Every Sunday afternoon, in the main square of Mexico City’s Coyoacán neighbourhood, you can find a group sitting to one side of the fountains, embroidering handkerchiefs. They are Fuentes Rojas (Red Fountains), the Mexico City branch of a global network of collectives embroidering for peace and memory. Members of these collectives come together to embroider the names and stories of victims of violence and forced disappearances: an embroidery with red thread means the person was murdered, a purple embroidery indicates a case of femicide, while green thread symbolises the hope that a disappeared person will still be found.
When the bordados por la Paz y la Memoria movement started, it was not a new concept: women have been using embroidery as a form of resistance for a long time. From the Women Against Pit Closures banners stitched during the miners’ strikes in the UK, to the famous ‘Intifada dresses’ made by Palestinian women in the early nineties, this traditionally ‘feminine’ and ‘domestic’ art form has been used time and again to deliver powerful messages of resistance. The innovative thing about the Bordando por la Paz y la Memoria network is that they have taken the act of embroidering out of the domestic setting, taking up space in public parks, squares and in the street. This is particularly important in the case of Fuentes Rojas and other collectives in Mexico, as they exist in an environment of ‘collective violence’. Since 2006, between 25,000 and 30,000 people have been disappeared and more go missing every day. For English speakers, the term “to be disappeared” sounds strange or incorrect, but with the prevalence of forced disappearances in Mexico, it has become a part of their vocabulary. However, the culture of impunity fostered by the Mexican government and the dangers that face journalists and activists who try to uncover this epidemic of violence mean that it is not truly being confronted in public discourse.
The women of Fuentes Rojas are not only making this unspoken violence visible, they bring people together to really engage with the issues. Curious passers-by are always invited to sit and sew with the organisers. Many do, creating a collective of activists, tourists, and local people of all ages, genders and walks of life. Embroidery is the kind of meditative work that encourages conversation and creates a welcoming space for shared mourning where people can work through collective pain. The Bordados por la Paz y la Memoria groups use a simple and creative activity to side-step the over-intellectualisation that usually excludes many from discussions about violence in society. Anyone who can sew a button back on can embroider — or “draw with thread”, as the women of Fuentes Rojas say. There is no expertise needed, so anyone can join the group and join the conversation.
In the UK, we live in a very different context and we are struggling against distinct kinds of violence, but we can still learn a lot from Fuentes Rojas and the other collectives like it. The groups show us that activism can take many forms; that activities that have traditionally been seen as a women’s pastimes can be activism, too; and that collective acts of self-care can be one of the most radical protests there are.