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“Feminist Networks Save Lives” - Emilia Yang on Building a Future in Freedom

The rise of authoritarianism brings the erasure of memory. In many Central American countries, women’s stories are being erased, their bonds disrupted, and the spaces they inhabit made threatening. 

The Union of Feminists Engendering New Systems is envisioning a new future through a feminist lens. The organization, which brings together women and queer artists from across the region, is the brainchild of artist, activist, memory organizer, and researcher Dr. Emilia Yang. Using art as a weapon to abolish patriarchy, racism, and colonialism, its motto is, “If the future in freedom does not exist, we shall invent it!”

Networks are critical tools to build resistance, reimagine systems, and expand justice. The connections Yang has built – in the arts, academia, activist circles, and as a 2023 Bellagio Center Resident – help and support her in combining empathy, engagement, action, and change.

How is your work helping address issues of gender equality and women’s rights? 

In 2013, I experienced one of the first waves of repression by the Nicaraguan government and saw how governments erase facts and the people’s experiences. The government repressed a protest I was part of and claimed that it didn’t happen. So as a response, I created a platform for people to record testimonies and show that it did.

In 2018, they again violently repressed and tried to erase popular protests. This affected me personally, because the paramilitaries killed my uncle. I worked with a group of victims called the Mothers of April to gather one hundred testimonies for a community project called “AMA y No Olvida, Memory Museum Against Impunity.”

Through this work, I saw and felt how gender, race, and class intersect in Nicaragua. It was evident that it is dangerous for women to do any type of activist work, or even just be on the streets. Yet it was mostly women, often from indigenous communities and those living in precarious conditions, who were demanding justice, truth, and integral reparations. 

One of my other responses was gathering with Nicaraguan women artists to imagine a future with a feminist lens in the midst of this violence. We created a manifesto envisioning what a feminist future, education, and justice would look like. We designed flags to mark safe spaces and different forms of intervening, taking on this culture of fear that made it impossible for women to find each other, talk about the issues we experienced, and support each other. 

My most recent project, born out of this previous experience, is The Union of Feminists Engendering New Systems. This union brings together women and queer artists, curators, and activists from countries across Central America who are thinking about racial and gender justice. We create work about our bodies, memories, and healing processes, about how our memories live in our bodies and how that relates to our territories. The group fosters artistic collaborations, conversations, and a collective research project. All of us are outraged by the injustices that our bodies are experiencing. Together, we generate new energy and break some of these boundaries and imposed structures.

For me, threading networks and weaving collaborations creates an exchange, where we share knowledge, experiences, and spaces. We’re building a collective archive of our practices and the struggles of which we’re a part. Through it, you’ll be able to learn what’s happening in our countries and how these artists are embedded in other networks and doing artistic and activist interventions. It will be a web archive, possibly with video documentation.

  • We need to acknowledge the importance of weaving networks. Authoritarian fascism is rising everywhere. All of us are trying to confront it and survive this wave.
    Dr. Emilia Yang
    Union of Feminists Engendering New Systems

What breakthroughs need to happen to be able to build a feminist future?  

We need to acknowledge the importance of weaving networks. Authoritarian fascism is rising everywhere. All of us are trying to confront it and survive this wave. I echo the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders, which states that “feminist networks save lives”. I add that they create caring and fearless forms of living. Networks also multiply. All the artists we work with have their own networks of activists and artists who think about similar issues, and it’s been really interesting to see the connections among them. 

We brought this group together in Ann Arbor at U-M for a transborder convening and performance, creating a safe space for growth, mentoring each other, and supporting each other. Now we’re meeting on Zoom, and we’re gathering again in Guatemala in May. We’re thinking of ways to amplify our manifesto. Maybe one member will grab a line from it and make posters, another will make a zine, and another will create a performance.

The group imagines and creates in a way that would be hard to do only by myself. One member said they wanted to start feminist film screenings, and we all suggested things they could watch. We share resources to create new spaces, conversations, and projects. We’re also gathering our inspirations, bringing together people who feed our collective imagination and this archive.

What keeps you up at night about achieving your goals? What makes you optimistic?

The safety of the women doing this work keeps me up at night. Just being a woman artist/activist in this region, you can become a target really easily. We all have safety protocols, because each of us is taking on different power players. One member is tackling mining companies in a country where environmental activists get killed all the time. We share resources about what to do if something happens. What if you get doxxed? What if you get targeted? Having that knowledge can save our lives.

What makes me hopeful is that we’re not the only ones. Many other feminist groups are building futures through solidarity. We received a hundred applications from feminist activists in the region, and all were amazing. So much amazing work is being done, and we are all in synchronicity.

To Yang, the power of feminist networks is more than their ability to connect, support, and empower. “We need to search for healing from our experiences,” she says. “To heal our relationship with the land and our relationship with our ancestors. It gives me a lot of hope to recognize that we’re all in the process of becoming better.”

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