Protest to Proposal: How Civil Society Shapes Modern Mexico
November 5, 2019 | Perspectives

Sharon Bissell, Director of the Mexico Office, considers the legacy of MacArthur’s work in Mexico and introduces a series of stories about progress on human rights in Mexico.

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© Getty Images

From the rubble rose signs of hope and progress.

In 1985, Mexico was recovering from the September 19 earthquake that took the lives of more than 5,000 people in the capital city—a tragedy whose ruins gave rise to numerous civil society organizations filling in for a government ill-equipped to handle a disaster of such magnitude. Citizens organized in brigades, gently but urgently digging people out of the rubble, setting up makeshift camps and collective kitchens, taking care of children as family members were located, dead or alive.

In the following years, the number of civil society organizations in Mexico increased dramatically. Women workers organized around their rights and safety; human rights defenders called out state repression in cities and in rural areas; migrants organized in home town associations and connected with family members in the United States; and indigenous Mexicans rose up against discrimination and exclusion through the Zapatista movement.

MexFam…was the beginning of our more than three decades of partnership with organizations deliberately nurturing a culture of rights and justice.

At that time, the Mexican Center for Family Planning, or MexFam, the conservation organization ProNatura, and the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago were discussing their shared interests. It was a small overture, rooted in the new hope and energy of Mexico’s civil society, but it also was the beginning of our more than three decades of partnership with organizations deliberately nurturing a culture of rights and justice.

MacArthur had recently taken on women’s and reproductive health as a programmatic priority and would soon identify Mexico as a priority country. MexFam—an affiliate of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and known in Spanish as the Centro Mexicano para la Planeación Familiar—embodied what we hoped to support globally: an institution with the mission of creatively and collectively advancing controversial aspects of human rights.

In Mexico, access to contraception was complicated by cultural and religious beliefs and practices that kept—and continue to keep—women from fully exercising their rights. But Mexico held great promise thanks to its pioneering population policies, women’s entry into the work force, and a growing middle class aware of and interested in exercising their rights. Women’s and reproductive and sexual rights are intricately intertwined with human rights precepts and values, and, over time, MacArthur expanded its support to address longstanding and emerging human rights challenges through its programs.

Since our first grants nearly 35 years ago, MacArthur has managed multiple programs in Mexico, including leadership development for human rights, reproductive health, and conservation (1990-2001); reproductive health (1985-2019); human rights (2001-2020); migration (2010-2016); and strengthening philanthropy and civil society. The Foundation has supported hundreds of civil society organizations and leaders and provided over $200 million dollars to organizations and people whose strategic minds and persistent actions have changed Mexico. As our Mexico grant making comes to a close next year, we recognize the importance of their work and the need for their solidarity and creative responses long into the future.

The emergence of civil society organizations and their professionalization has been spurred by circumstance: State repression in the 1960s and 1970s. Natural disaster in the 1980s. International attention to women’s rights in the 1990s. The promise of democracy with the first opposition government in 2000. And the current human rights crisis that has plummeted Mexico into violence, including the disappearance of more than 40,000 people since 2006, pervasive violence against women and rising femicide, historic homicide rates, and new problems related to illicit drug abuse and the possession of arms.


Apartment building in Mexico

© Getty Images


Within this context, organized civil society has been at the heart of significant shifts in the concept of and legal protections for human rights. In 2000, after 70 years of one-party rule, civil society organizations helped draft the country’s first National Human Rights Program in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights. They have won paradigmatic cases of human rights violations at the Mexican Supreme Court and the InterAmerican Human Rights Court, decriminalized abortion in Mexico City and Oaxaca, and contributed to vital law and policy regarding disappeared persons. A 2008 constitutional reform to the criminal justice system embraced for the first time the presumption of innocence over the presumption of guilt, and a 2011 constitutional reform elevated international human rights law in Mexican jurisprudence.

Behind these efforts is the conviction that a just society is built by its citizens 

Behind these efforts is the conviction that a just society is built by its citizens. As organizations moved from the proverbial protest to proposal (“de la protesta a la propuesta”), the proposals organizations devised have resulted in incremental yet positive changes to public institutions charged with providing guarantees and services and have promoted better—though yet imperfect—transparency and accountability.

The state’s recognition of its responsibility to protect and guarantee human rights is evident in a new trend of public government apologies to victims for past abuses—an important gesture whose true value will lie in what is most urgent and must come next: reparations for damages, measures that guarantee an end to similar atrocities, and access to truth and justice.

MacArthur has celebrated the milestone 25th or 30th anniversaries of organizations that we helped fund from the beginning, such as the Information Group on Reproductive Choice, Tlachinollan Center for Human Rights, the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, Sin Fronteras, Fondo Semillas, Fundar, Kinal Antzetik, and the Miguel Agustín Pro Juarez Human Rights Center. 

New groups such as Ruta Cívica, Creatura, Tojil, the Mexican Institute for Women in Migration, the Mexican Professional Midwives Association, and Quinto Elemento Lab add new energy and vision to the longstanding work of their peers. 

A welcome development is increasing synergy between the human rights and women’s health fields. Today’s human rights activists are more openly supportive of sexual and reproductive rights than they were 30 years ago and more cognizant of the success of the feminist movement. Women’s groups now commonly use international and national human rights law, in addition to seminal UN accords favorable to women’s rights.

When the earth under Mexico shook again in September 2017, wreaking havoc first on southern states and later in Mexico City, people took to the streets with the same solidarity and urgency as they did exactly 32 years earlier. But this time, as they dug through the rubble, shushed crowds with raised fists, and distributed massive donations, they were reinforced by new allies: Investigative journalists interviewing witnesses, survivors, and engineers. Lawyers taking testimony. Techies coordinating over mobile phones and behind computer screens to check facts and call out rumors and falsehoods. Forensic experts taking bad news to expectant families. And citizen-activists orienting volunteers and donations on Facebook and Twitter to the areas in most need.

Researchers checked compliance with zoning laws and uncovered the corruption that had permitted structures unfit for the soft earth beneath the tremor-prone city. Citizens organized in collectives and filed lawsuits that today remain in lengthy court processes.

Two years later, the reconstruction of the Multifamiliar Tlalpan, an apartment building where nine people lost their lives and hundreds their homes, is nearly complete. As I pass by on my way to work each morning, I take in the spray-painted sign on the corner reminding passers-by of the fragility of life and the importance of solidarity: Hoy Fuimos Nosotros/Mañana Puedes Ser Tú. Today It Was Us/Tomorrow It Could be You. Home owners will soon return, the reinforced buildings will become their new reality, and other challenges across the city and the country will continue to require thoughtful, well-executed responses of civil society.

In the months ahead, MacArthur will chronicle Mexico’s progress with a series of stories paying tribute to the work of the many people and organizations at the front lines that we have had the honor to support, learn from, and dream with. As mere strokes on the ever-changing canvas of social justice and human rights, they will offer a glimpse into the remarkable work of Mexico’s civil society organizations, the victories they have won and the challenges they face in the years ahead.



© Getty Images


Mexico: Progress and Prospects

Mexico has made significant strides in strengthening human rights, reproductive rights and women’s health over the last three decades, and the Foundation has been proud to partner with the many people and organizations behind that important work. Over the next year, MacArthur will chronicle those accomplishments through a series of stories highlighting both progress and prospects for the future.

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