Reclaiming Your Identity. Interview with Wotko (Gerardo Tristan).
Wotko (Gerardo Tristan) is a queer Nahuatl, anti-speciesist activist and community organizer with a wide range of experience in indigenous, LGBTQTS, animal rights and food justice activism. He was born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, and is now living in The United States of America. He talks about how growing up in Mexico shaped himself and his activism, the challenges he encounters as a Mexican activist in the United States, the importance of coming together as an activist community, and how reclaiming traditional foods benefits humans, non-humans, and our planet.
Q: When you talk about your activism journey, you often speak about how growing up in Monterrey, Mexico, has shaped your path. You talk about how ‘machismo’ has impacted expressions of yourself as well as your empathy towards others. What exactly do you understand by ‘machismo’ and how does it affect activism in Mexico?
I understand ‘machismo’ as the intent that Mexican men want to make sure to be always seen as strong, independent and powerful. Whether it be in the power in the communities, families, or other groups in everyday life. When you’re a man, you must be in control of everything; your life, your emotions, and your relationships with others. Mexican men want to be powerful, which is more complicated when you don’t have much power. You don’t have much power when you’re poor, so one of the few things you can hold onto is this identity as a macho. By being macho you can try to be more powerful.
This is a culture I was born into and it goes through all the institutions and channels. They all either support or reinforce machismo. But we don’t talk about the deep meaning of this culture. We don’t talk about it with activists or men/people identify as male, and then we think that doing certain things makes us less macho. Take crying for example. When you cry, you let go of power, of being in control of your own emotions, and then other men jump into that and define you as less ‘macho’ and more ‘feminine’ or ‘weak’. A woman can never be macho, they can never claim that identity. This culture affects everything, activism included. Therefore, I think this is something we need to talk about in activist circles in Mexico.
I have to say that also wasn’t just born and raised into this culture, but I also chose to perform as a macho. When I was young, it was safer to take on that identity, and I did so for many, many years. I am sure that even now I am being machista in my mentality or in the way I live, especially in my relationships with women.
Q: When did you start questioning this ingrained culture? Did your move to the United States of America affect your personal development in this area?
I first started to question machismo in Mexico. I did not only question machismo as a cultural concept, but also how I knowingly chose to adopt that identity. Coming from a very poor neighborhood, machismo was something I felt I really needed to be safe and proud amongst my male peers. I began to question my machismo with regards to my interests and empathy towards human animals, but also with regards to my own identity. Being indigenous is not seen as something that is desirable, because indigenous people are generally powerless and not in control. To be macho, one must be Mexican. Mexicans have power and can become president, can become powerful people. Everybody would choose that Mexican cultural identity over the indigenous one. Therefore, I also tried to become more Mexican.
I began to work with my own cultural identity as an indigenous person and as a person who wants to be in solidarity with non-humans before I moved to the United States. However, the one thing that I did not work with until I was out of Mexico, was my sexual identity. I didn’t work on that because it was more dangerous, and this really pushed me to perform as a macho. I was very, very conscious that if I moved into that direction, I would not only have problems in society but that my safety would become compromised. If you’re Indian, people dismiss you as they see you as powerless. But if you come out as queer, you can put yourself in real danger. So, when I came to the United States – to Oklahoma - I started to think about and work with my sexual and gender identity. This was an interesting time. Although I did not face any physical threats where I lived, racism and prejudice came into play. There was a lot of racism in the community where I wanted to define and find out who I wanted to be; gay or queer, male or gender-neutral or female. But I finally began to safe to work on my identity in the United States. It was good to be far from my country to have these conversations about my identity.
In the USA, the acceptance in the LGBTQ community was a mixed bag. There is still a lot of prejudice and racism within this community, so unfortunately, I did not organize with this community until I moved from Oklahoma to Atlanta. I am happy to say that - here in Atlanta – I have finally found a supportive and strong QTPOC [Queer and Trans People of Color] community. I now organize with QTPOC vegan/ animal rights activists. Community means a lot to me and I am very happy I have finally found one.
Q: You talked about how your move to the United States has enabled you to work with your own identity, but also how this generated new challenges for you. How did your heritage?
When I came to the United States, I first lived in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is a very conservative place - much like the South of the US - and racist in many ways. So, when I came to The United States, I first associated myself with animal rights activists who were not living in the Mid-West or South, but rather in the West or East Coast. For me, as a Native American and as queer it felt better to be associated with people there. However, there were still many cultural differences and prejudices. The people who I worked with also didn’t have a lot of experience with people like me – indigenous Mexican people from a very poor social class. They are mostly from the middle to high class, they all go to university or already have degrees, and are at the very least American citizens and legal residents of the United States.
But my reality was and is very different. I did not have the status for many years, so they were unsure of what I could do, what I couldn’t do, what my limitations were. I was unable to fully participate in many things due to legal issues. So that has been a roller coaster. It was hard for other people too, because they did know how to work with a person with so many limitations – legal, linguistic, or cultural. I did not speak English when I came to the United States, so it I did take me some time to catch up. When you live in another country you are expected to speak the language and to learn the cultural ways, but up to this day, I am still very different. I don’t want to become a person who just welcomes everything that this USA culture offers.
Although I came to the US for very specific reasons, I still very much care for Mexico. I am always in contact with Mexican activists and I am pretty much going back all the time. I think that I and the activists in the United States have very different views regarding animals, animal rights, and speciesism; even the queers. I don’t come from an academic, more sheltered, or more privileged background. I see things differently and I act very different. This has been a challenge not just for me, but also the people I interact with.
In Oklahoma and Atlanta, there has also been the added challenge of racism, especially in Oklahoma. I did not seek to participate in activism and interact with the animal rights people there in Oklahoma because I was afraid of their prejudice and racism. After moving to Atlanta, I have become more actively involved in the community, especially over the last five years. I liked this experience, but I also had many sad moments.
Some people were just being super racists and said the most horrible things you can imagine. Like, that “they don’t give a sh*t about Mexican workers, that Mexicans can all go to jail, that they hate Mexicans, and that they want them all to die”. I have been having a hard time here, especially when I questioned or challenged the people who say all these racist things. People who are white and middle-class often fail to see these issues, especially when the person who is raising the concerns is not white or middle-class.
People here know me and invite me to go and do things, to attend things, to participate in things, like going to a sanctuary, or a speech. People invite me to these things. But not when it’s time to invite me for decision making or planning project. I am always feeling this thing that Mexicans do here. Mexicans are perceived to be in the US to make food for people, to build houses for people, to clean their houses, to do all these things. We are viewed as that. I understand that this also applies to the animal rights community. I can still do things for them, but I am not a leader nor a person who can generate good ideas for plans or projects. I feel like people only support me to be a doer. This is something that really bothers me. It is also something that is present, and that I must recognize.
Even in animal rights activism, people don’t want to interact with immigrants or Mexicans, but you can be called to do certain things. These are things that I have encountered in the US. Sadly, this is something that I experience, and I think that I am going to have to deal with all my life. So, I have received bad attitudes and responses and it always comes down to this thing, that “we are all here for animals”, and “we are doing this just for the animals, not people”.
We always think that when we say that we are doing this for the animals, we can be exempt from anything else that we participate in, any other system of oppression. We think that our identity of animal rights activists would save us from everything.
Q: I really hope that you have had different experiences during your recent activism tour through Europe.
The tour was amazing! I am happy that I made the decision to do this tour and talk to people in different countries. Talking to people like you and others was wonderful. People in Europe were receptive, open, interested, welcoming and supporting, which was really encouraging. Obviously, people in Europe have other relationships with Mexicans and see Mexicans in a different way, which also helped me. But overall it was very different and a very positive experience.
What I was trying to do on this tour was to reach out. I was trying to shake this image that we have about other activists. I’m talking about me being indigenous, queer and Mexican. I think that it is time for people of color to put ourselves out there more actively and say that here we are, and we have things to say. We are important in helping the movement and we also have things to do for ourselves that have to be addressed in the movement’. For others, this means to listen. I feel that the people I spoke to are doing a really good job. It was great to talk about these issues of interconnected oppressions and work towards building a more inclusive movement. It felt good to work with both established international and local grassroots groups, especially in countries that historically have not had the lead in animal rights such as the US, Australia, the UK and Germany.
It was also very important to me that I was not only doing this tour for myself. Coming from this background as a person of color and a native American, I think that it is very important to be speaking as part of a community. Having the support from my community in Mexico was also very crucial to me, as the tour was very exhausting physically. But it was also super rewarding.
Q: I am so happy to hear that. Which role do you feel does the community play in making this movement more inclusive?
Currently, many welfare and animal groups are doing a lot of very bad and very racist campaigns and projects. They do not pay any attention to the marginalized community, not even a second thought. We are also getting these questions on why Latino people don’t get in the movement. We get told that Latino people don’t care about animals and all this kind of nonsense. But we do. So, it is important for people to advocate to make the movement more welcoming to Latino people, but also other people of color.
Everybody is getting that now is the time for us to move on and be more present. We are
starting to know each other, to support each other, and learn from the mistakes that we have made in the past. To do this, we need to have more meaningful conversations with people of color. It is always hard to start these conversations among us, as we also all have our very own issues. And although we all have this connection with Latin-American, we come from a very different heritage. We can be Latin-African, Indigenous-Latin or white European and we are all very different. But we need to sit together and have these good but difficult conversations amongst ourselves. We need to have these discussions to solve our own issues, so we can become stronger and being to really support each other. We still have a lot of things that we have not talked about. We’re just starting to organize, specifically as African-American, Latinx, indigenous, or any other ethnicity in this movement.
I am looking forward to following these developments and to learn from people who are doing great work and writing about these issues.
Q: Can you tell us more about how your activist community in Mexico plans to foster these conversations?
We have been asking for a long time what Mexican activists need. That’s why we founded FaunAcción in 2015 with four activists from different parts of Mexico. We wanted to work from an intersectional framework and help non-human and human animals with our campaigns and projects.
We had a community forum in Mexico City with about 45 activists to decide who we were, what we wanted to do, and how we wanted to work with individuals and groups in Mexico. It was a way for saying “here we are, and we are willing to help out”. Our main objective is to help and support local activists. We are trying to help to make connections, to help people get into partnerships with local groups and collectives. One thing we don’t want to do is to grow and become a really big group. We always wanted to work in partnership with other groups, institutions, and individuals. We don’t want to become a group that becomes preoccupied with sustaining its own structure because it is growing too much. We don’t think that this is a good model for us, so we want to focus on partnerships.
In the first year, we were doing a lot of educational events, especially with institutions. We try to help transform their thinking to include issues such as speciesism and other interconnected oppressions in their work. The sector of education is a very powerful institution in Mexico. However, working with institutions always requires more time and effort. Now we have a foot in the door we are now focusing more on other projects like creating safe spaces for Mexican women activists, working with vegan entrepreneurs and working with some Indigenous people in Mexico. One major project we have is El Molcajete, which is a regional food truck project, that also serves the purpose of education.
Q: I love the food truck project. Why do you think that this form of activism and reconnecting people with their traditional meals is so important?
Obviously, we have a global animal rights movement. We always talk about veganism and our identity as vegans; it’s all about ‘go vegan’ all that. But in Mexico, we think we need to focus more on reclaiming our own identity, much of which has been and is still being taken away by colonialism. In this process, we are also reclaiming our food. People in Mexico – especially indigenous people - want to talk more about OUR food and OUR dishes. We try to engage people in this conversation with El Molcajete. It will give people the chance to talk about their foods and exchange recipes. There won’t be any message of health or veganism, but of course the food will be vegan.
Our food is our cultural heritage. Food that comes from the rural areas, from communities that are quite reserved. This food is also often forgotten. Therefore, this El Molcajete is moving from Mexico City to Tlaxcala, which is very central in the middle of Mexico. It is a very old area that has a very flourishing indigenous culture and has a rich heritage of these foods that are now called Mexican. I think it is great for our project to be located there physically but also to go from Tlaxcala to Puebla, to Morelos, to Mexico City, and the whole central area in Mexico.
We will prioritize going to predominantly poor communities, as they are more affected by the diet that is brought in by the United States. The diet has been changing a lot through the years and this is creating a lot of issues and problems, especially health problems. The North of Mexico is very impacted by the United States and their diet. However, they are also talking a lot about veganism. It will be interesting to see how people view this project in northern Mexico, where people have a very different heritage.
So, I think heritage and local differences are something we should talk about. In this movement, people seem to view veganism as something universal and global. But veganism can work in many different ways. There are different ways, priorities, and styles to create this change towards veganism. We need to talk about how we can support and incorporate this in the movement. People need to see that there are other ways to talk about the same things, to get people to try plant-based foods, and to adopt vegan ways, especially in rural areas. We also hope that we can contribute and give something back to people in these areas. The food will be based on local, cheap, and readily available ingredients. Cooking with regional and seasonal foods also helps to combat climate change. I hope that we can inspire other people in other countries to also investigate more local ways to work with people and their foods, especially traditional plant-based foods. So maybe this can help to turn this consumerist movement into a vegan movement. I hope that we have many more initiatives like this in the future.
Q: We are really looking forward to hearing how the project develops. After all this talk about food, would you like to share what your favorite food is?
This is difficult. I like mole with mushrooms a lot; it’s my favorite. It is a special sauce or paste that is made using 30 or more ingredients. It’s a dish from my childhood. I know that this is something fancier and that it that takes a long time to make. But I also love to cook anything with beans and tortillas. Yesterday, for example, we cooked a lot of food for a party for the QTPOC community in Atlanta. We cooked different types of mushrooms with mole, tacos and cooked cactus with pomegranate. It was a lot of fun to make, very cheap and readily available in the US in this season. Everybody devoured the food, although most people there were opposed to vegans and veganism. But they didn’t object to the food and were happy to eat it. It was gone in like one hour, so I think they liked it!
Q: Thank you so much for everything. Is there anything else that you would like to share with everyone reading this?
I feel that in animal rights, we have been making many events less relevant to grassroots activists, to people who are doing the groundwork. Instead, have been making more of these events where we cheer for celebrities and hear very smart, academic talks. The latter is great, but I also think that it is important that we have spaces where we can meet each other to strategize in the grassroots movements and come up with new ideas - in Mexico and elsewhere. We are currently trying to build something where we can talk about these things, specifically in Mexico. I am very interested in touching base with people, to gather ideas, experiences, and questions, especially from people of color. I would love people to share a lot more about what is happening in the movement and to talk about these issues, to ultimately move towards building a more inclusive movement.
I would like to invite everybody to connect with us. And I thank you for reaching out and for this interview.
If you want to find our more about Wotko, you can watch his talk at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxembourg 2018. For more information about the work of FaunAcción visit their website, follow El Molcajete on Facebook, or read this article by Faunanalytics about El Molcajete.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview are prepared to the interviewee’s and the interviewer’s best capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of The Vegan Rainbow Project itself. Please also not that people change and so do their opinions. We kindly ask you to be mindful of that when reading past articles and/ or statements that are referenced in this interview.
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