Yolanda Perez, an activist challenging inequality and violence through art in Chiapas

Photo story

The struggle Yolanda faces is against a systemic authoritarian system, shaped by classism, machismo, poverty, violence and discrimination. 

Yolanda Perez

Text: Javier Escalante Rosado
 Lizeth Bonifaz Cordero

Thirty-six-year-old Yolanda Faustina Pérez Hernández is concerned about the rise of organised crime groups in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico, that seek to involve young people; through art and peace building, she achieves the impossible by taking these youth out of their hands.  

To understand the context, San Cristobal de las Casas is a community founded in 1561 during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Since its origin, social division has been an enduring reality. Los Coletos (the name given to people descended from Spanish families) are the only ones allowed to live in the area, while the indigenous population was forced to move to the outskirts. 

Although there are theatres, churches and cultural centers in San Cristóbal de las Casas, for decades (until not too recently) the only people authorized to use them were hacienda owners, businessmen or any white people with Spanish surnames; indigenous people with brown skin and Mayan surnames could not even enter the municipality; they were only given access to do service or domestic work. 

This social phenomenon, Yolanda explains, has caused a severe rupture in the community marked by discrimination, hate and elitism. it is a society in which there seem to be first and second-class people. 

Organized crime takes over streets

In recent years, caravans of migrants from Central America began arriving at the Mexico-Guatemala border on their way to the United States, just a few kilometers from San Cristóbal de las Casas. This situation has exacerbated the problems in several of the regions and drug trafficking criminal groups have settled in the area to control the trafficking of women, the sale of drugs and illegal migration.

“Drug traffickers not only sell drugs but also create other business models to profit from the sale of underage women, trafficking of undocumented immigrants and child pornography," said Yolanda. 

The problem has become more acute as the months have passed; During the pandemic, shootouts in the streets, police chases and even executions in broad daylight by criminal groups began to be seen for the first time. 

It seems that the community is plagued by excessive violence, but it is especially young people, who in the face of poverty, need and lack of opportunities see joining these gangs as an alternative in order to get ahead in life. 

Yolanda has developed in this environment and has documented how this situation presents a latent risk for young people, especially in the northern zone of San Cristóbal de las Casas, who carry the stigma of being poor or violent. 

“Young people in our community are affected by organized crime. More and more of them seem to be joining these groups, and now they are using firearms or are used as mules for drug sales," she explained. 

This situation is aggravated by another factor: The indigenous communities are governed under the rules of uses and customs. It is therefore difficult to gain access to these social circles, especially in view of the frontal assault to which they have been subjected for several centuries due to classism and oppression. 

This is where Alas de Colores comes in, a program led by Yolanda, which aims to build positive peace through art. “The important thing about art is that you can express things that are difficult to do with words," she added. 

Yolanda is well-acquainted with these segregated and stigmatized communities in the region for one simple reason: she grew up in them. From a young age, she learned that when she went to the city to look for a job, she should not say where she was from, as it would detract from her credentials and undermine her chances of getting the job. 

“This is the stigma we carry, the people who were historically displaced from the city and now live in the northern area of San Cristobal are labeled as having less worth, and that is why it is important to shatter this mindset and expand opportunities for youth," she explained. 

Through Alas de Colores, Yolanda works on life skills, human development and peacebuilding. This activity carried out with students represents a voluntary and free space from a human rights approach. She estimates that it has impacted 600 young people in the last two years. 

The project was born through a call launched by the Jornada de Derechos Humanos A.C., which invited people to register projects through the Misión Resistencia program. Alas de Colores was one of the winners, after a competition involving some twenty young activists from south-eastern Mexico. 

The particularity of Alas de Colores has been the impact it has had, because although there are dozens of organizations in San Cristóbal de las Casas, not all of them can gain traction in the communities as openly as this program does. 

In other words, Alas de Colores has served as a bridge between organizations that seek to help and communities in need of support. They are currently working closely with the Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative (WPDI).

Liberate through art

The name of the program, Alas de Colores, refers to the dreams or desires of youth resulting from the needs they have in life. The wings are for freedom, and the colors are for life, art and creativity. 

“The work we do in the community is to liberate the human being, especially the youth, through art. We cultivate art as an escape from violence, poverty and discrimination," she said. 

University Life and rights

Yolanda has a law degree, and she studied visual arts from an early age. Both specialties have given her the vision to blend her two passions, human rights advocacy and artistic expression. 

She believes that without her academic training, she would most likely not be doing what she does, as the university influenced her by providing her with knowledge. 

“The university offers something essential, it allows you to know your basic rights in order to avoid being violated," she added. 

She is currently collaborating with other organizations, schools and academics to promote the project, which she believes offers a way to make a greater impact.

Fighting an authoritarian system

The struggle Yolanda faces is against a systemic authoritarian system, shaped by classism, machismo, poverty, violence and discrimination.

“Female activists in this region are in danger, not only because of macho mindsets that take issue with women not dedicating themselves to housework or with women clamoring for rights but because of a whole political system that is conveniently rigged to sustain the status quo," she said.

She recalled that the municipal authorities do not seem to care much about the issues of the indigenous peoples; on the contrary, they sweep the problems, violence and insecurity under the carpet. “That is why Chiapas has always been in a state of struggle," she said.

“In the last few months several young people have died violently; incredibly, they are still blamed for choosing the paths on which they embarked, as if they were solely to blame in this system that has excluded them; one indigenous person dead is one indigenous person less, they are also blamed for the violence," she stressed.

This photo story was produced with the support of the Global Support for Democracy Unit of the  Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union. It is part of the dossier "Youth & democracy in Latin America. Young voices on the rise".