everyone is responsible for washing their own dishes. The women take turns keeping guard at the doors, where they have arranged a line of Molotov cocktails for emergency use since the blocks around the Okupa have constant police presence. The occupiers have planned security protocols in case police attempt to violently evict them from the space6 . The organizing amoung so many women is done through dialogues and discussions, thinking about each other and their actions and consequences. They are determined and not ready to accept anything less than justice. They are struggling, resisting and persisting to stay alive because, in Mexico staying alive is a challenge.

“Insist, Persist, Resist and Never give up”

They painted “We do not forgive or forget”, “Justice” and “duuuude, not the wall!!” — a reference to public outrage over a graffiti left in the wake of past feminist protests, an outrage much louder than that over violence against women. They painted over portraits of all-male historical figures which adorned with lipstick, eyeshadow, purple curls, “ACAB,” anarchist symbols, and flowers. They brought these paintings outside and displayed them whose images have gone viral. The groups are auctioning off the paintings to fund their shelter7 .

The occupiers include old women, kids and pregnant women. Many are university students, who in between activities turn to online classes. Many were arrested in the frequent clashes with the police who used tear gas, and violence on these protestors. But, the women plan to keep occupation of the building even if the state agrees to their demands. Okupa has inspired similar protests across the country. When feminists took over the Human Rights Commission in a neighboring State, police violently evict them. The next day, the Bloque Negro returned shouting “If it’s not ours, it’s no one’s”. They broke the locks, smashed the windows and set fire to the building before marching away8 .

Even though there are fundamental differences between the Shaheen Bagh and Okupa protests, both were led by women who were frustrated with their government. They wanted to send a message that they can take matters in their own hands and raise their issues themselves and are completely capable of self-organization through mutual aid and democratic decision making. Shaheen Bagh protest saw women come in large numbers to occupy protest site demanding the repeal of the discriminatory CAA, NRC and NPR. Both these protests saw the participation of women in a radical and unprecedented scale never witnessed around the world. These protests where women are reclaiming their rights and occupying public spaces simultaneously at two farthest points in the globe, gives us hope that a new dawn is approaching, where equality will not just be a privilege for the few, but the norm.

  • 1M. Wattenbarger, "Inside Mexico’s feminist occupation," Aljazeera, 29 October 2020.
  • 2Ibid.
  • 3Ibid.
  • 4Ibid.
  • 5Ibid.
  • 6Ibid.
  • 7Z. Mendelson, "Feminists Take Over Federal Building in Mexico City and Use Painting as a Weapon," Hyperallergic, 10 September 2020.
  • 8Ibid.