Small clusters of men and women in folded newspaper hats shout at each other in the street outside of the Talavera House in cobble-stoned downtown Mexico City:
Today at 6 in the Evening at Talavera House!
The launching of the Migrants People’s Party!!
Because you could be the next migrant!
Inside, seated in front of a projected black-and-white political emblem, Únete con El Partido del Pueblo Migrante (Unite with the Migrant People’s Party) Cuban-born artist Tania Bruguera was fielding questions from a gaggle of cameras and scribbling reporters. Her new project, the Migrant People’s Party, was designed, Bruguera explained, to give migrants “more political representation.” It is a “party of ideas meant to intervene in the 2012 [Mexican] electoral process.”
Most of the journalists and sympathizers in the audience at the launch party (including some self-identifying migrants and migrants rights advocates) were holding sheets of sheets of paper that would become weapons of mass interruption. The idea is that on July first, as Mexicans go to the polls to vote for their new political representatives, including a new President, some of them will drop a small black tab in the ballot box along with their votes. Written on the black tabs, which are in perforated strips on the sheets handed out by Bruguera and her crew, are the words: VOTO MIGRANTE. Of course that black tab (the migrant “vote”) won’t count for anything—it’s an artistic stunt—but the point is clear: for too long we have been deaf to the voices of migrants. In another Migrant People’s Party pamphlet Bruguera explains: “dignity doesn’t have nationality.” The Party commits itself to working to create a “space where all migrants can exercise their political presence.”
Bruguera’s concept—not an actual political party—falls under the umbrella of political performance art. The project is supported by a Mexico City art gallery and a University grant and Bruguera is a veteran performance artist, having launched the Immigrant Movement International, a clear forerunner to this project, in 2010. And yet the Migrant People’s Party (MPP) is also more than performance: it is self-described “useful art.” Not only is the MPP confettying ballot boxes with the “votes” of migrants, the Party is also launching a month of public debates about historical and political migration, gender and migration, youth and migration, and human rights and migration. The MPP is also collecting toilet paper, tampons, socks, soap and bleach, among other items. The Party has printed a pamphlet, “Basic Information for the Migrant,” to be distributed to migrants at special migrant shelters throughout Mexico, which provide a few free days of bed and board along the main train lines that migrants travel along. Some of the offered tips: when riding on top of a train, if you’re cold and you don’t have an extra sweater, wrap a plastic bag around yourself; when entering into Apizaco, Tlaxcala, make sure to get off the train early, in Huamantla, to avoid the Mexican immigration checkpoints. There are six small-print pages of such practical road wisdom.
Estimates of the number of undocumented migrants in Mexico range from 100,000 a year to over a million. As they’re undocumented, it’s hard to tell. Most of them are passing through from Central America to try their luck in the United States. But plenty of them stay to pick fruit or find work in Mexico’s teeming metropolises. One thing is certain: while in Mexico, migrants face a gauntlet of corruption and brutality that surpasses the draconian American state laws of the likes of Arizona and Alabama.
Though in the US many might not look much beyond our own immigration quagmire, in Mexico the debates for and against migrant rights and immigration reform flare even more intensely than stateside. Alejandro Solalinde, one of the most recognizable voices for migrants rights in Mexico (also a catholic priest and a migrant shelter founder) after receiving yet another death threat, was recently forced to leave the country for his safety. According to the United Nations, at least 18,000 migrants are kidnapped in Mexico every year. It is also estimated that seven out of ten migrant women are raped while in the country. Undocumented migrants in Mexico cannot work or vote, and though they legally are entitled to public health care, most live in the shadows, avoiding interactions with the state.
Where the MPP falls on the spectrum of politics and art—if it turns out to be an actual movement in which migrants themselves and not just their advocates are organized—may be less important than its capacity to unify disparate migrant rights movements, within Mexico’s political landscape and even in the growing global movement for migrants’ rights.
A number of people in the audience at the launch party press conference identified themselves as migrants. Bruguera herself is a migrant from Cuba. But it wasn’t a complete picture. Missing, of course, were those migrants riding on the backs of trains, walking through the scorching deserts, those living and working for a pittance on farms: many of them are too busy surviving to be part of what might feel to some like an artistic or political stunt.
But Bruguera’s political art projects have the ability to broaden the pro-migrant movement by showing that the migration crisis is not isolated to first-world migrant receiving countries: even in Mexico, a chief exporter of immigrants to the U.S., migrants from other countries are relegated to third-class citizenship.
Bruguera’s project helps shed light on the fact that migration is a global phenomenon, that no demographic or political change in the world today occurs in isolation. Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans and Mexicans will continue to cross and recross borders no matter how much national or state governments relax or fortify anti-immigrant policies. Fighting to protect migrants and migrant rights without building international consciousness is like tying on a blindfold before stepping into the ring.
For two days, the Migrant People’s Party deployed about 100 voceadores (literally, street shouters, who typically hawk water or gasoline—part of the auditory landscape of many Mexican cities) to walk the streets of downtown Mexico City. Donning newspaper hats they were announcing the launch of the Party. The mock-electioneering may not seem artistic to many passersby, but it speaks to the official Party line: “direct participation of the public in a political situation, generating potential responses and social conflicts.” The Migrants People’s Party doesn’t have official political weight, but it has room to be artistic, creating representation in the symbolic realm. This creativity then has the potential to lead back to actual political weight, turning individual viewers into political actors. Bruguera has compared the participatory nature of the Party project with the Occupy Movement, as well as #yosoy132, a grassroots Mexican student movement for media democracy and clean elections.
Bruguera sees the migrant as “the citizen of the future. [A migrant] is a social being… that has the privilege of having two cultures, two languages, two points of view.” Her optimism here is grounded in actual ballot casting, in the voices shouting in the streets, in the soap and socks being delivered to the shelters. And the slogan “Because you could be the next migrant” isn’t playful when it’s true. And in Mexico—and across the hemisphere–it’s true for many.
John Washington is a freelance writer and Fulbright Fellow based in Mexico City.